Israeli historian Arie Morgenstern tells of a fascinating difference of opinion between the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l, and Moshe Dayan in the current (Winter) issue of Azure.
The setting is the Yom Kippur War. Morgenstern, in NY as as emissary of the World Zionist Organization, and Menachem Levin, the Israeli Consul, came to 770 for Simchas Torah. The Rebbe asked that his very strong views on the conduct of the war be conveyed back to Israel. It is no small testimony to the respect that he commanded that his opinion was quickly dispatched to the highest levels of the Israeli command, even if rejected.
Morgenstern’s thesis regarding the Rebbe’s self-perception as “an emissary of Divine Providence and the supreme commander of the armies of the Jewish people in the imminent era of redemption” need not be accepted to find the exchange intriguing. The Rebbe was a respected voice, and he had every right and responsibility to weigh in on a matter that affected Klal Yisrael.
Many decades later, we can perhaps look for answers as to who was correct back then – the Rebbe, or Moshe Dayan?
Levin and I arrived at the Rebbe’s beit midrash in Crown Heights just before the ark was opened for the traditional dancing with the Torah scrolls. Suddenly, the sea of black hats parted to clear a path for us to reach the Rebbe’s dais. The two of us stood at his side, and for an hour before the dancing began, the Rebbe spoke with us as the entire congregation stood still, wondering at the delay. They must have known the conversation dealt with the war then being fought in the Jewish state.
The Rebbe spoke with us about the significance of the war, focusing on its part in the process of redemption. I do not recall whether he referred specifically to the war of Gog and Magog, but the inference was all too clear. He asked—and later demanded to know—why the military campaign had halted in the Golan Heights, and why IDF forces, which had already rebuffed the Syrian army, refrained from advancing to capture Damascus. At the time, IDF forces had withdrawn from their defensive posture and had gone on the offensive, arriving within 34 kilometers of the Syrian capital. From a practical standpoint, the capture of Damascus was possible, and would unquestionably have decided the outcome of the war.
We tried to justify Israel’s decision to the Rebbe, attributing it to concerns that Russia would carry out its threat of intervention if the IDF advanced toward the Syrian capital, with likely horrific results. We also said that it appeared as though Israel wanted to concentrate heavy forces on the southern front in order to drive the Egyptian army definitively toward the Suez Canal.
The Rebbe rejected our arguments one by one. He claimed that entering Egyptian territory was a strategic error, since it would not alter the balance of power in Israel’s favor. He also said that the State of Israel’s most serious problem was the battle with Syria, and that until that front was won decisively, the Arab war against the Jewish state would never end. Damascus, he explained, as a city with an ancient history, symbolized the stability of the Muslim world, and therefore the threat Islam posed to the Jewish people. A blow to such a symbol would thus destroy the confidence of the Arabs. Moreover, he insisted, Russia was all talk, and American opposition to a sound defeat of Syria was only for the sake of appearances. In reality, the United States was eager for Israel to vanquish Syria. Regarding the issue of Israeli casualties, he claimed that if we did not win the battle decisively at this propitious time, in the future far more blood would be spilled in the course of subsequent wars the Arabs would impose upon us.
At the end of our conversation, the Rebbe had asked us to go back home immediately after the dancing and phone Israel to convey his urgent message to the heads of state. They must, he insisted, instruct the IDF to conquer Damascus, and fear no one. Menachem Levin promised to bring his remarks to the attention of Prime Minister Golda Meir, and I assured him I would contact the heads of the National Religious Party to convey his message in detail.
The trip home to Far Rockaway seemed to last forever. I felt the urgency of the task the Rebbe had assigned to me in every fiber of my being. He had made me feel as if I were carrying the fate of the Jewish people on my narrow shoulders. That night, I managed to reach the late MK Zevulun Hammer, who was summoned from a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee being held in Tel Aviv. I conveyed my conversation with the Rebbe to him, along with the latter’s explicit demands.
About half an hour later, I received a call from the late MK Yitzhak Raphael, who wanted to hear exactly what the Rebbe had said, and how he had dismissed the concerns of military failure and unnecessary bloodshed. In reply, Raphael confirmed that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was indeed worried about Russian intervention, and had therefore commanded the IDF not to advance beyond the lines Israel held on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, on the Golan Heights front.