There is a long history of great civilizations, empires, and nations sleeping when they could have avoided an attack; “Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned,” Winston Churchill chided England in his book, “While England Slept; A Survey of World Affairs, 1932–1938,” and John F. Kennedy analyzed “Why England Slept? Now, there is Israel. At six thirty in the morning on October 7, 2023, as Jews in Israel were getting ready to go to synagogue and celebrate Simchat Torah, Israel was attacked 50 years and a day after the Yom Kippur War in the worst attack on the land in modern history. Commentator Avi Issacharoff called the attack “an unprecedented assault on Israel by land, sea, and air,” it is “an inadvertent benchmark for Israel-Hamas relations, as significant as the September 11, 2011 attacks on the US.”
By the end of the day, over 300 Israelis were killed, and the numbers were rising: over 1600 were injured or wounded, 3000 rockets were sent by Palestinians and Hamas from Gaza to Israel, and over 20 Southern Israel communities were invaded, with 50 civilian and military hostages taken to Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) described it as “Terrorists rampaged and broke into homes-massacring civilians.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by declaring, “We are at war,” one he later said would be “long and difficult.” The IDF named the war Operation Swords of Iron.
However, much of the Jewish world was unaware of the attack because of Shabbat and the religious holiday. How did a surprise attack happen again after years of military and academic analysis warning against this type of attack? Why did it happen again? Because it was Shabbat and Simchat Torah, Shmini Atzeret in the Diaspora, under an Orthodox government, the whole country was observing the holiday despite most Jewish citizens identifying as secular. When Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party won the fall 2022 Israeli elections, he formed a coalition with the most extreme of the ultra-Orthodox parties, creating the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. Netanyahu exclusively made the coalition agreement with Ultra-Orthodox Parties, Shas and United Torah, and right-wing extremist parties, Religious Zionist Party, Noam, and Otzma Yehudit, and negotiated the cabinet posts that dealt with defense, national security, immigration, and the settlements.
With such an attack on Shabbat and the festival holiday, the Orthodox Government in Israel and the Orthodox world in the Diaspora need to rethink the safety and logic of cutting off the Jewish world and making it vulnerable while the rest of the world, including our enemies are connected non-stop. We are living in the reality of Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village. For over six months, Israelis have been battling in a quasi-civil war, Haredi versus secular, the right-wing Government with the rest of the Israeli parties over judicial reform, with regular protests in the streets over the proposed law. Israel needs to stop fighting the more liberal Jewish denominations and realize they have it right on some issues, especially being able to use communication devices on Shabbat and the holidays. With many ultra-Orthodox parties in power, it has empowered Haredi extremists using harassment and violence to enforce Orthdox on their secular Israeli neighbors. Orthodoxy is already the only officially sanctioned form of Judaism in Israel, with laws imposed on the predominantly secular Israeli population. The Haredi rabbinical courts impose religious law on marriage, divorce, and religious conversions.
The right-wing and ultra-Orthodox government being in power is part of the problem that led to the attack. Not for alienating liberal Diaspora Jews but for the stringent importance they put in Orthodox halacha religious law. With ultra-Orthodox ministers in the cabinet, did they oppose any surveillance during Shabbat and the holidays because it conflicted with Orthodox practice? Did they take religious observance so extreme that the government endangered the country? The news media, analysts, and pundits are pondering this lapse in Israel’s intelligence; it is being called a historic and catastrophic failure.
BBC News questioned, “How did Israeli intelligence fail to stop the major attack from Gaza?” They also put it bluntly, “With the combined efforts of Shin Bet, Israeli domestic intelligence, Mossad, its external spy agency, and all the assets of the Israel Defense Forces, it is frankly astounding that nobody saw this coming.” CNN reported, “US officials raise concerns over Israeli intelligence after Hamas attacks.” US officials did not hear any “tactical intelligence” about a potential attack, now they wonder if there is technological blind spots.” As CNN reports, “The question for US and Israeli intelligence officials now is whether there were indicators that were missed — or whether Israel and the US failed to collect any information that would have helped predict the assault.”
In the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), the Israel Policy Forum’s David A. Halperin asked, “Once “Mr. Security, Netanyahu failed to meet Israelis’ most basic security needs. How?” Considering Israel had 50 years to ensure they would never experience a surprise again, Halperion continued asking, “How could military intelligence have failed so colossally? How could IDF bases be so easily overrun? How could Gazans bombard Israel from the air, land, and sea, occupying Israeli communities, slaughtering soldiers and civilians alike, and taking dozens of hostages without any seeming resistance? With harrowing images and videos of Israelis being held hostage or hiding in shelters, how could it take so long for military or police forces to respond? How could Gazans simply bring a bulldozer to tear down the fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip?”
For months, the Yom Kippur War anniversary has been in the news with the release of the movie Golda about Prime Minister Golda Meir’s response to the surprise attack in 1973 and the controversy surrounding Academy Award-winning Helen Mirren, a non-Jewish actress playing the lead role. At the same time, the anniversary has been the subject of numerous articles accessing the moment in history in the past couple of days. The New York Times might not have favorable coverage of Israel. Still, their Israeli correspondent, Isabel Kershner’s headline for the attack was spot on: “Hamas Attack Has Haunting Echoes of the 1973 Yom Kippur War For many Israelis, Hamas’s surprise attack mirrors one carried out 50 years ago, setting off a 19-day war that traumatized the nation.”
