For the past two months, I’ve been overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and confusion, related to the war between Israel and Hamas. For the most part, I have not shared this with anyone, instead proceeding with my life as usual.
The event that precipitated this chapter of world history (and my life) is the brutal October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists. The descriptions of what took place are horrific enough, but then the other day I inadvertently came across a few nightmare-inducing photos of murdered victims. You would think that the whole world would condemn such atrocities — and numerous people did — but what is shocking are the number of people (including many who are neither Arab nor Muslim) who’ve said that the victims (some of them were peace activists; some of them were not even Israeli; some of them were not even Jewish) got what they deserved.
Equally disturbing are the deniers, who claim that Israel fabricated the events of October 7, as an excuse to drop bombs on Gaza. In addition, Hamas also took approximately 240 people hostage, aware of Israel’s history of making ridiculous concessions to get hostages back. (Yahya Sinwar, the alleged mastermind of the October 7 massacre, was one of 1,027 Arabs released from Israeli prisons in 2011 to gain the return of a single Israeli soldier.) As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, Hamas spokesmen declared that they would continue to stage similar attacks, until Israel was obliterated.
As a point of reference, I want to interject that I’m more dove than hawk. In 2013, I participated in the Israel [bicycle] Ride, a fundraiser for the Arava Institute, which offers graduate-level programs in environmental science while fostering peace and cooperation between Jews and Muslims. For me, the highlight of the weeklong event was interacting with the inspiring young alumni, who instilled me with hope.
Unsurprisingly, as a result of October 7, the Israeli government declared war, with the stated goal of destroying Hamas. Fortunately/unfortunately, Israel is very skilled at waging war. Although much of the world was quick to condemn Israel and — by extension — all Jews, I initially cheered Israel on, believing that Gazans — indoctrinated from the time they are small children to hate Jews — were getting what they deserved.
Both of my parents were Holocaust survivors (my dad told their remarkable stories in his book “Sentenced to Remember”), as well as ardent Zionists (when did that become such a bad word?). I often would hear people comment disparagingly that during World War II, the Jews went to slaughter like sheep (not innocent lambs but stupid sheep). While there were actually instances of resistance, I knew that those were the exception. It didn’t make me feel good to think of Jews as passive victims. So when — during my lifetime — Israel was victorious in one war after another (always provoked by the other side), it made me feel proud.
Then I started seeing photos and videos depicting the destruction of Gaza and the suffering of its people. On Election Day, November 7, I was a poll worker, assigned to the same district as a woman who was originally from Gaza. I’d worked with her twice before, when she’d told me that most of her extended family was still living in Gaza and that she was planning to visit them this past summer.
This time, we didn’t exchange a single word that was not election-related. However, I did observe that in contrast to the previous times we’d worked together, when she wore very colorful attire, this time she was dressed entirely in black. I couldn’t stop wondering how many of her relatives had been killed by Israeli bombs. When a man at the polls asked her if she was a Muslim, she didn’t respond. What was she feeling? I, as a secular Jew, was relatively inconspicuous. Her hijab made her instantly recognizable and an easy mark for Islamophobes.
For years, a Christian neighbor of mine had continued to warn me that antisemitism was escalating in America, and that I needed to learn to defend myself. When he offered to teach me how to shoot a gun, I brushed him off. I hadn’t personally experienced overt antisemitism, so despite what I’d observed and read in the news, I still believed it wouldn’t happen to me. Now, I’m not so sure.
So now it’s Chanukah, a holiday celebrating religious freedom as well as a war victory. I worry about the hostages and the trauma they are enduring and whether they will survive (some haven’t) and whether they will be released. I worry about the Gazans and their suffering and whether the war will create a new generation of terrorists. I worry about the mistreatment by Israelis of Palestinians in the West Bank (as documented by multiple sources, including members of the IDF. I worry about fearful Jewish American college students. I worry about the future of Israel, the Jews’ flawed utopian dream.
Chanukah also celebrates hope, and I do see glimmers of light in the darkness: some of the hostages have come home; some aid has made it into Gaza; some Gazans are speaking out against Hamas; hundreds of members of Hamas have surrendered; and Jews have a long history of against-the-odds survival.
Renée Kornbluth of West New York is a retired IT consultant. She also taught at Fairleigh Dickinson University for 22 years.