Im ein ani li — mi li? If I am not for myself — who will be for me?
Fifty years and one day after the onset of the Yom Kippur War, darkness fell upon Israel once more as the Gaza border was breached, and its defenders overrun by thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists bent on the wholesale slaughter of every man, woman, and child they could find.
When the terrorists finally were driven back over the border, the extent of the carnage gradually was revealed. Babies executed in front of parents. Whole families butchered in their beds or burned alive, their houses set aflame when they refused to come out of safe rooms where they had barricaded themselves. Hundreds of concertgoers mowed down by machinegun fire. Roads strewn with bodies and burned-out vehicles; other cars crashed when their drivers were shot amid desperate attempts to escape. Almost 200 Israelis dragged back to Gaza. Photos and videos proudly posted on social media by the perpetrators reveal some of the horrors. Rape. Torture. Torment. The death toll is higher than 1,300 and continues to climb as more bodies are found.
The Jewish world last experienced such atrocities at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. It took the combined forces of the free world to bring about their defeat — a victory that came at a terrible price. It was a war only the aggressors — Hitler and his allies — wanted. But in the face of Germany’s savagery, the forces of right rose up, and in time they prevailed.
So it will be again.
My wife, Janet, and I flew back to the U.S. and landed only hours before the war began. Our son, Aaron, was recalled to active duty that day, and by Sunday, I was on an El Al flight back to Israel, having promised my boy that I would look after his wife and newborn son until his safe return. That way he could give 100% of his focus to the task at hand — a task that has already taken his unit to the Gaza front. He is among more than 300,000 reservists who have responded to the call, including Israelis who had been living, working, or traveling abroad and who rushed home to join the fight.
Israel is a tiny country. I know no one who hasn’t lost friends or family in the carnage around Gaza. No one who doesn’t have a son, daughter, or other immediate family member in uniform, facing what is expected to be a long and bloody fight. The divisive politics that defined the preceding months have disappeared in the face of war and terror, mourning and heartbreak. In every town and neighborhood, Israelis are assembling care packages for the survivors of the slaughter, the thousands displaced from their homes in the war zone. People are appearing at IDF bases and staging areas, setting up makeshift barbecues and tables of catered food, charging stations, clothing, and equipment — anything and everything our soldiers might want or need.
Meanwhile, the Tzeva Adom, the red alert sirens, blare around the clock, and with each wail, Israelis rush to bomb shelters and safe rooms. We all have a go bag filled with critical supplies, and it’s never more than an arm’s length away. Most, but not all, of the inbound rockets and missiles are intercepted by Iron Dome or Patriot batteries, and I can’t tell you how many booms I’ve heard in only a few short days. Each day brings new casualties, as not everyone has the time or ability to get out of harm’s way, so the body count continues to rise.
The war also has come to the north, where, across Israel’s border with Lebanon, Hezbollah, like Hamas a proxy for the murderous regime in Iran, has an arsenal said to be far larger than that of Hamas. Skirmishes along the Lebanon border already have claimed the lives of a number of Israel’s brave defenders, and the majority of the residents in this part of the country are spending increasing hours in safe rooms and shelters. So, too, are residents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where most businesses are closed, with supermarkets and pharmacies among the few that remain open. Several direct hits in those areas also have claimed lives and caused devastating injuries. Schools are closed, and the start of the fall semester at colleges and universities has been delayed.
I have been in Israel in times of conflict with the malign terrorists in Gaza before. I’ve rushed to shelter at the sound of the Tzeva Adom. I’ve experienced the need to be mindful of places to take cover while driving. But it always seemed to be fleeting, a question of limited objectives. At those times, I was struck by the calm and resilience of the Israelis around me. They seemed to take it in stride — the price they pay for their freedom, for Jewish sovereignty, and the chance to live, work, and raise their families without knowing the precariousness of the Jewish world their parents and grandparents had known.
That calm has been shattered. Eighty years after the final destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by forces of evil, that same evil has revealed itself once more. And like the Nazis, this evil must be destroyed. This time, it will not be a futile uprising by the remnants of a once thriving but nearly defenseless Jewish community. This time, the army of the State of Israel will do what must be done. The cost will be dear. But that is the price that must be paid for our freedom.
Like the Nazis, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have chosen the setting. Rooting out this evil will come at great cost to Palestinian civilians, much as it did to those in Germany and its allies. That too, in both instances, is a cost imposed by evil. So be it.
Expressions of support and solidarity from around the world have meant more to the people here than I can say. President Biden’s speech was an enormous shot in the arm. The gatherings, vigils, rallies, and demonstrations of support from Jewish communities across North America and the world are like a hug from afar for a country in mourning. But there are other voices out there — those whose unimaginable and unconscionable support for Hamas and those who can’t find it in their hearts to call out evil and show some decency in the face of murdered babies — remind us, once again, that Jews are in a special category. Our suffering counts less. Those voices will grow louder as the war progresses and the cost of our necessary victory in Palestinian lives grows. The suffering of innocents is always regrettable, but evil must be defeated. And so it will be.
It falls to us, to you, to stand firm in your commitment and support of Israel and its people during these terrible times, however long it takes. No equivocation.
The words of the great rabbi Hillel the Elder have been a source of wisdom for generations of Jews. Among the simplest and most important of the lessons, for which he is most renowned, is found in Pirke Avot (Wisdom of Our Ancestors) 1:14. It has three components.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
As a Jewish community, we have gotten awfully good at the second and third parts. We are righteously outspoken and in the vanguard when others are under attack, suffering from discrimination, or having their rights trampled. That is something about which we are — and should be — proud. But somehow, we’re not always so comfortable with the first part. Some are, to be sure, but many, too many, are not. They’re quick to feel compassion for others before doing so for our own.
Who will stand by Israel and Israelis now, if not us?
Make your voices heard. Stand proud and strong. Contribute and reach out to others to do the same. So many who have family and friends here are suffering from a distance. Pick up the phone. Send a text. Let them know you’re there and that you are with them.
These are not people with whom we have no connection. They’re us. Janet sits in New Jersey while her son is on the front lines in the fight against the new Nazis. Her daughter-in-law, Zoe, and infant grandson are under fire, rushing back and forth to safe rooms and shelters. She is just one mother. One grandmother. One among countless others. She needs you. They all need you.
The time is now.
May our victory be swift and decisive. And may our sons and daughters return safely to the waiting arms of their families. Am Yisrael chai!
Doron Krakow of Tenafly is the president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America.