How the Summer War Changed My Country, and Me

Benjamin Kerstein

Benjamin Kerstein

Associate Editor, The Tower Magazine

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Benjamin Kerstein ~

From the Blog

Operation Protective Edge had a profound effect on the Israeli psyche—much more than other recent conflicts. Disillusioned about peace and resigned to the world’s lack of support, many Israelis are now asking, “What’s next?”

“This one,” I said to a friend during this summer’s Gaza war, “is rough.” It was an understatement. I have lived in Israel for 12 years, went through most of the second intifada, several military operations in Gaza, and the Second Lebanon War. The waves of missile attacks on Tel Aviv were by no means the first that I experienced. But this one was rough. The roughest. And I am still trying to figure out why.

I don’t think I am alone. There seems to be a general sense in Israel that this war was particularly jarring. This is especially the case following the recent eruption of terrorism in Jerusalem, culminating in the barbaric attack on a Har Nof synagogue. Whether directly connected to the Gaza war or not, the Jerusalem violence intensified the sense that we have just been through several very dark and damaging months.

Many of my personal friends echoed these sentiments. One of them, an ex-combat soldier, suddenly took to blogging and social media activism for the first time in her life. Another told me, “Well, now you know what it’s like to be Israeli.” Another was deeply angry that the IDF left Gaza without toppling the Hamas regime. Some professional colleagues muttered quietly about a possible and unprecedented confrontation with the United States. The most striking reaction came from a friend who has always been staunchly Left-wing, in favor of negotiations and concessions for peace, and opposed to the Netanyahu government. “Everyone hates us,” she suddenly told me, “thank God we have a state and an army.” Coming from her, such disillusioned sentiments were deeply sobering.

There’s no doubt that, for most Israelis, the experience of the war was more intense than many previous conflicts. Tension, and tempers, ran high. As Assaf Dudai wrote in a previous article for The Tower Magazine, the Israeli people displayed almost unprecedented national unity during the conflict. But he also noted that the clash between political extremes was more violent than ever. Indeed, violence erupted between Left and Right-wing protesters barely five minutes from my home in Tel Aviv.

I witnessed one of these protests myself. Thankfully, there was no serious violence, but the hostility in the air was palpable. Crowds of people shouted and sang, police were everywhere, and during the brief period I was there, several people were taken away in handcuffs. A group of teenage girls near me were asked why they came. “To show the Leftists,” they said. There was no doubt that the Right-wingers outnumbered their Left-wing counterparts by orders of magnitude.

Only a tiny fringe of the Right is violent, of course. But it certainly seems as if the mainstream Right’s despairing attitude toward the Palestinians has gained ground in Israel. Indeed, many people seem to feel that Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite his Right-wing credentials, was not strong enough in his response to Hamas. More hawkish figures like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett appear to be rising in popularity. This is not, I think, because of chauvinistic sentiments, but because Lieberman and Bennett’s deeply skeptical attitude toward the Palestinians’ willingness to accept our existence appeared far more credible after the war. Look what happened after the Gaza withdrawal, Israelis have been saying, and just imagine what would happen if we withdrew from the West Bank. In the face of such events as the brief closure of Ben-Gurion airport during the war, it seems hard to argue with this at the moment.

This has been exacerbated by the surprising extent of Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. Rockets, it seems, were the least of their capabilities. Dudai described our reaction quite well.

We had imagined a few small and dark passageways, dug by hand, Shawshank Redemption-style. But when reports came in of more than 30 tunnels running from Gaza into Israeli kibbutzim and moshavim, and footage showed them to be professionally constructed, lined with cement, and connected to electricity, our naiveté evaporated. The last straw was the revelation that Hamas had planned a mass terror attack using the tunnels, set to take place on the Jewish high holidays—an attack that could well have claimed thousands of lives.

The thought of what might have happened if we had not been lucky enough to discover their tunnels and other assets before they were used is terrifying to contemplate. To allow the same situation to take shape in the West Bank seems unthinkable.

For me, this is a deeply painful experience. I fervently supported the withdrawal from Gaza. During the war, many who opposed the withdrawal declared themselves vindicated. I am haunted by the terrible thought that they might be right. Perhaps we were fools. Deluded by the thought that unilateral withdrawal would somehow magically solve all our problems. Perhaps. I hope not.

I have also long supported an eventual Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. I do not and never have wanted Israel to continue ruling another people indefinitely. This conviction too has been terribly shaken. It is possible that missiles five minutes from Ben-Gurion airport is too great a risk for Israel to take. At the very least, we may have to maintain security control over the West Bank for the foreseeable future. Once again, I hope not.

Strangely enough, one of the worst aspects of the war occurred elsewhere. Like many others, I took to social media in order to defend Israel against its critics. But what I found there were not critics. It soon became clear to me that, when it comes to Israel and the Jews in general, something quite terrible has happened to a large part of the world. What I encountered was, without the slightest exaggeration, a wave of psychotic, genocidal racism.

The situation seems exemplified by the fact that one of the most popular Twitter hashtags during the war was #HitlerWasRight. I can say with confidence that those who used it believe precisely that. I encountered numerous users who denied Israel’s right to exist, regurgitated anti-Semitic stereotypes, compared us to the Nazis, declared their desire for the annihilation of Israel, defended Hamas’ anti-Semitic ideology, and expressed support for terrorism.

There is no point in denying that many of these people were Muslims. But racism is quite ecumenical. One of the worst offenders was a European anarchist who happily informed me that the Rothschild family had funded the Nazis. And ironically, almost all of them declared themselves supporters of peace, justice, and human rights. The entire demented pageant seemed to be summed up by one girl who wrote to me, “I love all human beings, but you are not a human being, you are a pig, the pig is the lowest animal in Islam.”

