Justin Cammy
Tsi vet men dos gleybn, Aryeh-Leybn?

Wartime Diary: A Letter to My Students

Harvesting lettuce at Ein Habsor
Volunteering in the lettuce harvest at Moshav Ein Habsor, November 28, 2023

I write to you this late Wednesday afternoon from Tel Aviv, prior to my flight home. November 29 happens to be my birthday. More importantly, it is also an important date in Israeli history, when the UN General Assembly voted to Partition Palestine to allow for a Jewish state. But the mood here is far from festive.

It has now been almost two months since the mass murders and kidnappings in southern Israel on Oct 7, and the subsequent war between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza that has claimed thousands more innocent lives. When I wrote to you in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I predicted that we would very quickly witness a moral inversion in which the genocidal aims and acts of Hamas and its supporters would be projected onto the State of Israel. Crimes against Israelis are denied, diminished, or explained away while we are told that Palestinians have a right of resistance by any means, as if the perpetrators of October 7 had no choice other than to murder, rape, mutilate, pillage and kidnap. As a scholar of the modern Jewish experience I am well aware of the ways in which segments of the intellectual class, through fashionable theories, carefully incubate an anti-Zionism than can metastasize into antisemitism.

I first visited Israel in 1988, and have since returned more than three dozen times, including for several longer stays – a junior year abroad at the Hebrew University, a sabbatical semester in Jerusalem, a sabbatical year in Tel Aviv, and more than a dozen summers as a member of the faculty of a Yiddish summer program at Tel Aviv University. Over 35 years of travel to the region I have developed meaningful relationships with Israelis of all kinds. Accordingly, it is appropriate to show up not only when things are relatively calm but also at moments of crisis. Solidarity is sometimes expressed in words, but must also a mode of being. Beyond such personal connections, the job of a scholar cannot be limited to book learning (or today, to performing one’s politics through sharing and liking social media posts). The hard work of showing up to do one’s own research and for one’s colleagues and students is just as critical.

I was deeply moved by my time on the ground in Israel. I arrived just before shabbat on El Al – the only international airline still flying. The screens on the plane communicated the moment: “El Al is here for you in times of routine and emergency.” The mood was subdued upon arrival. At the airport, placards of the hostages lined the entrance hall, as did signs pointing to the direction of emergency shelters. This was before the first hostages were released, and the country seemed to be holding its collective breath.

I immediately visited the cousins who first welcomed me into their home back in 1988 when I was a student for weekend visits. They showed me a flower arrangement made in memory of the 1200 recently murdered Israelis.  Attached to it was a short-handwritten note with a date, reminding that the attacks on sleeping Jewish communities near Gaza were designed to coincide with the surprise attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 some 50 years to the day earlier. Though my cousins are now retired, they worry about their grandchildren who are now on the front lines of this generation’s war, much as they were called to fight in wars of the past.

Early the next morning I walked the streets of Tel Aviv at sunrise, observing the posters of the hostages all over the city (the same ones of children, mothers, the elderly, and ordinary men and women that so deeply offend some overseas  that they must be torn down). Flags and images everywhere reminded that these are unprecedented times: “We will not stop until they are all home,” “All of Israel are responsible for one another,” “Our strength is in our unity,” “We will prevail.” I met for coffee with a colleague from the university. We sat at Dizengoff Square in central Tel Aviv.  It has been transformed into a vernacular memorial for those killed or kidnapped on Oct 7. Make-shift hourglasses symbolizing the fate of the hostages and photos and candles for the dead surround the fountain that is normally alive with energy. My colleague brought her friend, who in the aftermath of October 7 helped to match visual evidence of the attacks to specific victims and those kidnapped. She related to me what she had seen with her own eyes, based on videos and still pictures taken by the perpetrators themselves, many of which have not been fully publicized in the media due to their graphic nature and out of respect for the families of the dead: parents killed in front of their children and vice versa, amputations of limbs and genitalia, a pregnant mother cut open, beheadings, and more. To say that I was affected by what I learned and am now unable to unlearn is an understatement.

That afternoon I visited my wife’s first cousin whose professional work I greatly admire because of its focus on building resilience in communities who are often overlooked. At this moment, he is continuing his work to build educational and leadership capacity among the Bedouin while also helping those displaced communities near Gaza with resources.

I then met a fellow scholar of Yiddish and Hebrew literature at “Hostages Square” in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the space where families have been advocating for the fate of their loved ones. More than 100,000 people gathered there to hear testimony, listen to songs of hope and consolation, and offer the families an embrace. I returned to the same square several nights later, without the crowds, to talk with representatives of those communities most affected. In one corner, a Torah scribe was working on a scroll to be loaned to Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the border communities most affected in the attacks. It was started back in 2014, when several Israeli teenagers were murdered by terrorists, and its writing has picked up again now. I was honored to be able to fill in a letter of a scroll that will have been written by the people as a whole as a sign of their faith and commitment in those things that are eternal and true and good.

