The streets in our neighborhood are eerily quiet, almost like the early days of COVID. Schools are closed, people do not venture from their home unless they need to, and tense uncertainty is the default mood right now. I am writing this for those outside of Israel to share what the experience is like for an American-Israeli seeing his first war here in Israel with his family.
The morning of Simchat Torah I attended the early service in my synagogue, so I did not hear the distant pop-pop-pop sounds that my neighbor heard on the way to synagogue at around 7:40 a.m. I was already home when the first air raid siren sounded sometime before 9 a.m. After quickly waking my children and getting to our safe room, we took stock of who was where. My parents, fairly recent olim in their 70s who were staying with us for the holiday, were at the synagogue. Apparently, a helpful neighbor taught them the advised procedure for an air raid when you can’t reach a safe room — get to the ground, hopefully near a wall, and cover your head.
At this point, it was certainly not a typical Simchat Torah morning, but we were completely unaware of the severity of the situation — air raid sirens are a part of life here, infrequent as they may be in our part of the country, and people resume their regular lives when the sirens subside. Regular life on Simchat Torah also means that we don’t turn on our phones or computers, so once the sirens stopped blaring sometime around 11 am, our first thought was that whatever happened was quickly addressed by Israel’s Defense Force.
Over the next few hours, news and rumors were trickling in suggesting that something truly terrible had happened, and maybe was still happening. As we now know, Hamas terrorists launched a planned and coordinated attack against Israel. These terrorists infiltrated Israel and massacred hundreds of Israelis in brutal and barbaric ways, and took captive scores of Israeli soldiers and civilians. We learned that for Israelis living in border areas, their fight continued for hours, even days, as terrorists went door to door, seeking Israelis to murder.
The official death toll continues to rise by the hour, but that unthinkable number does not capture how dark the past few days have been. Parents and friends have been searching frantically for any news regarding the whereabouts of hundreds of people missing. Stories of the terrorists’ barbarism and cruelty have filled the newsfeeds. On the one hand, we need to follow what is going on. But on the other hand, reading the news sends a shiver down your body, you feel nauseous and overwhelmed, and you don’t know where to put this bizarre mixture of grief, worry, and anger.
Almost as quickly as the rockets began falling, the international propaganda machine began to operate. When I opened my phone on Saturday night after the holiday, Israel’s newest war was on the front page of every news site. Aside from the predictable and contemptable attempt at parity that some news sites try to present, the issues being discussed by the columnists and talking heads are sickening in their own right. As terrorists are actively murdering civilians, the American journalist ponders “what will the impact of this conflict have on the possible peace agreement between Israel and the Saudis?” When Israeli children are kidnapped and tortured, the sophisticated American news media wonders “what are the parallels between this conflict and the Russia-Ukraine war?”
For Jews and supports of Israel around the world, and especially in Israel, it is hard to understand how so many people do not see what we see. How can they not see that Hamas, a government that has in its charter a commitment to destroy Israel, and whose militants specifically target civilians, is an evil regime? How can the world not be sickened by pro-Palestinian rallies in New York City and on certain university campuses where the participants triumphantly cheer “700!” taunting pro-Israel gatherings by referring to the number of murdered Israelis? How can the world not recognize that the fervor of those celebrating the terrorists has nothing to do with “a negotiated solution with two countries living side by side, based on 1967 borders”—but rather they envision an Israel without a single Jew left alive? How are representatives in the United States Congress not embarrassed to express the need for “de-escalation and ceasefire,” while at that very moment terrorists were still breaking into homes and murdering families? How can they not experience unspeakable outrage at seeing the ISIS- and Nazi-style death squads who gleefully massacred families in their homes?
The answer, which we don’t really want to acknowledge, is as terrifying as it is simple: for more people than we would like to admit, Jewish blood is as cheap as it has ever been.
In modern times, we can explain how in this particular case the deep anti-Jewish sentiment has taken hold. First, the pro-Palestinian voices and social network propagandists have falsely convinced many people that Jews in Israel are a colonial force that illegally displaced an indigenous population to establish an authoritarian regime designed to subdue the rightful owners of the land. They rely on people’s eyes glazing over when they are presented with actual history and facts—that Jews have been praying to return to Israel for thousands of years after their exile; that there was never an independent Arab government here that settled the land; that Jewish Israelis accepted peace agreement after peace agreement, only to be rejected by Palestinian leadership; that Israel has a large population of Arab Muslims and Christians that live within borders with full rights; that Israel fiercely protects the holy sites and religious rights of Muslims and Christians; that Arab parties were in the ruling majority of government in recent years.
And second, Western media remains hesitant to draw a moral distinction between the Hamas terrorists and the Israel Defense Force. We might speculate about why the mainstream media minimizes the barbaric nature of Hamas and similar regimes, but whatever the reasons, the result is that well-meaning people having the sense that this conflict is a gray area of life at best, and a case of an underdog (Hamas) fighting for freedom against an overwhelming force (Israel) at worst.
