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‘Because we are Jewish’

We Jews and Israelis are so much more than the targets of antisemitism: We stand together in kindness, dignity, and shared purpose
Volunteers prepare aid packages and supplies for Israeli soldiers and evacuated residents in Tel Aviv on October 12, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Linor Attias is no stranger to horrors. As a senior United Hatzalah volunteer medic and a leader in the organization’s disaster relief efforts worldwide, she has seen her fair share of terrible injuries. But when she spoke last week about what she saw in Be’eri on October 7th, Attias broke down in tears.

“There was a little girl, around 8 or 9 years old,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And they cut her hand…cut it all off. No hand. She was still breathing, she was just, shaking… and I performed a tourniquet, but it was her last breath. Her last breath! I wasn’t there… I wasn’t there earlier to save her.”

“She just lost so much blood, for hours,” Attias went on, her voice shaky. “No one was there, no one was near her, even. She was so afraid, her eyes…all by herself…I don’t know what kind of evil demon can create this kind of…” Attias waved her hand around at this point, visibly looking for the right word, visibly shaken. “Operation,” she finally spat out, with bitterness.

Such a clinical word, for such horror.

As I watched Attias cry, I recalled the last time I heard her speak. I was sitting in a beautifully decorated Jerusalem hall at the time, surrounded by elegantly dressed people. We had gathered to celebrate Ukraine’s Independence Day and honor the numerous Israeli organizations and individuals who threw themselves into helping Ukraine in the face of Russia’s atrocities. Linor Attias was there to represent United Hatzalah. She sat on the stage, professional and collected, and told us about rescuing patients under fire, and training Ukrainian volunteers to serve as Hatzalah teams in their own country.

“People ask me why we’re doing this,” she said at some point. “And the truth is that we’re not doing this because they (the patients) are Jewish. It’s not as if we ask anyone if they’re Jewish or not before we treat them! No. We’re doing it because we are Jewish.”

I thought about these words as I watched Attias cry in her Hatzalah gear, struggling to describe the indescribable. “Because we are Jewish” — such simple words. And oddly, ones that can answer two very different types of questions.

The first type of question is rooted in horror. Why would anyone cut a young girl’s hand off and leave her to bleed to death for hours, all alone? Why would human beings invade peaceful villages and a music festival, rape, kill, and kidnap innocent people, and display their bodies — living or dead — in the back of pickup trucks?

Why would young American students in Ivy League colleges think that it’s legitimate to carry swastikas on signs and bully their Jewish peers?

The answer, sadly, is “Because we are Jewish.” It’s an answer that our forefathers knew well. As a young man in the USSR, my father knew that he would face discrimination and hatred and would have to work especially hard to earn a professional future, because he was Jewish. When the Nazis advanced into Poland, my mother’s father knew he had to escape east because he was Jewish. My maternal great-grandmother knew that she was orphaned in a pogrom as a baby because she was Jewish.

Our Jewishness is the one truth that underlies both the blood-lust of the murderers who cut a Jewish girl’s hand off in Be’eri and the glee of the students who support those murderers from the safety of their American colleges.

But the same answer also applies to a very different set of questions. Why are we here, in Israel, in the first place? Why do our brothers and sisters in other countries care about us — and why do we care about them? Why have we been frantically looking for ways to help each other since October 7th, throwing ourselves into everything from fundraising for tactical gear for soldiers, hosting families from the north and south, and picking cherry tomatoes in abandoned fields?

The answer to all of these questions is “Because we are Jewish.”

We are here in Israel because we are Jewish. We care about fellow Jews because we are Jewish, and we have valued this intimate kinship for thousands of years. And as we help and support each other, we recommit to values that our ancestors lovingly passed from one generation of Jewish children to another, teaching us that “all of Israel is responsible for one another,” and that “he who saves one life saves an entire world,” and that “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life.”

The two types of questions that Linor Attias’s words can answer represent, to me, the two very different covenants we share. As Jews, we all share membership in what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik called the covenant of fate. It has been our fate, as Jews, to be targeted and hated. This past month showed us that we cannot outrun this fate by creating our own state or by living in liberal democracies. But the covenant of fate is only half the story. We all have another covenant open to us, the covenant which Rabbi Soloveitchik called the covenant of destiny. Destiny, unlike fate, implies destination — a sense of purpose. And unlike the covenant of fate, this is a covenant that we — all of us who are Jewish or Israeli — have to choose to join.

In the 30 days that have passed since October 7th, we’ve been choosing to do exactly that.

We chose, and choose, to help each other. When I walk down the street these days, I witness local teenagers babysitting the children of the evacuees and women carrying meals to the families of reservists. I run into neighbors who had disappeared for day, only to come back sun-tanned and somewhat stiff, full of stories about harvesting zucchini in some stranger’s field. I spot friends from abroad who flew in to show support and volunteer here. And when I get home, my kids ask me, “So, who will help today?”

We chose, and choose, to embrace our values and stand up for them. Synagogues everywhere have been organizing one event after another, bringing us together to learn, heal, and draw strength from the legacy we share. Artists and public intellectuals have been putting out podcasts and free Zoom sessions, drawing upon history and art to help us envision possible futures. My American friends send me pictures from their “Stand with Israel” rallies, where they dare to stand tall in the face of jeering crowds, filled with pride in their Jewish identity.

And we chose, and choose, to be in it together. When I stand at funerals of people I don’t know, surrounded by other people I don’t know, I see just how deep this togetherness goes. And when I see so many of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens join this shared effort, fighting, helping, and saving lives, I see just how broad and rich our Israeli covenant of destiny can be.

This war, this pain, this fate we share — it is far from over. But when I look around, I see so many people, Jews and non-Jews, transmuting the passive suffering of our covenant of fate into the glowing strength of our shared purpose, our shared covenant of destiny.

And in this shared commitment, I find hope.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Matan.
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