Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

This is Where I am in this War

This is, alas, not my first war in Israel.  My wife and I were here during wars that took place during the many years from 1979 onwards when we spent every summer, sabbaticals, academic terms, and other extended periods living in Israel. But we did so as foreigners.  We watched during those years as some of our sons served in the IDF, but we were very much aware of not being citizens and having a permanent home in the USA.  This time, however, after retiring from our professions in America and selling our American home over three years ago, we are Israeli citizens, and our only home is here in Jerusalem.  We have a sense that our destiny is now that of all our fellow Israelis.  It is decidedly a different experience.

Of course, this is also a very different sort of war.  For most of the forty-four years we spent here since my first sabbatical as a young professor, when we began our ongoing love affair and extended stays in this country, we accepted the post-1967 reality that Israel had developed into a powerful and seemingly invincible country whose continued existence was no longer in doubt.  We were not afraid to live here with our then young children.  To be sure after October 7, 1973 – the Yom Kippur War – that certainty had been challenged but because when it was all over, Israel had once again come back and displayed courage, tenacity, and victory over those seeking to wipe it off the map, we still had confidence in Israel’s ability to survive.

This war, however, coming after the months of fracture of the national consensus over its democratic character and the mass protests over its new extremist government (in which as citizens we enthusiastically participated), raised in many people’s minds, including mine, the unfamiliar and uncomfortable sense that Israel was in existential danger of falling apart, ironically at the 75-year-mark of its existence because of its self-inflicted dissensus and misdirection. And then, nearly fifty years to the day after the Yom Kippur War, on October 6, 2023, once again an Israeli government misread the signs and early warnings from Egypt and found itself unprepared on a holy day for a war it should have expected.

This time, the attacks came not from adversarial states – as they had in ‘73 – but from fundamentalist terrorist groups and non-state actors who are far more difficult to target, and the casualties were overwhelmingly civilian. The death, destruction, and unknown number of hostages taken undermined confidence and morale even more.  The level of brutality this time, the extraordinarily many victims, the sense that our powerful state had disappeared, that our Israeli government – inept, powerless, and missing in action for days on end – had left us feeling like vulnerable lambs to the slaughter as we had been in the days before the rise of the Jewish State when we were victims of pogroms and a genocidal Holocaust.  Israel had presumably left that image of Jews behind.  Coupled with the sense of an existential political crisis and now a war that also demonstrated our weakness, Israelis and Jews the world over once again felt insecure and in the crosshairs of hate.

We still have a state and an astonishing Army even as the Netanyahu government has demonstrated its extraordinary ineptitude and avoided accepting responsibility for its failures – leaving the attacked kibbutzim, towns, and cities of the border area near Gaza on their own for an unprecedented period, allowing a bloodbath, hostage-taking, and worse.  It has also taken an unconscionably long time for this administration to form an emergency coalition government.  At last after five days, we now have a war cabinet, but it will be judged by its actions in the hard war that is ahead of us.

As citizens now, my wife and I are experiencing this war in a new way. We have no other home. I have all that is most precious to me here: my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my home, my life.  Our youngest son, Yoni, a father of three, has been called up to reserve duty and is in the south. All of us are in range of the missiles and the enemy. The consequences of what has happened affect us personally, not only as Jews and lovers of Israel.  We are looking at things from the inside.

As an only child of Holocaust survivors, and growing up and absorbing my parents’ post-traumatic conviction that catastrophe always lurks around the corner, I had hoped that my move to a prosperous, strong, Jewish State would finally wipe away that conviction that my upbringing had instilled into my worldview.  No longer a member of vulnerable minority dependent on the tolerance of the state that hosted us and even offered us naturalization, and my children citizenship, we could be part of an am chofshi b’artzenu, a free nation in our own land. Israel seemed to offer a new kind of freedom.

But this last year has now put that hope in question, my old anxieties about lurking catastrophe have started to come back.  I still believe in this country.  My children, who I hope have not inherited those anxieties but rather the optimism of their mother, have shown me hope.  My youngest son in the reserves writes us daily dispatches.  His update this morning offers an example:

“I have felt a growing frustration at the level of anger and despair that fills the space in between conversations and sometimes bursts out on the news, on social media, etc.

It has been notably absent where I am. Certainly part of that is because my role in all this prevents my being exposed to the flood of images and videos, talking heads, funerals, and the sense of helplessness that is pervasive on the ‘home front.’  But part of it is because of what I do see and many of you do not.

The level of donated food, toiletries, and equipment is like a flood. But what makes that lump catch in my throat are the little notes, handwritten, scrawled on napkins hastily taped to sandwich bags. “Thank you for protecting us and lifting our morale and making all the people of Israel feel safe” reads one. “Fear not, O Israel – we are all with you” reads another.

As a grunt in basic training, pride in our unit was a big thing. In this war, the pride is in being part of this brotherhood/sisterhood that showed up and stood ready to do whatever it takes.”

He concludes: “This is a war. There is trauma. And for too, too many, life will never be the same. But we will triumph.  We will build a safe new reality. I know it because I, and the thousands of soldiers I have seen over the last week, will not rest, will not see our families, will not take our boots off, until we have made it so.”

Another of my sons, a journalist, writes of the tremendous outpouring of help – not from our inept government – from two groups of Israelis “those mobilizing to fight and those trying to support them and the victims.”  Of the government, he can only say, “We cannot rely on our leaders.”

My other sons have also done what they can, one of them helping to dig graves and another putting in hours with his professional skills to help in our defense.

For septuagenarians like my wife and me, our jobs are to be back-ups for our children, to literally serve on the home front. Whether dealing with grandparenting tasks, or my wife helping with volunteering her psychological counseling skills.  We are ready to be helping hands, no matter how shaky those are.  We are none of us trembling in fear or helpless. We know that thus far we have been unbelievably lucky, while nearly all of us know at least some of the families who have been struck by the tragedies of this war. I believe in resilience even after catastrophe.  I saw it even in my post-traumatic parents, especially my late father who suffering both in the war and then near the end of his life never caused him to lose hope.  It will not be easy or quick to climb back after this, and we all here know that there may be even darker days ahead, but we pray to live to see the dawn of better days in this land with which we all have shared our fate.

Notes Posted on an IDF base from packages delivered.
Photo Credit Jonah Heilman
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.
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