Richard D. Zelin

A Time of Concern and Hope

This past April I had the privilege to participate in a solidarity mission to Israel with ten rabbis from around the United States, along with fourteen of their respective congregants under the aegis of the American Friends of Magen David Adom.

The purpose of the trip was to learn about the heroic efforts of Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national EMS and blood services organization, to treat and save lives on October 7 and the days after; to bear witness to the devastation and destruction to the communities of the Gaza envelope; to mourn the tragic death of those killed at the Nova festival; to hear about the plight of the hostage families whose loved ones had been kidnapped and forcibly taken to Gaza; and to learn about the broader political and military situation in which Israel found itself.

On my way to Israel, I had a connecting flight through Newark. When I boarded the plane, there was a gentleman sitting in the window seat in the same row as me. I recognized that he was Israeli, so I said: “shalom, shalom.” He replied similarly and asked me if I was visiting Israel for business or pleasure. I responded that it was mostly business but that I also hoped to see some family and friends while I was there – and then I asked him, how about you? In a somber but matter-of-fact way, he said that he was going there to attend the funeral of his nephew who was just killed in Gaza. So began – and provided a sobering backdrop to – what ended up being an incredibly powerful and meaningful experience. I have been to Israel many times before, but this trip turned out to be particularly arresting and gut-wrenching.

As part of the mission, we visited various MDA sites and learned about MDA’s remarkable response and the courage and dedication of its staff and volunteers; took a haunting and riveting tour of Nir Oz, which was one of the kibbutzim hardest hit by the horrific October 7 attack; visited the Nova festival grounds, where individual memorials are placed throughout for those brutally murdered; met with several hostage families and heard their painful and anguished stories; volunteered to help prepare food for soldiers on Shabbat; and had an opportunity to hear an impressive array of speakers to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the latest developments in the Israel-Hamas war and the broader implications, regionally and internationally.

When I returned home, I was anxious to write about my experience, but I struggled with what to say. What more could be said about Hamas’s unspeakable killing, raping, burning and kidnapping of innocent Israeli citizens, the traumatic impact on Israeli society, and the need for Israel to forcefully respond? It seemed that everything that I had witnessed and felt had already been written about. It appeared there was not much, if anything, more I could write, in a meaningful and unique way, that had not already been said, so I took more time to think about the trip and to see how things played out.

Since then, after much thought and reflection, there is, I think, a cause for both concern and hope. Indeed, there is much to be concerned about: that the war against Hamas will continue without the release of the hostages; that Israel’s military strategy is not linked to a political one for the “day after;” that further escalation in the north will lead to an all-out war with Hezbollah, a more formidable enemy that makes Hamas look like cub scouts; that other fronts, especially in the West Bank will open more fully creating havoc and stretching IDF’s already strained capabilities; and that as the war drags on Israel will face even greater isolation and opprobrium from the international community damaging its image and reputation. In a different vein, on this side of the ocean, there is much to be concerned about as well, especially with the dramatic rise in antisemitism in the United States (and other parts of the world), which has been largely sparked by Israel’s justifiable and defensible response to Hamas’s harrowing assault.

At the same time, the Jewish tradition teaches us not to despair, so even in these otherwise dark and troubling times, there are also some potential rays of hope. One source of hope is that Israel will eventually cut a deal with Saudi Arabia. How would this come about? With Benny Gantz’s recent departure from the government, a process could be set in motion in which the following scenario could take place: faced with the prospect of being pushed much further to the right by Ben Gvir and Smotrich and with the prospect of more scorn being heaped upon him, Netanyahu could form an alliance with Gantz and Yair Lapid to bring about this historic and far-reaching outcome. Granted, there are personal, political and ideological reasons Netanyahu will not go for it, but this might be possible because such a move would burnish his standing with the public thereby bolstering his chances for reelection. This scenario is clearly a long shot, but it is still a possibility. If it happens, this will enable Israel to be fully integrated in the Middle East and, along with the Gulf states, provide a strong bulwark against Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

The other ray of hope is that the Israel’s war with Hamas could lead, perhaps counterintuitively, to the strengthening and revitalizing of American Jewish life. How so? The war has not only triggered a disturbing and potentially dangerous rise in antisemitism in the United States, but it has also united the Jewish community in a way we have not seen for a long time and has led to much greater levels of engagement. For example, a recent national survey conducted by the Jewish Federations of North America found that since October 7, 43 percent of Jews in America have expressed a desire to become more involved in Jewish life. This may only be a temporary phenomenon, but at a moment when more American Jews are seeking out ways to be more Jewishly connected, the organized community must seize this fortuitous occasion and devote greater time, energy and resources to foster this positive development. Otherwise, this unique opportunity will be tragically missed.

In the meantime, let us hope and pray for the release of the hostages and that these hopeful trends materialize.

About the Author
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to various Jewish publications. He serves in a senior level Jewish communal position in the Chicago area. The views expressed are his own.
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