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Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Helplessness and Hope

The IDF in its battles with Hamas appears to be making progress, albeit at a very high price.  Fifty-one Israeli hostages have been returned, and another twenty are promised in the next two days, also at a high price. During the temporary truce there is some tentative feeling of relief and maybe even hope, with some citizens returning uncertainly to their homes in the Gaza envelope, and yet overall there remains an undercurrent of helplessness and anxiety, mixed with rage over what this region has suffered and what the future promises.

As Israelis await the return of more hostages, including significant numbers of children and others held under insufferable conditions, we try to understand the opaque promises of our government regarding its goals in this war and find ourselves trapped by a process over which we have limited or no control. On the one hand, Hamas alone decides who, when, and how many they will release. Our government reacts. All the while, the enemy engages in relentless psychological warfare. The hand-offs of the abducted are always tense and never simple. There is lots of disinformation, and Hamas barely conceals its efforts to rebuild its terror operations as well as continuing its sinister practice of placing civilians and children in harm’s way by locating weapons of war among them and aiming its barrages against others.  Increasingly it counts on a poorly informed world that has no idea of what it truly stands for to call for a ceasefire, even though Gaza’s citizens are being killed by the effects of a war Hamas started and pledges to continue, reiterating its fundamental goal: to attack Israel again, wipe it off the map, and brutalize and terrorize Jews. With its allies in terror – the Iranians, Hezbollah, Syrian and Iraqi Islamist militias and now the Houthis in Yemen – it unequivocally states its unnegotiable and ‘religious’ obligation to remove Israel “from the river to the sea,” a slogan now taken up by well-meaning but uninformed supporters in the West who think this is a just cause. It has even targeted and killed, as well as abducted, many of the very Israelis who had been working for peaceful coexistence with their Palestinian neighbors.

Simultaneously, the current Netanyahu-led government, caught woefully unprepared on October 7th, simply reacts, continues to pledge to utterly destroy Hamas, without explaining what this actually means and when exactly we would know they had succeeded. It still tries to dismiss its responsibility for its unpreparedness while never specifying with what they will replace Hamas and how they will bring a lasting peace or even if they want one – with our disgraced Prime Minister whose primary interest seems to be to salvage his political future in the face of his plummeting popularity privately promising members of his party that he is “the only one who will prevent a Palestinian state in Gaza and [the West Bank] after the war”  as well as endorsing a budget that continues to use valuable funds for party politics and useless ministries rather than for the war effort and propping up businesses and farms crippled by the effects of the war.

For their part, the Palestinians have done everything possible to destroy the last shreds of hope that they could or would live side-by-side with Israel in peace. Those in areas in the West Bank still under Palestinian Authority have expressed greater support for Hamas since the war began, and while those in Gaza, who have experienced the horror of Hamas rule have little love for it, they nevertheless remain powerless to overthrow it. When the since-released Russian Israeli hostage, Roni Kirboy, managed to escape Hamas captivity for a few days in Gaza, he was nevertheless recaptured by Gazan civilians who promptly returned to Hamas custody, whether because they approve the terror organization’s tactics or feel helpless to oppose it. The possibility of handing back Gaza or the West Bank with its 700 kilometer longest border with Israel and close to the greatest population centers more than ever now seems an unreasonable prospect to most Israelis, who find it hard to distinguish between the civilians and the Hamas; precisely what Netanyahu wants. As in the past, the enemies of peace on both sides of this war seem to have the same goal, foolishly believing we can co-exist in a constant state of war.  That myth has now been exploded.

While President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken recognize the extraordinary danger that Hamas and its Islamist extremist supporters represent for the world and try to steer a course toward a resolution, they are also trapped by Hamas’s naïve supporters in the West and Netanyahu’s inept response and lack of vision that can offer a peaceful, democratic, and equitable horizon. And by the fact that the leaders of both sides in this war have done everything possible to make peace out of reach.

Is it then any wonder, that we here who recognize that we live under rulers who all need to be replaced with alternative political leaders free from the traps of previous understandings of who we are and who we should be?  Is it surprising that we share this undercurrent of helplessness and anxiety?

What adds to this is that those waiting in the wings to replace them are even worse: more extreme, unhinged from democracy, and guided by twisted religious beliefs that depend on a vengeful God who has favorites and eschews compromise or negotiation. These ‘believers,’ whether they include ‘the religious’ among the Jews or the Muslims have endorsed and engaged in horrific behavior that remind us all how many have suffered and killed in the name of God – often doing more to undermine religion than atheists, so-called heretics and unbelievers.

In the face of all of this, the good news is that among the citizens of Israel, there is also a sense of peoplehood and unity that I have not felt for a long time.  While the government and leadership remain deeply disappointing and self-interested, the care and love that regular folks have expressed for one another makes it feel that the deep divisions the Netanyahu coalition fomented in their goals to undermine democracy and split the people has been at least temporarily repaired. Extraordinary instances of heroism and humanity occurred on October 7 in the face of the terror, as people filled the vacuum that the missing government and unprepared army created.

Since then the people of Israel have stepped up to help. When thousands of evacuated Israelis were looking for housing, countless organizations popped up ad hoc to help house, feed, entertain, and care for them. My wife and I ended up working with one helping to find housing and help for evacuees from the south who came to the area in which we live. Earlier this week, like so many Israelis who have organized non-governmental groups to help prop up the nation in the absence of a competent government, my wife and sons traveled to the south of Israel to help on a farm, whose Thai workers have largely left and whose crops are being overrun by weeds and soon will be a total loss, leaving the farming family who has worked the land for three generations while helping feed the nation and support itself on the verge of bankruptcy.

Weeding Photo by S. Heilman

Here too a feeling of helplessness is rising, but the farmer who said he had never asked for help before, was bowled over by the outpouring of volunteers and human concern. What we shared was a disappointment in the government. Unlike the farmers within 7 kilometers of the Gaza border, who’ve been promised some financial aid from the government (even as many of its ministers are holding back sorely needed war funds for political purposes), this farm, because it is seven and a half kilometers away and will not qualify for aid, and so here we were like other citizens, lending a hand.

On the way home, we stopped to visit an army base close to the Gaza border, where one of my sons is serving, to visit. Here I also saw the dedication of soldiers, many reservists like my son who have left family and jobs, who while they have no idea how long this war will go on and even if they are closer to the end than to the beginning, remain ready to put their lives on the line.

Car Cemetery from October 7 Photo S. Heilman

From the base near the Gaza border we headed home and stopped at the graveyard of the cars destroyed in the attacks on October 7th.  It was a somber place, a reminder of the death and destruction in whose aftermath we were living and had so shaken our people. One of my sons characterized the site as reminiscent of the piles of shoes and artificial limbs of those killed at Auschwitz, and indeed he was right.

Artificial limbs found at Auschwitz
Photo S. Heilman

Was this a preview of Armageddon or was this like the valley of the bones in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision out of which would rise a new life and a new hope.? The bones that cried “our hope is gone; we are doomed,” but to which through Ezekiel, God promised “I will save them in all their settlements….and they shall dwell in the land…in which their ancestors dwelt; they and their children and their children’s children shall dwell their forever….”

A group of policemen guarding the place pulled us over to help them make a minyan for mincha, while informing that anyone who was a Kohen, a priest, should not join us because this place had the status of a place of death, from which priests must remain distant. As one policeman recited the Avinu Malkenu (Our Father our King) prayers word by word, I could not help but wonder whether the prayers for help would be answered, the death here covered over, and better times coming .

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.