Swords of Iron

The Genesis War

This war requires a name rooted in Jewishness – and, after victory, one that calls us to correct course and start again from the beginning

This war does not have a name. Two weeks have gone by; over half the number of those killed in the Yom Kippur War have lost their lives, and nearly twice the number of those who fell in the Six-Day War – yet this disaster still has no name.

“Swords of Iron,” the random name spit out by a military computer, is meaningless. The name of a war is supposed to link with it with a specific experience. In limited campaigns, hollow names suffice – who remembers the difference between “Cast Lead,” “Protective Edge,” “Pillar of Defense,” “Shield and Arrow,” and “Guardian of the Walls”? These are all synthetic names from the same assembly line that produced “Swords of Iron.”

It would also be inappropriate to name this war after the holiday on which erupted – the “Simchat Torah War.” Even the usual insensitivity of our leadership would not be able to reconcile simcha or “rejoicing” with “war.”

On its face, this is a marginal, even petty concern – and yet it’s not. The name “War of Independence” galvanized the consciousness of the fighters around the war’s purpose. It prompted action. The “Six-Day War” poignantly expressed our swift and miraculous victory. The “War of Attrition,” a name coined by Egypt’s then-president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, effectively conveyed the essence of that event. “Peace in the Galilee” was, of course, a misnomer, misleading and inaccurate, but it tried, even so, to articulate its goal.

Yet now, when 360,000 reservists have been armed and mobilized, when no Israeli home or family knows calm, when the world’s largest aircraft carrier has been deployed to our shores, the war still has no name. My four sons and my two sons-in-law were called up, like all of their friends, to a war that has no name.

A nameless person is called almoni in Hebrew or “anonymous” in English. These are adjectives that distance, alienate, cut off emotionally. The current war is still anonymous – like those “unknown” soldiers of the pre-state Lehi anthem – but it ought to have a fitting name.

It is so present, so near, so threatening, so heartbreaking. It isn’t anonymous to those who’ve already paid the price of loss, injury, capture, or the haunting uncertainty of absence. It will be seared in their souls forever. It knocks on every door – first in Israel’s south, later the entire country – and is therefore far from anonymous. And yet it still has no name.

This is no accident: we’re unsure about the meaning of the war, its essence, and so we’re having trouble naming it.

On the morning of Simchat Torah, the first rocket barrage drove us from our synagogues before we had finished reading, as is customary, the opening verses of Sefer Bereshit – the Book of Genesis. We didn’t hear the words “And God said ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light … And God called the light Day, and the darkness Night.”

Right at the beginning of the human story we find that naming a thing creates it and reveals its essence. “Light/day” and “darkness/night” are what they are because that is what they were named. Likewise, the name God gives to “Adam” hints at his finite nature (created from the dust of the earth (Adama) to which he will return), and the name that Adam gives to Eve – Chava – points to her role in creating continuity despite finitude (“the mother of all living (Chai)”).

Socrates believed that the responsibility for naming things should be entrusted to philosophers. I am not a philosopher, nor a copywriter. But I thought I might suggest: The Genesis War.

In this way, we would clarify for ourselves and for the world that, unlike the two previous Israeli commonwealths, which ended in their eighth decade of existence, we, in our eighth decade of sovereignty, have only begun.

It would reflect the determination of mind that the post-war Israel will not go back to the divided Israel it has been until now – without borders, a constitution, and proper governance. The Zionist journey that led to the ingathering of the exiles, the founding of the state and its phenomenal flourishing, has not ended. We will correct course and start again from the beginning – from Genesis. The Genesis War also harkens back to the day the war broke out – the day we started reading the Torah from the beginning, from Genesis. It’s a name that imbues the war with a Jewish, trans-generational emotional charge. And also with an Israeli charge: “To wake up tomorrow morning with a new song in our hearts / To sing it with strength, to sing it with pain / To hear the flutes in the free breeze / and to start – from the beginning” (from a Naomi Shemer song).

Our children are going out to battle. Ostensibly they are facing a Gaza-based terrorist organization – but not really. What they are confronting, what we all are confronting, is fundamentalist Islam – both Sunni (Hamas) and Shiite (Hezbollah and Iran). Israel is under attack because of its Jewishness, and from that Jewishness – its beginnings, its Genesis – we draw the strength that will lead us to victory. Afterward, we will move on to the task of the present generation: rebooting the Zionist enterprise – from the beginning.

Yedidia Stern is the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and a professor of law (emeritus) at Bar-Ilan University.
Published by the TOI