A Reflection on the Politics of Yom Kippur

1973 was a fateful year. Inflation was high. Anxious autoworkers went on strike; many were laid off. US President Nixon, having won in a landslide on a platform of law and order, started his second term; later in the year his vice-president resigned and Nixon, facing Watergate probes, assured the country: ‘I am not a crook’. Pinochet took power in Chile. Terrorist groups, for various causes, planted bombs across England, attacked passengers in Greece and even killed the prime minister of Spain.

More hopefully, though not without sad irony, looking back: the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined the European Economic Community, precursor to the European Union. The Paris Peace Accords promised the end of war in Vietnam. The US Supreme Court said women had the right to choose. The World Trade Center opened.  

Instability was chronic. On 6 October 1973 — Yom Kippur — Egyptian and Syrian forces, supported in the end by many countries from the region and beyond, including the Soviet Union, attacked the 25-year-old State of Israel. Ultimately, they were defeated, and the conflict ended after just 18 days.

The war saw US commitment to Israel deepen. In retaliation, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, enacted an oil embargo against the US and US allies, including the UK, Netherlands and Portugal, leading to price shocks and changing virtually overnight the fault lines of the global economy. Efforts to resolve longstanding conflict over the Sinai led, five years later, to the breakthrough Camp David Accords, and then the 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel, a deal that still holds firm. For their part, Israelis determined more than ever never again to allow such vulnerability.  

Tumult would mark the decade, and indeed beyond. King Faisal himself was assassinated, in 1975, by a hateful nephew. It was hatred, in 1979, which fuelled the seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the consolidation, in Iran, of the more enduring Islamic Revolution — a hatred leading ultimately to the rise of Al-Qaeda and its many offshoots. In 1981, Egypt’s President Sadat would pay for peace with his own life.

Israel’s relations with neighbours remained fractious. The Palestinians — including in two major intifadas, or uprisings — resisted an Israeli government they viewed as unjust and illegitimate. Even the September 1993 Oslo Accords, promising the first steps towards lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, were crippled from the start, being never fully embraced — by either side: Prime Minister Rabin was killed in 1995 by an Israeli Jewish extremist. Israel and Hamas, the party-cum-military winning the last real election the Palestinian Authority has ever held, in 2006, have fought four brutal Gaza Wars. Israel fought two wars with Lebanon, over conflict first with Palestinian and then with Iranian-backed militants.

And yet the Middle East has come a long way since 1973. Jordan joined Egypt, in 1994, in making peace with Israel. The historic Abraham Accords, signed in September 2020, broadened Israel’s network of peace to include Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Sudan. Talks with Saudi Arabia are ongoing. There is hope yet for a watershed.

The October 1973 conflict became known as the Yom Kippur War. For the surprise attacks came on this highest of holidays in the Jewish calendar. A day of sacrifice and of shabbat. A day of convocation. A day of atonement. A day of ashes. In a profound coincidence, the Yom Kippur War is also the Ramadan War, inviting us to reflect — in Yom Kippur’s spirit of holy humility — on the tragic ironies of peace and war, life and death, sacred and profane; and on those universal values of freedom and fellow-feeling which run deeper even, are stronger even, than all the hatred filling the world.

And in another irony of life and death, October 1973 is consequential to me for a unique, very personal, reason: I was born. On the 12th of the month, of that very month — in the very middle of the war, as it happened. With a rare congenital disability so severe the doctors advised my parents I could never live as an independent adult. To a Jewish tradition whose faith I do not practice, but whose values of truth-telling, compassion and respect I have always cherished and am committed to passing on to my young daughter.  

It is these values — again, ironically enough — which led me to Sweden’s Kristdemokraterna party, and to its broader, Europe-wide Christian-democratic tradition, and centre-right political family: the European People’s Party (EPP).

And it is these values — of human rights and freedom and democracy, rule of law, equality between women and men, protection for children, fairness of opportunity and fullness of life — which have guided my work as a member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Committees; and my work, since June, as the convening chair of the European Parliament’s new Abraham Accords Network.

They’re why I continue to demand protection for Christians and other minorities in the Middle East; to fight against the resurgence of right-wing, left-wing and Islamist antisemitism — not just in the region but here in Europe and beyond; and to demand that the EU finally label as terrorist organizations both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. And why I am so proud to have nominated for the European Parliament’s 2023 Sakharov Prize Jina Mahsa Amini — a young woman murdered one year ago by the Iranian regime — and the ‘Woman, Life and Freedom’ movement she has inspired.

Yom Kippur calls us to humility and to sacrifice. And to hope on the other side. The Yom Kippur War reminds us how hard peace can be — and yet, too, how much has been achieved in 50 years. In a world in which violence and strife are on the rise, the Abraham Accords offer a different, more promising, path. As my good friend Antonio López-Istúriz often tells our European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Israel, which he chairs, they may even represent in the wider Middle East the same first framework for cooperation so thoughtfully built, the same first seeds of peace so painstakingly planted, in Europe in the post-War years, following centuries of conflict and ethnic cleansing. That European project has grown, one step of compromise and reconciliation at a time, into the European Union of today: a union constantly striving to be safer and fairer, more prosperous and more peaceful.   

In my own next 50 years, as in the first, I will continue to fight for peace, for freedom from oppression, for protection for minorities — in the Middle East and around the world. So that cries of ‘death to Israel’ no longer echo in any square. So that not only the fasting of Yom Kippur but the feasting of Hanukkah — and of Christmas, and of the Eid — is free from fear. These are the foundational values, this is the guiding hope, of Christian democracy, of our European People’s Party and indeed of our European Union. On this day of reflection, let’s recommit to championing them more than ever.