Saturday, September 14, 2013

Between Yom Kippur War and 9/11

This is a special memorial week: it marks the 40th anniversary of Israel’s Yom Kippur War and the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack in the USA. These are major events that shaped the mindset and future of Israelis and Americans. I have lived through both events, and the impact has been profound.

I was 15yrs old when the Yom Kippur War broke, a high school student. I remember a general feeling of concern and confusion. There was no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and the only way to access information was through state-owned television and censored newspapers. The information about the real events of the war was revealed only after it ended- and it changed everything.

Carrying a wounded comrade  -Yom Kippur War
Israel was no longer an “invulnerable regional empire” - a belief adopted after the 1967 victory by political and military leaders as well as common citizens. The Israeli public stopped viewing its leaders as a group of wise men and woman that know it all. For a brief time we understood that our generals had no monopoly on brilliance, and our enemies were not cowardly idiots.

Four years later, the Yom Kippur war caused a change in Israeli leadership. The newly elected leader, Menachem Begin, put Israel on a path to peace negotiation with Egypt, and for the first time recognized there was a “Palestinian problem”. But merely nine years after the Yom Kippur war, Israel got tangled in a military adventure in Lebanon, deluding itself it could single-handedly change that country’s political and sectarian order.

Nineteen years after the Yom Kippur war,  Yitzhak Rabin was elected as a Prime Minister. In an interesting twist of events, the former IDF chief of staff who was involved in Israel’s 1967 victory, decided to lead the country on the precarious path to peace. Mr. Rabin took a few major steps in that direction, but his initiatives were cut short when he was assassinated in 1995. Who knows what the Middle East would have looked like had Mr. Rabin been given a chance to complete his vision?

The Yom Kippur war did cause a major shift in the Israeli public mindset. Unfortunately some of the pre-1973 concepts still persist. Many believe that our military might is the only key to Israel survival in the Middle East, and our leaders are slow to pursue initiatives aimed at achieving a diplomatic solution with our close neighbors. Perhaps not all the lessons were learned, perhaps some were forgotten. I pray that another “learning experience” isn’t heading our way.

During the 9/11 attack in 2001 I was much older. I lived with my family in the US, had kids, a job and a mortgage. I remember standing in front of the TV in our house in California, watching in disbelief the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. I had to pinch myself to find out if this was real.

What I saw on live TV on September 11, 2001
In comparison to Israel, life in California seemed “trouble free” before 9/11. Bomb explosions was something that happened only at other countries. We were the “US of A” – the last standing super power. The Vietnam War was a faraway memory, and Americans worried about the stock market and unemployment more than about anything else. But Al Qaeda and Bin laden changed all of that.

I remember the fear creeping in. Was San Francisco’s Golden Gate going to be the next target for terrorists attack? Who’s this Middle Eastern looking person that stands in line to board the same flight I am on? Habits changed too. Before 9/11 I used to get to the airport about 30min before my flight departure time. I could get from the parking garage to my seat on the plane in less than 20min. After 9/11 there was no way to tell how long it would take to pass security check points.

The 9/11 attack beget the war in Afghanistan. Initial “victories” were supported with video clips of “smart bombs”. But later those gave room to body bags that started flowing in.  Then came the invasion to Iraq, and the futile search for Saddam Hussein’s WMDs. Iraq quickly turned from a swift “military victory” into bloody guerrilla warfare where smart bombs couldn't quite handle dumb homemade IEDs. The hopes for a quick victory over the terrorists and the spread of “democracy” gave way to a dragged-out, expensive military campaign that seemed to have no end in sight. Americans got tired of trying to solve the world’s problems. And they certainly didn’t want to pay for it with the lives of American boys and hard earned dollars.

About 2500 Israelis died in the Yom Kippur – close to 0.1% of the population. About 3000 Americans died in the 9/11 attacks – close to 0.001% of the population.  Both events left major marks and scars on these two nations, and its people. Some lessons were learned, some were ignored, and some were unfortunately forgotten. Israel and the US were never the same – for better and for worse.

As for my personal lessons? I believe that people should never blindly follow their leaders. I hope that both American and Israeli leaders understand that pulling the trigger is easy, but the consequences are often unforeseen. I believe that military might unaccompanied with wise diplomacy is a dangerous illusion. I believe there are no “safe places” left on this planet, so better not let fear run our lives. I believe that bravery of common people – soldiers and civilians – is what really makes a difference. I hope that lessons learned from these two catastrophes, Yom Kippur War and 9/11, will eventually make the world a better place. Amen.

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