Israel Matters! – November 2023

This Time is Different – Israel Under Attack – A Personal View

October 7, 2023, may be the worst day in Israeli history.

I arrived in Israel on October 3rd.  Israel is a place I have visited dozens of times. There are so many things I love about Israel – the people, the culture, the food, the air, walking on the “tayelet” (boardwalk) along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, visiting the many historic, cultural and religious sites, and being in a place where it isn’t an effort to be Jewish.

But this trip to Israel was different.

My plan was to attend a week-long dance festival in Israel’s resort city of Eilat, at the very southern tip of Israel, near Jordan and Egypt. I arrived a week before the festival to spend time with friends and enjoy the many things that make Israel so special. My first 3 days in Tel Aviv were jet-lagged but magical – just what I was hoping for. I fell asleep Friday night around 3:00 AM with a big smile on my face.

Around 6:30 AM on Saturday, October 7, I woke up to a sound I had never heard before – a siren outside. At first, I didn’t know what it was, but eventually I realized that it must be a warning to seek shelter.  I threw on some shoes, a robe and grabbed my phone and headed to the shelter of my hotel.  About 30 seconds later, I heard several loud “boom” sounds from above, the sound of rockets being intercepted and destroyed by Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system. After several minutes of quiet, I returned to my room and fell back to sleep. The sirens sounded again a few hours later, so back to the shelter I went, repeating all of the above. I told myself, this is what happens sometimes in Israel – they have to deal with the occasional rocket attack. But I wasn’t really worried, knowing that the Iron Dome and Israel’s legendary system of security was protecting me.

Somewhere after 9:00 AM, I began to receive multiple texts and calls from Israeli friends, asking if I was ok. Telling me this wasn’t just rocket attacks, this was more. This was different. Even as I write this 5 days later, I have a visceral reaction thinking of their words and the emotion in their voices. They told me that Israel was attacked not just by rockets, but by Hamas terrorists who had been able to breach security walls and systems, and that Israelis living in southern communities had been killed. I knew I was almost 75 miles away from those attacks, which occurred in the communities near Gaza, so although I didn’t love the idea of rockets overhead, I was not overly worried being in Tel Aviv.  At that time, I had no idea of the magnitude of those attacks, or the horrific and barbaric acts that became evident in the hours and days that followed.

The first moment that I felt truly frightened was when one Israeli friend called and said, “You need to leave as soon as you can. This is really bad and it’s going to get worse. This is our 9/11.” This long and intricately planned horrific attack was a complete surprise, with Israelis savagely murdered in their homes and neighborhoods. Israeli intelligence and security had failed somehow, and Israelis felt that gut-punch deeply. My friends told me they were concerned that other enemies like Lebanon and Iran would see this incident as an opportunity to also strike. Everyone I spoke with knew immediately that the attack of this day was different, and that it would not have a quick resolution. Israelis are usually so strong and confident, so it was very alarming to hear them being concerned and afraid.

I decided to heed my friend’s advice and change my return flight and leave Israel earlier than scheduled. But that was easier said than done. ELAL, the airline I had flown on, was the only airline still flying in and out of Israel. All other airlines’ flights were cancelled. I tried without success to find an ELAL flight home. Instead of returning to JFK, I tried to find a flight to Newark. Nothing. Or Boston. Nothing. Miami, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Munich … Nothing. All flights were filled for the next 10 days. I felt trapped and afraid, fearful that the situation would escalate, and the airport would close completely, and I would be stuck there alone without a clear understanding of how to handle what was happening or what might still unfold.  

Previously I had downloaded an app to alert me to rockets and other dangers, which provides specific warnings and describes the time you have to get to a shelter from the time the alert is sounded. In Tel Aviv, it told me I had a minute-and-a-half to get to a safe area. (By comparison, in the town of Sderot where I have friends, they have only 15 seconds.) For the first time, I read all the information contained in the app, including what to do if I was in a car, or walking along a street when the sirens sounded. The app described all the specifics I needed and wanted to know, and I felt a bit more secure with the extra knowledge, yet I found myself feeling sad that Israelis ever needed to develop and utilize an app like this.

I went to bed Saturday night with my clothes on. I decided if the alarms sounded again, I would use the hotel stairwell as a safe area, since I now knew from the app that it would be adequate and much quicker for me to get to than the shelter. I slept fitfully, waking frequently at every sound. During one of the mid-night sirens, I met 5 Americans in the stairwell who had arrived on one of the last flights to arrive on Saturday morning. It felt comforting to see others with whom I could exchange information and concerns and ideas. In addition to the booms of the intercepted missiles that night, we heard a helicopter flying over us.

After a night of sirens and stairwells, I got up Sunday, afraid to take a shower or turn on the TV as the sounds from either might mask the sound of a siren. I ventured outside from what had in only one very long day, become the lonely and isolated walls of my hotel room. The Tel Aviv streets were eerily quiet, normally bustling even on Shabbat. All the stores and restaurants were dark. The roads were empty. Even the beach and tayelet were closed and silent. No one was out except to walk their dogs.

I decided to visit a friend who lived near my hotel. While I was there, her neighbor came over to warn us to stay inside and not let anyone in the building – that terrorists from Gaza had stolen police cars and ambulances and might be in the area. Another surge of fear shot through my body. I remembered the helicopter I had heard the night before.

