Jonathan A. Greenblatt

Experiencing Israel’s new reality and drawing strength for the New Year

As we prepare to close one of the most difficult years for Jews in recent memory, we find ourselves confronting an odd feeling. We look ahead toward a future that now seems worrying and uncertain. And yet it reminds us of a past that we, the Jewish people, know all too well.

Nearly all of us grew up hearing stories of Cossacks mauling Jews in the Pale of Settlement, Nazis killing and burning Jews across Europe, and Jews being assaulted or expelled from their homes in the Middle East and North Africa after the founding of the State of Israel.

All of this seemed so far away. Hazy recollections. Grainy black and white photos. Pages of a history book. The stuff of museums.

On October 7 we realized quickly they weren’t.

Last weekend I had my first opportunity to visit Israel since the attack. As I landed at Ben Gurion, I recalled where I was very early in the morning of October 7th when I first heard the initial reports about what was unfolding. I stayed awake all night trying to comprehend what would ultimately turn out to be the bloodiest attack on the Jewish community since the Holocaust.

Each day since we learn new details of what happened on that morning. Some further expose the savagery of Hamas and the hypocrisy of the world’s muted or hate-filled response. Others highlight the bravery and amazing spirit of the people of Israel, the citizen soldiers, and the scores of thousands of Israelis of all ethnicities and faiths who have been displaced from their homes.

And yet, for all the coverage, for all the noise, and despite all the stories, there is no substitute for experiencing Israel’s reality.

As soon as I landed, I went right to “Hostages Square” in front of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, where the families and supporters of those taken hostage have been gathering and camping out over the last two months. It was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, and as I, along with my wife and ADL colleagues, lit the Menorah together with the families of several hostages, we all shared our hope for another Hanukkah miracle – the safe return of their loved ones.

I made Hostages Square my first stop because I wanted to be there in person and hear firsthand about the hostages from their families. Their faces are so familiar. They gaze back at us from the posters that we have put up inside the lobby of our headquarters in NYC and in other ADL offices all over the country. We see them in public spaces across America. But despite this sense of knowledge, after listening to stories about them told by their parents, their siblings, and their children, we left feeling as though they were members of our own families.

Among the messages of our support, we made sure they knew that we are doing everything we can, every single day, to ensure their safe return and that we will not rest until every single one is home.

The following day we woke up to the devastating news that kidnapped soldier Ron Sherman, whose younger brother Dan spoke to us about the challenges Ron faced as an asthmatic held in a Hamas tunnel below Gaza, had been killed by his captors. His body returned to Israel.

We gathered our things and then proceeded up to Kiryat Shemona to tour Israel’s northern border. The region has been bombarded continuously by Hezbollah terrorists based in Southern Lebanon. Every day, the Iranian proxy directs a range of attacks against Israel. In fact, while we visited the command center of the Upper Galilee Regional Council, two Hezbollah suicide drones entered Israel’s airspace and attacked an IDF position, killing 53-year-old military reservist, Yehezkel Azaria.

The brazen attack shocked us, but in that moment, we fully recognized the vulnerability of Israel’s northern communities to deadly incursions by Hezbollah. I paused realizing the reservist who had been killed was the same age as me, that all Israelis were doing their part in this moment to defend their country and that the northern front is not a potential hot spot; Hezbollah already is violating sovereign territory and committing lethal acts of war against Israel every single day.

The following day, I had the opportunity to visit the communities in southern Israel that were ravaged on October 7, and to bear witness to Hamas’ atrocities.

Upon arriving in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, I was faced with the contrast between the pastoral beauty of the community, its rich and proud history of people who came from all over the world to call this place home, and the horrific massacre that took place there.

The kibbutz had been home to about 800 people. It lost more than 70 of its members, including babies, children and the elderly. Another 18 more were kidnapped to Gaza.

We walked through scorched homes, walls still pockmarked with bullet holes, one-bedroom homes blasted away by rocket-propelled grenades. We saw everyday items like clothes, toys and dishes scattered about, and a sukkah left standing. It felt like time was standing still. These were remnants of ordinary life before the massacre but also signs of the death and destruction that still hung over the kibbutz.

We held a small ceremony in memory of those who were slaughtered, but as we spoke to members of this community, we marveled at their resilience and their determination to rebuild it.

My trip concluded with a meeting with my friend, Israeli President Isaac Herzog. We discussed many topics, but what struck me was the genuine concern he and so many in Israel expressed about the safety and well-being of the American Jewish community in the face of rising antisemitism. I arrived there concerned for them and they in turn were concerned for us too.

In the United States, incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism against Jews increased by 337% since October 7 compared to the same time last year, reaching the highest number during any two-month period since ADL began tracking. We are indeed anxious by what we are witnessing across our communities and especially on college campuses, but we are not deterred.

2024 will no doubt bring new challenges and threats to our communities. We know that Israel will be successful in eliminating Hamas. That truly is the only way for Israel and the Palestinian people to reach some kind of long-term modus vivendi. But whereas I arrived in Israel with a heavy heart, I left inspired and energized by their resilience and strength. It became clear that, no matter the geographic distances or political differences, there is an indisputable, indivisible connection between Israel and the Diaspora, one that underlies our shared destiny as a united Jewish people, a common homeland, and a common purpose to continue fighting for our people and advocating for the security of Jews everywhere.

That is our mission, for next year and always, and we will not fail.

About the Author
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
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