Hot tar, aching memory, Golda Meir, and the Yom Kippur War

A month ago, and thirty-seven years, Golda Meir died, aged eighty.


Today hardly anyone remembers her name, or never heard it to begin with.

The original ‘iron lady’, but on the other side of the political fence from Thatcher. A Zionist labour activist in the 1910s, a leader of the Jewish people in Palestine in the 1920s. A lobbyist for Jewish refugees in the 1930s. A founder of Israel in the 1940s. A minister of the Israeli government in the 1950s. Its Prime Minister in the 1960s and ’70s. A hero to her people, and in the world.

Like a faint echo I can still recall her as a cause celebre, being coaxed out of retirement despite lymphoma to become the world’s third female prime minister.

What a remarkable woman.

Memory triggers

My own consciousness of Meir came by way of accident and tragedy. And my memory by an unlikely: the smell of hot bitumen and evaporating rain water. It made me think of a time so long ago it seems almost mythical. Long ago and far away for me. A small sliver of history for some others. A void of unknowing indifference for billions more.

München, 1971. The bitumen of the new roads so hot I could smell the tar, and feel the black putty mould itself around my bare feet that summer.

It was a time of Cold War rhetorics. A time of fascist military regimes in Greece, Spain, and far away South America. It was a time when the ‘Amis’ and the ‘Engländer’ were our friends, and the ‘russische Bär’ was our bogeyman. It was a time when I was losing my innocence. Far too early, it now seems. But unavoidably.

You cannot hide from any half-awake child the tensions in a society conspicuously silent about what was going on. The Baader Meinhof ‘Rote Armee Fraktion’, and people talking in hushed, embarrassed tones what a disgrace it was these ‘kids’ accused modern Germany of still being a fascist state. Armed paramilitary police in the streets. Berlin Wall shootings and Vietnam battles in the newspapers. Barracks with occupying troops twenty-five years after the war on ordinary street corners. And the constant presence in the newspapers and on TV of the Middle East ‘crisis’. ‘Middle East’ and ‘crisis’ were almost interchangeable terms.

I remember Daliah Lavi’s hit song Jerusalem, ushering in the year of the Olympics in my hometown. And I remember so vividly the apoplectic shock that struck everyone like a hammer blow when the Black Septembrists turned the rehabilitating gesture of an Olympics hosted in Germany for the first time since 1936 into a nightmare.

It made me much more aware of geopolitics than I had been. It was almost an end to childhood.

My father worked as a journalist. He had an extensive archive of press clippings, and an enormous library of books in three languages. The Olympic massacre made me look up why anyone would want to murder the Israeli athletes. Of course I didn’t find the reason. No one ever has. The pretext was a 1948 skirmish in two Palestinian villages. But the real reason is rooted in the irremediable hatred fuelled by religion that has divided the traditional inhabitants of the Middle East for centuries. A hatred even its most ardent partisans don’t seem to understand as anything but unquestioning vendetta.

Israel’s agony in the 1970s

Unkown to me and many others, in the months following the Olympic massacre, Golda Meir became incensed with what seemed like international indifference to pan-Arabic terrorism against Israelis and Jews across the world. She gave the order for Mossad to send out hit squads to track down and kill all who were involved in organising the massacre, and all those who had aided them.

These events were dramatised in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich. It was a good film, with solid performances. It’s only censurable failing was the silly, sermonising morality about such murderous undertakings projected by Avner (Eric Banna). A moralising that seems to have ignored the experience of people like Golda Meir, and of all the survivors of the WWII Shoah.

People who saw the British disarm the Jewish refugees in Palestine just before leaving. The British knowing fully well that the local Arabs intended to wipe out the Jews. The British all but complicit in the second great genocide of the Jews in the 1940s.

Instead the Jews fought. Hard and bloody. And they won. They declared an independent nationhood in the midst of mortal enemies.

My father’s archives contained a mountain of information about the Six Day War of June 1967. I had been too young to take much note at the time, but now I dug into the details.

There had never been a formalised peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and the Cold War politics of the era led the superpowers to back proxies in the Middle East, emboldening Egypt to escalate anti-Israel rhetoric into mobilisation of military forces on Israeli borders in 1967.

Israel responded with pre-emptive air strikes that all but destroyed the Egyptian air force to the West, and with a tank ‘Blitzkrieg’ straight out of Rommel’s tactics manual, crushing Egyptian ground forces. At the same time, Syrian and Jordanian forces attacking in solidarity with Egypt were equally decisively obliterated in the East. Israeli commanders in this campaign included Moshe Dayan, who was later Golda Meir’s defence minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon.

Not many people today, outside Israel, perhaps, know why these latter two names are still so highly regarded: they were military heroes. They symbolised a modern reincarnation of David felling Goliath.

Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and West Bank territory occupied by Israel in the Six Day War remains at the heart of disputes with Palestinians and Arab neighbours to this day. The historic orifin for these territorial disputes, though, is largely forgotten today.

The Six Day War was such a decisive victory for Israel that it seemed unlikely Arab nations would try again soon. It was also, however, an international disaster for Israel, which was heavily critiqued for having struck first, and could therefore be characterised by the USSR and its allies as the American-backed aggressor.

The 1973 war

It was for that reason, and the rising awareness in the world that Mossad hit squads were hunting down and killing Arab terrorists, and their associates, against all principles of international law, that made Israel cautious in October 1973, when Syrian forces were massing on the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Since Israel’s unexpected and stunning victory during the Six Day war in 1967, there had been an expectation that Israel’s Arab neighbours would now refrain from seeking further confrontation.

