Amir Ben-David
Zman Israel senior columnist

A nation neglected

In almost every aspect of this crisis, Israelis are feeling – and filling – the vast void left by their government
Israelis take cover from incoming rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Israelis take cover from incoming rocket fire from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

At least 1,300 murdered. About 3,000 injured. More than 100 taken hostage. The heart cannot fathom these numbers, and they’re not even final.

The devastating evidence of Hamas’s massacre in communities across the Gaza border, and at the music festival that turned into a killing field, are now stunning the world.

The Israeli press, out of a sense of solidarity, has been refraining from providing some of the most gory details and images. Many foreign reporters who visited the kibbutzim, saw the devastation, and heard about the savagery, were clearly deeply shaken. And these atrocities took place in all the kibbutzim along the border.

Each of us has a name” wrote the poet Zelda in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, in a poem that has since become canonical for memorial days and bereavement. Hundreds of those slaughtered last Saturday still don’t have a name.

Anyone who passed by the Yarkon cemetery in central Israel the last few days witnessed the traffic jams, miles in each direction, as tens of thousands of Israelis swarmed to the procession of funerals taking place. Israel is burying its dead, and a tide of rage is rising.

Israeli soldiers remove bodies of Israeli civilians in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

Israel has never gone to war with its people feeling so abandoned and betrayed. This is the biggest challenge in our history since the War of Independence. Right now, only the citizens, the non-profits and the media are meeting this challenge with honor. The army was truly beaten and humiliated on Saturday, though it is now functioning.

And only the prime minister and his members don’t seem to grasp that what was will no longer be.

Abandoning the hostages

We still don’t know exactly how many hostages and bodies are held in Gaza.

The families of the hostages keep begging for government officials to contact them, listen to them and provide some explanations. At one point, a “senior government official” was telling them, “We shall deal with the issue of the hostages after the war.”

They are now forced to watch with horror as their own country’s air force is bombarding areas where their loved ones may be held captive. That’s an unfathomable situation.

The hopes of these families now rest mainly with leaders of other countries, who may be more forceful in handling the fate of their own citizens.

A press conference held by relatives relatives of missing US citizens in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2023. (Eliyahu Friedman/JTA)

At least 20 of the hostages hold American citizenship, which puts the United States squarely in the middle of possible hostage negotiations. The hope of seeing the hostages released soon and in good health has been outsourced.

“Israel’s most urgent and burning mission is to return the Israelis held by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad,” read Ha’aretz newspaper’s lead editorial on Wednesday. “This means one thing and one thing only: an immediate hostage exchange agreement, including the freeing of Palestinian prisoners serving time in Israel”.

This isn’t the popular view in Israel today. But those who think Israel should behave any differently should also have the fortitude to look the families in the eye and tell them: I feel your pain, but Israel has no choice.

And that’s not happening.

Abandoning the fallen

Not only the hostages’ families are forsaken by their government; the families of the fallen victims also carry their grief with absent state support.

As with almost every other aspect of this unprecedented crisis – from collecting clothes and food, hosting families who are now homeless, handling the bureaucracy of transport and finances; battling fake news online and managing Israel’s global PR efforts – Israeli citizens fill the vast void left by their government, which seems to be completely disconnected and disjointed.

Israelis pack up donations of food and other necessities for Israeli soldiers and civilians in the south, in Tel Aviv, on October 9, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yael Sherer, a leading activist for victims of sexual violence and one of the official torch lighters in last year’s Independence Day ceremony, wrote on Tuesday: “My heart is burning at the fact that members of government are officially excused from attending funerals because ‘it’s a time of war’.”

Israel ministers have always taken turns to attend funerals, yet this time around they are shying away, possibly too fearful to face grieving, raging crowds.

Sherer decided to do something about this and opened a WhatsApp group for previous torch lighters and Israel Prize laureates, who volunteer to attend funerals and visit the grieving families – representing the state where statesmen have gone AWOL.

“I have no clue what’s the value of this and if anyone even wants us there,” Sherer wrote, “but it’s just not acceptable that no one will be there. Just not acceptable.”

Abandoning the state

One minister did show up at one of the funerals: Economy Minister Nir Barkat attended the funeral of Yaron Shai, son of former Science Minister Yizhar Shai, on Wednesday morning.

The funeral of Yaron Shai, who was killed on October 7, 2023, in the murderous Hamas attack on Israel. His brother, Ofir, in the center, is euologizing him with his father Yizhar Shai to his left, and Economy Minister Nir Barkat behind him (Sceenshot)

Barkat stood right behind the bereaving family at the foot of their son’s freshly dug grave, and so he could not escape the resounding message delivered by Yaron’s brother, Ofir, in his heartbreaking eulogy.

“Unfortunately, I must say a few unkind words,” Ofir began, speaking through his tears. “I apologize to my family that so wanted to keep politics out of this, but I just can’t. Because politics is what led to the murder of he who is dearest to me.

“We have been abandoned. A bunch of incompetents, those so-called leaders of the country we live in – the country for which my little and loving brother was killed, for the sanctity of our homeland – have forgotten us. And not because they couldn’t [govern], but because this shameful government has been wasting their time on every aspect they shouldn’t have dealt with to begin with.

“My dear bother was slain by murderous, hateful terrorists – and what enabled them, with despicable conduct, was the government of Israel: From the national security minister and his messianic group of clowns, busy chanting violent and divisive slogans; to the prime minister, who has been doing everything he can to fragment the state of Israel.

“You have abandoned the soldiers. You abandoned the residents on the Gazan border. You abandoned the state of Israel. You abandoned my beloved brother.

“I expect each and every one of you to take responsibility and resign immediately after this war ends. As for myself, I will never forget and never forgive. I promise to haunt you forever.”

Abandoning the nation

Prime Minister Netanyahu often likens himself to a modern Winston Churchill. He is an avid reader of every book published about the legendary British war prime minister. Yet it seems he skipped the parts analyzing Churchill’s war speeches and their impact on his nation’s morale, and indeed the world’s.

Churchill’s oratory intertwined rich rhetoric with soundbites, fierceness with kindness, harsh reality with a message of hope.

Netanyahu, in contrast, in the first days of the war, delivered three short and ineffective statements.

That Churchillian address the nation of Israel was so desperate to hear, was delivered instead by US President Joe Biden.

Biden is emerging as the real leader the citizens of Israel can look to for comfort and support. His speech on Tuesday evening, while flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, delivered the strongest message any person feeling abandoned could ask for: We’re here for you. You are not alone.

About the Author
Writer, screenwriter, musician and journalist. A senior editorial member of Zman Israel, The Times of Israel's sister website in Hebrew. Sign up to his daily newsletter, "9 by Nine", a daily run down of all that's happening in Israel (in Hebrew)
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