Much has been written about the catastrophe that befell Israel on October 7—our own “Day of Infamy” or “9/11”—and more will follow. At present, we have yet to reach the stage where we can even stop to lick our wounds—and make no mistake, they are more excruciating than any other injuries we have sustained in the 75-year history of the State of Israel.
Many are asking, and rightly so, how to explain the cataclysmic intelligence failure that came 50 years and a day after the Yom Kippur War. How could Israel’s high-tech defenses have proven as useful as the Maginot Line? Students of military history well remember that in April 1940, the German juggernaut overcame the demoralized French forces hunkered down behind state-of-the-art fortifications by simply outflanking them.
Our modern-day Amalekites were bolder still. Under cover of a heavy barrage of rockets fired at Israel, more than 2,000 of them smashed through the barricades at a number of places and poured through. Others paraglided in or came by sea, while the Hamastan “air force” of skillfully deployed drone bombers crippled Israeli surveillance towers. The audacity of that well-planned and well-executed assault will be studied for years to come as a model of deception. Its masterminds had clearly done their homework and understood the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s ancient dictum: “Mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy.”
Once on Israeli territory, cutthroat Hamas shock troops wreaked indescribable carnage. Their first targets were young revelers celebrating “love and unity” at a rave along the border. Some 260 were mowed down or ferreted out of hiding places and shot in cold blood; some were kidnapped.
On a rampage of murder, rape, torture, arson, and abduction, the Amalekites fanned out among the kibbutzim and moshavim in the area. Leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake, some returned to Gaza with terrified hostages in tow—among them grandparents, children, and babies. The presumably lifeless naked body of a young German-Israeli woman was paraded through the streets of Gaza on a pickup truck like a war trophy to ecstatic throngs shouting “Allahu Akbar!” and passing out celebratory knafeh.
When the dust clears, it will likely emerge that in part it was our own hubris that led to this horror and humiliation. We had convinced ourselves that the Start-Up Nation was invincible. A ragtag, low-tech outfit like Hamas—notwithstanding its bloodthirsty rhetoric, supported by Iran, Qatar and gullible western aid agencies—was no match for the vaunted IDF. In 1973, even with the element of surprise, the heavily armed, Soviet-backed Egyptian and Syrian forces were unable to overpower us nor take the war to our home front.
Yet Hamas succeeded in doing just that: taking the war into Israel proper and even capturing several communities. Israelis have long faced savage terrorism, but they have never had to contend with something of this magnitude or even remotely as fiendish. Acts of horrific violence inflicted on defenseless Jews have run though our long history like a scarlet thread, but an atrocity on such a scale was considered unthinkable in the Jewish State. Hadn’t our fighter jets roared over the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau and hadn’t the mantra “Never Again!” been instilled in us? Israel was the country that most Jews knew deep down would strike fear into the heart of anyone who dared to torment our people and would come to their rescue at the hour of peril. It would track down and eliminate anyone who targeted our people. And it had done so time and again, most famously at Entebbe in 1976 and in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre.
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Just days after this nightmare began to unfold, I received a review copy of Omer Bartov’s new book, Genocide, The Holocaust and Israel-Palestine. A distinguished scholar of the Holocaust and the author of several compelling works on the subject, Bartov’s latest iconoclastic tome will ruffle many feathers and will precipitate debate in academic circles. Describing the ambiance of the Israel in which he came of age and the place of the Shoah in popular consciousness, Bartov, who was born in 1954, writes: ” …. for many of my generation there was something embarrassing, even detestable about the entire thing: Those terrifying figures with the numbers tattooed on their forearms… those endless solemn commemorations in the sun-drenched school yard, those vacuous speeches by politicians and the never-ending bluster about never again going like sheep to the slaughter, and our own mute and inarticulate terror that at any moment a horde of Nazis could suddenly show up on our street and kill everyone as they did then….”
Stunningly, such a horde did show up on October 7, and Israel and its citizens have been shaken to the core. Israel is a different country today—shell shocked, humbler, and more tender. At the same time, the response of ordinary people has been nothing if not inspiring. One can hardly believe that just weeks ago, Israeli society was wracked by a seemingly existential Kulturkampf that threatened to rend its social fabric, and the armed forces seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Now, however, reservists who were threatening not to serve have been reporting for crisis duty in droves, including from overseas. The resilience, unity, camaraderie, and volunteerism for which Israel is justly famous is evident in full force. But Israelis are also furious, and their incandescent rage in the face of this unimaginable evil will not be speedily assuaged. Not surprisingly, they are appalled and disgusted by those who seek to “contextualize” these outrages to justify the monsters who perpetrated them, and deeply disappointed to see the international support and solidarity in which they luxuriated evaporating fast. But this is no time for equivocation.
During the Holocaust and throughout Jewish history, those bent on our destruction or torment faced weak and unarmed Jews. Hamas does not. It will pay heavily for its actions, as will the people of Gaza in whose midst it is deeply embedded. Sadly, in such a struggle the “collateral damage” is immense, and inevitably it is Israel that is blamed for the death of the human shields so cynically exploited to protect the terror organization. To be sure, the world, and especially its useful idiots, has always sympathized with dead Jews, but it has yet to accept the spectacle of live ones who fight back according to the rules of the same playbook used by Western countries. Israel has the power and will to defend itself and to pursue the perpetrators. Of course, we should be under no illusions: To eradicate or at least declaw the terror organization is one thing, but understandably there is great uncertainty about the day after.
All civilized people were horrified by the scenes of mayhem in Be’ri, Nir Oz, and the other communities whose modest bungalows became charnel houses. The names of those killing grounds (and the accounts of those who survived these massacres) will be seared in our consciousness much like Kishinev and Kielce.
In 1904, Haim Nachman Bialik stirred the Jewish world with his City of Slaughter, which was a clarion call for Jewish self-defense in the wake of the horrifying pogrom in Kishinev—a prelude to many worse things to come. Perhaps a new Bialik will emerge among us one day to write a contemporary sequel to that chilling poem studied by generations of Israeli youth. That successor will no doubt give literary expression to the gruesome slaughter of innocents by a depraved mob, but also a nation roused from slumber and the heroism of those who grappled with the Amalekites—mothers and fathers who gave their lives to protect their children and others who managed to stave off and kill the attackers. May their memory be a blessing and an eternal source of inspiration.
The author is the founding chief editor of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs