Aron Heller

An unprecedented attack that conjures images of the Holocaust

The only context for this tragedy comes from the darkest days of Jewish history
An IDF soldier prepares to remove the bodies of Israelis killed during an October 7, 2023, attack by Palestinian terrorists, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in southern Israel bordering the Gaza Strip, on October 10, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Even without a final death toll, we can already confidently state this grisly figure: Oct. 7, 2023, was the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

The testimonies and footage depicting the wonton murder of unarmed civilians, the tearing of children away from their parents and the massacre of entire families can only be compared to the darkest days of Jewish history.

When soldiers returning from the scenes of the carnage have used words like Shoa (Hebrew for the Holocaust), pogrom and Babi Yar, they aren’t exaggerating. It is stunningly, shockingly and unfathomably the only relevant comparison that can be made.

These words are not written lightly. In my lengthy journalism career, I developed a specialized beat focused on World War II and Holocaust reporting. It resulted in dozens of articles chronicling the experiences of elderly survivors, many of whom confided in me to publish their stories for the first time.

Having been exposed to the depth of these singularly monstrous atrocities, I vowed never to make modern-day comparisons to the genocide of the Jewish people in World War II, no matter how horrifying.

But this time is different. The state of Israel was founded on the principle of “never again” – never again would Jews be left defenseless against those who seek to harm them. And while Israel will not be destroyed and will surely strike back and eventually recover from this unparalleled attack, the images of the savagery and the absolute destruction of towns and villages will remain seared in our memories. The heart-wrenching accounts of survivors whose lives will never be the same will remain etched in our souls, just as they are for those of us who have heard the testimony of Holocaust survivors.

As Israelis, and as journalists, we are accustomed to coping with and responding to wars, terrorist attacks and other tragedies that have befallen our country in its 75 years of existence. Our first point of reference is always to seek that elusive perspective, to put the dizzying pace of breaking news into its proper context.

But how do you find perspective about something that is so utterly unprecedented and unfathomable?

For days, we’ve been grasping for any historical analogy that can help us make sense of this disaster. Several moments have been pointed to for perspective. All of them, unfortunately, pale in comparison to the depth of this despair.

Is this take 2 of the 1973 Yom Kippur War?

Coming exactly 50 years and one day after that monumental crisis, there are certainly several similarities. Then, as now, we were stunned by a surprise attack we should have seen coming. Then, as now, we were criminally slow to respond. Then, as now, our government and military leadership failed us miserably and it has been the individual heroism of everyday Israelis that has given us hope to overcome.

But beyond that, the analogy falls far short. The Yom Kippur War cost Israel some 2,700 casualties, nearly all of them soldiers. They died on the front lines of the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights precisely to protect civilians from the invading armies of Egypt and Syria. This time it was the citizens who were the front lines and who bore the brunt of the massacre. Therefore, it is no surprise that people like Avigdor Kahalani, a hero of the 1973 war, called this fiasco far worse. Channel 12 commentator Amnon Abramovich, who was critically wounded in that war and still bears the scars from dozens of surgeries to treat his life-threatening burns, said it was an insult to even compare the two.

Is this Israel’s 9/11?

The intelligence failure is similar, the shock is the same and the images emerging are just as horrific. However, the sheer number of civilian casualties for a country so much smaller provide a per capita death toll in Israel that is at least ten times higher.

But it’s more than the numbers. America was stunned by something it couldn’t even imagine. Israel’s vaunted military, intelligence and counterterrorism agencies are renowned for imagining and preparing for just such scenarios. An army famed for being able to track the movement of top terrorists in Gaza and take them out with pinpoint precision missiles proved helpless in stopping simple bulldozers and gangs on motorcycles from breaching the border and wreaking untold horrors on unsuspecting Israelis. And though the Al Qaida terrorists struck at the heart of American business and government in New York and Washington, in Israel the trauma is nationwide. This place is still so tightly knit that no one has remained untouched. Everyone’s sense of security has been shattered.

Is this Israel’s Pearl Harbor?

This is perhaps the closest analogy in terms of shock and potential to change history. But Pearl Harbor was a military target in a territory that was yet to be a state and far away from the American mainland.

Time will tell whether Hamas also “awakened a sleeping giant” in Israel. In the meantime, it seems to have shaken the leadership in America more than in Israel. President Joe Biden’s chillingly powerful speech has provided a greater morale boost for the people in Israel than any given by their own leaders.

And still, this is not the Holocaust. Nothing should be conflated with that.

But it is the worst thing that has happened to us since.

About the Author
Aron Heller is an Israel-based writer and broadcaster and a former long-time Associated Press correspondent and journalism professor. He's covered ten Israeli elections, four Mideast wars, dozens of other major world events and has been dispatched on assignments across five continents. A frequent on-air and on-camera contributor, he's previously reported for the Ottawa Citizen, NBC News and Haaretz and has broadcast professional sports games.
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