Yom Kippur War provides valuable lessons on coping with crises

Part of a full-page spread in the Oct. 17, 1973 on a rally to support Israel that drew 6,000 attendees. 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

How grim can things get? Lots of us, including those of us at the Jewish Light, are asking ourselves that question. 

The world seems to be coming apart at the seams: ISIS is poised to commit genocide against a tiny religious sect and is driving Christians from their ancient homes with serious death threats; Hamas has broken a tenuous cease-fire and has resumed firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, prompting Israeli air strikes; Russian President Vladimir Putin has sharply escalated the crisis he created in Ukraine and has placed 20,000 Russian troops on the border with ominous threats to invade. 

If all this was not enough, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the World Health Organization are calling the Ebola epidemic, which has already claimed more than 1,000 lives, an “international emergency.”

How are we going to cope with all of these escalating, increasingly dangerous crises affecting our security as Americans, as Jews, as citizens of a modern Western democracy? We are running out of synonyms for crisis, emergency, death and destruction. The old expression – “God never gives us more than we can handle” – rings hollow when we are being challenged on so many fronts.

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Where can we turn for lessons on how to cope with such severe crises? We can turn of course to our Bible and Talmud and other sacred texts, as well as secular histories to see how previous generations coped with such cataclysmic crises. It is not coincidental that so many of these events are spiraling out of control in the season of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, when so many calamities befell the Jewish people. The destruction of the First and Second Temples, the exiles in Babylon, the Edict of Expulsion from Spain, Russian pogroms and key dates of the Holocaust cluster around that grim anniversary.

One major event that contains lessons in how to cope with current crises is the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The front page of the Oct. 17, 1973, edition of the Light was labeled at the top in red: “Israel Emergency Issue,” and the headline on the lead story was “ISRAEL’S SURVIVAL AT STAKE!” The story, compiled from local and global news services, warned, “The very survival of Israel hangs in the balance at this writing as the fourth Arab-Israeli war has escalated into a conflict of unprecedented proportions.”

It was pointed out that in the first eight days of fighting, 656 Israeli soldiers had already been killed and more than 2,000 wounded. At the end of the conflict, which would drag on for weeks of death and destruction, about 2,600 Israeli soldiers were killed and thousands more were wounded, many of them gravely.

As the war unfolded, the Jewish community of St. Louis responded, just as it has been responding to the current Israel-Hamas conflict in the Gaza Strip. In that 1973 edition of the Light, right next to the lead story on the status of the fighting, was a sidebar story, headlined, “Important Steps to Help Israel in its Hour of Crisis.” Readers of the Light were urged to pay their pledges immediately to the 1973 Jewish Federation campaign and to make an additional gift to the Israel Emergency Fund. 

Another story told of a worldwide effort to raise $1.25 million to help Israel with its humanitarian needs during the conflict. Still another story announced that community leader Frank Jacobs had been appointed general chairman of the 1974 campaign. Louis I. Zorensky, then-president of the Federation, said Federation was taking the “unprecedented step” of naming its 1974 campaign chairman before the calendar year in view of the ongoing crisis.

On Page 2 of that issue was a full-page story with numerous photographs headlined, “6,000 Attend Rally.” I reported that the more than 6,000 attendees at the Israel Solidarity Rally filled the Jewish Community Center’s gymnasium and upstairs auditorium. Rabbis from all streams of Judaism took part in the moving program. Rabbi Menachem Zvi Eichenstein, then chief rabbi of the United Orthodox Jewish Community of St. Louis, brought the audience to its feet with a stirring speech in which he exclaimed, “There will not be a Third Destruction! Am Yisrael Chai.”

Rabbi Alvan D. Rubin of Temple Israel, president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, said, “St. Louis joins with Jews throughout the world in one bond of brotherhood. We join heart to heart with every Jewish mother and every Jewish father and son or daughter wherever they live. Our hearts are in the East, but we are in the West.

“Since Yom Kippur, we have been afflicted with the news of the Middle East. Night has descended upon all of us, and we yearn to see the day. Despair has descended upon all of us, and we yearn to see the dawn. Darkness has descended upon us, and we yearn to see the light.

“But, most important, in all our great history, it (brotherhood) has held us together. And we shall stand beside Israel with our hearts and our souls and our money.”

Thanks to the military genius of Israeli Gen. Ariel (Arik) Sharon, who staged an end run around the Egyptian 3rd Army and trapped it on the other side of the Suez Canal, a much-delayed cease-fire was finally achieved. U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was able to negotiate separate disengagement and cease-fire agreements between Israel and its Arab adversaries, and the ground was set for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to claim that he had set right the humiliation and was ready to make peace with Israel.

Four years later, Sadat suggested that he was willing to go to Israel and address the Israeli Knesset and offer to make peace with the Jewish State. Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin accepted his offer ,and Sadat’s historic peace mission laid the groundwork for President Jimmy Carter to successfully negotiate the Egypt-Israel Treaty, which survives to this day. That treaty is being observed by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current president of Egypt who has hosted in Cairo cease-fire talks among Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

An old religious school song goes, “Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them? In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid.”

May the lessons of our history offer us some guidance and hope as we attempt to navigate the turbulent seas of our present crisis. And may peace, which seems so distant now, be granted not only in the Middle East but throughout a world torn by violence and pain. May it be God’s will.