Ethan Eisen

An American-Israeli’s reflections after a week of war

As we approach a week since the start of this terrible war, many friends and family who live abroad have asked about life here in Israel at the moment.  I do not know whether my experience in my community is identical to that of others around Israel, but I hope that these reflections provide some glimpse into what things are like here.

To describe the emotional state is a complicated task.  The sense of unity, purpose, and shared responsibility among Israelis is something I do not remember ever experiencing before.  To give a small example: anyone who has driven on Israeli residential streets is familiar with the annoyance of cars parked in the middle of the street, even if an actual parking spot is available just a few yards away.  In the past few days, I’d have to say the problem has gotten worse, but for reasons that make your heart swell.  At least in our neighborhood, and I imagine in neighborhoods across the country, countless numbers of people are loading vehicles to bring supplies where they are needed, so the streets are lined with people who are double parked as volunteers quickly load up the trunks.  Just on my road, my dati leumi shul and the chassidish shteiblach at the end of the block have turned into tzitzis factories of sorts, with teenagers tying hundreds of sets for soldiers on the front lines.  Thousands of families evacuated from the south found housing in less than one hour with so-called strangers around Israel who wanted to help their brothers and sisters in a moment of need.  I don’t know of any other place in the world where the solidarity and sense of community could be so strong.  I pray that this continues for the duration of this war and beyond.

But with that sense of togetherness, the anguish of the suffering families can be seen on people’s faces.  The smiles and laughter are masking the tension that has not subsided.  There are so many families, so so many, whose loved ones perished at the hands of Hamas.  We also know that the number of mourners will likely continue to rise.  We think about the hostages a thousand times a day.  With over 300,000 reservists called to duty, in communities where people enlist in the army, every block has multiple homes where a husband, son, daughter, or sibling is somewhere putting their lives on the line to defend our homeland.  Even communities like mine, that are generally not targets of Hamas rockets, have been forced to hurry to bomb shelters—sometimes due to approaching missiles, sometimes due to false alarms.  Some children are experiencing overwhelming anxiety and panic, and their parents, who are terrified just the same, are not equipped to help them.

So it’s hard to articulate exactly the mood here.  Maybe it’s best described as a country where everyone is trying to help each other feel okay because they themselves are not okay.

In addition to the physical war that is raging, Israel is also bracing for the media and public relations war that has already started, and will be waged in full force in the coming days.  The moment of clarity born from the horrors perpetrated by Hamas terrorists has given way to the regular business of the media: questioning Israel about whether its response is proportionate, or telling us why Israel needs to restrain itself from eliminating terrorists shooting missiles at our homes and holding scores of civilian hostages.

If the Israeli public was sick of this type of questioning before this war, I think we now find this grotesque.  President Herzog and former Prime Minister Bennet have both fielded these types of questions from so-called reputable news networks, even as we are less than a week removed from the greatest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

I will share my personal view, which I think reflects the sentiment of others whom I have spoken with.  I understand that for the average westerner, there are reasons why it is difficult to have absolute clarity about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, or whether it’s even fair to cast some people as good and others as evil.  There is so much competing noise about what constitutes a relevant fact, and to really get a grasp one needs to understand historical events spanning decades, or even millenia—and this is level of commitment that most people are not interested in devoting to this issue.  Even in this conflict, mainstream media sources are interviewing pro-Hamas guests who are saying that Hamas did not attack civilians—as the world is staring at pictures of Jewish babies burnt beyond recognition or slaughtered in their cribs.  I can understand the impulse for many in the western world to throw their hands up in frustration, not knowing who to believe.  For the average westerner, they simply cannot wrap their heads around the perverse savagery that Hamas celebrates.  I can even understand that they see a suffering population in Gaza and refuse to believe that it is Gaza’s own so-called government who purposefully sustains this suffering; it must be the powerful country next door imposing this oppression upon them!

But what is truly unforgivable are the people who really do know what Israel is contending with in Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syriah.  One such person is Senator Bernie Sanders, who issued a statement condemning Israel’s approach in Gaza as a “serious violation of international law.”  He who knows absolutely what the terrorists did and would continue to do given the chance; who knows that Hamas has spent years, probably decades diverting life-sustaining materials from the people of Gaza in order to build tunnel networks and weapons designed to kills Jews; who surely has seen firsthand the evidence that Hamas places their missiles under schools and hospitals in order to maximize civilian casualties of their own people; or who, despite insisting that Israel inhibit its defensive military response, could rattle off an inventory of the sophisticated weapons in Hezbollah’s and Iran’s possession whose crosshairs are trained on Israel.