We often wonder, what bit of evidence would be clear enough to demonstrate to the world that Hamas is evil, and Israel is battling for its survival on the front lines of the war against evil forces? Have people ever wondered how after days of Israel airstrikes into Gaza, civilian deaths in Gaza are at a minimum? Does the Israeli Air Force have bad aim? Or could it be that they take extreme measures to avoid civilian casualties?
Would seeing videos, shared by the terrorists themselves, of the murder, torture, and kidnapping of babies and the elderly change any hearts and minds? Apparently not.
Even the videos of Gazans gathering around buildings turned to rubble—have you ever wondered how the Gazans feel safe to congregate soon after an Israeli airstrike? Aren’t they afraid that Israel will strike this crowd of dozens or hundreds of people? The answer is no, they are not afraid. Gazans know that Israel specifically avoids striking civilians, so congregating in a war zone is safe. Hamas, on the other hand, seeks out groups of civilians to target, as they did to the nature party on Saturday.
If it weren’t such a painful time, some of the absurd headlines from so-to-speak mainstream news sources would be laughable. Like the one that says that videos from Hamas terrorists kidnapping children and murdering party goers “may be a war crime.” Indeed, maybe. Or the ones that list the death tolls of Israelis and Hamas terrorists in the same tally: “over 1,100 dead”, as if there is some equivalency. Or a guest on a CNN show saying through a mealy-mouthed and begrudged condemnation of Hamas’s terrorists that “civilian deaths on all sides are a tragedy,” as though the murder and torture of women and children was somehow unfortunate collateral damage to a carefully calibrated legal act of war.
My daughter, who has read family memoirs about their experiences in the Holocaust, asked me last night whether this is like the rise of the Nazi-regime in the 1930s. I told her that this time is different. God has blessed us with our own country whose most fundamental reason for existence is the defense of Jewish people in Israel and around the world. I told her that God has blessed us with the opportunity to have a military and international partnerships that are strong enough to win this war, and wars with other enemies in the region aimed at our destruction. I think that this belief is true, and I pray that this belief is never tested.
I do not have firsthand knowledge of war. I did not serve in the American military, and I was too old when we made aliyah to be eligible to serve. I also do not want to fathom how dire things would have to be for me to be enlisted to fight in this war. What I learned about the experience of war was through providing psychotherapy to USA military veterans with PTSD, and that informs some of my views on this fight. There are two things that many veterans described that seemed to contribute to long term trauma: the lack of support from the public, such as with their return from Vietnam; and feeling like they were fighting a war without a purpose and without a goal for victory. We are sending our young men and women to defend our country from a barbaric invasion, and we need to provide them with the inverse of these two things. First, we need to provide our troops with steadfast moral and material support, so that they know there are millions of people who are behind them. The Israeli public and many peace-loving people around the world have rallied behind our troops and are sending donations of supplies to help in this war effort. Second, the civilian politicians need to let our soldiers win this war, and winning means doing whatever is necessary to establish lasting peace and security on our southwestern border. The public needs that security, and the soldiers deserve to be able to provide it. Let them win the damned war.
In my role as a clinical psychologist, I often field questions about how to communicate with children during times like this. The regular advice is valuable: be honest in an age appropriate way—“these are very difficult and sad times here in Israel”; be mindful of how much news you and the kids are consuming; allow your child to tell you how s/he’s feeling; validate those feelings—“I understand you are scared”; and provide reassurance to them about their safety—“our military is strong and they are protecting us” or “we are in a safe place where we live, and we will take precautions to make sure we stay safe.”
There is one more element that I think is important to share with kids, based on my own children’s response to this war. Provide the children with an opportunity to contribute in a way they find meaningful, whether this is through donating resources to the troops, providing support to a friend, helping a family whose child was called up to war, or other ways that you come up with. A sense of purpose and meaning during chaotic times can allow a child, and adult for that matter, to lower their worry and anxiety, and grow from experiences of pain and distress.
A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a 104-year old Holocaust survivor, Mr. Weinreich, who lived down the block from me as I grew up. A relative of his who delivered a eulogy said that whenever he made a l’chaim, he would end with the phrase: “and let there be peace in the world.” If the reports are true, we are just at the beginning of this war, and we do not know if it will get worse before it gets better. So please, wherever you are, pray for the welfare of our troops, for the safe return of all the hostages, and for wisdom in our leaders. Pray for the families who lost loved ones, those who are injured, for our children, for those who witnessed unspeakable acts, and for the people who live near the border and endure a constant barrage of rockets. Pray that with God’s help, if we all do our part, we will win this war decisively and usher in a time of peace and security. And in the words of Mr. Weinreich, let there be peace in the world.