October Sixth was a long time ago.
Israel was at the end of the holiday season that begins with Rosh Hashana and finishes with Sukkot. Israelis were enjoying trips and outings, family get-togethers and feeling an occasional small discomfort about the ongoing parade of family meals. Young people gathered at festivals and happenings around the country.
October Sixth was a long time ago.
During the holiday period, the anniversary of fifty years since the Yom Kippur War hung in the air – a yet unknown writing on the wall. “Mene Mene Tekel Ufarsin.” (Daniel 5:25) Television and radio brimmed over with and documentaries, interviews and clips about the Yom Kippur War: the battles, the prisoners of war, the over 2500 fallen soldiers. And about the questions asked and the lessons learned or not…. How was it possible that Israeli military and political leadership underestimated the enemy, ignored the warning signs, and failed to prevent a ‘surprise attack’ on the Day of Atonement?
During the holiday period, Israeli radio was full of the songs that were written during and about the Yom Kippur War. Haim Hefer’s ‘Ani Mavtiah Lach – I Promise You’ was written by Hefer during an air raid while he was serving in the Sinai. The chorus shared the Israeli optimism that this war would be the last. Naomi Shemer’s ‘Lu Yehee’ – her take on the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be.’ “Still a White Sail on the horizon against an imposing dark cloud. All that we ask – Let it Be.” The deaths of eleven fighters from Kibbutz Beit HaShitta in the Jezreel Valley gave birth to a song that cried the great loss of sons, husbands, lovers, brothers, relatives, and friends facing the apathy of the natural cycle to our human suffering. Maybe the song also held out the small hope offered by the fact that sunrises will still appear, grass will still grow, and ‘the wheat still grows again.’
“It’s not the same old house now, it’s not the same old valley,
You’re gone and never can return again.
The path, the boulevard, a skyward eagle tarries…
And yet the wheat still grows again.”
October Seventh – over 1200 dead. An unknown number on the day taken as captives into Gaza by the Hamas and others. A day of horrific chaos and unspeakable terror – the Black Sabbath. A day that will live in outrage.
Suddenly the distance between 2023 and 1973 collapsed and was erased. The distance between October Seventh and October Sixth remains a chasm. And on October Sixth 2083 when we will mark fifty years since October Seventh – How will Israelis look back and remember the roads travelled from October Seventh 2023?
It is difficult to draw conclusions while we are still at war with the Hamas. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are currently displaced from their homes throughout Israel. When visiting the destroyed towns, villages, and kibbutzim of the Western Negev –a rancid, burnt stench still bears stubborn witness to the raw brutality of the events of October Seventh. Every morning, the news announces the names of fallen soldiers, of hostages who will not be coming home. Families are drawn taut in anticipation of announcements, declarations, and the fright of the possible ‘knock on the door.’ There is a broad consensus among Israelis that the Israel-Hamas War is an unwanted but absolutely necessary war of self-defense against Hamas.
However, with that said, no one who loves Israel can remain silent. “For Zion’s sake I will not remain still.” (Isaiah 61:2)
Increasingly, there is a sense that the current situation is also a result of our own mistakes, miscalculations, and callousness. Reports from border kibbutzim in the period before the Black Sabbath warned about Hamas activity along the border. Mockups of kibbutzim – less than a mile from the border – were used as training sites by Hamas. Terrorists practiced breaking through security gates, and moving building to building, room by room until they could proudly announce to their commanders – “We have completed the killing of everyone on the kibbutz.” Army intelligence reports in July 2023 were ignored. (TOI, 29 November 2023)
Women soldiers trained and stationed along the border as Israel’s eyes and ears reported to senior officers about unusual Hamas activity leading up to October Seventh. Their warnings were also ignored. Many have suggested that if these soldiers had been men, their warnings would have been considered with the deserving weight. However, a culture still caught up in macho prejudice, pushed the warnings of trained professionals aside. When the IDF base at Nahal Oz was overrun by terrorists on October Seventh, “Fifteen female soldiers were killed at the Nahal Oz base on October 7, with a further six abducted and held hostage in Gaza. One soldier, Pvt. Ori Megidish, was rescued by IDF troops during an operation in Gaza.” (TOI, 19 November 2023)
Throughout Israel, it is common to hear people commenting on the almost superhuman resilience of the Israeli public and civil society. The initiative and action of countless Israelis lending their energies, hearts, and resources to assist in the war effort – in the Israel Defense Forces and on the home front – is an unprecedented example of national solidarity. The establishment of local guard and watch units, of civilian distribution centers to assist displaced families from the Western Negev and the Northern Galilee, and the people’s campaign to bring our brothers and sisters home from their captivity in Gaza are just a few of the many examples of the strength of Israeli society at this time of crisis and reckoning.
In the same observations offered it is also common to hear people ask – Where is the state? Where is the government? Where are the ministers and members of Knesset? A profound sense of disappointment, of abandonment, and of anger can be heard in these comments and conversations.
