“Prostrate in the streets lie both young and old. My maidens and youth are fallen by the sword” (Lamentations 2:21).
Who could have imagined that those words, written thousands of years ago to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple and the exile of the Jews to Babylon, could sound like a descriptive account of something that occurred in 2023, in the reborn State of Israel?
“Arise and go now to the city of slaughter… Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay, the spattered blood and dried brains of the dead” – (Hayim Nahman Bialik poem “In the City of Slaughter”).
Who could have imagined that Bialik’s words, written about the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, would sound like an account of what happened in Be’eri, Kfar Aza, and other kibbutzim and communities around the Gaza Strip in 2023?
Yet here we are.
No one could have imagined it. No one did imagine it.
That, perhaps, is one of the reasons it happened: a lack of imagination, of getting locked into a conceptual model (conceptzia). Not imagining the enemy had the wherewithal or capacity to carry out such a complex attack. Not imagining that the enemy would carry out such an audacious and vicious attack, knowing that it would incur the full wrath of Israel if it did. Not imagining that the physical defenses the country spent billions of dollars erecting could be breached so easily.
But all of that, all the accounting of who should be held responsible for what will come later, will be discussed after the fighting flickers out, after the war is finished. None of this is for now, when the dead are still being counted and identified, let alone buried.
DURING HIS first address to the nation after Saturday’s atrocities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted from the Bialik poem that Satan has not created a revenge fitting for the blood of a child. He cited that in reference to the vengeance that Israel would wreak on Hamas.
During the Kishinev pogrom, an event in Czarist Russia whose impact has reverberated throughout the generations thanks to Bialik’s poem, 49 people were butchered. In the pogroms committed in Israel last Saturday, more than 1,200 people were brutally murdered
If the murder of 49 Jews in Kishinev – and the way it was depicted – altered the course of modern Jewish history, helping to spur the emigration of Russia’s Jews and planting the seeds for Jewish defense in Palestine, then how much more so will the murder of more than 1,200 people in Israel alter Israeli history?
What was, will not be again. What happened in the South – in Sderot, Zikim, Nahal Oz, Mefalsim, and numerous other communities – will alter Israel for generations.
If the Second Intifada, a period of mind-numbing terrorism during which 1,053 people were murdered over four and a half years from 2000 to 2004, fundamentally changed Israel – its political turn to the Right, its election of Netanyahu time and time again, its complete lack of confidence in the Palestinians, its lack of faith in a diplomatic process with the Palestinians – then the horrific events of last Saturday will have an even more significant impact going forward.
The Simchat Torah massacre will be a defining moment in Israeli history, like the Second Intifada, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1948 War of Independence.
Why the current Israel-Hamas war is a tragedy unlike any other
ISRAEL IS no stranger to war, and Israelis are no strangers to conflict.
But what happened on Saturday was different.
First, there is the sheer magnitude of the tragedy.
More Israelis were killed during one nightmarish day in October 2023 than were killed in the 1956 Sinai Campaign (231), the 1967 Six Day War (776), the 1982-85 Lebanon War (654), and the 2006 Second Lebanon War (164).
Only the War of Independence, in which 2,400 civilians among the 6,400 Israelis dead, saw more civilians killed than those butchered on Saturday.
Those figures are staggering and tell nothing of the way the victims were savagely murdered, or of the nearly 150 others who were kidnapped and taken to Gaza, or of the women raped, or of the homes ransacked and burned. Behind each number is a face, a family, a circle of friends, and a community reeling from the loss, for whom this trauma will always be in their minds and will color how they look at everything.
Second is the sheer savagery demonstrated, which makes this incident different. Israelis have witnessed terrorist cruelty in abundance over the years, but not on this scale at one time.
During the beginning of the Second Intifada, two reservists took a wrong turn and ended up in Ramallah, where they were set upon by a lynch mob; one of the murderers gleefully showed his hands dripping with their blood. That painful image was seared into the nation’s collective memory. And that was two people murdered.
On Saturday, literally hundreds of people were murdered with equal viciousness, with the perpetrators circulating videos of their war crimes for the world to see. Images from that day will traumatize the nation for years and impact governmental policies.
For instance, the sheer brutality will enable the government to take severe steps and to unleash power in ways that would have been met with more internal resistance were it not for the bloodthirstiness and barbarity that the terrorists demonstrated.
A comment made by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday at the Southern Command in Beersheba would not have passed without protest were it not for the inhumanity that Hamas demonstrated.
“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip,” he said.
“There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel; everything is closed. We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.”
Saturday’s massacre also differed from previous wars and terror attacks because it made all Israelis feel vulnerable. Incredibly vulnerable.
True, this feeling of vulnerability was extant during the Second Intifada – when it was scary to ride a bus, nerve-wracking to send kids to school, and a psychological effort to take the family downtown for a falafel – but it was different.
During the Second Intifada, most people had faith and trust in the army. The slogan “Let the IDF win” was evidence of this, the idea that if not reined in by the politicians, the IDF could handily defeat the enemy, indicating the people’s faith in the army.
Israelis have long had tremendous confidence and faith in the army’s abilities. Everything else might be broken – the Supreme Court biased, the government ineffective, the Knesset worthless, the police undependable – but the IDF was always in the minds of Israelis placed on a pedestal.
Even after the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago, the last time the country was catastrophically caught off guard, the nation’s faith in the IDF, though tainted, bounced back as the army rallied to roundly defeat the Egyptians and Syrians on the battleground. Disappointment in the army was transferred to the intelligence services and the politicians.
But that trust and faith in the IDF’s capabilities took a significant hit following Saturday’s massacre.
This time, the IDF wasn’t there. This time, desperate people called, and the IDF had no answer. This time, the Air Force was way too late.
This time, the vaunted intelligence services, an intelligence service that can pinpoint the location of a terrorist getting into his car in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, had no prior knowledge of 1,000 terrorists from Gaza planning to breach the security fence at numerous locations in order to slaughter civilians.
Living in a country surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it, Israelis have always found comfort in believing that the military could protect them. This is something deeply embedded in the national psychology and has enabled the country to flourish.
That faith has now been shaken and will need to be rebuilt. Yes, the soldiers fought like lions on Saturday and throughout the week, as did many civilians. But the IDF’s upper echelon failed the country.
That unexpected colossal failure, together with the ongoing failure of the political class for months to govern the country properly and focus on what it should be focusing on, led to the unfathomable reality where parts of the Book of Lamentations (1:4) read like a description of contemporary events.
Zion’s roads are in mourning, empty of festival pilgrims; all her gates are deserted. Her priests sigh, her maidens are unhappy – she is utterly disconsolate!