Congregation Beth El Hosts Author of “In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician's Account of the Yom Kippur War”
Itzhak Brook will discuss his experience in the Yom Kippur War May 1 at Congregation Beth El. Courtesy of Itzhak Brook.
By Kevin Koeller
Speaker bio reprinted with permission
Congregation Beth El is hosting author and physician Itzhak Brook, who will talk about the historical perspectives of the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, and their long-term effects on Israeli society and the peace process. He will also discuss his personal experiences as a medic in the Six Day War and a battalion physician in Yom Kippur War.
His lecture will include discussion of the challenges of preserving humanity and ethical values during wartime; caring for wounded enemy soldiers; dealing with fear, anxiety and PTSD; religious beliefs’ effects on coping with the war; and experiencing the painful cost of wars.
This year will be the 45th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. The war was launched in 1973 in a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Even though signs of an imminent attack were noted by the Israeli intelligence, the Israeli government decided to ignore them for political and strategic reasons. Consequently, the country’s borders were very sparsely defended, creating a dangerous void on the front. The invading armies outnumbered Israelis by a ratio of 100 to one in manpower and 10 to one in armor and artillery.
Since the bulk of the Israeli army is made up of reservists, it took two days for them to mobilize and deploy. During these critical days, only the vastly outnumbered soldiers on the front and Israeli pilots held the line and stalled the attackers. It was their heroism and determination that saved the country from being overrun. Their devotion and sacrifice compensated for the lack of sufficient equipment and supplies. The strategic depth of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights also provided the country the time needed to mobilize the reservists.
Brook was a battalion physician during the Yom Kippur War. Like thousands of Israelis, he joined his battalion, which was assigned to supply the armored corps with ammunition, fuel, water and food. They rushed to the front to head off the attack, hoping to protect their families and the nation. The war was difficult and trying. The soldiers of his battalion risked their lives throughout the war replenishing tanks with fuel and ammunition under enemy fire. He describes how he watched them as they overcame the many difficulties and performed their mission, despite constant danger, as they heroically conquered their fears and anxieties. Many of them paid the ultimate price doing that. He had to cope with his soldiers’ war injuries and battle strain. It was a daily struggle for survival in the war zone requiring resourcefulness and performance despite fear and anxiety and the loss of friends.
Brook notes that coping with fear and anxiety under fire was one of the most acute problems he has faced. Not only did he have to counsel his soldiers, he had to deal with his own anxiety and fear. The sudden and unexpected circumstances that lead to the war and initial setbacks increased the psychological strain.
Caring for wounded captured enemy soldiers was also very challenging. Brooks took care of several wounded Egyptian soldiers, providing them with the same level of treatment he gave his own injured men. While his natural instincts urged him to help them to the best of his ability, he had feelings of animosity toward the enemy in the heat of battle, yet managed to overcome these misgivings, and followed the values he was brought up with regarding the sanctity of human life.
The Yom Kippur War posed the most serious threat to the existence of Israel in modern history. Even though Israel was eventually able to achieve a military victory, the country paid a steep price in lives lost and in the citizenry’s confidence in their leaders and themselves. Almost 3,000 soldiers gave their lives—a ratio of one soldier per 1,000 Israelis—a steep and painful price for a nation of 3 million.
More than 10,000 were wounded in the 18 days of fighting. Almost every household and neighborhood was affected. The pain and sorrow was and still is very searing. Deep within the psyche of the nation, this conflict shattered conventional wisdom that the country was invincible. It also illustrated the importance of having secure and defensible borders and the need to prevent such deadly attacks. It also highlighted the urgent need for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors. An important outcome of the Yom Kippur War was the creation of a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that was signed in 1979 and ended 31 one years of conflict between the two nations.
Aid provided by the United States was also very instrumental in helping Israel prevail. United States ammunition, spare parts, armor and fighter jets reached Israel at a very critical moment, replenishing the heavy losses and enabling Israel not only to repel the attackers but go on the offensive, ending the war 65 miles from Cairo and 25 miles from Damascus. The political and military commitments by the United States also countered the Soviet Union who threatened to intervene to assist their Arab surrogates.
For Jews who have lived through the Yom Kippur War, the holiest of the High Holy Days will never be the same. It stands not only as a day of atonement but as a day of gratitude to God for the miracle of survival. It is also a time for remembering those who paid the ultimate price for preserving and protecting Israel, and will always commemorate a renewed commitment to preventing Israel from ever experiencing such a peril in the future.
Itzhak Brook retired from the U.S. Navy in 2006 after 27 years of service. He is a professor of pediatrics in Georgetown University and the author of “In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War.” ■