Government officials – with a few exceptions – are not to be seen at the funerals of fallen soldiers and dead hostages. Samar Talalka – one of three hostages who had escaped Hamas captivity and was killed in a tragic shooting mishap by Israeli troops in Gaza – was buried last week. He was among six Bedouin Israelis taken hostage by the Hamas. Twenty-one Bedouin Israelis were murdered by the Hamas on October Seventh. No government official attended Samar Talalka’s funeral. Alon Shamriz and Yotam Haim were also shot and killed alongside Samar Talalka.
Yuval Doron Kastelman was driving from Mevasseret Zion to Jerusalem– a typically uneventful 15-minute trip. As he entered Jerusalem, he found himself in the midst of a terror attack at a bus stop. He exited his car, drew his personal weapon, and killed the terrorists. His selfless action saved lives. With the terrorists no longer a threat, he laid his weapon on the ground, went to his knees with his hands raised above his head, and identified himself. “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot,” he called out. An Israeli soldier ignored standing orders and basic common sense. An unarmed individual who clearly poses no threat is not to be fired upon. Yuval Kastleman was shot and killed at the entrance to Jerusalem by one of our own. The reserve soldier involved has been arrested and an investigation is underway.
Following the shooting of Yuval Kastelman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who clearly did not take the time to understand the context of the event – stated in a press conference – when asked about the shooting death of Yuval Kastleman – “that’s life.” (TOI, 3 December 2023). “That’s Life.”
The following day and under immense public pressure, Netanyahu met with Yuval Kastelman’s father and tried to offer a corrective to his previous statement. Regardless – the response “that’s life.” to a case like the Kastelman shooting can only be understood as an incredible lack of empathy not only for the Kastleman family but also to the trauma and pressure that is the daily portion of Israeli society today.
In a similar vein, the Prime Minister continued to exhibit his disconnect from the realities of war-time Israel when he complained about the name given to the Israel-Hamas War by the IDF, and devoted time to a high-level meeting to discuss the issue. (TOI, 18 December 2018). At a time when the names of the fallen are being announced daily, and the families of hostages need plead to meet with the Prime Minister; time devoted to the choosing of a ceremonial title to bestow upon the current Israel-Hamas War points to a terrible kind of moral tone-deafness and terrible misunderstanding of priorities.
On nineteenth December, the State Ombudsman published a report describing Israeli government management of the home front including providing appropriate economic aid to displaced families from the North and the South, shoring up small businesses, and taking care of reserve soldiers who have been away from work and family for extremely prolonged periods of time. Government offices are largely unresponsive to offering a more long-term plan for the war, for the aftermath, and for the reconstruction of the Israeli economy.
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said following the publication of the report, “The Israeli government failed to take care of the home front in the first weeks of the Swords of Iron war. There was no justification for this….” Englman continued, “The lack of implementation of economic assistance programs for the public at the beginning of the operation, along with the evacuation of residents from their homes, resulted in a situation in which hundreds of thousands of citizens became a needy population.” (TOI, 19 December 2023). The recent budget approved by the government is the most outrageous example of favoring sectoral requests, political paybacks, and extremist plans rather than a budget reflecting emergency needs on the ground; the cost of war and defining resources to rebuild the Western Negev and bring people home as soon as is possible.
Common wisdom suggests that during wartime, dissent is better silenced. Dissent – it is claimed – risks boosting the morale of the enemy while eroding the morale of our troops and the wider public. This common wisdom can easily be an excuse employed by those in power to squash the very democratic public discourse that is Israel’s strength, that sets Israeli life apart from any other country in our region. It is that democratic discussion that threatens those in power because it exposes mistakes and failings. No emperor wants to be exposed in their nakedness. Especially in war when our dearest is at stake, democratic discussion stands as the critical difference between a government of public servants and a regime. At the end of October 2023, public confidence in the Israeli government fell to a twenty-year low. (TOI, 23 October 2023) In Israel’s current situation, and following a year when government officials did everything in their power to chip away at internal Israeli solidarity for the sake of their judicial overhaul, and where there is no clear vista for the near future or vision for the more distant future – discussion, dissent, and a rebuilding of public empathy is crucial. Resilience can only be maintained if there is a sense that beyond the war, we still consider each other brothers and sisters – can agree and disagree and can do the heavy lifting to build a better future for our children. A leadership that is sectoral, vengeful, and power greedy will lead us to exile. Choosing leadership that represents the best version of ourselves will not lead to redemption, but it can lead to an added measure of confidence that we will need for the long haul ahead of all of us.
October Sixth was a long time ago. October Seventh is a stone weighing on the hearts of all Israelis. One hundred and twenty-nine hostages remain in Gaza. One hundred and thirty-nine soldiers killed at last count in action. The most basic responsibility of Israeli leadership is to rally the international community to bring our hostages home, and to look the hostage’s families and the families of the fallen in the eyes with the promise that the price paid by Israel in this war will not be wasted because of the personal career of a specific politician or squandered in the petty political maneuverings that always place blame but never own responsibility. Moving from trauma towards healing will not happen overnight. However elections in Israel sooner and not later will offer another step towards turning the stones of trauma into the building blocks of tomorrow.