It had been about 30 hours since the beginning of this nightmare. Besides their fear of personal safety, it is clear how deeply this terrible situation effects all aspects of Israeli life. Israel is such a small country that every Israeli knows someone killed or injured or missing. Everyone has children or siblings or other relatives currently in the army or who have been called back to service. Daily life is affected because over 15% of the Israeli workforce has been called into active duty already – and more are likely to be called as this continues. That means there are fewer clerks at the grocery stores and fewer cooks to make food at restaurants, fewer delivery drivers to bring supplies and food to stores, fewer people to operate the various forms of public transportation, and fewer medical personnel at hospitals. Schools are closed and kids are home, and dads have been called away to serve in the army. Here in America, we feel the anguish of seeing images from the massacre on TV and thinking about what happened to so many innocent people. But in Israel, everyone is affected every moment of every day, with disruption at the most basic levels and with uncertainty about what will happen next. And the families of those killed and kidnapped, survivors of the attack, and military staff who witnessed the atrocities and their aftermath will have to deal with so many traumatic memories for the rest of their lives.

With the many issues everyone in Israel is now facing, I was surprised and touched by the offering of support I received– even from people I knew only slightly. Friends and relatives offered to pick me up (even from quite far away) and let me stay with them, help me get food, help me understand what to do. One close friend had a cousin who worked for ELAL and asked if I’d like him to contact her to try to get me a flight home. I gratefully accepted the possible help with getting on a plane. (This kind of help is something known by Israelis as “protectsia” – knowing someone who can help you get an inside advantage.) Several hours later, I got a call from his cousin saying there was just a cancellation on a flight leaving in four hours – could I get packed and to the airport in time? I could not believe it. It felt like a miracle.

Although I was nervous about being able to get a taxi to the airport because Hamas had threatened to bombard Tel Aviv with rockets that evening, the hotel arranged transportation and we got there without incident. The airport was nearly empty, since only ELAL was flying. There were ELAL flights landing, filled with Israelis who had been abroad and who had hurried home to be with their families or to serve in the army. The woman who checked me in was one of those brought back to work to fill-in for staff called into army service. As she handed me my ticket, she said to me with tears in her eyes, “The world needs to know what has happened to us here. Please pray for Israel.”

We boarded, but take off was considerably delayed. They didn’t tell us why, but text messages informed me that Ben Gurion airport was being targeted by rockets, not a comforting feeling. I told myself that ELAL would not allow us to take off if it were not safe to do so, that its pilots were the most skilled of any airline. When we finally took off, we took a different route than usual, traveling considerably North before heading westward, presumably to get away from Gaza and rocket-range as quickly as possible. After about 20 minutes, I relaxed and was so thankful that I was headed home.

As of this writing, I have been home two days. The alarms on my app continue to sound, with an increasing frequency. I feel a bit of guilt that I was able to get out and most of my American, Canadian and Australian friends who came for the same festival I did are still there. In my gut is a deep sadness for all in Israel who still have this cloud of fear over their heads about what will happen in the days, weeks, and even months to follow. Even though I feel safe to be back in Connecticut, the truth is that Jews in Israel and around the world are not safe. If you weren’t already paying attention, the horrific attack on Israel and the subsequent anti-Israel rallies in support (and even celebration) of the murders, should be your wake-up call to rising anti-Semitism around the world. This is not just another news story about conflict in the Middle East. This attack against Israel was not a “deserved punishment because they have oppressed Palestinians” as some have said. This was an attack on Jewish people everywhere.

Although it’s not known yet exactly how this could have happened, it’s crystal clear why it did:  Hamas terrorists have the goal of eliminating all Jews and the state of Israel. Period. Their attacks had NOTHING to do with seeking better lives for their people. Hamas has created their terror infrastructure and campaigns in ways that actually maximize civilian casualties. Conversely, when Israel strikes to eliminate Hamas weapons and terrorists in defense of its people, it does all it can to minimize civilian casualties, warning people to evacuate buildings that they will target by dropping leaflets and making calls to the people there. (It’s well documented that Hamas terrorists force Palestinian civilians to stay in buildings about to be bombed. They do not care about civilian lives, and believe that it looks better in their anti-Israel media campaigns for many Palestinians to die.) Civilian deaths in Gaza will sadly occur, but because of Hamas, not because of Israel.

Israel matters. Israel matters to each of us as Jews. We must support Israel in its efforts to recover from this devastating attack. Israel WILL recover and implement new security and intelligence measures that make the country stronger and safer than ever. I will return to Israel many more times, and when I am there, I will appreciate more than ever all that it has to offer.

Although it was not the trip I had expected, I feel extremely lucky on many accounts. I was lucky to have three great days with friends in Israel before everything started. I was lucky that Israel’s Iron Dome kept me safe from rockets. I was lucky that someone knew someone who found a flight home for me. Mostly, I was lucky not to be in southern Israel when and where the unimaginable, gut-wrenching murders and destruction occurred.

My resolve to support Israel and stand up to those who speak against her has never been stronger. I keep thinking about what the woman at ELAL check in said to me: “The world needs to know what has happened to us here. Please pray for Israel.” So, I will. I will explain to anyone and everyone who will listen that Hamas’ end-goal was and always will be to slaughter Jews and eliminate them from the planet, not to seek better lives for Palestinian people. I will “unfriend” anyone I know who hints at the idea that Israel in some way deserved this. And I will pray for Israel.

Please pray for Israel.