Noam on the ground: Reflections on the Israel-Hamas war


In this special episode, Noam reflects on his meetings with survivors, evacuees, and Jewish leaders in the wake of October 7.

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Hi, I’m Noam Weissman and you’re listening to Unpacking Israeli History, the podcast that takes a deep dive into some of the most intense, historically fascinating, and often misunderstood events and stories linked to Israeli history.

Like the last episode, this one is going to be different.

As I record this, we’re 53 days out from the day that changed everything. 53 days of shock and grief and pain, but also rare sparks of joy.

It’s been 53 days of learning how to hold on to multiple conflicting truths. Sure, you could say that holding on to multiple truths is kind of a basic tenet of this podcast. But the scale has changed since 10/7. The truths we’re reconciling are massive, and all of us are walking this tightrope together. 9 million Israelis. 15 million Jews. 14 million Palestinians. Every single one of us holding on to two undeniable facts.

Number one: we can’t go back. The world before 10/7 is gone. 

And number two: Life continues. Yes, our world is upside down now. But moving on means that we’re all learning to live with our feet on the ceiling, our heads pointing towards the floor.

So. In a few months, we’re going to launch season 6, and its format will be familiar: the historical deep dives, the multiple perspectives, the detailed bibliographies. Maybe a miniseries or two. None of these episodes will be about October 7th. And, all of these episodes will be about October 7th.

There they are again: those multiple, conflicting truths. 

But we’re not there yet. 

I just returned from Israel — a whirlwind two days with other organization leaders spent meeting survivors and evacuees.

Two days of playing soccer with kids whose homes were destroyed, whose parents were shot, whose lives are disrupted.

Two days of listening to peace activists talk bitterly about their broken dreams for a better future. Two days of hearing stories that made me cry and gave me chills. Two days of watching an entire nation learn to live with its brokenness.

And I want to tell you these stories: about the survivors and the refugees, about the shifting calculus of peace, about what it means to have a right to exist.

I also want to tell you about what it looks like to hold on to hope. Because I saw — and felt — a lot of grief when I was in Israel. But I also saw life. I saw people living. Feet on the ceiling, head towards the ground, running full-tilt into tomorrow. 

And that… that gives me hope. I don’t how you’re feeling right now. Maybe you feel paralyzed. Maybe you feel empathy for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but want to make sure Israel does what it needs to do to eradicate Hamas. Or maybe you care little about the eradication of Hamas, and you just want the hostages returned. 

Wherever you are on the maybes, I want to share these stories with you. 

Nothing like the power of powerful stories. 

Part One: Kol Yisrael Shutafim B’Goral

Granted that was Hebrew and I am assuming most people who listen to this do not necessarily speak Hebrew, so I’ll explain what that means in a minute.

The David Dead Sea Hotel is nice, with a pool ringed by palm trees and private terraces overlooking the alien landscape around the Dead Sea. It has tennis courts and soaking tubs and on-site spa treatments with terrifying names. (Seriously, what’s a salt peel? Cause it sounds unpleasant.)

Ordinarily, the resort is full of tourists with the budget for the aforementioned salt peels and mud wraps and whatever else. 

But if you try to book a room now, you’re out of luck. Because like many of Israel’s hotels, this one is full of refugees. Some have been preemptively evacuated from the north, in case Hezbollah decides to, shall we say, widen its engagement in this war. But the majority are evacuees from the south — some survivors of 10/7, others merely living in the line of fire.

All across Israel, hundreds of thousands of refugees are squeezing into hotels and inns and B+Bs and relatives’ couches, unsure where they go next. The unluckiest of them know they are not going back home. There’s nothing to go back to but ashes. 

We were shuttled from hotel to hotel. Nice places on The Dead Sea or in the heart of Jerusalem. And in each one, the same chaos.

A bunch of 8-year-olds were chasing each other around the lobby, ignoring the shushing of the front desk. All sorts of supplies strewn around willy-nilly, the detritus of everyday life looking strange and out of context: shampoo bottles on the floor, laundry drying in the lounge.

It was absolute madness. It was also sort of beautiful. Life, continuing on. All the adults distracted, all the teenagers guiding the young’uns.

But this was hardly business as usual. There were red “kidnapped” posters everywhere. Directions to the nearest bomb shelter in every room. Signs with mottos like “The David Resort Hugs All The Members of Kibbutz Be’eri.”