However, historians have debunked the myth that the Yom Kippur War was a surprise; instead, it was more of a gamble. Historian Anita Shapira, in her book, “Israel: A History,” recounts that the seeds of the war were already brewing in July 1972; by April 1973, the IDF was on high alert. On September 25, 1973, following a Cairo summit and a joint war plan to prevent an Israeli attack on Syria through northern Jordan, Jordan’s King Hussein warned Golda Meir of an imminent Egyptian-Syrian attack. There were also physical signs Syria and Egypt were preparing to attack Israel. Egyptian troops massed along the Suez Canal, and Syrian armored forces near the Golan Heights border suggested an imminent attack. Israeli intelligence maintained a “low probability” of war, citing unattained conditions for Sadat’s attack. (328)
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan thought the troop buildup could cause a “heart attack.” Shapira points out, “This assessment was a combination of complacency and exaggerated self-confidence, which assumed at least a forty-eight-hour warning even if war did break out, ensuring the time needed to mobilize the reserves.” (328) On Erev Yom Kippur, the Israeli cabinet convened for an emergency meeting due to intelligence suggesting the next day war with Syria and Egypt would break out. Chief of General Staff David “Dado” Elazar requested permission for a preemptive air strike, but the cabinet refused to appear to the world as the aggressor. Instead, the cabinet decided on limited reserve mobilization. If an armored brigade had not been at the Golan Heights a few days earlier, it would have been an absolute disaster; the brigade was able to hold off the Syrian attack. (329)
The Yom Kippur War happened when technology and communication were at the very start, with the average person still accessing their information by telephone, radio, television, and newspaper as the main ways. Governments had more technological information access; the US government had an early form of the internet ARPAnet, but Israel did not have internet access until 1981. However, Orthodox religious law is so strict that any contact and opening or closing of any electrical device is forbidden, including speaking on a telephone, even if the person is not touching it; of course, text messaging is prohibited, and the internet, including accessing the news or social media use, even listening to a radio that was already is forbidden. The Conservative movement is more liberal, but the Rabbinical Assembly also limits the usage of electronics on Shabbat, including communication devices, allowing cars, including most recently electric cars, to go to synagogue on Shabbat and during the Covid pandemic, electronic devices solely for accessing streaming Shabbat or holiday services. However, there was a lot of dissension among the ranks.
Most American Jews belong to the liberal branches of Judaism. According to the Pew Research Center’s survey, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” 37 percent Reform, 17 percent conservative, 9 percent Orthodox. In contrast, a third do not belong to any denomination, and 4 percent belong to the smaller liberal streams. Even among Jews associated with a denomination, the trend is moving towards Reform or not affiliating since both groups gained 2 percent since the 2013 survey. American Jews do not find that “religion is very important in their lives,” with only 21 percent feeling that an additional 26 percent finding religion somewhat important. Among American Jews, 47 percent consider their Judaism at all important, pales to the 53 percent that find religion not too important and not at all important in their lives.
A 2016 Pew survey entitled “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” looked at the religious divisions among Israeli Jews. Israeli Jews are divided by Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) 9 percent, Dati (“religious”) 13 percent, Masorti (“traditional”) 29 percent, and Hiloni (“secular”) 49 percent of the population, 22 percent considered themselves Orthodox, while 78 percent are non-Orthodox. The Haredi and Dati are the most religiously observant, but the Masorti is in the middle. The group is divided between religiously observant and on issues that relax religious observance in Israeli law. As Pew explained, “About half (51%) say religion is somewhat important in their lives, as opposed to very important (32%) or not too/not at all important (16%).”
Freelance writer Brian Blum, writing in the Jerusalem Post in 2017, believed it was time to update Jewish laws on communication technology, smartphones, and tablets because of their importance. His article “This normal life: Texting on Shabbat? Guidelines for the observant Jew” notes, “Jewish law today would exclude Shabbat- observant Jews from all that. It’s time to start addressing not only our past but where we’re going.” Blum talks about “Half Shabbos,” where young Orthodox Jews observe all of the laws but use their smartphones to text message. Blum believes it should be allowed and the ability to access eBooks and the news.
Considering today’s recent antisemitic attacks on synagogues in the US, accessing the news and communicating with loved ones is essential, and Jewish law needs to reassess just how necessary it is. However, with the increase of secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, those who are liberal enough seemed to find their way sufficiently to their devices to cover the attack on all social media platforms and declare their support for Israel. While Diaspora Jewish news and communal organizations, even liberal rabbis found a way to message, communicate, or post about the attacks, and at the Manhattan, New York’s Jewish Community Center, a vigil was held to support Israel. However, we have to wonder how many Orthodox Jews, especially the ultra-observant communities, might still be unaware of the attacks as they get ready to celebrate and party for Simchat Torah, as we end the yearly reading of the Torah and start it anew.
Today is hardly a day of celebration but of mourning, and to celebrate is even more hypocritical than the ability to access essential communication on Shabbat and the holidays. Maybe the Orthodox authorities should consider that. The Ultra-Orthodox parties and cabinet members in Israel’s government should realize their culture wars on observance with secular and liberal and secular Jews were a distraction to the real enemy, the Palestinian terrorists, and Hamas. In the long run, they must consider what saves Israelis’ lives most: strict observance of religious laws or using technology to prevent attacks. It would be the most hypocritical act of this right-wing government if it is found out they put religious observance over safety, causing the worst tragedy in modern Israel. Maybe instead of revising the judicial system, they should stop trying to make religious law supreme because, after today, it is becoming Israel’s greatest weakness on the world stage.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a librarian, historian, journalist, and artist. She has done graduate work in Jewish Education at the Melton Centre of Jewish Education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in Jewish Studies at McGill University. She has a BA in History and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”
Ms. Goodman is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Antisemitism, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”
Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history, and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has nearly 20 years of experience in education and political journalism.