On Oct. 6, 1973, Syrian and Egyptian forces, hoping to win back land lost in another war six years earlier, launched a surprise attack on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year.
On that day Jonathan Shuali, having completed his mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces, was a 22-year-old electrical engineering sophomore at the Technion who suddenly found himself back in uniform as a reservist in the Golan Heights.
“I was drafted by 2 p.m. and by 11 p.m. I arrived at my camp at the bottom of the Golan Heights,” said the Haifa native.
Now a longtime East Brunswick resident and member of East Brunswick Jewish Center, Shuali spoke about his war experiences during Selihot services there the evening of Aug. 31. In a phone conversation with NJJN, Shuali looked back on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War and the mistakes and trauma it caused.
“In 1967 we conquered Egypt and Syria so quickly it was ‘bing bang,’ like what Americans call ‘shock and awe,’” said Shuali. “It was like everyone was in a euphoria — ‘We are the best in the world and no one will ever attack us.’ That is why they kind of tricked us. ”
Even as it became apparent to top leaders early Yom Kippur morning that the Syrians, Egyptians, and their coalition partners were planning to attack, there was waffling in the upper echelons of Israeli government.
“The Israeli iron lady Golda brought everybody, the cabinet, military leaders to her kitchen,” said Shuali. While some military leaders urged a preemptive strike, Prime Minster Golda Meir balked, said Shuali, because she was afraid of world opinion.
Israeli government documents declassified in June in advance of the war’s 40th anniversary revealed that Meir tried to reach out to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat three months earlier through West German channels to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
Shuali recalled that the initial strike by the Arabs inflicted serious wounds on Israel and quickly laid to rest any feelings of complacency.
“The first two days were brutal,” he explained. “We almost lost the state. Those first two days we couldn’t even go up to the Golan Heights because the army was so disorganized. We didn’t have supplies, ammunition, fuel for the tanks. It was a disaster.”
Fortunately, the IDF was able to regroup and begin to push back against the enemy. “In a matter of two weeks we were 20 miles from Damascus,” he said. The war ended with a cease-fire 18 days later, but was devastating to Israel, which lost close to 3,000 soldiers.
Among those killed in action were his cousin and four high school friends. Shuali considered himself lucky to have been a first sergeant in an artillery battalion that lost only one soldier.
“We were actually supporting the troops from further away,” he explained. “Artillery stays back and shoots from 25 miles away. We saw the fighting from a distance.”
Eventually Shuali finished his engineering degree — he also became a specialist in biomedical and nuclear engineering — with plans to work at a nuclear power plant that was slated to be built in Hadera.
When the plant didn’t materialize, he began working for a start-up developing CAT scan, nuclear medicine, and X-ray machines, which sent him to the United States to pitch and install the equipment in hospitals.
“That’s how I got here,” he said. “They were a very young company and we were starting to conquer the market with all the Jewish doctors in the hospitals. I went to the radiology departments all over the metro area — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.”
Shuali has worked mostly as a software engineer in the United States and has served as volunteer director of security at EBJC for four years.