These weeks since October 7 have been unrelentingly awful. Grief. Panic. Heartbreak for the hostages. Revulsion at Hamas’ cruelty. Horror at the suffering of Gazans. Despair for the future. Not to mention Jew-hatred in America, especially on campus. And the great difficulty of talking about all this among friends and family, whose differing views can trigger explosive arguments.
As you know, I spent the first week of November in Israel, with a group of about 30 Masorti rabbis and lay leaders, mostly from North and South America. Beside the bad news, I also had the delight of traveling around on my own to visit AC members who now live or study in Israel. I attended the pro-Israel rally last week in Washington. I have had innumerable conversations with AC members, and with Israeli friends. I cannot make sense of it all – as all my Israeli friends agreed: anyone who claims to understand these events is full of it – but perhaps I owe the community some reflections on what I saw and experienced. Here are a few scenes and reflections from Israel and the American Jewish home front. (Forgive me, they add up to some length, but I tried to keep each section short.)
I cannot overstate the trauma gripping our Israeli brothers and sisters. This beloved country has had far too much experience with horror and loss over its generations: from the many immigrants and state builders who survived the Tzar, the Shoah and the Soviet bloc; who were driven from Islamic world; who endured war and terrorism through the decades.
Everyone agrees that they now experience a new low. Worse than the 1967 or 1973 wars. Worse even that the five years of suicide bombings in the Second Intifiada. People cannot eat or sleep or catch their breath.
Israel is a tiny country. Everyone knows someone killed or wounded on that שבת שחורה, that “Black Sabbath.” Everyone knows a hostage. Everyone knows people evacuated from the Gaza “Envelope” or the Lebanon border. Everyone knows soldiers facing physically dangerous duty. Friends spoke of the “blank eyes” of wives whose husbands are in Gaza. Everyone knows soldiers doing psychologically scarring duty. A friend of mine reported that her 21 year-old son in the electronic intelligence corps, known as Unit 8200, was so disturbed by what he had seen that he could not sleep on his days off.
My trip visited the base of the Army rabbinate, which served as morgue and lab for identifying human remains taken from the killing fields. That was truly עבודת קודש, holy work. But seeing piles of bodies and sifting through bags of – forgive me – body parts was more than many people could handle. Around half of those assigned to this work had to transfer out. Those involved in this work and some journalist friends I visited, who had seen the infamous reel of Go-Pro and cell phone videos confirmed that the worst stories you heard about the desecration of human bodies are, dreadfully, true.
A Hostage’s Mom
Even more than the murdered, the hostages are on everyone’s mind, their names on everyone’s lips. Bringing them home is society’s highest priority. One of the best parts of the Israeli character is the deeply felt investment in preserving each Jewish life. It’s everything to them. (Yes, I know Israel’s attitude toward its non-Jewish citizens is more complex.) I heard Gen. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, and a close aide to Ehud Barak: “We should negotiate with Satan if necessary. This society will collapse if it does not feel that Israel expended every possible effort to bring them home.” (Baruch HaShem, as I write today, it appears there is a deal in the offing to release some 50 children among the hostages.)
My group visited the Family Forum, the loved ones of the hostages and friendly diplomats, doing their best to advocate for their return through any possible channel. We visited the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Art Museum, the site of the “empty tables” and “empty chairs,” and a tent where hostage parents sit regularly and talk about their missing loved ones.
In particular, we met Ayelet Shachar, whose 19-year-old daughter, Naama Levi, is being held hostage. She can be seen in a widely circulated video, wounded and handcuffed, dragged from a jeep. This was certainly the most grueling moment in our trip. I cannot convey Ayelet’s grace, courage and grief, as she talked about Naama, fearing the torture her daughter faces and hoping for her return. (And about how she has to find the strength to remain a functioning mom to her younger children.) May Naama and all the others come home at once.
For Ayelet – and for all the hostage parents – I invoke Jeremiah 31, both dirge and prayer:
כֹּ֣ה אָמַ֣ר יְ’הֹוָ֗ה ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙ נְהִי֙ בְּכִ֣י תַמְרוּרִ֔ין רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶ֑יהָ מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־בָּנֶ֖יהָ כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ
כֹּ֣ה אָמַ֣ר יְ’הֹוָ֗ה מִנְעִ֤י קוֹלֵךְ֙ מִבֶּ֔כִי וְעֵינַ֖יִךְ מִדִּמְעָ֑ה כִּי֩ יֵ֨שׁ שָׂכָ֤ר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ֙ נְאֻם־יְ’הֹוָ֔ה וְשָׁ֖בוּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ אוֹיֵֽב׃ וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־יְ’הֹוָ֑ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם׃
“A voice is heard in Ramah, bitter, wailing tears. Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are gone. But thus says the Lord: Restrain your voice from wailing and your eye from shedding tears. There is yet reward for your effort, promises the Lord, and they will return from the enemy’s land. There is yet hope for your future, promises the Lord, and children will return to their homes.”
