Elana Hornblass Dushey

Wartime Israelis and America’s cultural crisis

America is suffering from a cultural sickness:

A deeply embedded moral cowardice manifested in unapologetic Jew hatred-from the smugness of Ivy league presidents who remain at their posts, to the backward and discriminatory policies of DEI, to the ignorant pro-Palestinian protesters who spew antisemitic tropes in the guise of social justice.

While most Americans disdain antisemitism, history has taught us that a rise in antisemitism is often the first marker of a society’s demise (Jewish hate crimes have risen more than 300 percent in the last three months). It is no surprise then that the Israel/Gaza conflict is at the epicenter of America’s cultural sickness, where a refusal to look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with accuracy has perpetuated a discourse grounded in Jew hate, equivocation, and egregious impracticality.

Of the many examples, consider that anti-Israel protesters excuse Hamas’ actions as justified resistance to Israel’s occupation of Gaza, when Israel hasn’t occupied Gaza since 2005. While the death of many innocent Palestinians is a tragic consequence of this war, protesters accuse Israel of indiscriminate killing when the IDF painstakingly tries to avoid civilian deaths and when Hamas intentionally hides behind civilians. In effect, the accusation against Israel absolves Hamas of war crimes against its own people and enables Hamas to continually commit them. Protesters vociferously call for a cease fire when Hamas both broke one on October 7th (intentionally beginning this war) and out-rightly states that its sole objective is to destroy Israel. As such, when protestors call for cease fire, they are insisting that Israel willingly succumb to destruction-a demand that is both impractical-because Israel will never self-destruct-and immoral- because it suggests that Jews should not possess the basic right of self-defense. Aside from its problematic antisemitism, in its equivocation and impracticality, this discourse has increasingly become intellectually and emotionally disabling for the American collective.

America’s cultural sickness starkly juxtaposes what I witnessed last week when I spent 4 days in Israel and saw how many Israelis are navigating this current war: Certainly, I saw indications of pain, loss, and fear. But I was also witness to courage and constructive practicality that is engendered from the way most Israelis value life, love, and family above all else. Through a busy 4 days traversing from Jerusalem to the south of the country on a mission with 40 other women from my American synagogue, I witnessed a generation of Israelis put aside religious, political, and ideological differences, channel their pain into practical initiatives, and rise to greatness together. While it is certainly not a utopia nor a monolith of emotions and ideas, Israel is still a striking antithesis and, perhaps, an ideological antidote to the sickness of America’s contemporary cultural climate.

I encountered many inspiring people in Israel but there were a few who encapsulated the exemplary ways Israel has come together during this war: They were grieving parents, soldiers in an elite unit, and volunteers at a junction for soldiers on leave from Gaza.

The Grieving parents:

When we stood at Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery, we happened upon a mother and a father visiting their son’s grave. Their son was a soldier, who had been killed by Hamas terrorists when they attacked his border post on October 7th. He was one of the first to die in the conflict. The bereaved parents were alone, sitting silently by their son’s grave in the ubiquitous white plastic chairs you see in Israel.

The weather was a perfect Jerusalem winter day-bright, blue, brisk. Beyond them there was a shloshim, a Jewish memorial service-for another soldier, and there were rows of new graves-some already framed in limestone beds, others still fresh mounds of dirt, all accessorized by personal effects left by the soldier’s unit, family, friends- A pair of red sunglasses. A Union jack flag-for a lone soldier. A pile of carved wooden hearts with different messages of love on them.

Our mission leader, who unwaveringly led us through the humbling terrain of seeing a people navigate a war, approached the parents in their private moment of grief and expressed her sympathy. The father stood up and read to a us a letter that his son had sent him sometime in September. The son wrote that he had been reading a verse from the Bible that bore striking similarity to where he was based, and how privileged he was to protect the borders of his ancient homeland and the Jewish people. After the father read the letter, we all offered our condolences. One by one we lined up, hugged the mother, and said to the father min haShamayim tenuchamu-may you receive comfort from Heaven. The mother and father cried with us-strangers but fellow Jews. Then our group moved on to see more of Har Herzl, and the parents remained by the grave of their son, sitting on plastic chairs.

An hour later, the father had found someone from our group and requested that this message be relayed to us: He thanked us for coming to Israel, and he wanted us to know that he and his wife, only cry at Har Herzl. They specifically come to Har Herzl to cry. They have other children at home and they do not want their other children to be constantly surrounded by tears. They want their other children to have a full life.

The way in which those parents mourned -the bleeding but practical approach to their grief- encapsulated the courage I had repeatedly witnessed in my brief visit to Israel- a courage that is not grounded in stoic resilience but in a resilience of someone who retains emotional vulnerability and heart, and who above all values the power of life-not the potency of death. Most emphatically, it juxtaposes the Islamist glorification of martyrdom, and the sickness of America’s current ennobling of victimization.

