Identity

Israel-Hamas war isn’t just about security, it’s about Jewish peoplehood

This war has shown us that no matter where a Jew lives, their identity and feeling of safety is connected to the State of Israel. That brings with it a responsibility that Israel cannot ignore.

It was a period of euphoria. In June 1967, Israel defeated three Arab armies in just six days and tripled in size. The country was on a high and Jews from around the world responded in kind.

If aliyah to Israel in 1967 was just 15,000, by 1968 it had jumped to 20,000, and by 1973 to almost 55,000. During this five-year period, some 30,000 American Jews moved to Israel, an unprecedented number. In 1966, for example, only 826 Jews immigrated from North America. By 1973 that number had skyrocketed to almost 5,000. Even today, despite the existence of special organizations to ease the aliyah process from the US, the numbers are barely half of what it was 50 years ago.

And while this large number of olim (immigrants) seemed impossible just a few years earlier, it was clear why it was happening: Israel was perceived as successful and powerful. Fresh out of a miraculous victory, Israel was a place to which people wanted to tie their fate. It was riding a wave that came crashing down with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.

Aliyah came crashing down as well. In all of 1974, about 32,000 people moved to Israel, a drop of 23,000 and by 1975, the number was down by almost 70%.

Perception of Israel

The lesson was obvious. Perception of Israel and its power is important, not just for the country’s efforts to deter its enemies, but also for how it is perceived by fellow Jews around the world. When the country is perceived as strong and successful, Jews rally behind it and decide to tie their fate to it. When, after the Yom Kippur War, Israel was perceived as vulnerable, weak, and failing, the number of people who wanted to be connected to here fell.

And this is an important lesson today as Israel’s war against Hamas continues in the Gaza Strip. On the surface, in wake of the attacks on October 7, Israel is creating a new security paradigm in southern Israel. It is operating in Gaza to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities, to kill or capture its leaders, and to remove it as the governing authority in the Gaza Strip. The days of containing the Hamas enemy are clearly over.

No matter how this war ends, Israel will also now need to change the substance of its relationship with Diaspora Jewry and declare that what was, will no longer be. All Israelis have been moved to see how Jews from around the world have stood up to assist Israel during this difficult time. There are those who donated money, others who have come here on solidarity missions to volunteer, and even more who have lined the streets of New York, London, Sydney, and Paris, with posters of the hostages and Israeli flags, at rallies in support of Israel’s battle to defeat Hamas.

THEY HAVE done so despite the explosion of antisemitism and the risk that it now poses to the future of American, British, and European Jewry. While Jews in Israel are obviously most at risk of physical harm, the killing of Paul Kessler at a pro-Israel rally in Los Angeles, and the death chants against Jews in Dagestan, as well as on the streets of London, indicate how antisemitism shows, to some extent, how all Jews are in a similar situation.

What we have to keep in mind is the objective of the protesters against Israel and the threat it poses to Jews. They want people to be afraid to speak up, to appear in public in support of Israel and to proudly identify as Jews. They want Jews to be afraid, to removed mezuzot from their front doors like in Paris and to remove their kippot (skullcaps) or any other Jewish markings.

The explosion in antisemitism shows just how intertwined the fate of Jews around the globe is to Israel, whether they support or care about what is happening here or not. They are immediately blamed for the IDF action and, as a result, Israel cannot ignore the Diaspora plight.

What Israel needs to do now is twofold. On the one hand, it should prepare for a possible increase in aliyah. As Jews face growing antisemitism, there might be a rise in the number of people who want to move here. The second step is to empower Jews around the world with the knowledge that Israel is the home of all Jews, no matter where they come from and how they practice their religion.

When Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, for example, praised Diaspora Jewry this week for donating over $1 billion to Israel Bonds, he wrote that “Diaspora Jews and the people of Israel stand together in the battle for the victory of light over darkness.”

While that sounds nice in a tweet, Smotrich needs to back that up with practical steps. Over the last decade, his party members have been some of the most vocal opponents to allowing Diaspora Jews to pray the way they want at the Western Wall, to convert to Judaism the way they want and to simply believe in what they want. If we really do “stand together,” then there are significant changes that Israel needs to make to the way it treats Jews who do not fit into the Orthodox way of life.

This war has shown us that no matter where a Jew lives, their identity and feeling of safety is connected to the State of Israel. That brings with it a responsibility that Israel cannot ignore.

Two very different experiences

Tuesday marked a month from the Hamas invasion on October 7 and I spent it moving between two very different experiences. In the morning, I watched as our daughter, who has been in the IDF for the last 18 months, graduated from Bahad 1, the IDF Officer Training Academy and became an officer.

In the afternoon, I went to Kibbutz Nir Oz along the border with Gaza and walked between the burned and bullet-ridden homes to see up-close what had happened there a month earlier.

Nir Oz was attacked like the rest of the borderline communities and while the death toll was lower than Be’eri as an example, more than 70 of the 240 hostages are from Nir Oz. The reason was because of Nir Oz’s proximity to Gaza but also the fact that there are roads that cut through the field and connect Gaza directly to the Kibbutz making it easy for Hamas to drive straight there with pickup trucks and load up hostages.

The sequence of events – watching my daughter become an IDF officer and then visiting Nir Oz, makes it clear what this country is about and what it is fighting for.

When the hundreds of soldiers stood on the parade ground at the Bahad 1 near Mitzpe Ramon and took upon themselves the mantle of command in the IDF, they do not have to wonder what they will be asked to do. This country is at war, and these youth are our inspiration.

As a parent, as an Israeli, and as a Jew I could not be prouder.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

Published by Jerusalem Post