Nobody I know has slept remotely properly for days. Not since last Shabbat morning.
Everybody I know is horrified beyond words at the unthinkable mass murders committed by Hamas, inside our country, across a dreadfully unprotected southern Israel — a valiant southern Israel where our people fought against impossible odds against an enemy bereft of humanity.
Everybody I know is fearful for the future of this country.
Many of the people I know, as one of my incredible, unflagging team of colleagues put it on Thursday, are “battered but not broken.” But some are much worse than that. Vast numbers of Israeli families have suffered the most unbearable of losses, in the most terrible circumstances. Everybody I know has lost someone or lost many people, whether close or not so close.
Others are in hellish limbo, uncertain of the fates of those most dear to them — fearing, with reason, unconscionable horrors.
The scale is unthinkable — numbers rising on a page that do not begin to convey the extent of our loss, the life after life after innocent, beautiful life snuffed out, in unspeakable ways, by monsters, for the “crime” of being Jews and Israelis living in our country.
Everybody I know is shaken — and some are almost paralyzed by near-despair.
But most everybody in this country of ours, this country we must save and protect, also knows that we cannot succumb to paralysis; we must not wallow pointlessly in the anger at what we have lost and how it could have been prevented. Because first, we have to survive.
Still, I want to rage at some of our own. And forgive me, because I do not usually write paragraphs like these. Skip past them if you like. Or stop reading if I offend you. The rage is not the ultimate point of this article.
I want to rage at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a knowledgeable, supremely confident and indefatigable politician, who has spent years tearing at the precious fabric of our society — dismissing any and all who oppose him, no matter their patriotism or their politics, as dangerous leftists and enemies of the state.
I want to rage at the arrogant racists, egotists and incompetents to whom he gave power and authority — including the Jewish supremacists who have stirred up hatred within Israel, shamed us in the eyes of the better parts of the world, complicated our friction-filled interactions with Palestinians in the West Bank and Jews’ interactions with Arabs inside Israel, placed further strains on our endlessly stretched security forces, and turned Judaism into a force for internal political division.
I want to rage at the justice minister who has sought obsessively this entire year to subjugate our judiciary to his will, deaf to pleas from the president on down to strive for consensus, with simply no consideration for the rifts he was deepening in our society — bitter disagreements that permeated the military and that we knew were emboldening our actual, murderous, external enemies, and which left us unnecessarily vulnerable when those external enemies swarmed into Israel to kill us.
I want to rage not only at the government, but at the army and the security establishment, at myself and everybody else, for being so criminally delusional as to ignore a terrorist army, the army of an Islamic death cult, right there on the other side of the border fence. A terrorist army that told us every day, in every which way, that it wants and intends to murder us all. A terrorist army that we watched building its tunnels, developing and testing its rockets, improving its attack drones, training its children year after year in their summer camps to hate us and how to kill us, and endlessly pumping its demonization of us into the hearts and minds of Gaza and beyond, by any and every conceivable means of communication.
They told us they were coming for us. We watched them prepare.
For years, the prime minister, who now correctly declares that Hamas is worse than Islamic State and must be defanged, allowed them to be funded and to build up the means to harm us so terribly. He saw them as some form of counter to the Palestinian Authority, with its corrupt leadership, its delegitimization of Israel, and its internationally backed demands for statehood — demands that Netanyahu once recognized would need to be carefully negotiated, before he lurched into partnerships with extremists with unsustainable maximalist agendas.
For years, our security establishments failed in what may have been the impossible task of persuading their political masters that Hamas was a profoundly dangerous threat, while at the same time underestimating Hamas themselves.
The IDF has always operated under strain, has been battling incessant West Bank terrorism, and had to allocate resources to prevent extremist Jewish terrorism too, all while its officers were denigrated by the extremists and their representatives in government. But none of that alters the fact that it mis-strategized and under-deployed in the apparent belief that Hamas was more interested in ruling Gaza than in killing Jews. It looked away from the indoctrination and the training and the arming and the preparations for war.
And so, with the top brass duped and complacent in the direct lead-up to Saturday, our people’s army was unprepared and unable to fulfill its core obligation to our people — to keep them safe, inside the country, inside their own homes.
I want to rage at the ultra-divisive Netanyahu for snapping his fingers and pronouncing, even as he engaged in self-interested negotiations on our new emergency government, that our internal divisions are now over and “we are all united.”
But much more than I want to rage, I want to hope and pray that he is right. And that the unity that this incredible people has managed to muster in this darkest of hours — despite our leadership, not because of it — is deep and lasting.
Because everybody I know, all of those people unsteady amid the proof of our vulnerability, the pain of our losses, and the fear of what lies ahead, are nonetheless doing whatever they can to make sure we emerge semi-intact from this ongoing nightmare.
Where the government is absent, the people are organizing and helping
In this tiny nation that has just suffered the worst blows in its modern existence, the people are pulling together and fighting back.
Hundreds of thousands of reservists have been called up, but many, many more than that number have sought to report for service — where just days ago, in that other era, people were warning that they would not serve in the army of a non-democratic Israel.
While foreign governments evacuate their nationals, ours are flying home to serve.
Where the government is absent, the people are organizing and helping.
The anti-overhaul protest organizers have set up a center to help families try to track down the missing and those feared abducted to Gaza.
