"Am Yisrael Chai" . . . Reflections of the past week
On Shabbat this past Friday, after a long and trying week, I took some time to reflect on the fact that I felt like a completely different person than I had one week prior. The events of Saturday, October 7, 2023 changed my thoughts and feelings about Israel and, in doing so, changed my own view of myself.
As an American Jew, I have always supported Israel, but I can honestly say I have never thought of Israel as "home" or had the desire to make Aliyah. Having never been to Israel, I don't have the "connection" to the land that so many of my Jewish friends and relatives do. And while I've always believed there should be a Jewish state, a homeland for the Jewish people based primarily on the fact that my own family survived the genocide of the Holocaust, I have never considered anywhere but America my home. I never felt personally targeted and, despite the rise in antisemitism globally, haven't feared for my own well-being.
All that has changed.
What started out as a normal Saturday quickly turned into one of the worst days in recent memory for the Jewish people. As I learned about the horrific attacks on Israeli soil to innocent Israeli citizens, I became numb with sorrow, fear, disbelief, and overwhelming helplessness. The reports on the news were too awful to be believed, and echoed of the past. I began to wonder, have we learned nothing? How can there still be so much hatred toward the Jewish people? Why is antisemitism still a "thing?" How can humans commit such unspeakable crimes against other humans?
Suddenly, I had never in all my life felt so passionate in my support for Israel. While I had often been critical of the current Israeli government and disagreed with the treatment of innocent Palestinians in Gaza, suddenly none of that seemed to matter. My mind was troubled with the images of parents murdered trying to protect their children, babies ripped from their mothers' arms, peace-loving young men and women massacred in a bloodbath after a night of dancing and revelry, the old and infirm, many of them Holocaust survivors, dragged out of their homes and taken hostage or killed, girls no older than my daughters raped and left for dead or kidnapped. These thoughts haunted me all week, and I was filled with anger and rage directed at those responsible, at Hamas. I wanted to see the terrorist regime, and all those who supported them, defeated no matter what the cost. I wanted to stand up and yell to anyone who would listen that Israel had a right to protect itself. But then I feared for the future of Judaism and how our religion, so small in numbers when compared to other religions, would be perceived by the world if we did fight.
For my own mental health, I tried my best during the week to avoid the news, but that was hard considering my job. I work as Assistant Editor for The American Israelite, the local Jewish newspaper. Although the paper is small, it is rich in history and was the first Jewish newspaper ever published in the United States. When I began working there at the start of 2023, I never expected to feel such a connection to my job. But now I am doing what I love, reading about Jewish news, writing about community events, meeting prominent people in the Jewish community, being given a platform to express my own thoughts on the Op-ed page and as a columnist, and helping shape the direction of the paper for the future.
As expected, when I turned on my computer Monday morning and began pulling stories from the two major Jewish news syndicates, I was inundated with disturbing accounts and reports. My brain wanted to reject what it was reading. On Tuesday, I covered a city-wide event in solidarity for Israel and felt overwhelmed by the turnout and support from the community, both Jews and non-Jews alike. I felt hopeful. However, after an incident at our local high school, I was pulled into an email chain asking the school's administration how they were handling the situation. Hope began to turn to anger. I remembered how the community where I live held a Heritage Day celebrating diversity in the community . . . on Rosh Hashanah! The fact that local officials overlooked one of the holiest days in the Jewish faith felt like a personal slight and a subtle form of antisemitism.
I began to post any story I could to social media, images of those who were missing or taken hostage, the terrifying accounts of those who attended the music festival and survived the aftermath, personal stories of Israelis who were suffering. I wanted to make sure these accounts were heard and shared, hoping to make them viral. At the same time, I blamed social media for spreading inaccurate information, inciting violence, and polarizing the population.
