As the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalates, attention is focused on those individuals whose heroism is very much in the public eye: the parents of the three boys who were kidnapped and murdered, who lifted up the nation through their stoic courage and generosity of spirit; the air force pilots who are currently in the forefront and the intelligence agents who assist them in selecting targets; and the men and women who defied the skeptics to design the Iron Dome system that has been remarkably effective in protecting Israelis from rockets and missiles Palestinian terror groups are raining down on Beersheva, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other cities throughout the country.
Israel’s ability to prevail in conflicts with enemies unencumbered by our moral standards, and to continue building a thriving, robust democracy stems in no small measure from these and other heroes, sung and unsung alike. Their role has been vital on the four occasions Israel’s home front has been tested in the last decade: the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and the current conflict. During the course of the last month and especially in recent days I have become convinced that the real strength of our society lies not in these hundreds or thousands of outstanding men and women, but in the millions of Israelis who respond to the would-be murderous attacks by continuing to lead normal lives.
These include the residents of our southern cities and towns, whose days and nights are constantly interrupted by air raid sirens, but who stay put and go about their regular routines; the directors and counselors of summer camps, like the one which our two youngest boys will start attending next week, who stick to their routines while fitting in emergency drills and taking on responsibility for the lives and safety of hundreds of young campers; the parents who have been sending their children to camping and similar frameworks, overcoming the natural urge to keep them closer to home; and the countless workers who report daily to their jobs in areas under attack and put in long hours to fill in for colleagues called to the front. The list goes on and on, encompassing the vast bulk of Israel’s population.
Why is this kind of quiet courage, the heroism of maintaining normal life in abnormal conditions, of such paramount importance for the survival and success of the Jewish state?
First, the morale of our citizens in the face of growing threats is Israel’s most precious asset, ranking ahead of military might, economic strength, and our alliance with the U.S. When Israelis see one another reacting with calm resolve, they fill one another with strength that endures not only during the conflict but in the months and years beyond. With due regard to differences in the deadliness of the attacks, Israelis of the last decade are like Londoners in the early 1940s; what the Brits did by showing their “stiff upper lip,” Israelis accomplish with an occasional smile and an expression of “yalla, chozrim l’avodah,” meaning “Let’s go, back to work.”
Second, the aim of the terrorists is to inflict pain and disrupt daily life so that those being attacked agree to give up on vital interests — such as holding onto strategic territorial assets or keeping convicted murderers in prison — in exchange for a return to normalcy. By maintaining routines in the face of constant bombardment, Israelis are returning fire by striking a blow at the confidence and morale of the terrorists and their supporters. The pictures of regular routines resuming within minutes of a missile attack must make the perpetrators feel just as impotent as they do when they see their rockets shot down by Iron Dome.
Moreover, the steadfastness of ordinary Israelis means that elected officials who must make excruciatingly difficult decisions that balance security, diplomacy, and morality can do so without fear of economic standstill or societal unrest in the event of a protracted conflict. By maintaining normal lives, Israelis increase the likelihood our leaders will make better, wiser decisions.
Perhaps most importantly, there is great practical value to maintaining our routines while under fire, as the “normal lives” most Israelis lead are filled with activities that constitute investments that will provide them, as individuals and as a collective, with the resources to face the challenges in store for us. When young people continue to attend camps, schools, or universities, they are acquiring the knowledge and skills that will make them better soldiers, more successful entrepreneurs and employees, and wiser, more moral, and more committed citizens. When workers keep their businesses going under fire, they are helping to grow an economy whose robustness is of existential significance. One of the reasons Israelis are standing up to the current test so well is that during each of the previous conflicts in the past decade, those not at the front or in support positions continued to live normally and to develop themselves, their communities, and their society in ways that made the country far stronger than it would have been had they allowed themselves to panic and thus to stagnate.
This does not mean that Israelis should be oblivious to danger or engage in the false heroism of risking lives for no end. If an area is being bombarded and there is no reasonable means of defense (as was often the case in previous conflicts and might be so, under certain circumstances, in the current one), it is legitimate for residents to move to safer havens. Nor should people stick to their usual routines if they can take decisive action to improve the situation, whether by serving in the army or taking part in volunteer efforts of organizations such as Lev Echad or Magen David Adom. And I certainly do not suggest that we should settle for acting precisely as we usually do; the current crisis has led many Israelis to go the extra mile by taking food to soldiers engaged in protecting all of us, or making shiva visits to families they did not know, whose sons were killed. Indeed, this is a moment to help create the kind of society we want by modeling an aspirational, “new normal” in which we go about our daily lives with a greater element of sensitivity to the needs of those around us.
All Israelis are part of the front now, not only in that we are under attack but also in that our response is decisive in terms of the outcome of the current conflict, and of those that unfortunately and inevitably await us in the future. While celebrating those in the public spotlight, we should also pay our respects to, and draw inspiration from, the average Israeli, whose quiet heroism stands at the foundation of what makes the country great.