Like so many Jews in the Diaspora, I woke up last Shabbat morning expecting life to be familiar, even celebratory.
We’d completed the festival of Sukkot. My wife and I had put up and decorated our best-ever sukkah — beach-themed this year, and celebrated with friends and family. How great that Shabbat had arrived, and time to contemplate life from the spirit of Shemini Atzeret — which was, inexplicably, my grandfather’s favorite holiday (so he said). In the background, I was contemplating Simchat Torah, and the joy of connecting with my Jewish community and celebrating the life of Torah.
What a shock to hear the news of Hamas having launched the most brutal, surprising, and devastating attack on my beloved Israel, certainly since 1973 and arguably since the founding of the state in 1948.
Having been clear about and written about the threat to Israel not being around its survival but around its character, I was utterly astonished by how wrong I could have been.
Three days later — now in Day 4 of the War with Hamas, the essential question of Israel’s character has rebounded to me to be again in the forefront.
Hamas’ assault on Israel, including house-by-house searches and executions near the Gaza border, more than 4,000 missiles launched into the heart of the country, and hostage taking of an unprecedented scale–was absolutely horrific; it was, as President Biden shared Tuesday “evil”.
Regardless of one’s opinion of the policies toward Palestinians, there really can be no humane justification for the murder of Israeli civilians in the manner and on the scale that occurred this week.
Now, I have already been reading anti-Zionist rhetoric that nothing short of “proportional response” to Hamas’ attacks should be accepted by the international community. That may not be much of a surprise. I honestly do not expect nor request, a proportional response, in terms of the property damage and human lives lost from Israeli action following Hamas’ attack. As American General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is Hell.”
But we should all care deeply that our response–Israel’s response–following the end of the war is reflective of Israel’s true character.
In 1914, near the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which had ruled the Eastern Mediterranean and most of Arabia for centuries, the writer H.G. famously called the current world war “the war to end all wars.” Others adopted the expression, and of course, were famously wrong.
But what if the current conflict really was the last military conflict Israel found itself in?
There is almost no doubt that Israel will decimate the Hamas operation in the days and weeks ahead. And it doesn’t mean that Anti-Semitism will suddenly disappear, or that threats from other militant groups will evaporate.
Many have commented that the surprise attack by Hamas–who seemed not inclined to launch a new attack and jeopardize the increased economic strength of Gazans–was a desperate act for attention and survival on the cusp of normalized relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
What if, when the conflict is over, Israel reaches out, and does Teshuvah? That the country’s government accept responsibility for the condition of life–not blame, but real responsibility; and redeclares Israeli independence, based on the founding principles of Zionism?
There is so much misunderstanding–unintentional as well as intentional–and misinformation about Zionism. Many say it’s ethnocentric, that it’s an expression of superiority, that it’s Apartheid.
But the essential nature of Zionism is that Jews have a safe place for Jews to be–not the only group to be there. To quote Herzl: “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.” Thet Jewish State, (1896)
It may seem idealistic–but so was the dream of Zionism.
Such will not be the legacy of Benjamin Netanyahu. While Netanyahu may have inadvertently created the condition for a new paradigm, a vision of return to true Zionism was never his vision. Rather, will be the Israeli people and holding true to the Jewish people’s true character that will provide the opportunity for this future.
The Jewish people are resilient. We have persevered for centuries, in environments that were hostile and dangerous.
The world is a mess. We seem to be on a road toward hostile tribalism, and a disengagement from civic life whenever someone disagrees with one’s personal view. We seem to be more committed to blame others for the messes we find ourselves in than do the work to create a better world. We throw our hands up in despair and tell ourselves there is little we can do.
But what if Israel–and Jews worldwide–took 5784 and made it the year that we turned everything around for the world? That we demonstrated the best of humanity, and showed others that we didn’t have to stay stuck in downward spirals of self-interest, isolation and resignation about the condition.
We should take the time now to steel ourselves around the tragedy that has unfolded, mourn the loss of those have perished in the current conflict, comfort loved ones, and find solace in community. But we should not stay stuck in the current moment. Rather, we should look beyond it to “what’s next” and the months ahead following the end of the war, which will be the bigger test of Israel and the Jewish people.