The Column | Me, Yom Kippur and the spoils of warby sue fishkoff
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I didn’t realize that Israel had lost the Yom Kippur War until I went to Cairo.
It was December 1991, and I was visiting Egypt with some friends from Pardes, the yeshiva in Jerusalem where I was spending the year. We took the bus — a grueling journey through the Gaza Strip — because my compatriots had loaded themselves down with 10 days’ worth of kosher food, and there was no way we could have taken all that by plane, even if we could have afforded it.
Me, I’m all about the local cuisine. I mocked my friends that first night in Cairo as they opened their sad little cans of tuna fish whilst I dug into a hot ‘n’ spicy sausage from a street vendor. I was so sick the next day I missed the pyramids.
That has nothing to do with Yom Kippur, but it set the tone for what was to be a fairly miserable week and a half. It was the coldest winter in decades. Expecting a sunshine-filled respite, we’d packed our summer linens and sandals, and ended up wearing all of our clothes every day, switching up the layers at regular intervals.
Then came our unfortunate decision to visit the City of the Dead, a 4-mile-long necropolis where up to half a million people live among the underground tombs. We made the mistake of going in alone, without a guide, and soon gathered a ragtag crowd that followed us at a menacing distance. I saw a family cooking dinner on a fire atop one tomb, while barefoot children with unspeakable sores chased each other in the dust. I have never seen such human misery, before or since.
On the third day, I proposed a visit to the October War Panorama, a recently constructed museum that represented Cairo’s take on what I knew as the Yom Kippur War.
Now I have to tell you two things. First, Yom Kippur played a critical role in the development of my Jewish identity. Not growing up in a Jewish home, I began exploring the mysteries of Hebrew school and synagogue services with my Jewish friends when we were all about 11 or 12. I remember coming home one Erev Yom Kippur after services and sitting self-righteously at my family dinner table, refusing all manner of sustenance while my parents and sisters looked at me quizzically.
Then one morning in October of 1973, a month before my 16th birthday, I turned on the TV to grainy, black-and-white images of Israeli tanks moving across the Golan Heights. The scenes were so powerful they propelled me to a six-month kibbutz program the following year.
The second thing I have to say is, I go to military museums. They tell me a lot about how a country sees itself, what myths it creates and tells to its children. I’ve been to more than a dozen World War II museums in the former Soviet Union, commemorating the victories and tremendous human losses suffered during the four years known as their Great Patriotic War. (What the Soviets were doing from 1939 until 1941 when their former Nazi allies finally turned on them is rarely mentioned.)
So there I was in Cairo, curious to see how the Egyptians told the story of ’73. Most Jews at the time considered the war a victory, if not on the scale of the Six-Day War in June 1967.
Not so in Egypt. My friends and I walked in the museum and were greeted by the wreckage of an Israel Air Force A-4 Skyhawk, shot down during the war. We could see a faded blue Magen David on what remained of its tail.
I felt sickened. What happened to the pilot? Did he die in the crash? Was he taken prisoner? Or is he still alive, and does he know that his plane lies on public display, a constant reminder of his ignominy?
The rest of the exhibit was hard to take as well. There were murals and paintings, statues and more war souvenirs, all paeans to this Egyptian military victory I’d heard nothing about.
In one room, a 360-degree diorama showed the Egyptian army storming across the Suez Canal, smashing through the Bar-Lev Line and trouncing the hapless Israeli soldiers in Sinai. No matter that subsequent Israeli counterattacks weren’t shown; the story this museum tells Egyptians is that they came out the winners.
The display makes visitors feel they are in the center of the battle — but, in my case, on the wrong side. It’s very disorienting to see one’s national myths turned upside-down in another country’s retelling.