Or take the United Nations officials.  Within a few short days after the massacre of Jews at the hands of terrorists sent by the government of Gaza, the U.N. made sure Israel understood the “acceptable” rules of engagement while fighting for its survival.  The same U.N. whose security council could not agree on a statement condemning Hamas’s attack. The same U.N. whose human rights council held a moment of silence and issued a statement expressing their “deep concerns over the loss of innocent lives in the occupied Palestinian territory and elsewhere.” I guess the 40 babies murdered in one community are counted as “elsewhere.”

Or take U.N. Human Rights chief Volker Turk, a lawyer from Austria of all places, who was “shocked and appalled” that Hamas was firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel.  Because if there’s one thing that’s shocking, it’s a terrorist group doing the exact thing they have been talking about, attempting, and doing for decades.  He has declared that international law, whatever that is, dictates that Israel needs to be cautious, among other things, not to inflict excessive “damage to civilian objects,” even though he knows full well that Hamas uses their own “civilian objects” as shields. So in fighting for our survival against terrorists who take amusement from torturing women and children in the most cruel ways imaginable, Mr. Turn couldn’t wait 72 hours to express concern about civilian objects.  A bit rich, no?

Or the statement of Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s very comfortable and apparently well-fed Secretary General, that “while I recognize Israel’s legitimate security concerns, I also remind Israel that military operations must be conducted in strict accordance with international humanitarian law. Civilians must be respected and protected at all times. Civilian infrastructure must never be a target.”  It’s truly amazing the willful ignorance of the U.N.’s Secretary General, who must know that international law places the responsibility on Hamas, not Israel.  In the words of a columnist for the New York Times—yes, you read that right, New York Times:

“When Hamas abandons the principle of distinction, then Hamas is responsible for the civilian damage that results. If Hamas fights from a hospital — or stores munitions in a hospital — damage to that hospital is Hamas’s responsibility. If Hamas fighters shoot at Israel Defense Forces from a home that contains a Palestinian family, then Hamas is responsible for the civilian casualties if that family is harmed in the resulting exchange of fire.”

All of these people know that Israel is probably the only military in the world who puts its own soldiers at risk to protect the lives of civilians living under the enemy’s regime.  Israel famously use the most targeted weapons that can fly through a window in one apartment without harming the apartment next door.  They have refrained from killing terrorists if the terrorist is surrounded by women and children.  The Israeli government has publicly charged, prosecuted, and jailed an Israeli soldier who killed a Palestinian terrorist who had just murdered Israelis, because the terrorist was not considered an imminent threat at that precise moment.  Israel drops leaflets instructing civilians to leave areas that will be struck.  And that Israeli citizens would happily make peace with anyone who doesn’t want to murder us in our beds.

To all of these people, who know the truth and choose to amplify messaging that supports barbaric terrorists, I believe I speak for many here in Israel when I say that we offer our most heartfelt one-finger salute.

In some ways our rhythm of life has been disrupted.  The kids are not in school, and the COVID-era Zoom is not my family’s cup of tea.  The shopping center is the emptiest I’ve seen since COVID, even if the lines of the understaffed supermarket are long with people stocking up for the unknown.  But in other ways, we are maintaining a sense of normalcy.  Our kids are still hanging out with there friends, even if we make sure they stay a little closer to home; I did my regular round to the bakery this morning where I picked up a few extra cheese danishes; I made my way to the fruit store, where the heads of lettuce were much smaller than normal and had a limit of two per person; our home smells like Shabbos, with the cholent in the crockpot, and delicious foods on the stovetop.

And finally, through angst and anguish, everyone I know here is profoundly grateful: to the United States and other countries who have shown unequivocal support for our efforts; to the many private citizens around the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, who have sent supplies, attended rallies, and feel the connection with their Israeli brothers and sisters; to our IDF and security forces whose stories of bravery bring tears and goosebumps multiple times a day; and to one another, who are propping each other up with humor, baked goods, and a kind word.

We know that this is not over, but we also know that the Jewish people are in a different place than we’ve been for 2,000 years.  We are able to defend ourselves, and with God’s help, our defense forces will be courageous and strong.  And may we quickly see the fulfillment of this verse that we pray every day: May Hashem grant strength to His people; may Hashem bless His people with peace.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life."
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