The State of Israel was supposed to be a living promise that there would always be a place for Jews to be safe from the pogroms and Holocaust that plagued Jewish history. After the October 7 Hamas terror attacks, that promise is broken.
Last week, I flew to Israel in the wake of the worst day in its history to be with the nation and people that are so central to my life. I wanted to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” from afar to those whose foundation has been decimated.
It’s clear to me now that while Israelis appreciate our thoughts and prayers, what they need is for us to understand theirs.
By spending time listening to them — as difficult as their words are to hear — we can offer a lifeline to those drowning in tragedy. We can provide a rare moment of respite from the terror in their heads and a chance for them to reclaim a sliver of control amidst the devastating and unknown.
It’s been more than two weeks since heavily armed terrorists poured out of the Gaza Strip and ravaged Israeli communities to commit crimes beyond the pale of humanity. War has raged ever since, with Israel readying for a ground offensive to root out Hamas and bring home more than 222 people taken hostage.
During my five days in Israel, I met with two dozen survivors and family members of the hostages still being held in Gaza. Each was looking to share their anxious thoughts and desperate prayers with me and the world.
One parent whose daughter is being held by Hamas told me, “I have four children. Hopefully.” Her words haunt me.
I met Rachel Goldberg and Jonathan Polin, whose 23-year-old son, Hersh, was at the Nova Festival when Hamas commandos paraglided in, surrounded the attendees, and slaughtered 260 people. Hersh crammed into a bomb shelter with dozens of others. Hamas threw and launched grenades and sprayed machine gun fire inside. Hersh’s arm was blown off. He was last seen in a Hamas video in a pickup truck being driven into Gaza.
After his parents played the clip, Jon numbly said, “The blood-soaked boy with one arm is our son.” He and Rachel have shared their story worldwide over the past two weeks, including at the United Nations.
It’s still not clear whether many of the missing were killed or kidnapped. Rescue workers are searching through the ashes for bits of DNA to identify the dead. “Hamas wanted to turn names into numbers,” said one search and rescue volunteer. “I’m trying to turn numbers into names.”
For hundreds of tormented families, their loved ones are neither among the living nor the dead. They grapple with the nightmarish question of whether to hope their sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, are alive in Gaza, where they are probably being tortured, or have been killed and freed from the cruelty.
Trauma blankets the country. People recounted hours spent cowering in fear, hearing neighbors’ screams. One survivor told me of terrorists who were so well-prepared with information about the community, they stood outside a home and yelled the names of the family members inside.
For these Israelis, a sacred trust has been broken. “We never thought Israel would leave us without protection,” a survivor told me.
Against the sheer scale of trauma and pain, offering “thoughts and prayers” seems inconsequential. The cliché has long been a shorthand to skip past emotional hardship. The victims of tragedies want more than our thoughts and prayers; they want our support.
Their grief is compounded by the antisemitism just beyond their bubble of numb disbelief: US students marching for the terrorists who raped and murdered their friends in the name of ‘resistance.’ People ripping down posters of the kidnapped children they are aching to hug once again.
The global conversation is already shifting from the horrors Hamas perpetrated to how measured Israel’s response should be. And everything coming out of Israel is now being filtered through the lens of Israeli-Palestinian politics.
Listening to Israelis’ words reminds us that no free nation can be forced to live this way. Israel is not just defending its citizens but its very security as a place where Jews can move beyond the horrors of history and go to a music festival, wedding, or school without the unthinkable happening.
Their battle is our battle, and it begins by telling their stories.