From the Newsletter | Israel Is Not the Same: Notes From a Recent Trip

By | Apr 05, 2024
From the Newsletter, Israel
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My wife Miriam and I traveled to Israel in late February for a two-week visit. Five months had passed since October 7, and the horror of what Hamas did that day was still present. Everyone we met had a story of someone they knew who was killed or wounded, or taken hostage, or nearly killed. Hostage pictures and signs were everywhere, as was Israelis’ fear for what the hostages are going through in Gaza.

Everyone we met in Israel has changed; everyone feels vulnerable. They are alternately depressed, angry, reserved and in a state of mourning. The IDF, who everyone believed would protect them, failed them on October 7. For the most part, Israelis do not seem to be able to contemplate the suffering that Gazans face. The focus is on winning the war—killing Hamas’s leaders and ensuring that this horror will never be repeated. And they are committed to doing whatever it takes, including sending their children to risk death.

The Beauty and Horror of Kfar Aza and the Nova Rave

In a visit to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz hit hard by Hamas, we were overwhelmed by stories of the barbarism of Hamas and the depth of their depravity. At the edge of the kibbutz, we saw, less than a kilometer away, the outline of apartment buildings in central Gaza.

We were told that the inhabitants of Kfar Aza had lived for many years with a constant fear of rockets coming from Gaza. At the same time, they made Kfar Aza a place of beauty. We saw the sun shining, the green grounds, flowers everywhere, and heard birds singing. Before the that day, Kfar Aza was a striking contrast to some other parts of Israel that were filled with traffic, high rises, and concrete structures.

A guide, who was out of the country at the time of the attack, showed us the homes that had been destroyed. Each house had photos of those who had been killed inside or just outside the dwelling. Separately, we visited the site of the outdoor Nova music festival, where 400 were murdered and/or taken hostage. It was filled with pictures of those who had perished. Many visitors as well as groups of soldiers, half of them wearing kippot, came by to view the scene and to pray. We met the driver of a small pickup truck that had gone back and forth in the midst of the attack, rescuing as many as 750 people from the site while the terrorists were attacking.

Visits to a Synagogue

David Azoulay, the rabbi of the reform synagogue in Modiin, told us that the city has the highest percentage of deaths in the war of any city in the country, perhaps because it is a young city with many military-age youths. A few days earlier he had led a funeral for a young female soldier. They had thought that she had been abducted, but then the army found body fragments that were identified as hers using DNA analysis. We went to the nearby military cemetery, where there were at least twenty gravesites. The young woman’s parents were standing near her grave, visiting it an hour before Shabbat. They told us about their daughter, who was gifted artistically and musically and had recently received her secondary school degree.

The Friends, Colleagues, and Relatives We Met

Of all the people we spoke to, each had a slightly different story to tell. One was fearful that the war would continue and expand to the North. Another was deeply upset that American students at the top universities were expressing antisemitism or engaging in antisemitic actions and that women who believe in the #MeToo movement had not condemned Hamas for their sexual assaults on women. Celebrations of events such as birthdays and holidays were subdued.

A young American who made Aliyah seven years ago and who will soon be ordained as an Israeli rabbi was deeply concerned about Israel’s isolation. “Israel will have to sit at the table of nations,” he said. Another person, who had just returned from a week in London, was astounded, surprised and dismayed at the antisemitism he experienced there. He said that Israel had to find a way to convey its views to the world.

What were our takeaways?

The massacre of October 7 and the continuing war against Hamas have deeply impacted the hearts and minds of Israelis. Our trip highlighted many dangers for the Jewish state. There is a serious risk of war in the north, as well as a potential civil war between the secular and religious/right-wing parts of Israeli society. In addition, war is very expensive; Israel’s public deficit has grown to 6 percent. The military cannot continue for long with the current level of conscription.


Meanwhile, the population of Haredim and religious Jews motivated by messianism is growing. The current coalition is heavily influenced by religious Jews as well as the ultra-Orthodox. Religious Jews are increasingly taking high positions in the IDF and in government, and ultra-Orthodox leadership refuses to permit its youth to enter the IDF. The depth of depravity of the enemy and the circling of Israel from all sides—the dream of the Iranian clerics—are of deep concern. The war has led much of the population to move to the right. The inability of most Israelis to recognize Gazan suffering ends up encouraging international protests against Israel’s prosecution of the war and impacts financial, cultural and political support worldwide. This also increases antisemitism. There is little or no discussion among the Israelis we encountered of the next steps after the war ends, including the possibility of an independent but demilitarized Palestinian state.

Nonetheless, there are reasons for hope. The vast majority of Israelis are committed to winning and are willing to send their children to battle. At the same time, the High Court just recently has ordered the suspension of state subsidies for Jews studying in yeshivas instead of doing military service. Israelis are not leaving, at least not now, and instead are committed to destroying the Hamas leadership and ensuring that a similar government will not be allowed to come into existence. Up to now, the United States has provided continued support.

In the face of adversity over its 76 years of existence, Israel’s people have  shown extraordinary  resilience. Israel continues to innovate and be creative. The shekel has strengthened and acquisitions in high tech have increased. Civil society is awake, committed to a democratic and pluralistic country, and seeking a new election as soon as possible. If they vote en masse, then Israel is likely to have a government that we can respect and support. The fundamental questions are: Can Israel survive? Can it flourish? The rest is detail.

P.S. To prepare for the solar eclipse this Monday make sure to read my piece on solar eclipses in the Bible, Talmud and more!

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