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Our Struggle to Ensure a Strong, Democratic Israel

By Leah Garber

Fifty years ago, on October 6, 1973, I was a small child living in Jerusalem, playing at my friend’s house during the break between the morning and afternoon services on Yom Kippur. Suddenly a sound I had never heard before broke the serenity: The siren, a cry that calls people to get into shelters immediately when explosions and the thunder of cannons tear through the skies of Israel.

Until that moment, talk about war was only in the games my friends and I played with each other. Wars between “cops and thieves” was a game for innocent children. That day, I was thrown into an unfamiliar reality that, unfortunately, has been a part of my life, our lives, ever since.

The Yom Kippur War began that day when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise, joint attack on Israel. The war claimed the lives of 2,297 soldiers, leaving behind thousands of bereaved families, and scarred Israel more than any other war. The contrast between the atmosphere of the holiest day of the year and the evil of war was unfathomable and as stark as the disparity between the white in which people had wrapped themselves during services and the red of the blood shed because of hatred.

After 20 days of harsh fighting on all fronts—during which the general feeling was the approach of the end of days, the end of the Jewish endeavor—the Israeli army overcame its initial shock and surprise, and, with the sublime heroism of those defending their homes and the lives of their families back home, its soldiers repelled the enemy and literally saved the Jewish state.

Fifty years have passed since that fateful Yom Kippur. Following the war, commissions of inquiry were established, conclusions were drawn, heads of state and army leaders resigned, and films were produced, including the latest in which Helen Mirren plays the prime minister of Israel during the war, Golda Meir.

We have endured 50 years of a persistent wound that refuses to heal, and this year, as Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, the wound festers in the public’s conscience again—more than ever. Why is it that, five decades later, the Yom Kippur War has left a scar that won’t heal and refuses to fade with the years? Is it the unimaginable number of victims, the intensity of the surprise and shock, or, perhaps, the real threat to the state of Israel that prompts it to linger?

Israel in 1973, a young country of 25, is not the 75-year-old Israel of 2023. Today’s Israel has experienced wars and security incidents, and the cloud of existential, perpetual threat has not yet lifted. Our desire to be a sovereign, peace-seeking country is not yet a fait accompli to our neighbors, the enemy countries that surround us.

The Yom Kippur War soldiers, now in their 70s, recently came together under a call to save the country once again. Back then, in their 20s, they fought shoulder to shoulder with strength of spirit, believing Israel has the right to exist and their duty was to protect it. They did not imagine that a day would come, decades later, when a moral threat to the identity and values of the state would gather them again to stand for the country they so love.

As I have expressed many times, I am troubled, worried, and saddened by the reality in Israel during the last 36 weeks. Despite the sincere pain and concern, I refuse to see the darkness of the tunnel. Rather, I choose to focus on the light at its end—and on the hope it will bring.

More than anything, Israel’s wars, including the Yom Kippur War, have taught us that the most important means of defense we have is the belief in the righteousness of our ways. We are here in a country built together by Israelis and Jews worldwide because we and the world recognize that Jews, like people in all other nations, have the right to self-determination in a sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel. Endorsing our right to a state is our north star, outlining and illuminating the path when it is dark and dim.

The legal reform protests during the last nine months prove, unequivocally, that Israelis from all parts of the social, political, and religious spectra are not giving up on this land and are fighting for it in legitimate, democratic ways. That the citizens of Israel—on the right and the left—are neither indifferent nor willing to give up their values strengthens our democracy. Week after week, in all kinds of weather, as hundreds of thousands of us take to the streets, we respectfully demonstrate our objections to the dangers our democracy faces and offer a true testament to its very strength and stability.

The beauty and presence of hundreds of thousands of the country’s blue and white flags at every protest—whether against the legal reform or in support of the government—illustrate the loyalty and patriotism of Israeli citizens who cling to their homeland and its values and symbols.

We are facing a major crisis of values, a political crisis, and a social crisis, but we are not giving up, and with unprecedented determination, we stand by the flag and the anthem. We stand by the legacy of our country’s founders, by the values of David Ben-Gurion and Theodor Herzl, and by God’s promise to the people of Israel. We stand by the graves of the Yom Kippur War victims and by all their brothers and sisters in arms who sacrificed their lives for our country. We stand by all the beautiful and meaningful gifts the state of Israel has given us—and the world—over the years, and we declare with great pride that we will not give up.

Whether we oppose or support the government, we share a great love for the country, this land, and its people.

Precisely in these days of awe, between summer and autumn, between dry desert winds and northern winds, when the days are getting shorter and migratory birds carry a whisper of hope on their wings, it is important that we raise our eyes high, beyond the mundane, the struggle and the pain, to look toward what can be and what will be—thanks to our devotion, determination, and love for this country.

Inspired by the sanctity of Yom Kippur, let us join the migrating birds as they soar so we can gaze at the complex and frustrating reality from a broader perspective, one that lets us cling to hope. May these beautiful birds carry our prayers that the terrible crisis that has befallen us in the past year will be resolved and that after we heal, we will grow together to ensure the sacrifices of the Yom Kippur War victims and so many others will not be in vain. Fifty years later, we are here to uphold their belief in Israel’s right to exist and their belief in the duty to protect it. Today we do so through our struggle to ensure a strong, democratic, values-based, and inclusive Israel.

G’mar chatima tova.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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