By the way, “members,” while accurate, is a sterile translation. The original word is chaverim. Friends, comrades. That’s what you call members of a kibbutz. Chavrei HaKibbutz. I like that.

At 6:30 in the morning, back at the hotel where I was staying at in Jerusalem, there were already bored teenagers milling around the cafeteria for a classic Israeli breakfast of carbs, eggs, and salad, and more carbs. So I sat down with them, started chatting. Gave them some stuff I’d brought with me from America. Nothing fancy. Some sweatshirts, some games, a few bucks.

I didn’t do that to be altruistic, by the way. I did it because, well, it hurt to hear them tell me “misha’mem lanu,” we’re bored. Bored might be better than terrified, but it’s still unfair: cooped up for weeks, refugees. I sympathized.

I said, take some of this and try to go have fun. I can’t just hug every single Israeli and cry with them and comfort them, even though I want to. So instead, I give what I can to help them keep going throughout the day.

They were sweet kids. I’ll call them Stav and Lior and Idan. They accepted my offerings with genuine appreciation. And with a grace well beyond their years, they told me Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh. All Jews are responsible for one another.

I say All Jews, because historically Bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel, has referred to Jews. And in my case, it’s true. I came to Israel to visit these refugees because I am a Jew and they are my brothers. But I think we might need to expand our understanding of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La Zeh.

20% of Israelis are not Jewish. Not being Jewish that didn’t save them on 10/7. And it didn’t stop them from racing into the line of fire to save others.

So I’ll change the translation. All Jews are responsible for one another, whether in Israel or in the diaspora. And all Israelis are responsible for each other, regardless of who they do or don’t pray to. 

Israel gets accused of all sorts of nonsense. Genocide, stealing land and hummus, keeping dead Palestinian prisoners in cryogenic cells to harvest their organs. Seriously. Just when I think the tinfoil hat conspiracy theories can’t get more ridiculous, someone one-ups themselves and the next thing you know, the idiocy goes viral.

A side note about conspiracy theories. If you have not yet read “Misbelief” by Dan Ariely, he explains this concept called “proportionality bias,” which is the idea that when we are faced with a large event, we implicitly assume that such an event must have been caused by proportionally large causes.

For instance, instead of believing that HIV was caused by a random mutation, people will believe it was designed as a biological weapon and escaped the lab.

Instead of believing that California wildfires were started by extreme climate conditions or lightning, I will choose to believe it was set by PG and E with an international cabal of Jewish bankers led by none other than the Rothschilds. You get it.

Outlandish conspiracy theories are myopic, and the people who believe them are both victims and perpetrators of proportionality bias. So I’m not going to spend any time debunking them or their equally ridiculous siblings: the constant accusations of “washing.”

Maybe you’ve heard of these claims that critics of Israel toss out like a “gotcha.” You might have read about Israel’s so-called pinkwashing — i.e., using a strong track record of LGBTQ rights to distract from other human rights abuses.

You might have seen accusations that Israel is “greenwashing,” or using environmental technologies as a smokescreen to, again, hide all the Mossad dolphins Israel has trained to attack Hamas, and yes, that is a real conspiracy theory that’s been making the rounds since at least 2015.

And, most relevant to the story I’m about to tell you, you may have heard about brownwashing, which, as far as made-up words I’ve said so far in this episode, is even more disgusting than salt peel. 

The definition of brownwashing is “using minorities as a smokescreen to hide a variety of abuses.” It’s an American export that makes zero sense in this context. Look, if you want to know why the whole “Arabs are brown, Israelis are white, Zionism is racism” construct is total BS, check out the links in the show notes. Or just listen to Arabs and Jews in Israel tell this story in their own words.

“Aya Meydan, from Kibbutz Be’eri. On Saturday, I planned to meet a friend and go for a bike ride.”

The Saturday she’s talking about is October 7th. You know what happens. The bike ride starts at 6:15 am, because some people are committed! But her plans are interrupted by a massive rocket barrage.

She calls her partner, who tells her to come home. But at the entrance to the kibbutz, the guys who work in the cafeteria tell her it’s under attack. For the next seven hours, she hides with one of them. A guy named Hisham. A Bedouin man from Rahat, who I met on my whirlwind tour.