The Soldiers:

Our group met with an elite group of soldiers, whose specific mission in Gaza situates them in both an impossible and dangerous situation. When speaking with them (and with most of the Israelis I encountered) I was struck by the fact that they did not articulate anger towards the Palestinians. Instead, the soldiers repeatedly emphasized that their sole responsibility was to protect the Jewish people-even though many in the unit had already finished their obligatory military service and were building professional and personal lives-some even abroad. They halted their lives (and income) to serve in this unit. None of them wished for this war. One of the soldiers in the unit was a bearded man of 20, with a wide and warm smile. He told us he appreciated the bags of beef jerky we gave him. But what he most appreciated were the letters and pictures written by children. I suddenly remembered that my 10-year-old daughter had written a letter that she wanted me to give to an Israeli soldier; I ran back to our bus to retrieve it and when I handed it to him, he opened the middle Velcro pocket on his combat vest, and took out the items he keeps “close to his heart”. He took out a small book of Psalms, an amulet his grandmother gave him, a letter he had written to his brother 10 years earlier, and a picture of his family. And then he told me- “I’m putting your daughter’s letter in this pocket too.” May God watch over him.

What that moment revealed, what he unknowingly articulated, was that Israeli courage is not the willingness to die for a cause, but rather the fortitude to fight for the life of its people. Americans can learn from this soldier who faces death but does not glorify death to better navigate its possibility. And while it may be mobilizing to be motivated by hate for his enemy, the soldier seemed devoid of hate. Compare that to anti-Israel protestors who express solidarity with Palestinians through a foaming vitriol of hate targeted at Israel and Jews- a grossly ineffective way to support Palestinians that is concurrently emotionally poisoning. This soldier may have felt anger towards Palestinians, but it certainly wasn’t his engine. It was clear that love motivated him.

The Volunteers:

We went to Kfar Aza-one of the kibbutzim in the south devastated by Hamas. I walked in the young adult area of the Kibbutz, knowing that the homes- many black and charred from being set on fire and all riddled with bullet holes, were once filled with young people embarking on the journey to adulthood and were now dead-murdered on October 7th by Hamas terrorists. The bombs from Gaza a mile away made me jump at every boom.

Afterwards, our bus took us to a nearby junction where soldiers who have left Gaza for a few days’ respite stop to eat barbeque, shower, do some laundry, and shave their unruly beards before visiting home.

When we approached the junction, I already heard Hebrew techno music blasting and saw the smoke from the BBQ grills wafting under the high fluorescent lights. The volunteers who cook for and coordinate the BBQ were dancing with a group of soldiers in a small, messy circle. Once we arrived, we immediately joined them, grabbing their hands and circling the picnic tables where other soldiers (men and women) exhaustedly ate a much-needed meal. The energy there was electric: The volunteers were laughing. They were cheering. Their eyes were wet. And what I felt, holding their hands, dancing together, clapping and cheering for the soldiers as they joined in the dance, was joy in being united at that moment. Close to the front lines of Gaza- the faces of the volunteers seemed to express genuine happiness, and later when we spoke to them about what they do at the junction on a nightly basis, they explained that they were happy to do anything for the soldiers. And so the energy that pulsated through the music- and to the music- was a joyous energy born from knowing that in the face of darkness and uncertainty the volunteers were doing something constructive and helpful, and doing it together.

Many of the war efforts in Israel are homegrown-whether it is my friend’s initiative to cook for soldiers every day and deliver meals to their base, or the people who do laundry for the displaced families from the south who are now living in hotels, or the women who created an organization to support each other while their husbands are at war, or the volunteers who grabbed my hands to dance,  many Israelis have figured out how to take their grief, loss, anger and fear and transform into practical initiatives that help their people. Compare that to the ineffective protesters who feign supporting Palestinians by calling for the murder of Jews, instead of standing up to Hamas-an exploitive and abusive regime that destroys its own people.

Israel will make it through this war victoriously-wounded but with body AND soul intact. And despite their flaws, pain, grief, and loss, and despite the fact that Israelis will need to rebuild and heal after the war, this war has already engendered a better, noble, generation of Israelis. They have already risen to the challenge.

If we Americans want to survive as the great nation that we are, fulfill our promise as a nation dedicated to justice, life, and liberty- we need to look at war time Israelis as a beacon, face our problems head on,  and rise to our current cultural challenge.

About the Author
Elana is an Adjunct at The MirYam Institute. She earned her PhD in English Literature from Fordham University in 2015 with a dissertation that focused on Jewish American literature and its approach to Zionism and Israel. For 12 years, she taught literature, composition, and film at St. Johns University and Fordham University, where she was awarded numerous fellowships. Following her degree, she was a Connected Academic Fellow in the Modern Language Association. Elana also writes fiction, most notably children’s fiction, and lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children, as a member of a vibrant Jewish community that is dedicated to Israel and other Jewish causes.
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