We’re approaching Yom Kippur, both on the Hebrew lunar calendar, the 10th day of the month of Tishrei, 5784, and on the Gregorian calendar, the 6th day of October, 2023.
Drafted voluntarily into service as a combat soldier, I was older than most of my fellow conscripts. Older, but physically fit from my many years of swimming competitively while growing up in Canada. Golani taught me that there is no such thing as “can’t”, there is only “don’t want to”. I took every lesson during the six months of basic training seriously. My status as “lone soldier” afforded me privileges that I never took advantage of. I had the broad backing of a kibbutz to help me out if I needed help. My reward was that I earned the reward of “Outstanding Trainee” and gained an interview with the commander of the 13th Battalion, Uri.
My good fortune was that my platoon was made up of very experienced warriors, who quickly accepted me, educated me and involved me in every phase of Golani life. None of us however could know that we were about to face one of the most dramatic events of our lives.
After a truly hellish drive from Rosh Pina back to outpost 104 I joined the warriors facing constant Syrian shelling by sharing the responsibilities of guarding the outpost. For the first seventy two hours there would be no sleep. Impossible under the circumstances, the constant shelling, the noise of gunfire, the screaming engines of fighter jets overhead. Later modified to four hours on duty and two hours off, these brief moments allowed for personal hygiene and more coffee.
I was in one of the trenches, while on duty, that I suddenly saw my lieutenant David, running like the wind toward the 50 caliber gun position at the end of that section of trench. I followed beside him from inside the trench as I saw the MiG bearing down on us. We opened fire, David on the 50, I on my FN automatic and moments later we witnessed the MiG crashing just beyond the horizon, creating a huge fireball as the Syrian fighter jet exploded. To this day I remember that the jet had come so close that I could see the pilot in the cockpit.
When we finally received the orders to advance in a counteroffensive against the Syrian attackers, we piled into World War Two halftracks and headed towards Tel Shams, via small Syrian villages along the way. The roads closest to the border were littered with burnt out hulls of Syrian trucks and troop carriers. Remnants of Syrian soldiers left indelible memories…of sight, of smell.
While guarding one of our Armor Corps platoons at night, the “word” was passed that a major ambush was about to go down. A frequency of an Iraqi tank unit was discovered, and Arab speakers of our Armor Corps unit had lured them into that ambush. During the still of night, with our tanks in a wide parallel line formation, and with my Golani Platoon lying next to our tanks, we began to feel the ground vibrate and quake beneath our bellies. As the Iraqis entered the middle area, the Israeli Armor Corps gunners took out the first and the last of the Iraqi tank column. There was no escape for them, as one after another of the enemy tanks was destroyed. The huge fireballs of exploding Iraqi armor set the pitch black night ablaze with fire and light.
It was at Tel Shams that I met up with Meir, a paratroop officer who had been called up as a reservist. Meir was from my kibbutz. His twin brother was a career officer, a helicopter pilot. We quickly exchanged hugs and Meir relayed that several young men from my kibbutz had been killed in action, both in Syria and in the Sinai. The news was devastating, but there was not even a moment to grieve or to despair. There was still a war going on.
At Tel Shams I also ran into Yoni, who had been my lieutenant during basic training. A large dirty white bandage covered his forehead. “It’s just a scratch” he said, and he set off for another arena of the war. I had small shrapnel scars as well, both hands, and the side of my head. Nothing to worry about. Just drive on. “Don’t mean nothing” as Eagan said in John M. del Vecchio’s book, The Thirteenth Valley.
We occupied the small, narrow bunkers left behind by the retreating Syrian troops who fled Tel Shams. Head to toe, fully clothed and lying atop our sleeping bags, we took turns at guarding the various positions on the hill. There were about ten of us in that particular bunker. Amir, our platoon medic, took his turn. I was next.
The anguished cries pierced the corridors and bunkers. A barrage of Syrian artillery fire had taken Amir’s life. Shocked and devastated, we realized again, and yet again, the terrible price of our service, of our defense of our homeland.
Perhaps one day I will summon the strength to write down all of my memories, not only of the Yom Kippur War, but of the many deployments that followed. Fifty years have gone by. I was a month shy of my twenty third birthday. Much has changed during those fifty years, but one ideal has remained. Those who serve Israel in its courageous front-line combat units, its special forces and commando units realize that they can only do so if the government of Israel is a moral one, a true democracy.
It is, in my humble opinion, a hypocrisy to expect of those who are willing to pay the ultimate price while serving the people of Israel to have others who do not serve, under the guise of the study of Torah.
If the government of Israel is not one guided by moral decision making, how can those who protect the people and the land of Israel expect protection from prosecution for government sanctioned operations? If the government of Israel does not require service from all of its citizens, it begs the question of fairness.
These are serious times, turbulent times, and the enemies of Israel and its people are watching very carefully. Yom Kippur, a mere few days away, is a time for reflection. Do we want a true shining light unto the nations? Do we want a nation of democratic ideals and fairness for all of its citizens? The future of Israel will be determined by its people and it is my sincere hope that those who served and defended Israel throughout its history did not do so in vain.