Seeing A Post-Oct. 7 Israel Firsthand While Volunteering

My wife and I recently returned from a 10-day trip to volunteer in Israel. We went ourselves to show solidarity with our friends in Israel, and to do some of the jobs otherwise not getting done because of the war. We pruned strawberry plants, cleaned onions, packed food for 250,000 displaced Israelis, and helped in a factory near Gaza. We received much more than we gave.

Our Israeli friends were deeply touched that we came. We learned that the war’s impact is not limited to only one side, and it’s not just at the front, but in the fields the factories and every store we visited.

It is clear that the civilians in Gaza are living through a horrific nightmare. Though there are horrors happening daily on both sides, we only saw firsthand the pain in Israel. It’s abundantly clear to me that anguish and sorrow has no borders. The magnitude of each side’s loss is not a contest of victimhood and shouldn’t serve to minimize the pain of the other.

There are at least 5 separate but related traumas that permeate all of Israel.

1) The first trauma was the horrific terrorist attack of 10/7. On that day, 1200 Israelis were killed and almost 250 men, women, infants, and elderly were kidnapped by Hamas. That’s the equivalent in America of almost 45,000 killed and 9,000 taken hostage.

We felt it from everyone we met. Our friend Zohar from Rechovot, a city in central Israel that has had numerous Hamas missile attacks, recounted how 7 of his wife’s family members were murdered by Hamas terrorists on 10/7. They’re now raising their six and three year old nieces who saw their parents killed in front of them. This family will be scarred for life.

2) Closely associated with the first, is the realization that the vaunted Israeli government, security, army and intelligence services are not infallible. Severe mistakes were made and the whole concept of living side-by-side with a Palestinian state is being questioned even on the Israeli left. After the war there will be an official inquiry and those responsible will be punished, but the insecurity will not leave anytime soon.

3) A third trauma is that Israelis feel alone and abandoned. While President Biden has been a staunch ally, human rights activists, the United Nations, world opinion (especially on campuses of major universities) have somehow been able to rationalize and justify these horrific crimes.

In a factory near Gaza, we worked alongside Israeli volunteers; professors from Tel Aviv University. They were anguished that their counterparts in the West had abandoned them. I’m not sure if those relationships will ever be repaired.

4) Another trauma is the war itself with so many casualties. Nobody in Israel wanted this war; there was a ceasefire on October 6th. But Hamas broke it with their horrific attack and they promise that there will be many more.

We were at a good friend’s house when their 29-year-old son got a surprise leave of absence from his unit in Gaza. There was joy when he showed up and agony 36 hours later when he was called back. This scene happens in every household in Israel and the emotional roller coaster is excruciating. I hid my tears saying goodbye, how do parents do it?

5) And finally, the hostages, the hostages, the hostages. There are no words that can describe the visceral pain over the 240+ hostages that Hamas took on 10/7. Every street and building’s a banner for the hostages. It’s expressed with signs, artwork, empty strollers and cribs tied to signposts. The pain is so pervasive you can’t escape it.

Serving dinner for troops on the Gaza border, I met Ofir. He shared his struggle with the temporary ceasefire/hostage release. Three kidnapped members of his family had been just released, but the father was still being held hostage. Ofir shared his uncertainty of allowing Hamas to regroup in exchange for getting only some of the hostages back. He said he is happy for his family, but not so much for the country.

These multiple traumas have left a normally optimistic people in a state of uncertainty. Many Israelis feel bereft and hopeless. How can Israel ever live in peace with neighbors who glorify terror and murder? I certainly don’t have the answer and am skeptical of any that think they do.

My hope is that soon Hamas will be defeated, the hostages released and the killing will stop. Israelis and Gazans deserve better lives, and good must triumph over evil because we all deserve to live free of terror and terrorists.