We visited Kfar Azza, a kibbutz where dozens were murdered and taken hostages on that Black Shabbat. There is no comparison between these two sites, of course, but at Kfar Azza, I felt something similar to my experience visiting Auschwitz – that I had come to testify at a scene of great Jewish suffering, and mourn for our beloved people. As the kibbutz was within the “fighting zone,” the IDF insisted we wear helmets and bulletproof vests, although we heard no fire from Gaza, only from IDF cannons.
Kfar Azza was partially cleaned up, but not entirely. We entered burned and bombed houses where murders occurred. You could still smell the carnage. Not to get too gruesome, but evidence of the crime was visible on the walls. The work of IDF crews following October 7 was also clear, for instance in notes painted on the houses: “booby-trap defused” and “human remains on the sofa.”
At the kibbutz, we met a resident who had been permitted to return to collect some belongings. Her grandparents were founders of Kfar Azza; her parents grew up there, as she did; now she lives there with her husband. At least she has until now. Trembling, she pointed to each house, reciting the names of people who lived there, now dead or kidnapped. Would she return, I asked? Her answer was admittedly unhinged, reminding me of the Talmudic adage אין אדם נתפס בשעת צערו, “people are not held responsible for what they say in moments of duress.” This was her response: “Only if everyone in Gaza moves to Sinai. I’m sorry, but they all have to go.” I’m sure, with more time, she will moderate. But she was not the only area resident who reminded us that October 7 rendered a whole area of the country uninhabitable. No one will live there unless Hamas is gone.
We visited a parking lot where dozens of cars from the SuperNova music festival were towed. Smashed, twisted and riddled with bullets, these corpses of cars were surprisingly evocative of the human losses they represent. You could intuit something about their owners from their bumper stickers and baby seats.
At that site, about 4 miles from Gaza, we recited Mincha, the typical afternoon prayer. In my Amidah, at the very moment I recited the words “Sim Shalom” – “may God grant peace to the world, goodness and blessing to Israel” – an IDF cannon went off.
Religion does not describe the world as it is. It is a bridge of hope, a vision toward a future. People of faith stand within broken reality and reach toward redemption. Praying for peace alongside thundering artillery, I have rarely davvened so intensely.
Happily, we American Jews cannot grasp the bravery and self-sacrifice often demanded of our Israeli brothers and sisters. I do not mean to romanticize. But it’s just a fact. These days, you or I might have to be brave enough to wear a kippah on campus, or confront Jew-hating speech, or stop someone from cutting down the “Kidnapped” posters.
In Israel I visited a friend and asked about his grandchildren. Thank God, he said, they are all fine. The 21-year-old was on duty on the Gaza border on the Black Shabbat. He was in a firefight, and managed to kill three terrorists. His friend was fatally shot next to him and died in his arms on the way to the hospital. When they reached the hospital, they discovered that my friend’s grandson had also been shot in the back, but it was not serious. So he is fine.
Would you be fine?
My group visited a woman in the rehab at Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, whose inspiring story has been prominent in Israeli media. Michal Alon, 44, and her husband, Rabbi Omri, sometimes volunteer to spend Shabbat on army bases to encourage the troops and lead religious programming. They, along with eight of their 10 children, including one toddler, were on the base at Zikkim on the Black Shabbat.
The Alons’ Jewish commitments are very different from mine. They live in Eli, a West Bank settlement north of Ramallah. The rabbis at the local yeshiva are known for the most extreme racist views – although I have no way of knowing if the Alons themselves concur. But on religion and politics, it stands to reason, we probably disagree about everything.
Still, they have depths of character which evoke in me awe and reverence. Devoting their holiday to helping others in uncomfortable quarters of army bases – that’s enough generosity of spirit to win my admiration. And on Simchat Torah morning, Michal showed strength I can scarcely imagine. Her family awoke early in the morning to the sounds of shooting, and huddled in a shelter on the base. Michal, a nurse by profession, was summoned to leave her family in the protected area to tend to a female soldier, Noa, who had been shot. Noa survived, but lost an eye. A soldier accompanying Michal was shot dead. A man in an IDF uniform appeared. At first she was relieved, thinking he had come to help. She soon realized he was a Hamas fighter in a stolen uniform. He looked Michal in the eye and shot her three times, in the abdomen, arm and leg. Another soldier killed the Hamas man, but not before being badly wounded himself.
