Updated: Oct 3
What Would Golda Do Today?©
The 50th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur War and the Parallels to Today
Rabbi David Baum
Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre 5784/2023
This summer, Jewish Americans, bombarded by a multi-media blitz, had a choice, and for many, it wasn’t easy:
Barbie or Oppenheimer?
Both movies were released on the same day, both had the highest expectations. The movie hits could not have been more different:
Barbie, a brightly colorful movie about the iconic doll who ventures into the “Real World” and discovers lessons on feminism and the patriarchy, and Oppenheimer, a movie about the Jewish creator of the atomic bomb filmed in black and white. Which one would they choose?
Unfortunately, I saw neither, but I did see a movie that combined the two:
Golda, directed by Guy Nattiv, takes place during the 19-day Yom Kippur War of 1973 when Arab forces attacked Israel on her holiest day.
For those who have seen videos and pictures of Golda Meir, you know she would never have been mistaken for a living Barbie doll, but she was the first and only female prime minister of Israel and led her country through its most difficult time since its founding, the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Like Barbie in the movie, Golda was a model of female leadership who had immense challenges in a male-dominated world. Golda showed women around the world that they could break the glass ceiling.
Today, we mark the 50th anniversary of the conflict which almost led to the destruction of the Jewish state.
In 1973, Israel was attacked by the Egyptian and Syrian armies on the holiest day of the Jewish year. Despite the warnings, the Israeli military, feeling seemingly invincible from their victory just seven years prior during the Six-Day War, was unprepared for the onslaught.
It was at that time when the doomsday scenario was considered by Israel’s Prime Minster. Prime Minister Golda Meir gave Defense Minister Moshe Dayan permission to activate Israel's atomic bombs on Oct. 9, 1973, after he reported that Israeli forces were being routed. Israel almost went nuclear, which is our Oppenheimer connection.
Since the Yom Kippur war, Israel has not undergone a comparable physical threat to her existence, but if you listen to voices coming out of Israel today, you hear voices warning us that Israel’s soul is in danger as its body was in 1973. The destruction they speak about is a gradual dismantling of the Israel that we have known for the last 75 years. An Israel that will lose its Democratic nature and values and might slip into a theocracy and dictatorship where minority rights will be ignored.
What I am referring to are the unprecedented protests by a substantial cross-section of the Israeli population. For the last year, there have been protests every weekend against the current right-wing government which is aiming to overturn the delicate balance of power between the legislature and the courts.
As I thought back to the Yom Kippur War, I realized that we have similar challenges today. During the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War, there were generals who advised Prime Minister Meir not to call up the reserves needed to defend Israel from an all-out attack. They told her that the other side was bluffing, and a country-wide mobilization was a way for Israel’s Arab neighbors to weaken her economically and exhaust her reservists. Others warned that the signs of an attack were real, it was a doomsday scenario. So which side would Golda listen to?
According to director Guy Nattiv, the parallels to Israel in 1973 and 2023 are quite clear.
Nattiv said that while attending demonstrations with his family, he met veterans of the Yom Kippur War, who told him, ‘This is Yom Kippur all over again.’” But imagine if it was the day before Yom Kippur, October 5, 1973, and we don’t know what will happen.
So...What Would Golda Do?!?
On the one hand…
There are those saying that this moment in Israeli history is not unprecedented, and just because a government you oppose takes power, does not mean you speak up against it. Furthermore, speaking out publicly against Israel can have consequences that can damage Israel both within the Jewish community, in our country, and in the world. But perhaps, our reluctance to air our dirty laundry might be motivated by fear, lest we make Israel ‘a shanda far di goyim’, a source of shame, that might then have an effect on Jews in America that could lead to collective consequences.
If we don’t use our voices wisely, they can backfire. For example, when we constantly criticize, we chip away at the love we feel for Israel. Unfortunately, I see this now more and more. Our young people are experiencing an Israel that is unfairly characterized as an occupier and oppressor; the bad guy in the neighborhood, forgetting that Israel is tough because it is a tiny piece of one of the roughest neighborhoods in the world. Many ask, what good can come out of adding fuel to the fire?!?
“The threats to wreak economic havoc and undermine its ability to defend itself are potentially self-fulfilling with disastrous consequences for the very country the protestors wish to preserve. Calls for the United States president and Congress to punish Israel are irresponsible and will do long-term harm to the relationship that will not be easily restored. I have faith that Israel will be able to resolve the crisis, just as they have displayed amazing resiliency and adaptability throughout its 75 years. As a result, rather than urge people to weigh in on one side or the other, the best thing we can do to help at this time is to encourage both sides to come to the table to find a reasonable compromise to the current stalemate.”
