Last updated 9/19/2023 at 10:28am
I was looking forward to seeing “Golda,” a film about the Yom Kippur War that played a large part in my own life. Now I wonder if my memories are skewed or if writers and directors took liberties with history I did not anticipate.
Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel when the Yom Kippur War broke out on October 6, 1973. As the title suggests, the movie is all about Golda, her agonies and anguish during the war.
I was on a freighter between Brindisi, Italy and Patras, Greece when the war started. Or maybe I was in Delphi, looking for the oracle, and on my way to Athens. I don’t remember exactly. I had no destination but knew I was not ready to return to the United States after finishing college in France.
I was reading newspapers whenever I could get my hands on them, back when newspapers carried the news, primarily the International Herald Tribune. When the war began I was inspired by Golda Meir, her air of competent authority, and by General Moshe Dayan, defense minister of Israel, who wore a patch after losing an eye in WWII.
My image of General Dayan was set early, perhaps in the first week of the war, when he was quoted as saying that Syrian President “Hafez al-Assad believes it is 200 kilometers from (Syrian capital) Damascus to Tel Aviv (then capital of Israel). I am here to show him it is 200 kilometers from Tel Aviv to Damascus.”
I was inspired by that boldness. The movie “Golda” portrays Dayan as weak, frightened, incapable. This contrasts sharply with what I thought I knew at the time.
When the United States was fighting in Vietnam, I had a student deferment. High school friends were not so lucky. I felt guilt at the time about my good luck, despite being opposed to a war I felt was being fought to fund a military / industrial complex.
Israel, Meir, and Dayan were admirable, but my motives weren’t completely altruistic. I was nearly out of money but had certain skills, such as driving large trucks and forklifts, and felt Israel would need manpower and might be willing to pay for it.
So I went to the Israeli Embassy in Athens and tried to sign up.
“Are you a Jew?” was nearly the first question I was asked.
“Then why do you want to do this?”
“Because Israel was attacked, and this is a war I can believe in.”
They declined and sent me back out to the streets of Athens.
So, I bought a ticket on the last El Al (the Israeli Airline) commercial flight allowed into Tel Aviv, thinking I’d just take my chances in finding work. It was night and they told us to pull the shades down as we approached the coast. We had a fighter jet escort.
In Tel Aviv, I was still reading the International Herald Tribune and then the Jerusalem Post. Nixon and Kissinger were claiming neutrality in the war, not wanting to upset the Saudis supplying the U.S. with most of our oil. But at the same time, lying on my back in Vondel Park in Tel Aviv after a day looking for work, I watched a constant flow of C5A aircraft pour war materials into Israel.
Eventually, I found a job on a peninsula of Israeli land between Lebanon and Syria, not far from the River Jordan. I drove a forklift in an apple-packing house in Kiryat Shmona. I lived on a kibbutz, Ayelet HaShahar. Every day at dawn I would ride to work with a man who also worked in town.
The area was under occasional attack from Palestinian militias, which fired Katyusha rockets into the town and at the kibbutz, but not while I was in either location.
The movie “Golda” ignores the Syrian side of the conflict, which is an omission I don’t grasp. I accept that the battles with Egypt were likely the more significant. But my memories of roads often closed to allow tanks and military traffic to move north to fight the Syrians, and of battles close by, do not make the north seem inconsequential.
I think it was February 1974 when, from the ruins of the ancient, pre-biblical settlement of Hazor, I watched the Israelis take back Mt. Hermon with tracers from tanks arcing across the evening sky.
Much of “Golda” shows her struggles with her health and anguish. My memory is of her strength and humor, and these come across in newsreel footage of her shown in the movie. That might have only been the image she wanted to project at the time, that this needed to be believed in Israel and “by the world,” as she says more than once in the film. If that’s the case, my understanding has been broadened.
Meir and Dayan resigned on April 11, 1974 as the war was winding down, under accusations they’d done too little to prepare before hostilities started. Time compression in the film gives the impression Meir died shortly after the war was over. This was not the case: Meir passed on December 8, 1978, four years after open hostilities ended.
I left Israel in March, 1974… it might have been May. The kibbutz said it was awkward having a paid “volunteer” living on-site, and the soldier whose job I’d filled was returning. That was fine, I had money in my pocket and India was calling.