From their hiding place, Hisham and Aya saw kibbutz residents running into mobile bomb shelters, hoping they’d be safe. And then they saw Hamas terrorists throw grenades into those shelters, casually, and then move on. The whole time, they waited for Hisham’s uncles to come and rescue them.

These are Hisham’s uncles:

“Our uncle said to us, the four of you are going to go get the boy (Hisham). We reached a spot near Kibbutz Be’eri. There, we ran into a lot of people who were at the music festival, who ran towards the woods to escape the massacre at the festival. We saw people in mortal danger. Our conscience did not allow us to leave them under fire. Before heading to rescue our cousin, we helped a lot of people who were at the music festival. A nightmare. No other words. We saw our own death right before our eyes. Truly, in a second we could have lost our own lives too. That day we managed to rescue no less than 30, 40 people who were at the music festival…”

They rescued 30-40 young Israelis, sobbing, some barefoot, no phones. They gave them water, let them call their parents. And then they got back in the car to rescue Hisham and Aya, passing piles of bullet-riddled bodies along the fields. Kids who had been alive just hours before. Kids who had just wanted to dance. Against all odds, they made it to Hisham and Aya. When they got back on the road, they encountered the IDF:

“All of a sudden, all of the IDF soldiers that had arrived drew their weapons on us. They drew about 300 weapons on us. No, no, no, no, no! We are citizens of Israel! Citizens! Citizens! We are Israelis! We came to help!”

Ismail and his three cousins — at least, I think they’re cousins, I’m not entirely sure — saved Aya and Hisham. But they went a step further. As the army evacuated her and other Israelis in the south to Be’er Sheva on a packed bus, Ismail drove alongside. He accompanied her all the way to Be’er Sheva to make sure she was safe.

I met Ismail and Hisham and their cousins when I was in Israel. They came to speak to us, this delegation of North Americans and Brits who had come to meet with our brothers and sisters. That includes Ismail. It includes the Bedouins slaughtered and kidnapped by Hamas. It includes the Druze serving at the highest level of the army. That includes the Muslim doctors and pharmacists and lawyers. Who say, We stand with you. We are shutafim b’goral. I’ll translate it now: partners in fate.

I called this part of the episode Kol Yisrael Shutafim B’Goral, combining two sayings: Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh LaZeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another, and Shutafim B’Goral, partners in fate.

I’ve always thought of Brit Goral, the covenant of fate, as something that bound all Jews. It comes straight out of the writings of the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who said Jewish people have a common destiny, yeud, and a common fate, goral.

Sure, the Jewish people have had allies throughout history — Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, and the non-Jewish partisans and resisters and so-called Righteous Gentiles who hid us during the Holocaust. But those are exceptions. Historically, we usually stand alone. We’re used to that, and it’s bound us to each other.

But for decades, the Bedouins of Rahat have suffered constant rocket barrages, just like the Jews of Sderot. And on October 7th, Hamas didn’t differentiate. They butchered and kidnapped Muslims and Arabs with the same brutality they turned towards the Jews.

So Ismail reminded me of something I often forget. Israeli Jews aren’t alone against the darkness. 80% of Arab Israelis condemn the Hamas attack. Arab Israeli leadership has been particularly forceful. This is Mansour Abbas, chair of the United Arab List and head of the Islamist Ra’am party, which until last year held five seats in the Knesset:

Here he is, reacting to the 40-odd minute clip of Hamas atrocities screened by the Israeli government. The translation goes something like:

“What I saw in that difficult clip runs counter to the values of our religion, our faith, our Islam. It runs counter to our humanity, our nationality. It doesn’t represent our Arab society or our Palestinian nation or our Muslim community.”

On the day of the attack, he urged Arab and Jewish Israelis to remember they’re on the same side. As more details emerged about the hostages, he addressed Hamas directly, calling for an immediate release of all hostages.

Israeli Arabs have responded exactly as Abbas urged them to. For the most part, Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel have shown one another an unprecedented solidarity since October 7th. Israelis — regardless of ethnicity or religion — have never been more unified. They’ve never acknowledged before, with such fervor, that their fates are inextricably linked.

And that’s a lesson we have to internalize, a lesson we have to start living. It’s a lesson that Ismail and his cousins knew instinctively. It’s a lesson they taught all Israelis that day. It’s a lesson I am doing my best to remember. 

