Israel Post 10/7: Learning Humility

I always learn the most from Israeli cabbies. The views they share are raw, unvarnished. On most of my organized visits to Israel I hear from all kinds of experts — academics, journalists, heads of NGOs, members of Knesset, etc. — but what stays with me for months after each trip are what I hear from the cabbies. 

A version of this article was published by eJewishPhilanthropy on April 12, 2024.

This was my first visit post-10/7, as a volunteer on a service mission with the organization Adamah. Like many American Jews who care about Israel, I was consuming hundreds of articles, podcasts and news stories about the war against Hamas, the fates of the hostages, the humanitarian crisis affecting civilians in Gaza, the growing hostility in the world toward Jews and Israel, and much more. I am no stranger to the country. I visit almost every year. 

But I found Israel to be, definitely, a changed country. 

The cab driver who drove me from the airport into Tel Aviv told me that he has lost all faith in the Israeli government. “They have failed all of us,” he said. First, there was the shocking intelligence failure that allowed the incursion of more than 1,000 Hamas terrorists over the border to commit mind-numbing atrocities against Israelis, despite several warnings that such an incursion was being planned. Then there was the failure of the vaunted Israeli military to come to the aid of Israelis being massacred or kidnapped for the better part of 24 hours. 

“We need to get rid of them. All of them,” he declared. “We need new political leadership in this country.”

The cab driver who drove me back to the airport after nine days in the country gave me a different take on the matzav(situation). It was the day that the U.S. chose to abstain from the U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire. “Biden is weak,” the cabbie told me. “Doesn’t he understand that, if Israel doesn’t eliminate Hamas, they are coming for the entire Western world next?… Don’t you remember 9/11?… We need Trump —” 

At that point I interjected. “Trump is crazy,” I said. “He is dangerous and totally lacking any measure of integrity or principle.” 

My cabbie was quick with a response: “That is why we need him. He is just crazy enough to flatten all of Gaza without any hesitation. Let all the Gazans starve to death or be killed in this war. Less for us to worry about.” 

Unvarnished, indeed! 

Between these two random conversations in a cab, there was much to take in. At Hostage Square in downtown Tel Aviv, for instance, you could speak to relatives of hostages still being held in Gaza. You could walk through a simulated Hamas tunnel, imagining what it might be like to be chained in one of them for months on end, with minimal food or water and at risk of beatings or worse at the hands of Hamas captors. Or you could walk up to a yellow piano donated by the parents of Alon Ohel, 22, a gifted pianist kidnapped from the Nova music festival. The sign next to the piano invites visitors to sit at the piano and play a song as a message of hope and strength that Alon will survive his ordeal and return home safely. 

A visit to the actual Nova music festival site is even more heart-rending. Over 400, mostly young people attending the festival were killed by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, and another 40-plus were taken as hostages. The site has become a much-visited memorial, with photos and memorabilia of each of the victims placed with care by their families and friends. As Israelis and a handful of tourists walk somberly through the site, there are pop-up gatherings of people saying Kaddish, telling stories of loved ones lost, and offering songs and prayers to honor those whose lives were cut so tragically short. 

At a hotel in Zichron Yaakov, around 400 displaced residents from towns on the Lebanese border, some only a stone’s throw from Hezbollah bunkers, are taking refuge. They are among the approximately 180,000 Israelis displaced due to concerns about shelling and/or incursions from terrorists. In conversation with these Israelis, one hears expressions of patriotism, love of country and Zionism that remind me of conversations I had with Israelis decades ago, but rarely since. 

One middle-aged woman named Rachel, from the northern town of Shlomi, brought me to tears with her spontaneous speech to our group: “For centuries, Jews have been persecuted, expelled from their countries and killed. We finally reclaimed our home — the State of Israel. We will no longer run. We will fight for our right to be a free people in our ancestral homeland. Am Yisrael chai, the nation of Israel shall live.” 

When I approached Rachel to thank her for her courage and for her inspiring words, she discovered that I had a daughter who made aliyah and who lives in Tel Aviv. “I will be back in my home soon enough. Have your daughter call me. She will come for Shabbat dinner,” she said. 

Many people asked me why I was coming to Israel in the midst of a war. Rachel provided the best answer. We are family. 

I’ve had many opportunities to speak to my congregation and to others about 10/7, about the Israel-Hamas war, about the future of the State of Israel. Like many, my views have changed several times since 10/7. The events of that day and the subsequent weeks and months will leave long-standing scars on Israelis, Palestinians and all who care about the future of the Middle East. But every time I offer an opinion on what the stakeholders in the current conflict should do, I feel like I am in a game of chess. I am aware that my “move” can be countered by three possible moves that will put me in a worse situation. And even more humbling, there are likely six other moves that will put me in a worse situation that I can’t even begin to anticipate. 

I returned from Israel with a healthy lesson in humility. I will still offer my opinions, hopefully well-reasoned. But I will try to listen more, speak less and hold my opinions more lightly. Jewish professionals are facing a community whose views span the spectrum from “defend Israel against any and every critic” to “Zionism is a colonial enterprise that needs to be dismantled as soon as possible”. I am finding that a posture of listening without judgment is the only way to keep the widest possible range of Jews in the communal tent. Given the dramatic rise in anti-semitic attitudes and actions all around the world, this is a time for solidarity, not a time for pointing fingers and making accusations about who is right and who is wrong. 

The one conviction that I will hold with greater force is this: We say in Hebrew: Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh, “All of Israel is responsible, one for the other.” In other words, we are family. We must show up for one another.