Answering the Call: A Journey of Solidarity and Healing in Israel

Twenty-five years ago, as a 16-year-old student sitting by the Kinneret, my teacher posed a question that seemed distant yet intriguing: ‘If a war broke out in Israel years from now, would you volunteer to help?’ This question, asked during a fall semester I spent on the Alexander Muss program, was designed to connect us, American teens, to the legacy of early Zionists— men and women who sought to secure a homeland for the Jewish people where they could live safely and self-govern. The question was not merely hypothetical—it was a call to see ourselves as part of Israel’s enduring story.

Decades later, the horrific events of October 7th brought this question back with startling clarity. The devastating assault by Hamas, coupled with a global ambivalence and even resentment towards Jews and Israelis, deeply affected me. I agonized over every news update, mourned the brutal losses, and felt the pain of my parents, whose friends were murdered by Hamas while enjoying their morning coffee. My children couldn’t understand my despair, glued to my phone, feeling a war that was thousands of miles away.

As a professor of Jewish Studies and Sociology at Tulane University, these events seeped into my professional life. In the weeks leading up to October 7th, my lectures focused on the generational differences among American Jews regarding their views on Israel and the escalating antisemitism over the past decade. However, after returning to class on October 9th, my students shared how these previously theoretical discussions had taken on a sudden and stark reality. Many of them had personal connections to individuals at the Nova festival or who were being called up by the IDF. This shift underscored the necessity of balancing our academic curriculum with the emotional realities that my students were confronting, a challenge that became a persistent aspect of my teaching approach since then.

The conflict also profoundly affected my professional relationships, igniting debates and revealing significant divisions within my academic community. Some colleagues viewed Hamas’s actions as legitimate resistance, a stance that left me feeling appalled when they did not condemn the atrocities committed against Israeli civilians. This fundamental disagreement over values compelled me to withdraw from a collaborative book project on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in college settings, as I could no longer align myself with the views of some of my colleagues.

In the months since October 7th, I mobilized my resources where possible. I donated money, supported Israeli businesses in my community, and organized educational talks to deepen students’ understanding of Israel’s historical and ongoing challenges. Since February, I wore a hostage tag every single day as a constant reminder of those still held captive. Yet, something still felt amiss. The question my teacher posed 25 years ago, “If Israel needed you, would you help?” reverberated in the back of my mind. 

I wanted to tell my teacher— “Hineni”— Here I am. 

Together with my mother, I traveled to Israel to volunteer. As Jews from the Former Soviet Union, we are acutely aware of the necessity of a Jewish homeland, and we wanted to help communities across Israel that have stepped up to bridge the gaps left by the government. We volunteered with the Israel Food Rescue Program, stepping in for workers who had fled, ensuring that plums reached markets and families received Shabbat meals. We organized supplies at a donation center, aiding families displaced by the fighting. 

Within a few hours of being in Israel, I felt at ease. I didn’t even care that my luggage was stuck in the US. Just the day before, the home of a New Orleans city council member, marked by an Israeli flag, had been defaced with red paint, a grim imitation of blood. In stark contrast, Israeli flags proudly fluttered everywhere in Israel, a reassuring and familiar sight. Surrounded by these symbols of resilience and unity, I finally found a deep, comforting peace. 

I also spent time being present for my Israeli friends and family members. I listened to the sorrowful tales of a colleague whose grandson, an IDF soldier, was killed in Gaza. While visiting a friend at her university, I immersed myself in an art exhibit that poignantly honored the life of her student’s daughter, who was brutally murdered on her kibbutz. The exhibit displayed the final text messages exchanged with her family as Hamas militants attacked their home. The remnants of the assault were stark—a bloodstained couch and walls riddled with bullet holes, silent witnesses to the days Hamas occupied the house.

At a soup kitchen, I volunteered alongside a woman whose brother had survived the Nova music festival. In a desperate moment, he and his friends split into two cars; he turned left, while his friends turned right— unknowingly into captivity. One of them succumbed to a wound sustained during the attack, and the other remains missing, his fate unknown even seven months later.

I attended a leftist demonstration, where participants draped themselves in Israeli flags while passionately advocating for a new government. Nearby, I visited a counter-protest, marked by a poignant display: a tent showcasing the faces of all the soldiers who have fallen in Gaza since October 7th. There is a wide spectrum of opinions on Israel’s future actions and the sacrifices they entail.

In Tel Aviv, I joined the throngs at Hostages Square, where thousands gather every Saturday to ensure the hostages are not forgotten. Together, the crowd solemnly recited the names of every remaining hostage still held in Gaza, each name a vow not to rest until all are home. In Israel, one is constantly surrounded by the echoes of history, the urgent realities of the present, and the aspirations for a peaceful future.

After October 7th, Israel embraced the unifying slogan “Beyachad Nenatezch” (Together, We Will Prevail), which now graces billboards, posters, and bumper stickers nationwide. This motto symbolizes the initial surge of collective action that brought the country together. Despite this, I wonder if the unity is beginning to fray. Internal tensions and external pressures are threatening the cohesion and efficacy of our collective efforts. Israel faces significant leadership challenges in this prolonged conflict. Some challenges are technical—solvable through existing knowledge and structures, such as military strategies and logistical operations. Yet, the more pressing concerns are the adaptive challenges—those requiring a profound shift in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Israel is navigating the complexities of maintaining national cohesion, addressing deep political divisions, and developing long-term strategies for peace and security. This war is reshaping the national psyche, compelling Israelis to reevaluate their security perceptions, relationships with neighbors, and their broader regional role.

Twenty-five years ago, by the Kinneret, my teacher asked a question that projected us into the Zionists’ dream, envisioning a future for Israel filled with promise. Today, reflecting on Israel’s journey since then, it’s clear that the nation has navigated profound adversities and not always lived up to what we hoped it would become. As Israelis face internal tensions and external pressures, the lessons of solidarity and resilience I’ve witnessed are crucial. They remind me that while the path forward may be fraught with challenges, it is paved with the enduring spirit of a people committed to peace and security. 

About the Author
Ilana M. Horwitz is assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology and the Fields-Rayant Chair in Contemporary Jewish Life at Tulane University.
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