Forty years ago this month, at the end of the Yom Kippur War, Israel found itself in a precarious position, confronting increasing Arab strength and hostilities from countries from afar. Having pressed into Egypt, the Israeli Army camped out on the banks of the Suez Canal, uncertain of their fate. In this excerpt from Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, New Republic contributing editor Yossi Klein Halevi follows the lives of one small slice of the army—the 55th Brigade, who had played a crucial role during the 1967 Six-Day War, in particular the Hebrew poet-songwriter Meir Ariel, whose uncertainty reflected larger concerns about the direction of the conflict.
The IDF had beaten back invaders on two fronts under the worst conditions it had faced since the War of Independence, brought the battle into enemy territory ten days after the invasion, and extended its reach to within 95 kilometers from Cairo and 35 kilometers from Damascus.
Yet the people of Israel felt defeated. The initial disarray had shattered Israeli self-confidence. For the first time since 1948, Arab armies had taken the initiative. In eighteen days of combat in Sinai and on the Golan, Israel lost over 2,500 men, a quarter of them officers, along with over 7,000 wounded—the largest number of casualties in any war since 1948. For a population of three million, the losses were devastating. Everyone seemed to know someone who had fallen. Once again, the toll was especially high on kibbutzim.
The 55th Brigade had led the most daring operation of the war and then endured sustained bombardment—more intense, said commander Danny Matt, than in any battle in World War II. Yet the brigade survived relatively intact, losing 57 men (along with 300 wounded)—half the number of its fatalities in the battle for Jerusalem.
Along with grief came rage. The Labor Zionist leadership had led the Jewish people through the twentieth century, remained steady through war and siege and terrorism, through waves of mass immigration and economic devastation. Until now. How had the pioneer statesmen and their hero generals become so complacent, so arrogant, that they had failed to notice the growing strength of Arab armies and the prewar buildup on the borders?
The world had never seemed to Israelis a more hostile place than it did in late October 1973. The Arab oil boycott, which punished pro-Israel countries with a suspension of oil deliveries, pressured Third World countries to sever relations with the Jewish state, while panicked European governments suddenly discovered the Palestinian cause. Only two countries—the United States and Holland—stood with Israel. And who knew for how much longer? The whole world is against us, Israelis told each other. This fatalism about “the world” was a negation of Zionism, which had aimed to restore the Jews not only to Zion but to the community of nations. Gone now was the Zionist challenge to outwit the curse of Jewish history. The war that began on Yom Kippur threatened the secular Zionist dream of a normal Jewish state, a nation among nations, and seemed to return Israel back to Jewish fate.
Meir Ariel’s unit was patrolling along the shore of Suez City when it came upon a bunker. Booted feet protruded from the aperture.
Meir and a friend crouched and entered. Inside, five Egyptian soldiers were asleep. “Brah!”—Out!— shouted Meir in Arabic. The dazed Egyptians lined up. Meir ordered them to empty their pockets. One produced a tag from an Israeli uniform. Meir and his friend looked at each other: he’d obviously taken it from a soldier’s body, probably in one of the outposts of the Bar-Lev Line. Meir pointed his gun, finger on the trigger. His friend was surprised to see him acting so decisively, so military. Any sudden move from the Egyptian, it seemed, and Meir would have fired.
In mid-November another cease-fire was negotiated, this time directly between Egyptian and Israeli officers. It was a hopeful moment: the first face-to-face negotiations between the two adversaries since the 1949 armistice.
But for Meir and his friends, living in an abandoned youth hostel in Suez City, the cease-fire simply meant a reduction in the level of fighting. Every so often, the Egyptians would remember the Israelis across the way and fire a single mortar, and Meir’s crew would fire a single shell back.
Life in Suez City settled into routine. There was guard duty and hunting expeditions for sheep and calves to roast at the campfires where the stubble-faced men in woolen caps chain-smoked and argued into the night about the government’s failures and sang the old songs, already nostalgic for a fading Israel.
Meir taught the men his songs. They sang “Legend of the Lawn,” about teenage love in the midst of the entangled collective: “There’s a pile of hevreh on the grass …” Someone suggested a post–Yom Kippur version: “There’s a pile of grass on the hevreh …”
The men loved “our Meir,” this pure soul who never argued or gossiped or raised his voice, who listened to their woes and was always ready with a kind word or, when words seemed inadequate, a sad empathic smile. “Az mah, hevreh? b’sach hakol …” (So what, guys? After all, it’s only … ), he said after a shelling, not bothering to complete the sentence. One of the men lost his home leave and was inconsolable; Meir held him until he calmed.
But as the weeks went on, Meir became withdrawn. Let him be, the men said to each other.
Meir was brooding over Tirza. As soon as he returned home from the war, she intended to leave for America to try her luck as an actress. She was beautiful, she had learned English in Detroit, and while doing some modeling in Tel Aviv, she’d met an American movie producer who offered to be her patron. Meir was devastated. He loved Tirza madly, which was the only way to love Tirza, the only way Meir could love. She said she’d be gone for a year. But who knew what could happen in a year?