Chapter Two: Either Or Yes And

Yes, you heard that right. Either, or, yes, and. I’m repeating what I heard from one of the peace activists I met last week. I’ll call him Sivan. He lived on one of the border kibbutzim, close to Gaza. I say “lived” because his kibbutz is destroyed now. He won’t get to go back to it for a long time, if ever.

Like all residents of the Israeli south, he was used to a certain amount of violence. In some places in Israel, running to a bomb shelter is as routine as — well, not brushing your teeth.

But it’s folded into everyday life, as predictable as a holiday or a birthday: sooner or later, the sirens will sound, and everyone will run to the mamad, and maybe they’ll stay there for a day or a week, and eventually there will be a ceasefire and life will go on. Rinse and repeat.

Talk about learning to live with your feet on the ceiling, your head upside down.

He told us that he used to believe that Israeli society could be divided into a series of binaries. Either you’re religious or you’re secular. You’re on the right or you’re on the left. You’re allied with the Diaspora, or you’re allied with Israel. You’re pro-Bibi or anti-Bibi. Mutually exclusive identities. Never the twain shall meet.

Since 10/7 — or, as Israelis call it, 7/10, which never stops confusing me, and also makes me almost-but-not-quite want a Slurpee — Sivan has changed his mind. The binaries have dissolved. It’s not an either/or. It’s an and, and, and. There are meeting points between religious and secular, between right and left, between Diaspora Jews and our Israeli brothers. No one is either-or. We’re all made up of multiple conflicting truths, and all of our contradictions are braided together in an immensely complicated society.

I don’t know what Sivan was like before 10/7, other than basic biographical details. The guy was a peace activist, an old-school kibbutz leader in that salt-of-the-earth, Labor party, leftist kind of way. That’s one of the great and horrible ironies of 10/7, by the way.

So many of the kibbutzim that were overrun were left-leaning, full of peace activists who dedicated their lives to solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Turns out terrorists don’t care who you vote for or how many Arab friends you have. They don’t care if you spend your days ferrying Gazan children across the border for medical treatment, the way Vivian Silver did. Hamas burned her alive in her home. It took five weeks to identify her remains.

But back to Sivan who, like Vivian Silver, was heavily involved in peace work. He tried to run a project called Pigeons for Peace, which trained pigeons to carry notes from Israeli children to Gazan ones and back.

I don’t know what language they planned to use. Maybe a combo of Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Maybe they assumed the kids would just draw each other pictures, line drawings of their homes and families, an oversized sun hanging above the pitched roof. Even before 10/7, Hamas nixed it. But Sivan always had hope. 

10/7 made Sivan see Israel for what it really is: less of the binary, and more of a kaleidoscope of clashing and contradictory opinions and beliefs. Squint a little, and they’re beautiful. And what a rich lesson that is. What a cause for celebration and for hope.

I thought for sure that we were about to hear a similar lesson insight about his relationship to peace activism. And I was hungry for it, I really was, because I think I need that lesson right now. I think we all do.

But that’s a heavy burden to place on a person who is grieving. A person whose entire world has been shattered and literally set on fire. So I am not saying this to lay blame at anyone’s feet, or to criticize. I’m saying this with a profoundly heavy heart, and with sadness and confusion and empathy. 

Sivan doesn’t believe in Pigeons for Peace anymore. He once thought that the people on the other side of the border were just like him. They loved their kids. They tried to avoid sugar, or cigarettes, or too many trans fats.

They had dreams and favorite books and a vested interest in the next installment of their favorite TV shows. They were normal people, in other words, who just wanted peace. Just wanted to raise their families and make enough money to live comfortably and not be afraid of their own government. 

Sivan doesn’t believe that anymore. 10/7 convinced this leftist that there is no such thing as peace with Hamas or the people who support them. And he said that to us. You can’t make peace with these people, he said. It’s us or them. You can’t be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli. You have to choose.

And because I’m, well, me, and I was totally That Kid in high school, I raised my hand and I asked how can you say that? You just told us that your view has expanded. Yes and, yes and, yes and. But for the people of Gaza, how can you believe in such strict binaries, in such a stark view of the world? How can you say that it’s us or them, that it’s either/or?