Retired senior officers quickly organized and went to the southern communities where the atrocities took place to coordinate the assistance the devasted residents most needed. The Brothers in Arms protest group of reservists has been evacuating people from the south since the early hours of the war.
I had a chance to visit a donation center in Tel Aviv for the victims of Hamas’ terrorist attack. We are inspired by the solidarity of the Israeli people. America will always be by Israel's side. pic.twitter.com/aAuizvBbwY
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) October 12, 2023
In towns and communities nationwide, Israelis not called to the army are organizing to ensure that the local civil defense squads that fought so valiantly in the south, to such life-saving effect in those terrible hours on Saturday, are prepared and equipped should they be called into action. People are walking through neighborhoods battered by rocket fire, calling out to homes, offering help where needed. People are phoning Holocaust survivors, providing comfort in a period resonant with dreadful echoes.
Everywhere, people are opening their homes to families evacuated from the south and heading down from the north. People are delivering food, clothes, supplies; going shopping, babysitting. Everybody in the helping professions is providing their services — psychologists, trauma experts, social workers. People are rushing to help make up the minyans for the incessant funerals of our dead.
There’s more, so much more, being done — by our people, to safeguard our people — that I haven’t listed here.
And in those devastated communities down south, the volunteers of the ZAKA emergency response service continue, a week later, to evacuate the bodies of the dead. Volunteers, in the towns and kibbutzim of the war zone, in the sunny family homes that turned into death traps — homes with food on the table, kids’ pictures on the fridge, and bodies in the living room.
Yossi Landau, 55, a father of 10 from Ashdod with 25 grandchildren, who runs an international delivery firm and has volunteered for 38 years, described on Thursday night how he dashed from the synagogue when alerted to the Hamas attacks, going first to Sderot, where the scenes were terrible, “but I’d seen these kinds of things before,” and then to Kibbutz Be’eri, where the scenes were unspeakable.
This is just some of what he said in a Channel 12 news interview from the south: “The 20 children we saw in Kibbutz Be’eri was beyond terrible. [The terrorists] had bound their hands behind them. Abused them terribly. And simply put them one on top of the other and burned them. How can you do such a thing?”
“I didn’t believe anyone could behave like this… The Nazis didn’t behave like this.”
“We tell the bodies that we are sorry that we have not been able to honor them as we should — because of the sheer number of dead and the ongoing threat. At Be’eri a terrorist, injured, jumped at us. He had a grenade. He was killed [by a soldier].
“We also have to gather the bodies of the terrorists. The state needs us to do it. It’s very painful for us.”
“I’ve told some of my colleagues to go home. They were broken. They begged not to be sent home. I gave them administrative work. None of us is immune. But we have to continue.
“We sometimes made a circle — us and the soldiers — and sang songs of hope, that ‘the people of Israel live’… But it breaks you…”
His comfort, he said, is that “the entire nation is behind us.”
And he asked of us all: “Say a prayer, please, that we and the security forces emerge sane from all this.”
I do pray, and you should too, that the IDF leadership has indeed regained stability, and is working clearheadedly to tackle Hamas, which is waiting for our soldiers in Gaza.
Hezbollah is primed from the north to wreak still greater harm, with Iran pulling the strings.
And already, despite all the unwatchable nauseating evidence of what Hamas did to our people, the reality that we are fighting back against vicious mass murderers, who will kill us all if they can, is being challenged elsewhere in the world, and our legitimacy in fighting back is being contested.
For those of you reading this abroad who can and want to help materially, please do so — to the causes you most see fit. But demonstrate on our behalf too: Show up on the streets where we will be increasingly denounced, and where your presence shapes public opinion and influences decision-makers; show up, too, in the innumerable forums where worldviews are shaped.
Israelis and Jews do not easily issue comparisons between our reality and the era of the Nazis and the Holocaust. We’ve been making those comparisons this week. Hamas differs from the Nazis, in that it has not yet been able to organize still greater killing, and in the frenzy with which it massacres us, but not in its declared and proven genocidal intent.
Yet it also differs from the Nazis, and its Iranian backers and proxies differ, in that they are not targeting defenseless Jews. As Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told NATO on Thursday, 2023 is not 1943 — because the Jews now have a state and, while shocked and horrified by what has befallen us, retain the insistent capacity, and have resurrected the unified will, to protect ourselves.
We have a state, a potent army, and considerable international support, including most importantly from the United States, under an unabashedly Zionist president who has been providing what we hope will prove a military deterrent to Iran, and articulate comfort to our people. Biden is assembling forces in the region “as though he fears we risk being wiped out,” someone said to me on Thursday. One rather thinks so.
I want to rage at everything that facilitated this darkest hour — at our own internal failings and, pointlessly, at the fact that we are on the front line against rapacious Islamists who seek to destroy everything the civilized world holds dear.
But I know we need to channel anger and frustration and anything that energizes us into vital, constructive paths.
Because Saturday showed us we can take nothing for granted in this pitiless part of the world, allow no delusions about the neighborhood. And that we must keep our innumerable internal differences in check, and in perspective, to ensure that we are resilient enough to prevail. We are united, said the prime minister, our prime minister.
And now I have to check in on my wife, hug my eldest son, phone my two other kids, and catch up with what I missed while writing this.
The people of Israel live.
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