And, as the week continued and Israel prepared to fight, I felt the tide of support for Israel was turning. I despaired. I thought, "Well, that didn't take long." I started seeing videos of those protesting Israel's right to defend itself, and started reading hate-filled comments from those who felt the atrocities committed by Hamas were justified because Israel was an "apartheid" state, a "colonizing" state. I tried to tell myself they were just online trolls, but the number of responses was disheartening. Zionism became a bad word. When, in the past, I had agreed with those who protested the treatment of the Palestinians and didn't view criticism of the Israeli government as anti-Semitic, now I flinched when I read any remark against Israel, because I thought anyone who wasn't for Israel was therefore aligned with Hamas (a fallacy, I know, but that's where my thoughts took me in that moment). I wondered if those who so vocally voiced these sentiments knew the deeper history of the land that extended back to biblical times. I wondered if they knew the importance for the Jewish people to have a homeland of their own because of a long history of persecution. I wondered if they remembered the Holocaust.
And then I heard the statistics, that more Jews were killed on October 7, 2023 than any day since the Holocaust. And I thought, where is the outrage? Why was it so short lived?
While my social media was flooded with support from my Jewish friends, I didn't see much from those who weren't Jewish. Some friends and acquaintances reached out, just to see how I was doing, just to express their sorrow at what was happening, and this touched me deeply. It was a simple act, but it made me feel like I wasn't alone. Seeing posts online from friends who weren't Jewish yet still stood with Israel comforted me in a way I couldn't explain. And when I thought about those who hadn't reached out, I began to feel hurt. I began to wonder if their silence was in a way condoning what had happened. I tried to tell myself people didn't know what to say, or didn't want to speak if they weren't sure of the facts, or it wasn't as all-consuming for them as it was for me. Because for me, and for the Jewish people around the world, this was the closest I have ever felt to being personally targeted and persecuted. There were those out there . . . actual terrorists . . . whose whole mission was to wipe my people off the face of the earth, just like the Nazis had tried in the 1930s and 1940s. They organized and operated with that intent. They didn't care for anyone, certainly not the Israeli people they slaughtered, and not the innocent Palestinians who were caught in the middle of this war, whose suffering was used as propaganda against the Israeli people. Now the Jewish people were threatened, vulnerable, hated. And there was silence from many. I wanted to cry.
My thoughts turned to one of my oldest friends from grade school. When I was in kindergarten, I met Linda, a girl whose family was from Palestine. We grew up together, spending the night at each other's homes, trick-or-treating together, celebrating birthdays together. Her house was always full of relatives and her mother always had a delicious spread of food waiting when my mother came to pick me up. We were young and knew nothing of hatred and the division between our people. We grew apart in high school but reconnected in college. Now, older, we hung out at the student union between classes or worked out together at the gym and daydreamed about going to Israel/Palestine together. We thought we could spend time side-by-side, arm-in-arm, visiting each other's relatives. We would see the sites and experience the land together. We were naïve and innocent.
As the violence escalated this past week, I reached out to Linda on Facebook to see how she was doing. Our connection was instant, even though we hadn't seen each other in years. And we both mourned the awful events that were happening a world away, yet felt so close to home.
Now, it's been over a week and a half since the war began, and every day I feel a lump in my throat and a heaviness in my heart. I worry. I despair. I feel like a different person, more jaded, less hopeful. I think of Anne Frank's quote, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." I don't know if I agree.
There was an explosion at a hospital in Gaza, killing so many. There is finger pointing on both sides as to who was to blame, and the lump in my throat grows even larger. Images of terrified mothers holding babies, of the injured or dead being rushed to . . . where? When the war in Ukraine broke out, Poland and other European countries opened their borders for the refugees. Why weren't the other countries in the Middle East doing that?
Everything was a mess.
But then there was a knock on my front door. My neighbor, the sweetest older man who is originally from Iran, was standing on my doorstep. The same man who attended my daughters' Bat Mitzvahs and always leaves flowers at our front door from his garden and stops tending to his lawn to chat when we are outside. "I just wanted to tell you how bad I feel about everything that's happening and that we are thinking of you," he said. My heart began to heal a little bit. I began to think, if people would only come together to try and understand each other's perspectives, to be human beings to one another, maybe there is a chance for peace. Maybe we can begin to see each other not by the differences that separate us but by the qualities that unite us: the love we have for our families, the hopes we have for the future, the dreams we share for humanity.
This is what I pray for every day.
I realized, as I was looking through my family's pictures, that I am the only one who hasn't been to Israel. Pictured below are my grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, on a trip to Israel. My parents, in the 1970s, also visited. Last year, my daughter went with her classmates for a life-changing trip. One day, I hope I can go as well.