I wasn’t asking that to challenge him. I wasn’t asking that to be a jerk. I was asking that for myself, for everyone around me in that room, for an entire generation of kids on either side of the border, for the continued and secure existence of a Jewish state.

I was asking that because I am convinced that we have to find a way forward that isn’t endless war. Because if we can’t make peace, how do we break the endless cycle of suffering and violence?

He was quiet for a few seconds. He looked down. He looked up. And then he said I don’t know what to tell you. I spent my life chasing a dream that doesn’t exist. There isn’t peace with them. Some stories don’t have a happy ending. 

And I hated that. I hate that because I’m so afraid he might be right. A few weeks ago, the Arab World Research and Development group polled Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and the results are…not great.

Nearly 60% of respondents “very much supported” the Hamas attack, and another 16% “moderately” supported it. The poll is small, conducted during the chaos of war. I’m so tempted to believe that it’s inaccurate. But I don’t know if that is true, if that is just me excusing it. And that scares me. Because there’s nothing I want more than for Sivan to be wrong.

No, it goes beyond “want” and into “need.” I need Sivan to be wrong. We all do. The alternative is intolerable. But so is our current reality. So was 10/7.

I’ll tell you one more story, about peace activists and disillusionment, before we move on to the third and final chapter of my trip. 

If you’ve listened to this podcast for a while, you know I’m a sports guy. There are a lot of advantages to being a sports guy. Instant small talk, even though I hate small talk. A sense of belonging. And an in, if you’re looking to have a heart-to-heart with a teenage boy.

When I was at the Dead Sea, hanging out by one of the makeshift schools that had been set up on the side of the road, I met a kid I’ll call Erez. He was kicking around a soccer ball on his own, just killing time.

You think you can take me? I asked him. I was very nearly the 2003 Beth Tfiloh basketball champion, after all, and the captain of my varsity soccer team my junior year. Try not to be too intimidated.

Though, sidenote: the truth is that there is literally nothing to be intimidated by. I threw out my back both my junior and senior years, because I am more Woody Allen than Lionel Messi.

So we kicked around the ball for a while, talking the whole time. I told him why I’d come from the US, that I was an educator, that the Diaspora felt 10/7 as though it had happened to us. Because in some ways, it did happen to us.

And then he looked me in the eyes, and told me he was worried about me going back to America. He said, I’ve been keeping up with the news. Are you sure you’ll be safe? I swear, I could not believe it. You’re literally evacuated from your house??!! You’re concerned about me in the states?!

This is a kid whose mom was shot twice on 10/7, whose father and siblings spent 20 hours hiding in their bomb shelter. This 16-year-old was worried about me, going back to the States and its seething antisemitic mobs.

I’m making light, a little, because of course there’s a reason to be concerned. Those mobs do exist, and they hurt people. But the thought of this teenager, this survivor, worrying about me — my heart was bursting. Erez, ya gever, you’re the man.

And then he broke it, a little. Because he asked me a question that made me so, so sad. 

He asked, Why do people hate us so much? Erez is this nose ring wearing, cool-haircut-having, universalist, lover of all people kind of kid. He sees what some people are saying on social media, he sees the ripped hostage posters and the calls to globalize the intifada.

And he sees the man his grandfather sent money to every month, a Palestinian friend just across the border in Gaza. His grandpa was a humanist. It hurt his heart to see his friend suffering. He’d slip the guy a wad of shekels every so often. I don’t know how they met.

Maybe the guy worked in Israel. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that before October 7, 18,000 Palestinian workers would cross into Israel every single day. 

It turned out his grandfather’s friend had crossed into Israel on 10/7. Not to work. It was a Saturday, and a holiday. No one was working. No, he was one of the hundreds of civilians who streamed in after Hamas invaded, to loot and kidnap and god knows what else. He was one of the 76% of non-Israeli Palestinians who supported the attack. 

In that context, why does everyone hate us is not an unreasonable question. 

No one hates you, I tried to tell him. All the usual blather. Social media isn’t real life. American opinion polls indicate strong support for Israel. And the people who parrot these ridiculous slogans about globalizing the intifada — sure. Some of them know exactly what they’re saying.

But let’s be honest. Most of them don’t know anything. They’re the ones reposting tweets about attack dolphins and organ harvesting. They don’t even know what they don’t know, which is both scary and a good starting point. They can still be coaxed out of their ignorance. 

