Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;
Into its courtyard wind thy way;
There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of thine head,
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.
Proceed thence to the ruins, the split walls reach,
Where wider grows the hollow, and greater grows the breach;
Pass over the shattered hearth, attain the broken wall
Those burnt and barren brick, whose charred stones reveal
The open mouths of such wounds, that no mending
Shall ever mend, nor healing ever heal.
The stench of human bodies, the stink of graphite and metal from bullets, rockets, and grenades, and the terrible testimonies of survivors, policeman, soldiers, and first responders are only part of the the evidence of the Bloody Sabbath – Simhat Torah morning, 7th October 2023 in the towns, villages, and kibbutzim of the Western Negev.
First responders from the Zaka medical aid teams – mainly orthodox Jews – have many years of experience with scenes of terror – bus bombings, assaults on homes, and now the massacre by Hamas terrorists of 1400 Israelis. The Hamas rampage was an organized and intentional attack against civilians in their homes and at an outdoor music festival on an early holiday morning. Zaka volunteer staff reported in the days following the slaughter that staffs proceeded with their work with immense difficulty facing the results of gangland style executions, and the mutilated, burnt bodies of the victims – men, women, and children. Jewish law and tradition demands that out of a deep and abiding respect for the memory of the dead and their loved ones that a body must be cared for, guarded, and washed before burial. In cases where, because of violence the body has been mutilated, or the body parts scattered – all of the flesh must be collected to be buried appropriately.
Zaka volunteers describe evidence of torture and rape in media interviews, and shared videos.
The Jewish Forward (21 October 2023) included the following: “In one such video, shared Oct. 18 on the Telegram channel “South First Responders,” ZAKA volunteers working at Kibbutz Be’eri find two children’s bodies tied together with metal wire, their legs bound, with mattress between them. One “was found naked (her clothes removed before she was killed) along with the other body with serious signs of physical abuse…”
Alongside the sights and smells that bear testimony to the savagery, two hundred and twelve Israelis – including infants from the age of nine months to grandparents in their eighties were dragged from their homes to captivity in Gaza. At this point, their condition is unknown.
Hamas planned to continue their murderous spree across the Negev as far as Kiriat Gat and Beersheva. President Yitzchak Herzog shared yesterday that Hamas plans included using chemical weapons based on cyanide tablets to poison Israel’s civilian water supply.
The descriptions above are only a small sampling of the scenes that have forced Israel to go to war. These are an understated description of the reason that Israel is in mourning, that few of us are sleeping, and everyone is drawn taught fearing more heart-wrenching news from the Bloody Sabbath’s aftermath, regarding the fate of our hostages, and about our colleagues, friends, and family members waiting in IDF bases and forward positions throughout the country as the war intensifies. However, there is no doubt among Israelis – that this war is a war of self-defense against an enemy who has proven in no uncertain terms that it will stop at nothing to inflict untold pain and suffering on the people of Israel.
Who among us would have thought on October 6th 2023 Bialik’s words about the Kishniev pogrom would become so real in the State of Israel one hundred and twenty years later?
The events of the Bloody Sabbath will be added to the historic scars of the Jewish experience of oppression and victimization – from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, to the Medieval Crusades, to Kishniev in 1903, and to the Holocaust.
These scars are etched into our collective body and our psychology today as it has been for Jews throughout the ages. The frightening sense that we are ‘a people that dwells alone.” is not paranoia or a propaganda tool. It is part and partial of the history and memories of the Jewish people – driven from our ancestral home in ancient times, abused and tormented on countless occasions in places throughout the world.
In 1973, several months previous to the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir was famously quoted in Newsweek about Israel’s existence and the burden of our history: “And you Mr Aslop, you say that we have a Masada Complex… it is true. We do have a Masada Complex… we have a Pogrom complex… we have a Hitler complex.”
A child who has been abused, subjugated to violence, who bears experiences of profound loss will bear those scars throughout their life. They will grow in the shadow of those pains. Scars close the wounds, but they never disappear.
In Israel today –amid the shock and mourning and fear – it is natural that images of the Jewish experience of exile and persecution have become common associations with our current situation. Images from pogrom and Holocaust are all commonly referred to in official press conferences, in testimonies describing the Western Negev in the aftermath of 7th October, and even in conversation with friends and neighbors as all of us seek some explanation and orientation to contend with our all-too real nightmares.