But the writing was on the wall all the same. At a summit held at Karthousm between 29 August and 1 September 1967, the heads of state of Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Sudan, and Syria resolved for continued hostility towrds Israel, while simultaneously refusing to recognise the state and reneweing a resolve to enter no negotiations with its leadership. The Khartoum Resolution was, for wary observers, the guarantee that Arab forces would again attack Israel.

There was, in fact. only a de facto peace after the Six Day War. By 1969, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had begun a War of Attrition, shelling the Israeli-occupied east bank of the Suez Canal on the Sinai Peninsula. Israel responded with air strikes, and once even crossed the canal in a daring commando raid to steal a recently built Russian radar installation. An estimated 10,000 Egyptians troops lost their lives, and Russian ‘advisors’ were among the casualties before the USA brokered a ceasefire in 1970 to prevent an East-West confrontation in the Middle East, but there was no commitment to peace.

Nasser died in 1970 to be replaced with his Vice President, Anwar Sadat, who was no less hostile to Israel than his former chief. Faced with an economy in ruins and a demoralised military, Sadat made demands that all territory gained by Israel in the Six Day War be returned as prerequisite to peace negotiations. The demand was rejected and Sadat turned instead to Nasser’s pre-existing strategy of securing advanced Soviet weaponry while rebuilding Egypts armed forces.

Egyptian feints and misniformation led to war readiness in Israel in May and August 1973. Military exercises were conducted to cause alarm, and then led to nothing in order to mask the real intention of later scheduled exercises unfolding a real full-scale invasion during the Jewish Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) festival, beginning on 6 October 1973.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, advised by Moshe Dayan, the paramount hero of the Six Day War, refrained from a pre-emptive strike like that of 1967. She feared that international aid would be limited if Israel was seen as the aggressor. Henry Kissinger, who was no innocent in suborning conflict in the region, later confirmed that the USA would not have assisted Israel had it struck first. I suspect the USA would have sent aid regardless, perhaps covertly, because Israel was America’s base in a sea of Soviet-aligned Arab states.

Critically, an almost complete American intelligence failure meant that neither the USA, nor Israel, nor anyone else in the West really knew that Egyptian and Syrian forces were poised to attack with supporting troops from Algeria, Cuba, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. It was justified as an effort to reclaim land lost in 1967. But it might have seemed to Israel like yet another serious effort to annihilate the Jewish state.

The Egyptians attacked from the West on 6 October 1973, crossing the Suez Canal, and the Syrians attacked from the East, in the Golan Heights. Despite early gains, both attackers were effectively counterattacked and pushed back with heavy losses on all sides. Ariel Sharon was a brigade commander in that conflict.

Despite several UN imposed cease fires, seen necessary to avoid a flashpoint incident between the USA and USSR, the on-again, off-again 20-day war was a humiliating defeat for the Arab forces.

The Yom Kippur War Sinai campaign 1: Egytian attack and Israeli defence.
The Yom Kippur War Sinai campaign 1: Egytian attack and Israeli defence. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Yom Kippur War Sinai campaign 2: Israeli counterattack and Egyptian defeat.  Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Yom Kippur War Sinai campaign 2: Israeli counterattack and Egyptian defeat. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Yom Kippur War: Golan Heights campaign.  Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Yom Kippur War: Golan Heights campaign. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Prime Minister Golda Meir had not only saved her nation, but then began the long and tortuous Camp David peace talk process which led a to a return of the Siniai territory to Egypt, making it the first Arab nation ot recognise Israel in the 1978 Camp David Accords.

Unfortunately the peace process begun this way was eventually derailed by Yasser Arafat and the PLO, who rejected Israeli and American overtures while making demands they knew Israel would never concede.

A remarkable woman … forgotten?

Meir was born in 1898 in Kiev, capital of the Ukraine. She emigrated to Milwaukee in 1906, becoming a Labor Zionist activist, moving to Palestine in 1921.

Meir returned to the USA for fundraising and political activities in the 1930s, and also to plead for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis to be given asylum.

In 1948, when the British were about to abandon Palestine, Meir raised $50 million (USD) to buy guns. She was one of the two women who comprised the 24 signatories of the Israeli Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948. A founding ‘mother’, so to speak, in contrast to the ‘founding fathers’ Americans like to talk about as if no one else ever created a nation.

Meir became Israel’s first ambassador to the USSR, then labour minister, foreign minister, and after her nominal retirement, was popularly elected prime minister when her predecessor and ally died suddenly.

Meir was never a backseat driver. She was a tough young woman who became confidante to successive generations of immigrants, and her sage counsel was widely sought out for her shrewdness. The complete opposite of American stereotypes of Jewish mothers as too doting and too hypochondriac for words.

I remember, in 1973, rumours suggesting Meir wanted to be much tougher on the Arab forces than her military commanders when it emerged that the Arabs had been torturing and executing Israeli prisoners of war. There were also some suggestions, emanating principally from the USSR, that the Israelis had used tactics in the final days designed to destroy rather than merely defeat enemy forces. I would not be surprised, nor particularly perturbed by such a strategy. Israel was attacked twice by the same enemy in six years.

A time if my life … unknown?

The events I have touched on here were monumental, and partly the catalyst for the 1973-74 oil shock, with its consequent economic turbulence. Those events were themselves the trigger for the stagflation that eventually saw the emergence of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as champions of a newly brutal and authoritarian kind of Western capitalism.

In other words, those long ago events deserve far greater analysis than I have time for, and a far deeper understanding for the reverberations that persist to this day.

But my topic is really only the sudden recollection of München in the early 1970s, and the memory of a tough and capable woman I never met. But a woman who shaped the world I grew up into. And the world you live in too.

Do you remember her? Will you now?


Memory is a tactile thing for me. Remembering these events also conjured up memories of a reel to reel tape I listened to in those days.

The songs on it included the following from film soundtracks–