In 1991, when I was 16, I gave my economics A-level group a lecture on the Yom Kippur War. The teacher had been droning on about patterns of inflation and GDP, and asked if anyone could explain the problems which arose in 1973. Excellent, thought I. An excuse to talk about interesting things like war and politics, instead of financial stuff! Whilst the rest of the class looked blank, I started talking. Belated apologies to Mrs Wallace for dragging her lesson off the point (although I did get to the oil crisis eventually.) However, apparently, most people, not being strange teenage historians, don’t talk about this period in Middle Eastern history at all; and that’s something which this fascinating TV drama series aims to change. And I also understand that a film on the subject is in the offing, with Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir.
As we saw with the Second World War, sometimes time has to pass before people feel able to talk about their experiences of war, and the makers of the series have spoken about how some of the veterans whom they interviewed had buried their experiences for many years. This is essentially a war drama, and the name comes from the Battle of the Valley of Tears, when a vastly outnumbered Israeli force successfully resisted a Syrian attack; but the focus is on the human stories of the individual characters. It doesn’t make for comfortable watching, and it’s not supposed to. We see young men, and some young women – gender issues are tackled, as we see female officers being ordered by their male counterparts to get out of the firing line, literally – , many of them doing their national service rather than being professional soldiers, suddenly being catapulted into the nightmare reality of war. Whilst the viewer is clearly intended to, and will, feel deep sympathy and admiration for them, the programme has little of good to say for the politicians, shown as both taking their eye off the ball in terms of the risk of attack and failing to tackle some difficult social problems.
As we head into Remembrance weekend and remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow, let’s not forget that conflict continues in many places around the world. Filming of this drama had to be halted at one point because of the risk of rockets fired in the Syrian civil war straying across the border, and the war in Yemen’s been going on even longer, to mention but two examples.
This is an excellent series about war and its effects on the combatants and on society in general, and thank you to More4 for enabling British viewers to see it.
I think that the view in the West at the time, especially bearing in mind the pattern of Cold War alliances, was dominated by a feeling that the Egyptian/Syrian-led coalition had pulled a very dirty trick by launching an unprovoked attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The view in Israel itself, which led to the fall of the government, was very strongly that the Israeli authorities should have been better prepared, and that’s very much what we see here. It’s a common historical phenomenon that a country which has been successful in war becomes complacent and is then caught out – think of the Boer Wars, Vietnam, Napoleonic France’s invasion of Russia, the Russo-Japanese War or the 1683 Siege of Vienna. The message here is that this is what happened in Israel after the Six Day War. To be fair, that was partly because of the fear that the US would withdraw its support if Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike, but the soldiers didn’t know that. We see the soldiers having no idea that forces were massing on the border, and a young intelligence worker who kept insisting that something was brewing being dismissed and even mocked.
We also get an interesting insight into the divisions within Israeli society at this time, with considerable resentment amongst the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities, who’d either moved to Israel from other parts of the Middle East or North Africa or whose families had lived there for generations, against the Ashkenazi Establishment. Some of the characters belong to the “Black Panther” movement, obviously named after the one in America, calling for change to improve the lot of their often poverty-stricken communities.
The first time I came across this issue of historical social division in Israeli society, years ago, I found it quite hard to get my head round, because it’s always been the other way round in Manchester, and indeed in other parts of the UK – historically, it was the Sephardi communities who were well-to-do and in some cases reached prominent positions in society, and the Ashkenazi communities who struggled, although times have changed. And the same’s true in the US. So, again, this will challenge the perceptions of Western viewers. Things have changed in Israel now, but it’s an interesting issue, and quite brave of an Israeli-made series to tackle it.
But, despite feeling that the politicians had let them down, and, in the case of some of the soldiers from Mizrahi backgrounds, feeling that they were treated badly by society in general, and despite having no warning that war was coming, the young soldiers did what they had to do – and, even by the end of the first episode, we’d seen one of the characters killed. As I said, this doesn’t make for easy watching, but it’s worth the effort.