However, with all of that said, even facing the devastation brought down on us by Hamas terrorist forces; Israel in 2023 is not Kishniev in 1903. Israel in 2023 is not Second World War Warsaw.
I am trying to make sense of our situation for my own sanity and for those whom I love. I am trying to find the strength to respond as Jews have always responded – with solidarity, with hope. There is no other choice because I will not allow the demons of the past and the present to dictate how I live and where I live. I will not allow demons imagined and demons-in-human form to take away our home.
Israel is a country born from a resistance movement of an indigenous people returning home to Zion. Zionism is the political struggle to bring the Jewish people home to our national birthplace. Throughout the ages, we remembered and dreamt of having a place that we can call our own. Like other small people’s conquered and driven into exile, we built a national movement and a home because everyone deserves a place to call their own, a place to develop their community and culture and contribute to the world that we share with so many. The United Nations – although hardly a friend of Israel in more recent times – recognized the Jewish people’s historic claim to establishing a national home in some part of the historic Land of Israel. The recognition of the international community of our claim is not one out of pity. The Jewish people do not want pity. The Jewish people make a simple claim – that we are a people and that every people hold the sacred right to self-determination, to call a particular place with particular memories and particular aspirations: home.
The Hamas are formidable and ruthless. However, their powers are limited. They should not be underestimated as was done by Israeli intelligence, military, and the current Netanyahu led government prior to the Bloody Sabbath. However, the Hamas is not the Nazi Empire. It is dangerous, but it can be vanquished. The question of the Iranian axis that stretches from Teheran to Gaza, and that includes Syria and Lebanon is not an Israeli question. It is a challenge for all nations who value their futures.
Israel is one of the most advanced countries in the world. The human resources at our disposal, the power of a modern, still-democratic society, a high-tech economy, and the resilience of the Israeli public are all advantages that we hope our leadership can exploit to their full potential in what will be a long and painful war.
During the Holocaust, we were alone. We were physically isolated in most places from the general population. In many places, local militias and mobs assisted enthusiastically in the Nazi plan to bring about the extinction of the Jewish people. Countless others stood by silently. We were alone despite the efforts of small numbers of righteous gentiles to save Jewish lives. We recognize and honor their special status because they were few and far between.
Today Israel possesses powerful allies who have proven their commitments to our war against the Hamas. Once again, Britain, France, Germany, the United States, and others do not come to Israel’s aid because of pity. They recognize a foundation of shared democratic values. They understand the strategic importance of the State of Israel for the entire Western World. And somewhere before they turn off the lights and go to sleep, they also understand that the entire civilized world is threatened by the onslaught of a perverted, fascist travesty of Islam. Because regardless of whether we are Jews or Christians or Muslims, the Abrahamic faiths – at the bedrock of Western Civilization – all recognize the holy value of life and the sanctity of freedom. President Joseph Biden spoke most eloquently about this commitment between the United States of America and Israel before both the Israeli and the American people. America can only lead if it chooses to act for the sake of allies who share its most basic values. Standing on the sidelines is not an option. Israelis can take real comfort that President Biden’s sincere words, his historic record in support of Israel over the decades are being backed up by American aid and military support.
Ultimately, we need to put cynicism aside. The situation is dire. None can tell the future. There is real reason for hope – and even if there is not – hope is the one weapon that can never be surrendered.
The resilience of the Israeli people and the support from the Jewish world is real. The mobilization of reserve units, the tremendous outpouring of good will, the response of the non-profit sector, the launching of volunteer projects, and plane loads of supplies arriving in Israel from Jewish communities around the world are all reasons for hope. If there was a question about the meaning of Jewish peoplehood in our time – these are all examples of a people’s dedication that when one falls; another helps to raise them up. Giving in to despair is not a tolerable option.
Until the war ends, many more funerals will take place in Israel. Many more challenges will present themselves. For a nation surprised on Bloody Sabbath – like we were on Yom Kippur 1973 – the scars will remain. Rebuilding buildings and even entire towns is simple. Rebuilding broken families and communities and restoring the confidence of the Israeli nation in our leadership and our future path will be tremendously difficult. Based on the colossal failure of Israel’s current leadership leading up to Bloody Sabbath, it will not suffice for them to mouth apologies and requests for forgiveness. May we persevere to see better days that will come.