It wasn’t only Tirza. His life moved between army and kibbutz, communal impositions. He showed no anger, only what one friend described as a sad stillness.
The strap of his gun tore, and Meir didn’t bother replacing it. He gripped the gun by its barrel, carrying it as an afterthought. One day, on patrol with his jeep, Meir suddenly called out, “I need to go back, I forgot something.” The jeep pulled up in front of the hostel, and Meir ran inside and reemerged with his gun.
A friend from home sent Meir marijuana, along with seeds, and he planted those beside the hostel. When he stepped outside “for a smoke,” even his commander didn’t interfere.
One of the men confided to Meir that he feared he was going to die in Suez City. Wordlessly Meir produced a joint, the only comfort he could manage.
Morning lineup in the courtyard of the hostel. Thirty helmeted men stood at ease in a ragged row, reservist style. The daily inspection: Were the guns oiled? Bullet clips filled?
Strap hanging from his helmet, bootlaces open, Meir dragged his gun on the ground behind him and joined the line.
“Meir,” said the commander sympathetically, “I have a suggestion. Why don’t you bring your guitar for inspection?”
The next morning Meir showed up with gun and guitar. “Are the strings properly tuned?” the commander asked.
“Everything is in order,” replied Meir.
On guard duty around late-night campfires, the reservists in Suez City dissected the war. Who was responsible for the depleted stockpiles of weapons they had found on Yom Kippur? For the intelligence failure to read the most blatant signs of impending invasion? For the doctrine of Israel’s invulnerability and the contempt for the fighting capability of the other side? For the strategic stupidity of the Bar-Lev Line? Someone had to answer for this.
The radio played a song that seemed to have been written for the men of the 55th: “We liberated the Wall for you and we drained swamps / We stood watch over you in difficult times / We gave you everything, we asked for nothing in return / … We knew that soon, soon, a day would come / But now there are those who are not so sure.”
Late at night, on a hilltop overlooking the empty harbor, Meir Ariel sat on a chair stripped to its metal frame and strummed his guitar. He was supposed to be keeping watch for Egyptian commandos landing from the sea. But he’d sat here night after night, and no commandos appeared.
Meir and three other men, now sleeping in the adjacent tent, took turns on guard duty. They tried to make life comfortable. They’d hooked up a small generator to a jeep and brought a hot plate into the tent. Though it was against regulations, they’d installed a lightbulb, which they covered with a blanket.
Soon Meir’s watch would end and he would drink a cup of tea steeped with apple slices and read a bit of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream and drift into World War II–era Cuba. He imagined a brightly lit casino boat from Havana appearing in the harbor and taking him far from here.
Strumming, he half spoke, half sang the words of a new song: “Reading Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway / translated nicely by Aharon Amir / Soon he’s going to amuse her on his wide bed / And he’s one of the saddest men in the city.”
He continued: “Maybe tomorrow I’ll finally go on leave / I’m bound to the binoculars, just not to think / Light and tea with sliced apple await me in the tent / and a cigarette and a story, good and strong / … And then another gaze at the moon, at the city and the sea / And then a friend comes and says, Your time has passed.”
Meir wasn’t writing a protest song, just the forlorn cry of a soldier watching his life slip away. A lament for all the vitality consumed by the country’s security needs.
Back in the tent, comfort eluded him. “Downed two sliced-apple teas, another four, five cigarettes / The song got stuck here / But now he’ll amuse her on his wide bed /…Our forces passed a quiet night in Suez.”
On February 21, 1974, the men of the 55th Brigade gathered along the Egyptian shore of the Suez Canal, near the spot where the paratroopers had first crossed. The farewell ceremony had almost been canceled: a tank brigade had been given the honor of being the last Israeli unit out of Africa, and the paratroopers revolted. We were the first ones into Africa, Danny Matt insisted, and we won’t leave unless we are the last ones out. The IDF relented.
In June 1967 the paratroopers had ended their war by lining up, parade style, on the Temple Mount. Now they simply gathered around as Danny addressed them. “We, the paratroopers’ brigade,” he said, “were entrusted with being the lead unit in the force that brought about the turning point in the war and returned the initiative to the IDF. … You stood day and night beneath a murderous bombardment … deployed against us with a strength we hadn’t known in previous wars. Thanks to our ability to hold the bridgehead, the IDF succeeded in transferring the necessary forces and establishing its great foothold on Egyptian soil.
“I was privileged to command you—veterans of the retaliation raids [of the 1950s], liberators of Jerusalem and trailblazers in the Yom Kippur War. … Let us hope that the [prophet’s] vision will be fulfilled in us, that ‘nation won’t lift sword against nation and won’t learn war anymore.’ ”
The Israeli flag was lowered from a pole mounted near the bridge. Then the men released balloons and colored smoke grenades.
Kibbutzniks and religious Zionists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, university students and workers: they had created an intimate society. Now they were returning to their separate lives in a wounded and divided Israel. Someone scrawled a farewell message onto the side of an armored car: “From the wars of Egypt back to the wars of the Jews.”
One more mission accomplished. But how many more times could they keep giving their all, compensating for the failures of their leaders?
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.