I offer five observations on the response of American Jews to recent events in Israel.
When the Hamas attacks were initially reported, American Jews responded with horror, stunned silence, and incomprehension.
Within hours, however, a shaken American Jewish community had initiated a flurry of activity intended to support Israel. By Sunday morning, I had received more than 15 emails from national and local Jewish organizations.
When they want to, American Jews know how to mobilize, and mobilize they did. Some groups were planning on-line briefings; some were organizing community-wide solidarity rallies; many were collecting funds to assist Israelis impacted by the attacks; and religious organizations and synagogues announced various programs that would include special prayers for the welfare of the Jewish state and the Israel Defense Forces.
This mobilization has continued unabated in the last few days. In some ways it is not surprising; Jews normally rally to Israel’s side in times of crisis. Still, not all of Israel’s wars in recent decades have generated broad support, and the intensity and fervor of the response this time have been stunning. And all elements of the community, except those on the outermost fringes, have joined in, no matter where they sit on the ideological and religious spectrum.
This immediate outpouring of Jewish solidarity reflects the essential kinship of the Jewish people, but there is more to it than that. Watching the footage available on social media and elsewhere, American Jews quickly understood that the Hamas jihadists were not engaged in a war with Israel, soldier fighting soldier; the jihadists were carrying out a pogrom, a prolonged slaughter of innocents that continued for almost a day as masked terrorists went from house to house and from car to car, executing helpless civilians, young and old, without a flicker of hesitation or conscience.
There are many serious questions to be asked, as we all know, about the failures of Israel’s government and military. But for American Jews the focus was on the barbarism of the terrorists. And seeing the murderousness of the attacks, Jews, including those in the dovish camp, responded with revulsion and fury.
And this too: American Jews know that Hamas, as an Islamic fundamentalist movement, does not only hate Israelis. Its religious primitivism dehumanizes infidels everywhere, with Jews topping the list of villains. In other words, even while their primary concern was Israeli casualties, the Jews of America saw, correctly, that the Hamas killers were engaged in a particularly vicious version of Jew-hating, from which no Jew could be considered safe.
American Jews, generally speaking, avoided the finger-pointing and the blame-assigning that one is so tempted to engage in after a war effort by Israel that was as badly bungled as this one was. The war, after all, is far from over, and judgments on who is responsible should be left first and foremost to Israelis.
But not everyone could resist. Tablet magazine, almost immediately after the start of the war, published an article and editorial decisively declaring who is at fault: President Joe Biden, along with President Barack Obama.
One need not agree with every aspect of Biden’s Middle East policy to understand that blaming him for the Gaza war is absurd. Consider that shortly after the war started, the most advanced aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Gerald Ford, was sent by Biden to Israeli territorial waters. Biden’s intention was to convey a message to other potential players in the region—Hezbollah and Iran in particular—not to intervene in Israel’s conflict with Hamas. Biden also quickly ordered that military aid be made available to Israel without delay.
Biden is a true friend of Israel. It might be helpful for the Tablet writers to consider how an “America First” president would likely respond to this conflict, and how long it might take for such a president to provide Israel with the weapons it needs and with the support of an American carrier off its shores.
Every American Jewish leader, activist, and rabbi that I have spoken to desperately wants a unity government in Israel, with the parties of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid joining Netanyahu’s Likud, and with Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir and their parties excluded.
It is hard to know exactly how the war against Hamas will proceed. But as we have seen, Palestinian civilian casualties are inevitable, and international sympathy for Israel has already started to fade. Even Congressional support will begin to erode if the war drags on.
There are multiple reasons why Smotrich and Ben-Gvir should be on the outside of the Israeli government that is directing the military effort. These men have no expertise or personal experience in military affairs; they cannot be counted on to maintain confidentiality or even to speak sanely and seriously about military matters; and they are best known, both in Israel and around the world, for their racism and bitter, vicious tribalism. What this means is that their presence in the government will worry Israel’s friends and be exploited by its enemies to discredit any decision that the government makes, even if it happens to be the right one.
American Jews are in a fighting mood, anxious to make Israel’s case to America and the world. But they know that it will be far, far easier to make that case if the far-right agitators who have been disrupting Israeli political life for the last year are cast out of the government.
Since the outbreak of the war, American Jewish leaders and Israel activists have been in constant touch with friends, relatives, and colleagues in Israel. Sadly, with the casualty figures in Israel so dizzyingly high, almost all of us have a story of someone we know who has been affected by the war, and we have spent a lot of time in recent days sharing those stories.
My story: My closest relative in Israel is a Holocaust survivor, now in his late 90s. When he arrived in Israel in 1946, my family wanted to bring him to America. He refused, saying that he wanted to live in a Jewish state that would be defended by Jewish soldiers. The family tried again several times, offering him a well-paid job in the family business, but he always refused. He married, had children, fought in three wars, and is now the patriarch of a large, sprawling family.
He said that he never regretted staying in Israel, and in his later years, by way of explanation, he began sharing with me stories of his Holocaust years.
Last week, one of his grandsons—my cousin—was shot in the back by Hamas terrorists at the Negev Desert rave. Without a weapon, he and his girlfriend hid under a car, but the terrorists saw them. He survived, but his girlfriend was murdered.
My relative is no longer aware of his surroundings, and therefore does not know of his family’s tragedy. But I can’t help wondering what he would say if he knew, if he could read the news, and if he could see those ghastly videos of gloating killers pointing their rifles at elderly kibbutzniks and terrified children, some of whom would die that day while others would be dragged back to Gaza.
He would be furious at his government; that is certain. During Israel’s first three wars, his job was to transport soldiers to the front. The army’s failure to get troops to besieged settlements for as much as a full day would be incomprehensible to him.
But, I believe, despite the anger, he would still have no regrets. He would shake his head, shed some tears – he is an emotional man – and think of Poland and his Holocaust years. And then he would say, “we have a Jewish army, and next time we must do better.”
And he would be right. Next time we must do better. And the job of American Jews right now is to help Israel do just that.