On August 13, I returned to Israel for the first time since 2018, leading a delegation of Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds staff on a four-day journey of discovery as they explored the dynamic, resolute nation they proudly support.
Over the four years since my last visit, a head-spinning array of dramatic events impacted Israel – the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing closure of the country’s borders; the collapse of two more governments; the signing of the Abraham Accords; Operation Guardian of the Walls; and revolving premierships, with the leaders of three different parties serving as prime minister. Moreover, Operation Breaking Dawn concluded just days before my arrival.
Yet, throughout this maelstrom, one thing remained constant – the indomitable Israeli spirit. Over the course of the Israel Bonds delegation, I set out to ascertain why this was so. Speaking with individuals as diverse as Israel itself led to an inescapable conclusion: the country’s greatness comes from within. Despite conflict, a broad mosaic of ethnicities and beliefs, and ongoing political and philosophical discourse, the Jewish state inexorably moves forward, thanks to a distinctly Israeli blend of pride, resolve and, above all else, connection to the land.
Here’s what I uncovered during my conversations.
Col. (res.) Olivier Rafowitz, former IDF foreign media spokesperson and current representative of Israel Bonds in Israel, had just completed a call-up during Operation Breaking Dawn. For him, Israel’s uniqueness is viewed through the prism of the Holocaust. His grandfather left his shtetl in Poland for the pre-state Yishuv, eventually settling in Paris, which he had envisioned, says Olivier, “as a place of freedom in Europe.”
Tragically, that was not the case. On July 16, 1942, Olivier’s grandfather and family were rounded up by French police, sent to a transit camp and subsequently deported to Auschwitz. “I didn’t understand,” says Olivier, “why he was living in a country that arrested Jews for no reason. All this happened because we had no state.”
Growing up in Paris, Olivier first visited the Jewish state when he was 18. He returned a year later and never left, living in Israel for over forty years. When he first arrived, “I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew, but felt like I belonged to the land. I still feel like we are living a miracle. It doesn’t matter if you’re left or right, this is where you belong.”
Ophar Nesson’s connection to the land comes from a different perspective. He lives with 52 families in the West Bank outpost of Kedem Aravah, now in the process of being legalized, which Ophar expects will take two years.
Upon becoming a recognized community, Ophar anticipates Kedem Aravah will be home to 350 families as part of the Megilot Regional Council in the Judean Desert, close to the Dead Sea.
“It’s really hard to live here,” he admits. “Every day is a challenge, but we can do it.” The impetus to reside in a harsh, unforgiving environment stemmed from his desire “to find a place where we could connect to Israel. This is our home,” he emphasizes, “a dream we want to realize. It’s the one place in the world where I can speak Hebrew and take my kids hiking while telling them stories from the Bible.”
The Tour Guide
Mati Senkman gazes reflectively at the Dead Sea as he describes the origins of his family’s journey to Israel. The story begins with the pogroms of 19th century Odessa, prompting his great-grandfather to move his family to Buenos Aires.
Raised in a Zionist home, Mati moved from Argentina to Israel when his father accepted a position as professor of history at Hebrew University. “I have always felt Israel was my country. We have proof. We can see it in the archeology.”
Mati acknowledges, “I can be cynical and critical, but 2,000 years ago, the last Jews were here, and now we’ve returned. It might sound like a cliché or kitsch, but for me, whether it’s Jerusalem or Masada, it’s deeply moving. It’s easy for Zionist Jews to imagine themselves belonging to this particular piece of land.”
The Iron Dome Commander
Captain T takes pride in her status as a woman commanding an Iron Dome battery, which she praises as “an amazing piece of technology.” A former Lone Soldier from San Diego, Captain T explains the soldiers under her command “are on alert 24/7, doing something very important for our country.”
She instructs her soldiers “to be ready for the unexpected. We practice the smallest things all the time. The lives of civilians are in our hands. If we’re one second too late, we missed our chance.”
To be chosen for this prestigious assignment, Captain T underwent a year of intensive training, including countless stress tests. She says the demands were well worth it, because “in America, you get up and go to work. Here, we are protecting a special country and a special people. It’s why you wake up every morning.”
An Unwavering Sense of Assurance
My quest to seek out the meaning of the Israeli spirit prompted reflection on my first visit to Israel, during which I worked on a kibbutz for three months. Pesach arrived a few days after I did, and, as I looked around the kibbutz dining hall during the Seder, I noticed a man with a concentration camp tattoo. Watching him exuberantly singing Passover songs, I understood that after enduring unimaginable suffering and loss, coming to Israel forever changed his destiny, enabling him to face the future with confidence.
This unwavering sense of assurance was reinforced by all with whom I spoke, defining for me the true essence of what it means to be Israeli.