Israel’s ‘existential loneliness’

Israel’s ‘existential loneliness’

A nation’s resilient people continue grappling with feelings of disbelief and betrayal

Part of the memorial at the Nova music festival. (All photos courtesy Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky)
Part of the memorial at the Nova music festival. (All photos courtesy Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky)

I recently returned from a brief mission to Israel organized by Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck and Temple Israel Center in White Plains.

It’s complicated — so complicated, in fact, that I returned from Israel unsure of my own opinions, my assumptions, and even my values. I went to bear witness, to listen, and to learn.

I came home with questions, not answers.

Part of the memorial at the Nova music festival.

Every Israeli, from the parents of hostages to citizen volunteers to combatant soldiers at rest stops, thanked us for coming and expressed concern about antisemitism in the United States. Israelis are lonely. While their resilience and courage remain, a kind of quiet despair has settled over the entire country. It is a difficult time.

I had no intention of writing about this trip, but the intensity of the experience demanded an outlet. Writing is therapy. Here are my thoughts.

I have never understood why millions of Jews — overwhelmed, terrorized, and killed by far fewer Nazis — didn’t just turn around, seize the soldiers’ weapons, and fight for their lives. After my recent trip to Israel, I have begun to understand both the concept and reality of cognitive dissonance and cultural context. How, when we try to process information at odds with our own values and moral code, we are almost unable to imagine that others may not share those values. That some people are capable of perpetrating unthinkable atrocities.

This picture of a terrorist victim dead at the music festival shows him as a toddler.

When American Jews heard about Jews being killed in ovens and gas chambers in the 1940s, most did not believe it. They couldn’t. And if advance predictions of a raid by a group you had already been fighting for years did not occasion a massive redeployment of troops and tanks to the Gaza area, then it is partly because, according to one former peace activist, Israelis could not wrap their minds around the possibility of beheadings, burnings, and mutilation.

The issue was further explored in a Zoom conversation with a Palestinian peace activist who escaped from Gaza with the help of Israeli friends. Sadly, his brother had already been shot in both legs. He noted the world’s misconception that this was a political battle, when, in fact, on the Palestinian side, it is a religious one, being fought by extremist zealots. Hence, the usual rules of war do not apply.

A protester holds a sign in Hostage Square. The Hebrew at the top says “Shout for them.”

If the world does not understand this, he said, the results will be tragic.

The fact that Hamas has been totally open about its goals is even more confounding. But while people may hear Hamas, they cannot fit it within their own moral universe, and accordingly, they disregard it.

The brave Gazan, who also grew up hating Jews but was “converted” by the friendship and support of one Israeli, also suggested that the people of Gaza do not want a ceasefire. They are desperate for Israel to liberate them from Hamas, he said. They know they are cannon fodder. They live in fear.

The handwritten note, in a house in Kfar Aza, says “human remains on the sofa.”

Question to myself: How to reconcile the killing of huge numbers of these people by Israeli forces with the fact that they, too, want Hamas to be defeated?

The issue of trust also was thrown into question for me. The father who led us through the remains of Kfar Aza told us about the nightmares he now suffers after being unable to leave his house, despite the repeated pleas of his sister, whose house was under attack. One of his own children was there for a pajama party with her cousins the night before. But Alon’s wife and other children were in their own house, and it also was surrounded, and terrorists were hiding everywhere. He couldn’t go.

This sign, at Kfar Aza, shows the murdered members of the kibbutz’s security team.

Fortunately, both families survived, unlike the 75-year-old woman who was trapped in a nearby shelter and riddled with high-power bullets. The neighbors who tried to save her also were dead. Those bullets penetrated refrigerators. They had deadly killing power.

Alon talked about his neighbors, death, destruction, and grief. But when I asked if he thought about revenge, he simply turned aside. Ironically? Tragically? Unbelievably? Alon and his family had spent many years helping sick Gazans, driving them to central Israel for medical care. He worked beside other Gazans in the fields. What, then, must he have thought when a detailed map of the kibbutz was found on the body of one of the terrorists, indicating who should be killed first, the location of communications equipment, and a complete layout of homes, nurseries, and other facilities?

It was an inside job, to be sure. A brutal, inexplicable betrayal. Is trust naive? And if not, who is worthy of it? Is it not possible that some of the Gazans charged with imprisoning hostages in their homes in Gaza could have helped them escape? Alon appeared most moved by the near complete destruction of the section of the moshav where the young adults lived. It was as if the terrorists were targeting the next generation.

The Beth Sholom group is part of an afternoon minyan at Hostage Square run by Masorti rabbis.

Imagine, then, the terrorists’ delight on coming upon the music festival at Nova, where they were able to kill hundreds of young people.

The Israeli population has responded to this slaughter in unimaginably brave and creative ways, expressing both grief and hope in the music and art created to mark the deaths of their own children. Nova is now the site of hundreds of installations, personalized to memorialize each victim, each grave bearing a picture. Trees and flowers are planted throughout.

There is art exhibited all over Hostage Square in Tel Aviv.

Israeli citizens, all volunteers, also rallied to resettle those fellow citizens whose homes had been destroyed. One man, recently relocated to a hotel room, said he could not consider returning to Netiv Asarah, a moshav destroyed by Hamas, having lost so many friends and neighbors. “It would be like going to Maidanek,” he said.

I began to wonder if American hotels and recently built new homes would open their doors to thousands of newly homeless citizens in the same way Israeli facilities have welcomed survivors of the attacks. I also became acutely aware of Israelis’ deeply ingrained commitment to collective responsibility. People unable to serve in the military have set up tents where soldiers can rest, eat, and shower. Everything is donated, and all rest stops are staffed by volunteers.

Israelis take seriously the possibility of losing American support — moral, military, and financial. If a second front opens in Lebanon, Israel may not have enough soldiers or weapons to deal with it. But equally distressing is what one speaker described as Israel’s “existential loneliness.” The country faces serious divisions, and the outside world has shown little empathy.

The group from Beth Sholom went to Sheba Hospital. Lois Goldrich is in front, in the starry sweatshirt.

The question of what to do about the hostages looms over everything. Some of those we visited at Hostage Square displayed signs calling for freeing those held by Hamas “at any price.” After all, these are their children, parents, and friends. And yet, said another speaker, the Palestinian terrorists freed in the deal to liberate Gilad Shalit are the same people who planned and executed the Hamas attack. It presents a dilemma of biblical proportions.

How can anyone look a mother in the eye and say that her child’s safety is not the priority? How can anyone free people who will come back to kill you? A sidenote: When these terrorists were in prison, the Red Cross visited them. That same organization has been noticeably absent from Gaza, making few, if any, efforts to reach and help the Israeli hostages.

So intense, so troubling, so much to think about.

But one final note, a mea culpa of sorts. I’m ashamed to be a journalist at a time when the few news outlets in Gaza, terrified by Hamas, are perpetuating lies and refusing to report anything that might rebound to Israel’s credit. I have always been proud of my profession. I’m no longer sure.

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