Thursday, September 12, 2013

12-Sep-13: That far-away war, forty years ago

Australian Jewish News, September 13, 2013
The editors at the Australian Jewish News asked Arnold Roth to reflect on his memories of the Yom Kippur war whose fortieth anniversary is now being marked. A version of the piece below is published in today's AJN.

The War of Atonement and the Australian Campuses
Arnold Roth

A version of this article appears in the Australian Jewish News, September 13, 2013

My family and I have made our home in Jerusalem for twenty-five years. Aliyah for us meant the complicated events of a previously-distant Middle East merged with our own lives over the years. They morphed with time into neighborhood issues and family matters and were no longer the remote and distant news events that they had been in the Australian chapter of our lives.

I was a Monash law student and active in Jewish student circles when the Yom Kippur war erupted. Three weeks earlier, I had visited Jerusalem to take part in the once-in-four-years congress of the World Union of Jewish Students. I remember it as a buoyant time when people spoke expansively, ambitiously, confidently. There was no inkling of the deaths, destruction and waste that were shortly to unfold.

If I was preoccupied with anything other than the mundane matter of studies, it was with very local politics. AUS, the national union of Australian tertiary students, had just pulled off a nasty stunt, narrowly (by a vote of 74 to 62) adopting a resolution at its August 1973 council meeting that was a harbinger of a much more comprehensive and equally nasty campaign of demonization and delegitimization of Israel that was about to unfold. The assembly of senior university union officials in their wisdom called for Israel’s national student union to be no longer recognized by the Australian student unions, and requested that it be expelled from the Asian Students Association. Israel’s place was to be taken by a Palestinian Arab group.

Others will undoubtedly be recounting in this edition of the AJN the historical aspects of those tumultuous days. In terms of my subjective recollections, the first war news from Israel was jarring and bad, though with the distance and clarity of time we understand that it was nowhere near as bad as the reality.

Egypt and Syria had managed to assemble, and to hurl against Israel’s defences, a force equal in size to NATO’s entire European deployment. Israel’s 150 tanks came under attack from no fewer than 1,400 Syria tanks. The ferocity of that fighting can be guessed at by the video clips we see on our news screens in the 2013 Syrian-on-Syrian bloodbath.

Few ordinary citizens outside Israel can have had any inkling at the time that things looked so diabolical for Israel. On the Suez canal and in Sinai, the odds were staggeringly unbalanced. What would have been the level of morale of Jewish communities around the world had they known that 500 Israeli soldiers were confronting some 80,000 Egyptian troops. Iraq sent 18,000 soldiers into the war, along with a squadron of jet fighter planes that had been relocated to Egypt some months earlier. Saudi Arabia, which had bankrolled the refurbishment of Egypt’s military troops, delivered 3,000 of its men to the battle.  We now know that the Arab side included material aid from Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Twitter and breaking news reports in their various forms can provide a degree of accuracy that is as good as the source supplying the information. But forty years ago, the channels that sent text and images to the world’s television stations and newspapers operated according to a different paradigm. A Sunday newspaper that has long ceased to operate, the Melbourne Observer, devoted its entire front page two weeks into the war to a single screaming headline: “Syrian Jews Swoop | Haifa Burns”. The report below it said Haifa’s oil installations were burning and witnesses said the city was “a blazing inferno” with “many people”, meaning Israelis, killed. It was 100% total nonsense.

I kept that page in my files [and posted online] as a reminder to myself of something that has gotten more evident over the years: the people packaging and delivering news to us ordinary people, far from the scene, will rarely if ever disclose that they actually have little – and sometimes no – idea whether their reports are accurate or even true. They publish what they receive from their “sources”; until proven otherwise, this is the reality to which they choose to align themselves. Consumers today, no less than four decades ago, cannot afford to read or view the news without a significant degree of discernment.

Something similar was happening inside the leadership of the utterly non-transparent, ideologically extreme Australian Union of Students at about the same time. Their reality, the one with which they chose to align themselves, evolved by January 1974, at the time of their annual conference in Canberra, into one in which Israel, the state, was not something the AUS any longer “recognized”.

AUS grandly demanded the release of “all members of the Palestinian resistance” from “jails in occupied Palestine” and so on. I attended that conference and spoke for a pro-Israel viewpoint. Though relatively few participants gave any sign of having strong views on the Middle East issues, the extremely vocal minority who stood behind the anti-Israel resolutions and spoke in their favour were venomous.

In the first months of 1974, we began to be aware of how perilously close Israel’s lines of defence had come to failing. During exactly that same period, we Australian Jewish students fought for, and then engaged in, a campus-by-campus process of awareness-arousing about Israel intended to overturn the massively-hostile list of AUS resolutions. Pro-Israel students prepared, and distributed across Australia, a four-page document [I posted that online] stating the AUS anti-Israel manifesto, and making a strong argument against it.

While this debate went on, I learned that several of the Israelis I had met in Jerusalem in that previous September’s WUJS event had been killed in the Yom Kippur fighting. It seemed absurd that an actual life-and-death struggle being conducted in the Sinai and on the Golan was being echoed in far-away Australia’s coffee shops and campus quadrangles.

The end-result of the Australian campus debate about Israel’s right to exist was decided overwhelmingly in favour of our side, the pro Israel side. Another clipping from that period (from the AJN edition of April 19, 1974] quotes me as president of AUJS saying that the key anti-Israel resolutions “were rejected at every Australian campus without exception”. A Melbourne Age report from April 16, 1974 is headed "Student vote rejects pro-Arab poll". 

Though I (and of course others) spoke in the debates at campuses in several cities, the experience for me is mostly a blur four decades on. The impression that accompanies me today is that, apart from a hard core of ideologically-motivated activists who were few in number but well organized and dedicated, the rank and file of Australian tertiary students were intuitively on the side of Israel.  

In the years since then, and particularly during this past decade, the discourse over Israel and its conflict with the Arabs has changed shape considerably, compared with 1973. The language of those debates in the seventies featured such terms as imperialism, liberation and colonialism. Today the argument centers, to a great extent on human rights. The conflict itself, once framed as the Arab states versus Israel, a kind of Arab Goliath against the Jewish David, today it is much more characterized as Israel against the Palestinians. It’s still David versus Goliath, but for reasons worth pondering, and beyond the scope of this comment, Israel is perceived – absurdly - as the Goliath.

Some things have not changed in all these years. As I sit here, preparing these lines, my family’s upgraded gas masks have just been delivered to our door. And while the news media have gone through a Facebook/Twitter/Youtube revolution, on the ground, the tensions and dangers are as old-fashioned and serious as they ever were.

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