Michal dragged herself and the young soldier back inside the protected area, and instructed her husband and children on how to apply pressure to their wounds with their own hands and tie tourniquets that prevented them both from bleeding to death.
Michal Alon reveals new meaning to the phrase Eshet Hayil, the valorous woman of Proverbs 31: חָֽגְרָ֣ה בְע֣וֹז מׇתְנֶ֑יהָ וַ֝תְּאַמֵּ֗ץ זְרוֹעֹתֶֽיהָ, “she ties her belt with strength and makes her arms mighty.”
My delegation also met another of Israel’s heroes of the moment – and not just this moment – Gen. Yair Golan. He was Deputy Chief of Staff in 2016, the number two spot in the IDF, seemingly headed for the top job, when he gave a Holocaust Memorial Day speech warning about creeping anti-democratic, fascistic impulses in Israel. He also spoke out witheringly against Jewish terrorists attacking West Bank Palestinians. That political bravery – recklesness? – probably ended his military ascent.
After the army, Golan became a left-wing Knesset member. He is out of that job now, because his Meretz party failed to clear the electoral threshold. But Golan is very likely to ascend to new heights of political leadership, partly because liberal parties will do better in the next elections, and partly because he covered himself in glory on October 7.
As you have probably read, when he heard of the onslaught, Golan grabbed his uniform, went to headquarters, obtained arms, and entered the area around Kibbutz Re’im, where party goers from the SuperNova festival were hiding in the fields. Golan knew the terrain so well he did not need a map. Receiving WhatsApp messages from them, through their parents, he was able to locate dozens of young people and evacuate them to safety. מי ימלל גבורות ישראל? Who can recount all the heroism of the Jewish people?
I don’t really like being in pictures, and don’t take many selfies. But I got one of me and Yair Golan.
The most energizing thing I heard from Golan was that “there is no going back” to prior political and social realities. This view was widely – if not universally – echoed. Friends reported a broad sense that Israelis, from left and right, religious and secular, are rethinking the conclusions about which they were certain a month before.
Golan predicted the failures and lack of vision by those currently in power, the dead ends of current approaches toward the Palestinians, the chasmic divisions in Israeli society will give way to new leaders, even new parties and new ways of thinking. A reboot is coming. From his mouth to God’s ears. May his faith give us faith. עוד לא אבדה תקווה. Hope is not lost.
The devastation Israel has visited upon Gaza is horrifying. Gaza City is a wasteland. More than a million displaced. Thousands dead, including thousands of children. Even the most ardent Zionist heart should break at Palestinian suffering. If we cannot summon up empathy for their misery, well, we should examine our hearts.
All over the world, people are calling for a cease-fire – including many young American Jews, including from our own communities and families. This reflects their fundamental goodness and desire for peace and life, not more death. I know from multiple conversations with Ansche Chesed members, it has sometimes been hard for parents and children, or spouses, or friends, to talk about the war. What seems to some as wanton violence seems to others as a tragic but necessary response to Hamas viciousness.
From my distant vantage point and after a short visit, it seems to me that only the most committed on the Israeli ideological left is calling for a cease-fire now. They may be right. One cannot fail to recognize the sense of their claims, a) that the sheer scope of human suffering is beyond tolerable, b) that the Israeli assault constitutes collective punishment against the guiltless, people no less innocent than dancers from Re’im, and c) that the war can only harden Palestinian rage, further preventing the mind-shifts ultimately necessary for co-existence.
Yet the people I spoke to – and all my friends are on the left; even the religious people are to the left end of that spectrum – were resolute that this war is necessary. They believe Hamas cannot remain in power in Gaza. They believe Hamas will never negotiate its own disarmament, and will never dismantle those horrific tunnels, which Hamas leader Yachya Sinwar boasted in 2021 totaled over 300 miles and whose sole purpose is to advance its capacity for violence. They know Hamas considers every murdered Israeli to be a self-justifying victory. They know Hamas is the group that says “Israel will exist until Islam obliterates it.” They know that “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is not a call for a democratic bi-national state. They know Hamas remains committed to eradicating Israel altogether, however deluded that may be.