I thought I was doing a pretty good job of reassuring him. Until he asked me a question that knocked me over in shock and rage and grief. He looked at me, this kid, a soccer ball under his foot, and asked, Well, why DOES Israel have a right to exist?

I’m not gonna lie, guys. I hated this question. I hated it and it made me angry and it made me scared. How does an Israeli kid come to this question? Who taught him to question his own right to exist?

Does Bulgaria ask itself if it deserves to exist? I asked him. Does Sweden? Does Iraq? I didn’t wait for him to answer. I’m an educator, the Socratic method is king, but these were rhetorical questions, and I couldn’t stop myself from pouring out the kind of diatribe that’s been lurking just under the surface since 10/7, every time I see someone challenge a fact that should be unassailable.

Yes, Israel has a right to exist, I told him, impassioned. Of course, just like any people. But you want to talk about a historical right, a political right? Okay, Erez, let’s talk about it.

We’re going to do an episode on this soon, and we’ll go way deeper than this general overview. But here’s the quickest summary I can muster.

Back in ’36, the Brits were in charge. Nominally, I guess, because Palestine was in chaos. The Arabs launched a six month general strike — which included a strike on paying taxes — meant to pressure Great Britain into prohibiting Jewish immigration or the sale of land to Jews. At the end of the day, what they really wanted was their own government. 

The Brits crushed the strike, imposing heavy fines and demolishing a bunch of houses, and ultimately, Palestine’s Arabs called it all off. But Britain was pretty tired of administering this unruly crowd of Arabs and Jews, each clamoring for their own interests.

And so they established the Peel Commission to look into why the strike had happened and what could be done to prevent further unrest.

Spoiler alert: literally nothing. Unrest was inevitable. Remember, the Brits had already promised a Jewish national home in Palestine way back in 1917. The League of Nations had formalized it at the San Remo conference in 1920.

So Palestine’s Arabs and Jews were on a collision course. Everyone knew the stakes would be high — though I don’t know if everyone realized that it was winner take all. 

But back to the Commission, which asked three great Jewish leaders to justify Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. History repeats, huh? On trial in 1936. On trial in 1948. Still on trial in 2023. It’s getting old.

You’ll recognize the names of the Jewish leaders who testified. Chaim Weizmann, who’d later become Israel’s first president. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future first-Prime Minister. And Vladimir Zev Jabotinsky, who didn’t live to see an independent Israel, but whose philosophies continue to shape it, 75 years later. 

All three had a different take on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Weizmann was an intellectual, and he went historical, reminding the British that since the destruction of Palestine by the Romans as a Jewish political entity, there was not a single century in which the Jews did not attempt to come back.

At the start of the 20th century, they finally succeeded. A dispersed people, divorced from its lands, with no agricultural experience. And look! Look what they’d made out of the land that British officials warned in 1919 was barren, arid, dead.

David Ben-Gurion was a die-hard secularist. And yet he went Biblical. Not because he believed in a God who promised this land to the Jewish people, but because to him, the Bible was a living document, a history book, a record of a thousands-year-old link. Written in our language, in our country, a record of our history. You want to know why we have a right to exist here? Because we always have.

Both of those are compelling arguments, by the way. But for me, the argument comes from Jabotinsky. He didn’t point to thousands of years of tradition and history. He didn’t point to the cultural and linguistic and physical evidence of our link to the land.

He said, simply, The justification of the Jewish state is that the Jewish people created it. The Jewish people developed it. Don’t ask, ‘do we have a right to a state.’ Sure we do. Everyone does.

Bulgarians and Swedes and Kenyans and Palestinians. But the right isn’t enough. It needs to be paired with the will, the drive, the hunger. The sacrifices. The ability. The compromises. The sweat equity. 

And the Arabs, well, maybe they had an appetite. Maybe they wanted it. The Jews, though, they didn’t just have an appetite. They didn’t even have a hunger. They were starving, Jabotinsky explained. And they built the state to sate themselves. To stop themselves from starving and withering away. So don’t ask about rights. Ask instead about what you’re willing to do to create a state.

And that’s resonant to me, today. Because it’s not just about fighting. To build a state, you have to fight for it, sure. Sometimes, fighting means defending yourself militarily, fending off the armies that invade your land. (It never means murdering babies and raping women. It never means burning people alive.)