The moral and psychological perversity of all this abuse was underlined by what I can only describe as a deluge of snuff porn. Never in my life have I seen so many photographs and videos of dead bodies shamelessly exploited for propaganda purposes. I later discovered that a great many of these—possibly the majority—were not from Gaza, but were appropriated from the wars in Syria and Iraq. This is meaningless, of course, in regard to the disease the phenomenon represents. Those who hate Israel have long employed emotional blackmail as a tactic. But never before, to my knowledge, have they engaged in such widespread and gleeful necrophilia. It was sickening.

Israelis lay vigil after the bodies of three kidnapped Jewish teenagers—Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Sha'ar—were discovered in the West Bank after a nearly three-week-long search. Photo: Flash90

Israelis lay vigil after the bodies of three kidnapped Jewish teenagers—Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Sha’ar—were discovered in the West Bank after a nearly three-week-long search. Photo: Flash90

Reactions from more ostensibly responsible parties were not much better. Many international institutions have long been notorious for their hostility to Israel. But perhaps because of the new ubiquity of social media, the situation seemed worse than ever before. The president of Turkey repeatedly attacked Israel in clearly anti-Semitic terms. The UN regularly posted Tweets denouncing Israel in the most vitriolic terms, while completely ignoring revelations that its own agencies in Gaza were collaborating with Hamas and involved in terrorist activity. Many of the most prominent NGOs ostensibly dedicated to human rights, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, were particularly brutal in their rhetoric.

I was, for example, forced to witness the spectacle of Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, explaining that Hamas attacks on IDF soldiers are not war crimes. I do not know whether Roth was ignorant or lying, but because Hamas is a terrorist organization that does not fight in uniform, his statement was entirely false. It was also fairly typical. Indeed, almost everyone in the international establishment who finds Israel distasteful seemed to become an instant expert on the subject of international law. And their ubiquity and the halo effect they enjoy helped drown out more honest voices. It is unpleasant to say, but it seems likely that the vitriol directed against Israel from such reputable sources may well have helped rouse the passionate violence of less respectable actors.

Most disturbing, however, was a phenomenon I will not discuss at length, as I have already done so in a previous article. Put simply, a Global Pogrom took place. Particularly in Europe, but also in North America, Australia, Turkey, and other ostensibly civilized countries. Anti-Israel demonstrations were marked by racist and genocidal rhetoric, some of it indistinguishable from Nazi slogans. Individual Jews were threatened and physically assaulted. Synagogues were attacked and a Jewish neighborhood in Paris was trashed by rampaging mobs.

Ashkelon, Israel, November 16, 2014. Photo: Edi Israel / Flash90

Ashkelon, Israel, November 16, 2014. Photo: Edi Israel / Flash90

In response, many simply denied it was happening at all. Others blamed it on the Jews themselves. Authorities did little. Few criminal or civil charges have been filed. None of the groups involved were banned or penalized. No laws against racism and racist incitement were enforced. The UN, human rights NGOs, and other international actors ostensibly concerned with such things were entirely silent. Even the reaction from the US government was depressingly muted. The hypocrisy was epic in scope. But no one, it seems, particularly cared. I cannot but think of the disturbing relevance of Sigmund Freud’s observation: “We live in very remarkable times. We find with astonishment that progress has concluded an alliance with barbarism.”

Israelis often say, “The whole world is against us.” Intellectually, I have long believed this is often the case. But I now realize that I had never really understood it emotionally. Staring it in the face, with all the fear, anger, and despair it evokes, I find sometimes myself thinking of Shylock’s famous line, “The curse never fell upon our nation till now. I never felt it till now.” I believe the idea that the Jewish people are cursed to be a vile one. And considering what happens to Shylock in the end, I don’t want to think about it for very long. But I confess, it has been on my mind.

Previously, this just made me angry. Now, it leaves me feeling like a boxer who has gone ten rounds without a decision. Here you are, bruised and battered, and it looks like the fight will go on forever. For over a decade, I and many of my friends have been writing and talking about these things. We hoped that what we were doing could make a difference. That people would listen. That we could change their minds. At the moment, it seems like much of the world has not changed its mind. It has lost its mind. And you cannot convince someone who has lost his mind.

There has been one silver lining to this very dark experience. It is the messages of support and encouragement I received from some of the most unexpected places. In particular, from people in Africa, India, and other places that I never knew cared about Israel, let alone supported us. Their goodwill seems to have been motivated by the fact that they have also been victims of the kind of radical Islamism that Hamas represents. Those threatened by groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, it seems, cannot help but sympathize with another beleaguered people facing the same threat. Whether they will eventually be strong enough to counteract the hostility of others is an open question. But it is possible that radical Islam has finally gone too far. Perhaps the world that cares is finally beginning to rise up against the world that doesn’t. Perhaps the backlash against the alliance between progress and barbarism has finally begun. Perhaps. I hope so.

The streets of Ashkelon after a few days of heavy rain, November 27, 2014. Photo: Edi Israel / Flash90

The streets of Ashkelon after a few days of heavy rain, November 27, 2014. Photo: Edi Israel / Flash90

I am grateful for this. Because for myself and, I think, many other Israelis, hope has been horribly wounded by the Gaza war. It seems now as if war is less of an existential threat than the concessions demanded by peace. Our faith that the world will treat us fairly has been all but destroyed. Anti-Jewish racism, conscious or unconscious, seems to have reawakened with a vengeance, and the world is reneging on its pledge to fight it. And no one, I regret to say, thinks that there will not be another war with Hamas.

“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “and afterwards, many are strong in the broken places.” For decades, this has been the essence of Israeli survival. And now we are going through it again. But when the broken places are strong again, I think we will all be changed. It’s been rough.

Banner Photo: Hadas Parush / Flash90