We Israelis are a hard sort, not easily rattled, but when a television news report last month argued that one of our most beloved bits of military lore, the legend of Team Tzvika, is a total fabrication, a raucous debate erupted that is as much about Israel’s future as it is about its past.

Like many Israelis, I first heard the story in basic training. It was after dinner on the third or fourth day, just as most of us exhausted young men were finally coming to terms with the idea that we were no longer carefree teens but soldiers, now and for the foreseeable future. We were led into an air-conditioned auditorium, and warned by a stiff sergeant not to fall asleep. Then, a young officer took the stage and told us about Tzvika Greengold.

He was a young captain on a brief leave, enjoying a few days of rest on his kibbutz, but lounging on the lawn he soon sensed that something wasn’t right: Above him, the sky was dark with military jets and helicopters speeding north. This was unusual, especially on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, and Tzvika didn’t want to wait for an explanation. He hitchhiked his way to the Golan Heights and arrived to find his brigade in tatters. The Syrian army, he soon learned, had broken through Israel’s lines of defense, catching the men of the 188th armored brigade by surprise. The casualty rate was high, and some of the tanks parked at the brigade’s headquarters were still occupied by the bodies of the unlucky soldiers who had tried and failed to thwart the Syrian advance. Tzvika seized command of an improvised force of three Centurion tanks and started moving southward, toward the enemy. It was shortly after 9 p.m.; Tzvika was 21.

Within a few minutes, Team Tzvika, as it came to be known on the military radio, met its first target. Spotting the Syrian tank rushing toward him, Tzvika opened fire. It was a bull’s-eye, but it came at a cost: Tzvika’s Centurion was in such poor shape—the surprise attack left little time for the 188th to properly prepare its tanks for war—that the recoil from the tank’s gun fried its electrical system. Tzvika ordered the tank to drive back to HQ. Then, he jumped out, ran to the second tank, assumed command, and ordered the third to follow as he drove up under cover of darkness. The third tank, however, soon lost its way amid the rocky terrain. Tzvika was alone, one man in a cage of steel. He jockeyed his way to the top of a hill nearby, and, looking down, saw the perfectly aligned driving lights of three Syrian T55 tanks. He aimed his 105mm gun, and fired three times. The Syrians were ablaze.

Telling us the story, the young officer noticed some of us smirking in disbelief. She stopped talking and said solemnly that no matter how wild the story may sound to our untrained ears, it was vetted a number of times by official military committees and every time found to be incontrovertibly true: Tzvika moved from spot to spot that night, shooting down one enemy tank after another. The Syrians, taking notice, were baffled; their intelligence picked up chatter about Team Tzvika, and, judging by the heavy losses it was delivering to Major Ismail’s 452nd Battalion, assumed it numbered dozens of armored vehicles, never once considering that their tormentor was a fair-haired kibbutznik with killer aim and combat cool. By the evening of the following day, October 7, 1973, Team Tzvika had taken out no fewer than 60 Syrian tanks.

It was hard to argue with numbers like that, and even the skeptics among us took to their cots that night feeling proud to be on the same team as the mythical Tzvika.

But every myth is also an invitation to a debunking, and many—historians and fellow fighters alike—have argued over the years that the story of Tzvika is, if not exactly fiction, a gross exaggeration. In 1984, for example, Amnon Sharon—a major who met up with Tzvika a few hours into his fabled battle and fought beside him before being captured by the Syrians and sent into captivity in Damascus—argued that there was virtually no possibility that Tzvika’s story was remotely true. The army examined the allegations thoroughly, temporarily removing the lesson plan about Team Tzvika from the military curriculum until the facts were verified. Eventually, the inquiry found the myth to be entirely true, and the story of Tzvika was once again taught to each generation of new recruits. Every few years, new allegations would pop up, focusing on this technical detail or that and alleging that one man could never have destroyed five dozen tanks. And every time that happened, Tzvika himself would shrug his shoulders, say that he didn’t know and didn’t care precisely how many tanks he had destroyed and that he was just happy to have done his part to secure Israel’s victory and well-being. Against such an unassuming hero, and such a compelling story, no news report stood a chance.

Until late last month, when Omri Kronland of Channel Two News aired his report. It begins with a recording of a phone conversation. “I’m working on a piece about the story of Team Tzvika,” Kronland says, and a hesitant male voice responds, “That’s a shame.” When Kronland asks why, the voice takes a moment, then replies: “Because it isn’t real.”

The voice is Yair Nafshi’s, then a senior officer in the 188th. “We put the whole story of Tzvika together because we wanted to rebuild the brigade,” he continues. “The commander was killed, his deputy was killed, the brigade’s chief of staff was killed, the operations officer was killed, two battalion commanders were out of commission. We needed to rebuild, to restart from scratch. So what could we have done? We needed a story. We wanted him to walk around and for people to point at him and admire him.” When a reporter for the army’s magazine, Ba’Machane, wandered by, Nafshi sent him to Tzvika; it was the reporter, Nafshi said, not Tzvika, who made the whole story up. Speaking on camera, the reporter, Renen Schorr, today a prominent Israeli filmmaker, denied Nafshi’s allegations but refused to go into further detail.

Even though the events in question took place—or not—more than four decades ago, they couldn’t be more relevant to Israelis today, and the response to Kronland’s piece divided Israelis, a perpetually divisible bunch, into two camps. To Nafshi, Amnon Sharon, and others who argue that the story of Team Tzvika is nothing but an overblown piece of propaganda, more than mere factual accuracy is at stake: In their eyes, educating young soldiers to believe in fantastic feats of heroism invites nothing but trauma and risk, and a mature army, never mind a mature nation, ought to be more circumspect. The story’s defenders—among them the dovish statesman Yossi Beilin, who wrote a passionate op-ed praising Tzvika—argue that it is not only true but also the embodiment of the IDF’s greatest virtues, from resourcefulness to dogged dedication.

One camp wants an Israel that is more sober, more mature, less invested in military fairy tales, true or not. The other believes that the nation was destined for greatness, and that greatness and destiny alike leave little room for anything short of the fantastic. Both sides have a point, and both fail to see what is perhaps the most illuminating bit about the affair: that in their moment of greatest despair, Israelis—supposedly a new breed of Jewish warrior reborn from the ashes of the Holocaust—turned to the very same art that has always helped Jews survive in the darkest of times—the art of telling stories. The story of Team Tzvika, like the story of the Red Sea parting or the story of David and Goliath, resonates regardless of what you believe about its veracity. It appeals not because it is reality but because it is more powerful than anything we think of as reality could ever be. It inspires, because, unlike the facts, it is ecstatic and eternal. From David to Tzvika, great stories are why we always win.

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