But since well before 1948, the Jewish people have been engaged in a very different kind of fighting – one that is way less glamorous, way more, well, dull. 

Those proto-Israelis who later became the first Israelis — they fought for their state by appealing to the nations of the world, to the superpowers, to the landowners whose land they bought, legally, fair and square.

They fought for it by creating a de facto government and an army and infrastructure and communities. They fought for it by bringing a Biblical language into the 20th century. By fending off invading armies and absorbing refugees and modernizing their economic system and creating drip irrigation.

They built a state by having their Altalena moment. A moment that would ensure ONE army, ONE law, ONE people, ONE Declaration of independence. 

You want a state? Build one.

Hamas, and to a lesser extent the PA, aren’t fighting to build a state. If they were, they would have built it. But, the Palestinians have not had their Altalena moment. They have two mini-statelets, two sets of constitutions and charters, two sets of “security services.” T

hey could have used their billions in aid money to modernize their infrastructure and build sanitation facilities and open world-class universities and set up scuba diving expeditions for tourists on the beautiful Gazan coast.

Sign me up! I’d love to scuba dive in the Mediterranean! I’m just messing, I’m actually very afraid of scuba diving. Maybe snorkeling, but make sure you have the floaties for me. But they didn’t. 

Does a Palestinian state have a right to exist? Of course it does. But Palestinian leadership has never tried to build it. Instead, they’ve sunk all their efforts into fighting to destroy the Jewish one. And, of course, into lining their own pockets. 

So why does Israel have a right to exist? Because Israelis made it, Erez, that’s why. Your grandparents made it. Your parents made it. You are making it, today. And there is no better illustration of why Israelis have a state and the Palestinians don’t than the following comparison.

Jabotinsky was very clear. There is no question of ousting the Arabs, he said. Palestine can hold (at the time he was writing) the 1 million present Arab population plus 1 million economic places reserved for their progeny plus many millions of Jewish immigrants. The idea is that Palestine on both sides of the Jordan should hold the Arabs, their progeny, and many millions of Jews.

In the meantime, the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose name you might remember from our episode on the Hebron riots of 1929, took a different view.

There is no room for a single Jew in a Palestinian Arab state. Not the 400,000 who lived there in 1936. Not the millions clamoring to come in. For a Palestinian state to work, he said, the Jews would have to be removed. It was a zero-sum game then, for Palestinian leadership, and it seems to be a zero-sum game now.

Because one more time for the folks in the back, history repeats itself. The question isn’t does Israel have a right to exist. That ship sailed 3,000 years ago, and in 1917, and 1920, and 1947, and 1948. 

The question is, when will Palestinian leadership want to build their own state more than they want to destroy Israel’s? 

The Palestinian people deserve better. And God, I hope they get it, for all our sakes. 

Hope is exactly how I want to end this episode, even when it seems impossible to hold on to. So this is it, the final chapter.

Part Three: Now What?

Now what, indeed. I want to leave you with a story. I have to warn you: it hurts. Steel yourself. We’re going to talk about murder, and self-sacrifice, and orphaned kids. It will be graphic. If that’s too difficult, please skip ahead. I get it.

So when I was in Israel last week, we met with a lot of different people over the two days of this trip. The refugees, the survivors, the ordinary people whose lives became extraordinary, in the worst way possible, because of 10/7.

But the person whose story stuck with me the most wasn’t displaced. He didn’t lose his home. He lost something bigger. And when he came to speak to us, I felt all my defenses crumble. They were fragile in the first place. I don’t mind telling you that since 10/7, I, like a lot of people, have had trouble keeping it together.

I made it until Professor Ilan Troen took the podium, in Be’er Sheva. Within minutes, I was a sobbing mess, and so was everyone around me.

I knew who Professor Troen was before he came to talk to us, because I’ve studied his work. He’s a big name in this field: the chair of the Israel Studies program at Brandeis and the founder of the Israel Studies academic journal.

But I didn’t know that he was named for a woman he never got to know: his mother’s mother, murdered in a pogrom in 1919, in a tiny village that is now a part of Ukraine. Ilan’s mother saw it happen.

It’s a familiar story: awful, and tragic, and so commonplace. Every Jew has one: a family story of unimaginable tragedy, followed by life. Ilan’s mother survived the attack, bloodied and scarred. And then she built a life, pouring all of her energy into her children.