On the other hand…
The other side is like the generals who warned Golda that an attack was coming, and the Jewish state’s existence was in danger. In this case, the ‘nuclear option’ is calling on our voices here in America to stand up for them and support them. Voices like Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who publicly criticized rabbinical students for airing their unfavorable opinions about Israel in the past, are now begging Jewish Americans to let their voices be heard publicly to criticize the current Israeli government. Moderate voices who have shared similar views about our role have joined him like renowned Jewish thinker Yossi Klein HaLevi and Israeli journalist Matti Friedman. Here’s a quote from their open letter to us, their friends in North America:
“The North American Jewish community has steadfastly come to the aid of Israel at moments of crisis. Israel belongs first of all to its citizens, and they have the final word. But Israel also matters to the entire Jewish people. When an Israeli government strays beyond what your commitments to liberal democracy can abide, you have both the right and the responsibility to speak up. Israeli leaders need to hear where you stand. North American Jews and their leaders must make clear to this government that if it continues on the path to transforming Israel into a country of which Diaspora Jews can no longer be proud, there will be no business as usual. We and our families, along with many tens of thousands of other Israelis, are in the streets every week demanding the government end its war against our democratic values and institutions. We need your voice to help us preserve Israel as a state both Jewish and democratic.”
Director Guy Nattiv commented that Israel’s leaders are “blind, like the leaders in the Yom Kippur War. He warns that this is a pivotal moment in Israeli history—“to do or die.”
One side is telling us, to be like Jonah, the reluctant prophet who eventually finds his way out of inaction by telling the residents of Nineveh to repent for their behavior. They want our Jewish community to tell Israelis that now is the time to return to each other and live peacefully again together, because peace is the ultimate ideal regardless of what happens in the Knesset.
The other side is asking Jewish America to intervene, not to be the reluctant prophet Jonah, but to be Queen Esther after Mordechai coaxed her to stand up for her people:
“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace (in silence)…Who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:14)
They offer us a warning: do not think that you living in the safety of America will not be affected if Israel becomes a dictatorship or a theocracy. Maybe you are where you are for a reason. Speak up for us - use your power and influence!
It is fitting that we speak about these two figures today on Yom Kippur. There is a well-known teaching that connects Yom Kippur and a holiday that no one would think to connect to this solemn day: Purim. Our Sages teach that Yom HaKippurim is a day that is like Purim.
Purim is supposed to be a day of unadulterated joy, but within that joy was preceded by angst and sadness. Our feast was borne out of our survival and overcoming our enemy, but Purim begins with a fast. Yom Kippur begins with a feast and ends with a fast, but it is a joyful fast because we are cleansed of our sins. Both holidays are a mixture of joy and sadness, the scarcity of a fast, and the abundance of a feast. It is the story of the Jewish people. From the depths of the Holocaust to the establishment of the Jewish state within ten years; a blink of an eye in time.
Of course, no one truly knows if the current government's attempts to change the rules of Israel’s Democratic nature will lead to the end of Israel as we know her, or if it is the beginning of a necessary change in Israel’s nature that will help her become more democratic by fixing things that could have been set by a constitution which Israel does not have. Just like in 1973, only time will tell which side is correct.
But each side has to ask itself tough questions: What if our side is wrong? When are we going too far?
So how do we here in Boca Raton fit in? Some of you may be thinking - rabbi, tell me which side I should be on! The truth is, like the generals who advised Prime Minister Meir, I have my inclinations on which side is correct, but I don’t know for sure, and, no matter how confidant people sound, they don’t know either.
But I do know what we can do. We must understand the important role that Israel plays in our lives and history. After all, there is only one Israel.
In Golda, there was a reenactment of a conversation between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Prime Minster Golda Meir. In anticipation of Israel’s request for more arms, which America was not prepared to give, Kissinger said:
“Golda I must warn you, ‘I am an American first, Secretary of State second, and a Jew third.’
Golda responded: ‘Henry, In Israel, we read from right to left.’”
Kissinger was a German-born Jew who left Nazi Germany in the 1930s and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. America saved him and his family, and, like many Jews, he did not want his loyalty to his adopted country questioned. Golda also found safety in America as her family escaped the Pogroms of Ukraine. In Meir’s eyes, Israel was the only solution to the problem of Jews hiding in the cellar waiting for the antisemites who came to kill them to pass them by. As Golda confided to her secretary, “I am not that scared little girl anymore. I will not be taken alive.”
Golda looked at herself as a Jew first before any other nationality, and even though she spent formative years in America, even though she was a U.S. citizen and if the worst happened, she could go somewhere safe, she also knew that there was only one Jewish state, only one Jewish homeland, and if it were destroyed, she would die with it.
