It happened fifty years ago. I was a Yeshiva student, spending the month of Tishrei in and around Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. We heard that war had broken out in Israel. As the days progressed, the news got worse. But the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a unique approach. He told us, that since there is a Mitzvah to rejoice on the holiday of Sukkot, therefore we should be happy. He quoted a saying of the Baal Shem Tov regarding the words “G-d is your shadow” (Psalms 121; 5), that just as a person’s shadow does exactly what the person does, so too G-d does what we do. So when we are happy, G-d also rejoices, and then He helps and protects us.
So the Chassidim danced and sang. The Rebbe encouraged everyone to “farbreng” (participate in Chassidic gatherings consisting of encouraging words and song). I remember tremendous rejoicing. It was quite an experience.
Afterwards, Israel regrouped, counter-attacked, and surrounded the enemy. The Rebbe said that (after seeing the miracles of the Six Day War) many wondered if any miracle had occurred in the Yom Kippur War. The Rebbe explained that there was a clear miracle. The Egyptians broke through the Bar Lev Line of fortresses along the Suez Canal, and there was nothing between the Egyptian army and Tel Aviv. So why did they stop, thus giving Israel the opportunity to organize and attack? One reason that was given, was that Egypt wanted to first mop up and clear all of the Bar Lev fortifications. But the Rebbe said that this didn’t make sense, and there was a clear lesson from World War Two regarding this. France heavily fortified the Maginot Line, but Germany broke through a weak point and proceeded on to win the battle, returning only later on to mop up the line. This was a clear lesson from military history. So why didn’t Egypt do the same? The Rebbe answered, that this was an open miracle. G-d confused the Egyptians, enabling Israel to win.
The Rebbe later criticized Israel’s government for not attacking preemptively (as they had done in the Six Day War). Reportedly Golda Meir was afraid that if Israel attacked first, the U.S. and others would condemn it. The Rebbe said, that by not attacking preemptively, many Jewish lives were lost. He explained that you can’t say that if Israel had attacked first, that things would have been different. Because once something happens, it was ‘bashert’ (Divinely ordained). So why was he talking about it? To learn for the future.
Years before the war, in conversation with Israeli military people and others, the Rebbe strongly criticized the Bar Lev Line. (He said that, instead, Israel should rely on mobile forces to defend Sinai.) Arik Sharon, in an interview, acknowledged this critique. (You can type: Ariel Sharon and the Rebbe” in Google search, to access this interview.)
I remember that during the summer months preceding that Yom Kippur, the Rebbe started a campaign encouraging Jewish children to gather together and recite words of Torah. The Rebbe based it on the verse in Psalms (8; 3) “From the mouths of babes and infants You founded strength, to quiet enemies and avengers.” At the time, we didn’t understand why the Rebbe was connecting the children’s rallies with defeating enemies, because no one thought that there was a threat. After the war, the Rebbe said that now he understood why he had been pushed to initiate this campaign (in order to add merits for Divine help). The Rebbe said that the concept “someone can prophecize without realizing what he is prophesying” could be applied here.
That Simchat Torah (5734) I stood with thousand of Chassidim in 770, waiting for Hakofot (joyous dancing with the Torahs). The Rebbe started talking to two people, while everyone waited quietly. For almost an hour, the Rebbe and his two guests discussed something. Later I heard, that the Rebbe asked why Israeli forces aren’t marching into Damascus. But I didn’t hear details of the conversation. (The Rebbe also discussed this matter publicly on other occasions.)
About ten years ago, Aryeh Morgenstern, one of the two Simchat Torah guests, was interviewed, and he provided details of what the Rebbe said. (The video can be accessed by typing into Google search: Rebbe Damascus.)
The other guest was Shlomo Levin, Israeli Consul to New York. The Rebbe asked them why Israel wasn’t proceeding into Damascus. He told them that Damascus is the ultimate enemy. He said that until they conquer Damascus, and Syria is brought down, the Arab-Israeli conflict will not come to an end, because Damascus symbolizes the fortitude of the Arab world.
(In a letter to Azure, describing the encounter, Morgenstern wrote that the Rebbe explained, that as a city with an ancient history, Damascus symbolized the stability of the Muslim world, and therefore the threat Islam posed to the Jewish people. A blow to such a symbol would thus destroy the confidence of the Arabs.)
The Rebbe refered to the Talmudic passage (Megillah 6a) that talks about Jerusalem and Caesarea. (In Roman times, many cities were named Caesarea, in honour of the Roman Caesars. In Azure, Morgenstern writes that the Rebbe compared Caesarea to modern-day Damascus through various pieces of textual evidence.) The Talmud says that regarding Caesarea and Jerusalem, if someone tells you that both cities are ruined, or both are settled, don’t believe it. But if they tell you that Caesarea is ruined and Jerusalem is settled, or visa versa, believe it. The Rebbe said that until this happens (until Damascus is subdued), there is no chance for peace with the Arab world. He held that the road to peace with the Arab world goes through the conquest of Syria.
They answered that Israel was afraid of a Russian threat to attack Israel if they went into Damascus. The Rebbe answered that Russia was just threatening. He added that the U.S. wants Israel to enter Damascus, even though they aren’t saying so; they know that Syria must be humbled for this conflict to end.
The Rebbe asked his guests to tell Israel’s government that night, what the Rebbe said. (For Israelis visiting abroad, Simchat Torah was already over, and it was then a weekday for them.) Morgenstern related that Levin called Golda Meir, while Morgenstern spoke to two Israeli ministers, who both said that the government was afraid of the Russian threat.
I remember reading that the Rebbe later told someone, that his intention was not that Israel should stay in Damascus, just that they should enter, stay a short time, and then leave. This would be a symbolic humiliation of Syria, which would open the way for Arab-Israeli peace.
Although Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel six years later, the Arab world condemned it, Syria cut off relations with Egypt, and Sadat was assassinated. Thirty years later, it was considered a cold peace, and when the Muslim Brotherhood came into power for a short time, they were talking about reassessing the treaty.
Indeed, when the treaty was made, the Rebbe termed it a “piece of paper” that could easily be rejected by a new leader. The Rebbe strongly opposed giving away land because it endangered Israel’s security. (He said that Sadat’s main incentive was to rid himself of subservience to the Russians.)
Fast forward to the Arab Spring a little over a decade ago. A civil war broke out in Syria, and the country has never been the same. Ten years ago Damascus was listed as the least livable city in the world, and it has maintained that status up to the present. Three years ago Israel forged official peaceful relations with two Arab countries, and since then another two countries joined, with talk of more countries soon joining.
So in the last decade, Damascus was ruined, and Syria was humbled. And subsequently, the Arab world opened up to making peace with Israel. Just like the Rebbe said. Only the Rebbe had wanted to achieve this via a symbolic humbling of Damascus, without horrific casualties and devastation. Peace between Israel and the Arabs was foremost on the Rebbe’s mind.
The Rebbe’s accurate and prophetic vision can inspire Israel’s government, to heed his oft-repeated advice and warning to not give away any land, because of the danger.
And it inspires us to look forward to the fulfilment of the Rebbe’s assurance, that Moshiach is very close.