Those children — which included Ilan — grew up and had kids of their own. Today, like Ilan, they have grandkids in their 20s and teens. Gen-Z grandkids with a life of their own, who probably didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about the pogrom that killed their great-great grandma. This is the miracle of the Jewish state: a Jewish future free of pogroms. A Jewish future that looks like whatever we want it to. 

One of Ilan’s six children was a woman named Shachar Mathias. She lived with her husband, Shlomi, and their three kids — Shaked, Shir, and Rotem — on a kibbutz in Israel’s south.

Shachar and Shlomi were activists and musicians, who founded a bilingual school that taught Hebrew and Arabic to Jewish and Arab children, with the slogan Jewish-Arab Education for Equality. That was the future they wanted. That was the future they worked so hard to build.

When Hamas sent incendiary balloons over the border to scorch Israeli fields, the Mathiases responded with balloons that held messages of peace. They wanted a better world for Shaked and Shir and Rotem. They wanted a better world for all children. 

Maybe we can still build that world. Maybe. It’s hard to believe in, sometimes. But Shachar and Shlomi will never see it. They were murdered by Hamas on October 7th. As terrorists broke into their house, Shachar instructed Rotem to get under a blanket in the safe room where they were hiding.

But safe rooms are inaccurately named. They’re safe during a rocket attack, but they’re not built to withstand a ground invasion. Most don’t have locks. Why would they? A rocket doesn’t need a door key to do damage. 

Neither does a terrorist. All he needs is a gun. I don’t know if the terrorists broke down or shot at the door. I do know that when they got into the safe room, they saw Shachar and Shlomi standing in front of a blanket. They didn’t ask questions or look around.

They just shot, a volley of machine-gun fire. Shachar and Shlomi absorbed the bullets, falling on top of their son, who heard the shooting, and his father’s screaming, and the awful, mocking laughter of the gunmen. He felt his mother’s body twitch, a reflex, before she went still. 

For seven hours, he lay under a bloodied blanket by the bodies of his parents, a bullet in his stomach, waiting for help to come. And Professor Ilan Troen, whose mother had seen her mother murdered, now has a grandson who witnessed the exact same thing. 

This was the moment that destroyed me. Because I’m a parent. I understand, with every cell in my body, the animal instinct to protect your baby at any cost. And I’m also someone’s kid. My mind shies away from imagining what it was like for Rotem, and for Shaked and Shir, who were hiding elsewhere on the kibbutz, to lie there for hours, newly orphaned.

If I keep talking about it, I will break down again. So I’ll say just one more thing about the Mathias family, and then I have to stop. In the pictures from a better time, Rotem and his parents are smiling from ear to ear. They look genuinely happy, almost drunk with joy. To look at them is to drown in sorrow.

Why do they hate us?

These are the thoughts that chase themselves around my head when it’s dark outside, and too late for any sensible person to be awake. These are the thoughts that make it impossible to see past the pain. These are the thoughts I refuse to give in to.

Feel your feelings. They’re valid. We shouldn’t deny how much we hurt. But if I thought that way all the time, I’d be catatonic. There would be no point. 

But that’s not the end of the story. This is.

Ilan Troen had a message for us, the Anglo Jews who had come to meet him. We’re all here long term, he told us. None of us are leaving. Not the Arabs, not the Jews. And we’re going to have to learn to build bridges, to keep sending balloons over the border, to build a better world.

How? How?

On my darkest days, the question eludes me. Sivan, the one-time peace activist, might say this is the dream of an idiot, a drooling optimist, naive at best, dangerous at worst. How many more punches can a body withstand before it learns to walk away?

But I don’t think Ilan Troen is any of those things. I don’t even think he’s an optimist.

Because, and this isn’t my idea, it’s from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, there’s a difference between optimism and hope. He writes “Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better.” 

Optimism is passive. It waits for a better future to arrive. Hope is active. It builds. It built a country. A country whose anthem is HaTikva. The hope is two thousand years old. It’s carried us this far. And it can sustain us for as long as we allow it to.

We have to allow it to. That’s our task, after October 7. It’s not an easy one. How do you cultivate hope after something like October 7th?

You lean on one another. When one is falling, the other will catch him. Shoulder to shoulder. Shutafim b’goral. That’s it, my friends. And that’s everything.

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