The next day I traveled to Jerusalem, where I spoke with Israeli and North American students at the Hartman Institute. They are genuine in their learning, and were looking for a framework to help bridge the different ways Israelis and North Americans navigate the current crisis.  In some ways, Israelis are luckier. Many will leave this gap year to fulfill their mandatory army or national service, and in so doing find a sense of purpose. By contrast, the North American students will return to campuses where their relationship with Israel will be put on the defensive.

I followed our discussion with a lunch at the apartment of friends. One is an award-winning Hebrew novelist who noted that the accounts of the brutality of Oct 7 have forced her to now read the biblical book of Lamentations with a new clarity. Her husband, a noted Israeli journalist, had just returned from the frontlines and talked about the challenges of a ceasefire during a yet unrealized military campaign.  Before catching the evening train from Jerusalem I met with an even older friend from my childhood in Canada, now a pathologist at Hadassah University hospital, who reinforced that this was “the worst I have personally ever seen things.”

The next morning I met with a colleague of mine near Israel’s national theater, where we spoke about Yiddish literature and how it has helped us make sense of this moment. Living with and through Jewish texts provides one with an experiential grammar. The words “Bring Them Home” stared out at us from atop the symphony building. I then took the train North to Haifa, itself under a different threat by Iranian-supported Hezbollah. Decades-old friends there spoke about the fact that several hundred thousand Israelis are internally displaced refugees, unable to return to their homes near Gaza or to communities near the border with Lebanon. This is not a sustainable condition for any country, yet the world has no concern for Jews who are turned into refugees . We ate lunch at a restaurant owned by local Israeli Christian Arabs. They only want to live in peace, like most families, and they insisted I take home the glass of the local Palestinian Taibeh beer we drank as a memento for better times.  On the way back to Tel Aviv, I met with friends who immigrated to Israel a long while ago. They have been emotionally devastated by the events of the last six weeks, and especially by the sense of betrayal of those “friends” back in America who have not yet reached out to check in on them, or who would dare lecture them about their lives there when they do. When I got back to Tel Aviv she texted: “I’m not myself. This new normal has broken me from my core… At first there was survivor’s guilt. Now, I’m just frozen and deeply devastated. I’m really trying to let go of resentment because I have so much pain in my body that it only hurts more when I think of people’s silence as we live this nightmare.”

I spent the next day volunteering at a farm 4 miles from Gaza, with students and faculty from Tel Aviv University. Terrorists arrived at this community in the early morning of Oct 7, but its residents were able to fight them off, one of the few bright moments of that awful day. With all of these civilian communities now evacuated for the foreseeable future, there is a need for volunteers to help with the harvest and winter planting. One farmer told me that the attacks had “ripped their hearts out”. However, there was something deeply therapeutic about harvesting and then planting, knowing that it is an act of faith in the future. It was haunting to know that just a short distance away from this pastoral setting ordinary Palestinian Gazans, who also only want food for their children and safety, were suffering and Israeli hostages were captive below ground. When I returned to Tel Aviv that evening I stopped by a restaurant I had frequented several times in the past. How can one eat amid such pain? I could not, and apparently I was not alone. Normally, it is packed, but this time it was almost empty. Most Israelis are at home in the evening, glued to their television sets for the latest updates about the hostages. They are simply not in the mood to go out. The bartender refused to let me pay for my single drink at a time when businesses are starved for income.

On my final morning in Israel I met with another friend, himself a Hebrew novelist and screenwriter. He has been unable to focus on his current project since the beginning of the war, and has instead shifted to writing a war diary and thinking through ways to translate the story of what ordinary folk experienced on October 7.  That is, his entire creative direction was transformed overnight.

So what did I learn from all of these discussions over this visit, not only from my friends but also from interlocutors on buses and trains, in supermarkets and on street corners, and how did they clarify and sharpen my understanding of Israeli society at this very moment?

First, Israelis I spoke with across the political spectrum reinforced that their government failed them on October 7. Netanyahu, who built his political reputation as Mr. Security, failed them with a government more focused on sowing internal political divisions and tolerating the ideological fantasies of its most right-wing members than fulfilling the most basic contract a country has with its citizens — to protect them. This was an intelligence, military, and political failure of the gravest order. Most people noted that Oct 7 was an even greater shock than the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria in 1973, since it violated the bedrooms of civilians.

Next, there is deep gratitude for President Biden at this particular moment. When the Israeli government did not seem capable of communicating anything  to its citizens for days after the event, so paralyzed was it by its own dysfunction, the President came to Israel and spoke in a way that deeply moved and reassured Israelis across the political spectrum. They know that he is under significant pressure internationally and within his own party, and they appreciated a leader who governs according to his own values.