Like Americans, Israelis have a history of protest songs. The song of the pro-democracy camp is Ein Li Eretz Acheret - I Have No Other Country, after a song written by Israeli singer Ehud Manor.
The song was not written as a song of pride for Israel, but after Israel let him and other Israelis down during the 1982 Lebanon War.
In June of 1982, Manor was sitting with his wife, Ofra, in the living room, watching the news on television. The news item was about the war in Lebanon. She recalls this event vividly. “We saw footage of Israeli soldiers entering Beirut. Ehud broke down and said: ‘I cannot take it’, and he began jotting down words on a piece of paper.”
It took years for those words for the scribbled words to become one of Israel’s most popular songs of all time. The lyrics state: ‘I shall not be silent because my country has changed its face’, but – and there’s the big but – I have no other country. His wife said, “Ehud loved this country with every fiber of his being. This is our country. We really don’t have another country.”
It might surprise you to hear that the same song was also used by Israeli settlers during the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. Using the same song for different ideological sides is a sign that Israelis believe there is no other country for the Jewish people but Israel. But Jewish Americans also must realize this, despite what we may see out of Israel that we disagree with. There is only one Jewish state; we have no other land, we are one people.
The fear I have over this issue is not just what it will do to Israel, but what it will do to us here.
My fear is that our response will be to wash our hands of it all, and sit in silence; something none of us can afford to do.
On this Yom Kippur, we must commit to three things for Israel, and ourselves:
We must do Teshuvah. We translate Teshuvah as repentance, but it really means to return. We must return to Israel. The Israel of today is different than the Israel of the past. Every time we visit, there is something new. We change between visits, why don’t we think Israel changes?
That’s why visiting Israel in person is so important. We must see how Israel constantly evolves to understand her. Join me and others as we take our first congregational trip to Israel next June. This year, in order to prepare for the Israel we will encounter, I will be teaching a course through the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel called: Together and Apart: The Future of Jewish Peoplehood. In this series, we will embark on an exploration of the concepts of Jewish peoplehood, its most significant contemporary challenges, and new narratives that can unite the Jewish people today around Israel. Even if you cannot journey with us physically, you can journey with us educationally here at CSK.
The situation is complicated, but we cannot plead ignorance on the issue. There are so many resources, from articles to podcasts to classes that are available to us. We must return to Israel, whether in person or with our attention here.
We must pray for Israel, and pray for peace. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Prayer teaches us what to aspire for. So often we do not know what to cling to. Prayer implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.” This year, I pray that the two sides of this debate in Israel come together and work out a grand compromise. I pray that the people of Israel and the Jewish people around the world once again unite as one. I pray that this moment in Israel’s history will bring her to create an Israeli Constitution which she currently does not have.
I know, it’s a tall order, but tefillah is meant to challenge us to go higher and climb the ladder of holiness. But prayer is also an act of sacrifice. When we pray, we sacrifice our time, and we devote our thoughts and energy to what matters most in this world, and to our people.
And for some of us, protest is prayer. Hundreds of thousands have been marching and shouting for eight months weekly- “Shema Koleinu” - “Listen to our voices”, “Al Tashlicheinu M’Lifanecha” - Do not cast us away from you, “Kichlot Kocheinu Al Ta’azveinu”-“Do not desert us as our energy wanes.”
As Rabbi Heschel commented after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama: “I felt like my legs were praying.” Let’s respect the right of everyone to protest when they feel powerless and pray in their own authentic way so their voices can be heard.
We must give Tzedakah. We translate Tzedakah as charity, but what it really means is bringing justice to the world through our finances. Israel has a body and a soul. Israel’s body is supported by the investments we make in Israel, like Israel Bonds. But Israel’s soul needs to be helped as well. We must support the organizations in Israel that mirror the values you want to see. This year, in addition to buying an Israel Bond for CSK, I will purchase one for the Masorti movement, the Conservative movement in Israel which speaks to my values of a democratic Israel that is based on pluralism and religious freedom for all, but also for non-Orthodox Jews who are not represented by the government. Which Israeli organization speaks to you? This year, support them with your tzedakah.
As Jews, we are not great predictors of the future, but our greatest gift is how we view the future. We are a people who places hope in our very center, and hope has sustained us and brought us to where we are today.
Od lo avda tikva-teinu,
Ha’tikvah bat sh’not al-payim
Lih-yot am chofshi b’ar-tzeinu
Eretz Tziyyon v’Yerushalayim.
Our hope is not yet lost,
It is two thousand years old,
To be a free people in our land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
And so, despite what we have experienced this year, we are here at this moment, on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, it is not just every person who is cleansed, but an entire nation. We can start anew during this new year, together, as one nation, and one people.
Am Israel Chai - the nation of Israel lives
Gmar Chatimah Tovah