Even long-time peace activists I spoke with believe Israel must render Hamas incapable of further attacks before a progressive future can be built and Israeli civilians become safe again. I find this extremely difficult to dispute.
You may have seen the odious comments by Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad, who had in the past cooperated with Israelis in measured ways, vowing that October 7 is only the beginning: “The Al-Aqsa Flood is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth. Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs. We are the victims of the occupation. Period. Nobody should blame us for the things we do. On October 7, October 10, October one-millionth, everything we do is justified.”
That is what Israel faces in Hamas. The Palestinian people cannot be Israel’s enemy. But Hamas is.
Turning to the American home front: I was pleased to attend the November 14 pro-Israel rally in Washington. Let’s be clear about the limits of that event. Our job was to show up and stand together. We did.
Rallies are inherently dumb. They are no place for ideas, subtlety or nuance. As Stephen Stills aptly sang, all those years ago: “A thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly say ‘hooray for our side.’” That’s OK. I’m glad we did it when we had to.
But now let’s dispense with the dumb stuff, and return to thinking critically about what we say and do. In Washington among the various signs and shirts, I saw several that did not sit right with me: In particular, t-shirts and signs calling for vengeance or נקמה.
I avoid the word nekama/vengeance in our liturgy. I skip the line in Psalm 94, the Psalm for Wednesday: “Appear, O God of vengeance!” I skip the line in Avinu Malkenu that asks “our Parent and Sovereign, avenge the spilled blood of Your servants.” I don’t add הי”ד – standing for השם יקום דמם/“May God avenge their blood” – to the names even of Shoah and terrorism victims.
I think this war is necessary. But military operations are justifiable when they aim to deter and incapacitate the enemy. Not to unleash the fury we may feel – and I have felt it too. Vengeance is quicksand. You’ll never get enough, and the other side’s calls for vengeance will grow ever more outrageous, and so will ours and none of us will ever escape.
Do you like it when Ahed Tamimi – a well-known Palestinian militant, much praised in Western media, and even among Israeli leftists, for her fearlessness as a teenager in biting, slapping and kicking IDF soldiers – recently posted on social media: “We’ll slaughter you. You’ll say that what Hitler did to you was a joke. We’ll drink your blood and eat your skulls. Let’s go, we’re waiting for you.”
Do you like it when Israeli cabinet minister Amichai Eliyahu mused aloud about using nuclear weapons on Gaza? Do you like it when Likud MK and former cabinet minister Galit Distel-Atbaryan posted: “Gaza should be erased. There should be fire and a pillar of smoke on the heads of the Nazis in Judea and Samaria. Jewish rage to shake the earth all around the world. What we need here is a vengeful, cruel IDF [צה”ל נוקם ואכזר]. Anything less is immoral.” Vengeance and cruelty as a moral imperative?! Rachmana litzlan! May the Merciful One save us!
This week, I met Or Yelin, a survivor of the massacre at Kibbutz Beeri, now in America raising funds for rebuilding his devastated community. Reflecting on his own IDF service in Maglan, an elite commando unit that operates in hostile territory, Or related that their intention was “never hatred for what was before us, but always love for what is behind us. Never hatred for Haman, but love for Mordecai.”
In this season of unimaginable violence suffered by Israel – and devastating violence inflicted by Israel – this point is critical to keep in mind. Israel should fight not to avenge its terrible suffering of October 7, but to prevent it from recurring.
On that point, let me close with the words of Chaim Nachman Bialik, the early modern Hebrew poet, who wrote “On the Slaughter,” after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom – a scarring event that left 49 dead and some 100 seriously wounded. (I mention those numbers for the sake of perspective. One of the worst tragedies in modern Jewish history and it entailed just 4 percent of the fatalities of October 7.)
Bialik’s lines are often quoted in Israel. Bibi Netanyahu cites it, but he seems to think it means: “these monsters deserve the worst we can do to them.” Actually, I think it refers to the futility of leveraging enough vengeance to set the scales right. The poem concludes (not cited here) with an apocalyptic nightmare, in which the world’s foundations wash away in innocent blood. Only an Armageddon perpetrated by God, not by humans, would set the scales right.
In the meantime:
|Cursed be one who cries: Revenge!
Such vengeance, for the blood of a small child,
Even Satan has yet to devise.
|וְאָרוּר הָאוֹמֵר: נְקֹם!
נְקָמָה כָזֹאת, נִקְמַת דַּם יֶלֶד קָטָן
עוֹד לֹא-בָרָא הַשָּׂטָן –