The brutality of the attacks and the joy its perpetrators took in savaging Jews is beyond the imagination. I was already familiar with one recording of a telephone call by a terrorist to his parents in Gaza that had him gleefully screaming that “your son has killed Jews [not Israelis] with his own hands” as his mother celebrates in the background. Israelis also have heard promises that October 7 will be repeated “again and again.” Consequently, when they see hundreds of thousands of people abroad with placards reading “From the River to the Sea…”, they interpret these based on their own lived experience, not as calls for non-violent political change.

Women’s stories are integral to the events of October 7. The army lookouts on the border, almost all of which were peopled by young women soldiers, were not taken seriously when they repeatedly warned of a looming attack. There is much talk now of misogyny within the military intelligence ranks because their warnings were ignored or dismissed, and many of them were killed. There also is pride in the fact that the first military tank battle conducted entirely by women in combat took place on October 7 when a unit of women tankists were among the first to respond to the attacks, saving countless lives. People also talk of the heroism of Rachel, who was held captive in her own home, but kept offering her captors coffee and cookies to distract them and even bandaged one of them while a grenade was held over her head. Finally, posters are everywhere in Israel about the silence of international women’s organizations when it comes to the brutalization of women’s bodies that happen to be Jewish. The anger about the perceived hypocrisy is palpable.

Israeli civil society has mobilized in unprecedented ways. With several hundred thousand Israelis internally displaced and living all around the country in hotels, with family, or in loaned apartments, and tens of thousands of fathers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters now mobilized to the reserves, there has been a need for food, clothing, pop-up schooling, therapy, and so much more. The level of collective solidarity is inspiring by those on the home front.

Prior to October 7, the mass protests against the government’s proposed judicial reforms were ripping Israeli society apart. Immediately after October 7, organizers of those protests transferred their organizational talents into advocating for the hostages and leading volunteerism. Where there once was talk of creeping civil war there is now admiration for the resilience of society to come together when it most matters, and hope that future governments will learn from the experience of sowing unnecessary social division for short-term political gain.

The attacks of October 7 and the subsequent war seem to have confirmed, rather than challenged, most people’s previous positions. Those on the Israeli Left are reinforced in their belief that an explosion was inevitable (though they do not excuse it in any way). Without a political horizon for Palestinian aspirations, they argue that extremists were emboldened. That some of those killed or kidnapped were from the peace camp makes their pain even deeper, as does the worry that their cause will be marginalized further by those who see them as helplessly naïve. Several of those murdered from farming communities near Gaza were leaders in peace work — advocating for Palestinian rights, driving sick Palestinians from Gaza to Israeli hospitals for treatment, employing Gazans in their communities. Whether such work can ever resume is unknown. By contrast, those on the Right have been reinforced in their beliefs that whenever Israelis withdraw from territories (as they did from Gaza in 2005 and south Lebanon in 2006) what replaces them is not peace but war. They argue that this is not a political problem but an existential problem – not about land but about the very existence of a Jewish state anywhere.  This enhances their belief than any future withdrawal from West Bank lands would be dangerous, if not suicidal.

Debate is now raging about the wisdom of extending the ceasefire. For those for whom the fate of the hostages is most important (and Jewish law states that redemption of captives is among the great commandments) there is a desire to continue the ceasefire so long as it results in the continued release of hostages. For those for whom uprooting the terror infrastructure from Gaza is most critical, there is concern that the fate of the hostages is overwhelming an even bigger priority – ultimately, the security of the state. The loss of momentum as a result of the ceasefire concerns those who believe that it could lead to a stalemate in which Hamas, diminished in its capacities, is left in power holding on to some hostages indefinitely – especially younger men and soldiers. The pause may allow Hamas to regroup, which is likely to make the job of the Israeli army more dangerous, both for its soldiers and for civilians in Gaza as Hamas further entrenches itself.

Finally, I received a text from a friend while in Israel who was not able to see me because he is serving in the Reserves, away from his wife and daughters. I am still turning it over, so striking it is: “The battlefield you are on in America is perhaps even more complex and dangerous than the one I am on here. You have to fight against some of our own people there, while I am together here with tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters. I enjoy their support, while you have to stand before young Americans, some of them even fellow Jews, who attempt to shame you for your beliefs.”

I was embarrassed by how many times I was thanked for coming to Israel (“kol havod”), not only by friends and family who frankly don’t really need a middle-aged scholar of Yiddish showing up at this moment, but by total strangers – in taxis, at bus stops, while volunteering, and more. I was in Israel for less than a week to offer those I know there a familiar face from abroad so they would know they are not alone. In fact, they supported me just as much, and perhaps even more. This is what Jewish peoplehood is all about.

About the Author
Justin Cammy is professor of Jewish Studies and World Literatures at Smith College in Massachusetts, where he also co-founded the Program in Middle East Studies. His critical edition and translation from Yiddish of Abraham Sutzkever's From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg won the 2022 Leviant Prize in Yiddish from the Modern Language Association.
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