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Golda: when Israel was last under siege

A new film about the Yom Kippur War reminds us how close the Jewish State once came to destruction.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Culture Politics World

Last Saturday’s murderous attack by Hamas has plunged Israel into the greatest crisis it has faced in almost exactly 50 years.

The date of Saturday’s attack (7 October) is significant. It was just one day after the 50th anniversary of a surprise attack on Israel by Egyptian and Syrian forces, an attack that also posed a potential existential threat to the Jewish State. There are important differences between then and now, but also some crucial similarities. And so looking at the earlier conflict provides some insight into the plight Israel is facing today.

On 6 October 1973, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a massive attack on Israeli forces on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. In what became known on the Israeli side as the Yom Kippur War, the country’s military forces were almost overwhelmed. If they had been, it would have almost certainly meant the end of Israel.

At the time, Israel was still basking in its dramatic victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, when it defeated the combined might of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. But any sense of national confidence was shattered on 6 October 1973, and replaced by a sense of vulnerability.

A new film, Golda, recounts these dramatic events from the perspective of Israel’s then prime minister, Golda Meir. Contrary to the impression given by the film’s title, this is no biopic of Israel’s first (and so far only) female prime minister. The focus is on the war as it appeared to her during those fateful two and a half weeks in October 1973.

Israeli director Guy Nattiv faced a formidable challenge making the film accessible to foreign audiences. How could he make the film comprehensible without turning it into a docudrama? He makes good use of archive footage but much of the focus is on the character of Golda herself, excellently played by Helen Mirren.

Nattiv puts Golda’s chain-smoking to good use as a way of symbolising the immense tension enveloping the country. There are frequent shots of overflowing ashtrays. And he uses Golda’s physical frailty to symbolise Israel’s vulnerability.

At the time, the 75-year-old Golda, unbeknownst to the public, was suffering from lymphoma. That meant going for covert scans at Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, even during the war. At one point, Golda is shown coughing up blood.

Yet despite her physical infirmity, she was immensely tough and wily. As the film shows, at one moment she would be playing the genteel Jewish grandmother, insisting that Henry Kissinger, the visiting American secretary of state, had some borscht. The next she is shown threatening to slaughter Egypt’s encircled third army if Israel’s surrender terms are not met. To compound Golda’s problems, Moshe Dayan, the Israel defence minister and a key player in the situation, was apparently having a nervous breakdown at the time.

The anniversary of the Yom Kippur War had been garnering substantial attention in Israel even before last weekend’s terror attack. That wasn’t just because it was a half-century ago. It was also because Israel had once again been feeling existentially threatened.

Up until last Saturday, however, the threat was largely seen as internal. Israel’s military and technological elites had been in open revolt against the democratically elected government for months. They had led a protest movement that – supposedly in the name of democracy – was intent on maintaining the Supreme Court’s final say in political decision-making. Israel had rarely been so bitterly divided.

Moreover, many of those protesting against the government were reservists in elite military units, who withdrew or threatened to withdraw from military service. This arguably left Israel more vulnerable to violent attacks.

The change in attitudes among Israel’s military elite was forcefully brought home in a recent documentary on the Yom Kippur War on Israel’s public-broadcasting network, Kan. It featured a fighter pilot from 1973 insisting his grandson should not volunteer for a combatant role when conscripted. The pilot said he would tell his grandson ‘It’s not good to die for our country’ because ‘the face of our country has changed’.

The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is certainly no Golda Meir. His prime concern since being re-elected seems to be his own political survival. Although he can be incredibly charismatic, he lacks political vision. If Netanyahu was ill-equipped to tackle the crisis over judicial reform, he looks even less suited to handling the current conflict.

It is hard to imagine that Golda would recognise Israel as it exists today. It is true that she would probably not be surprised that it is facing another existential crisis. Israel’s position in the region has always been precarious, given the animosity it faces from its neighbours. But the country’s lack of leadership, and the deep fissures that still exist beneath the surface, would no doubt come as a deep shock.

Daniel Ben-Ami is an author and journalist. He runs the website Radicalism of Fools, dedicated to rethinking anti-Semitism. Follow him on Twitter: @danielbenami. He is speaking at a session on Israel at 75 at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 29 October.

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Graham Linehan and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation

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Topics Culture Politics World

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