I’ve been to Israel 20 times in the last 20 years, never for no reason, always for some purpose, whether to study Torah, visit a boyfriend, visit family, learn Hebrew, travel in the West Bank, do political touring, or staff a Honeymoon Israel trip. I’ve been for as long as 10 months in a stretch and as few as three days. Last week’s trip with Upstart and the iCenter, two national organizations helping Jewish organizations thrive, was an action-packed four days, and I am grateful for the opportunity to go back to a place that has played such an important role in my formation, has been so present in the news for the past four months, and yet there’s been shockingly little of the people who live there in the news articles you may read. Images of burnt cars and homes and mutilated bodies from the brutal October 7th attacks in which thousands of Hamas special forces came into Israel by air, sea and land and slaughtered 1200 people and took 240 hostages, we’ve seen those images and heard those stories… but there have not been a lot of stories, if any, about how the regular Israelis are handling life right now. 

So the purpose of this trip was to be a witness. Ellie Wiesel once said “When you listen to a witness you become a witness.” That was the goal of the trip: to witness. And to share back with you. And any of you with close friends or family in Israel right now know that there is a great sense of isolation and loneliness, like the world doesn’t care about what happened to them and their families October 7th. So our being there was about hearing and seeing our people. The purpose was not to arrive at a particular political conclusion, whether support for this war, or support for a ceasefire, or a bi-lateral ceasefire, or a hostage release with a ceasefire, or Egyptian or Qatari negotiations, or whatever political solutions are being advocated for in the streets and in the halls of Congress and the UN. For us, being these was simply to hear the stories of some people offering what light they could bring to this dark moment, and get a sense of what life feels like for Israelis post Oct 7th.

During the trip we went up to the Gaza border but didn’t cross it for obvious reasons, so I’ll only be talking about the experience I had with Israelis. I want to invite you to listen with the heart that you’d bring to anyone who four and a half months ago went through a massive, traumatic tragedy that completely destabilized them, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and in some cases, physically too. Something that became clear to me is that outside of Israel the conversation is very, very different from inside of Israel, so rather than imposing the conversations you might be having here onto the people living there, I also hope you’ll listen without judgment for anyone I’ll talk about. No one here is a military commander or making those choices on behalf of the country– they’re regular people who are trying to figure out how to live in the wake of this tragedy. 

When you get off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport and walk down the ramp toward customs, toward the beautiful glass encased Mezuzah that is the size of my entire arm, the first thing you notice that is different from any previous trip I’ve taken is that whole ramp the whole way down is covered in the faces of the hostages being held in Gaza. A name, a face, and age. Bring them home now. It’s people in their teens and twenties and 30s and elderly people, and babies. Kfir Bibas had his 1st birthday in captivity in Gaza. Whereas from where we are sitting over here, the hostages are one of many issues but in Israel, the hostages are everything, the faces of the hostages are everywhere. There is a deep national sense of solidarity with these hostages, and their families have built a movement to try to focus the government’s attention on their release.

You may have heard that it’s not going well. Faith in the government is at an all-time low. People hate BiBi Netanyahu, they hate and don’t trust the government, but they are also so tired and demoralized by the events of October 7th that many of them don’t have any solutions or alternatives to offer. Only now is the anti-government protest movement that existed before October 7th returning to its previous size out in the streets, and are btw, being met with violent police brutality… and even as war rages in Gaza, it also feels like the fissures that were inside Israel before October 7th are beginning to resurface as well. So… the country is feeling uncertain, unstable. On the one hand traumatized by an enemy, and on the other deeply dissatisfied and distrusting of their own government, the people who were supposed to be protecting them. And they feel the world doesn’t care about them or their families in captivity. So you can imagine just how raw people’s people’s nerves are, even as they try to go about their daily lives.

So last Tuesday, our first day, we toured a farming community called Netiv Ha’Asarah. The history of this community is that they had actually first been located in the Sinai Peninsula, with their farms and greenhouses, and then when Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in the historic peace agreement at Camp David where they exchanged land for peace and recognition with Egypt, this community uprooted themselves and moved their kibbutz right next to the northern corner of the Gaza Strip, a quiet bucolic countryside. I’m sure you heard, one of the tragic ironies of many of the victims of the terror attacks of October 7th, was that many of them  were peaceniks, people who advocated for diplomacy to reach a peace agreement, in building trust and relationship with their Gazan neighbors, picking up cancer patients at the border and driving them to Israeli hospitals, etc. 

So Yoni, our guide, a young woman getting a Master’s Degree at Reichman University– who was clearly emotionally drained by giving these tours, she said it was taking a toll on her fiance and their relationship… but she feels it’s important for people to understand what happened. She showed us where 3 paragliders from Hamas’ special forces, Nuchbaz unit, landed at 6:30 am on October 7 and immediately began going from house to house, the goal being to kill as many people and wreak as much destruction as possible. She showed us where two volunteer guards came out in their underwear to protect a 78 year old woman hiding in a shelter and were ambushed and killed by machine gun fire, here by this tree, here, on this road. You could still see the nicks in the tree from the bullets. She showed us where that woman hid, and the 9 bullet holes in the wall where they killed her from about a foot and a half away. She showed us the home of Bilha and Yaakov Ynon, an elderly couple who were peace activists and artists, who were burned alive– only a few teeth and backbone remaining a few feet from the burned out structure and cars. Across the road, she described, the mother in the house had a fascination with WW2 literature, and remembered that one strategy when Jews were hiding from Nazis, was they’d open up all the doors in the house to make it look like they fled, and then hide on the roof. So she opened up all the doors in her house, grabbed her kids and the dog, and hid under the stairs. Hamas terrorists came in, looked around and didn’t see anyone, and left. Thank God her dog didn’t bark. You may have heard the story of Gil Tasa, the father who saved his two young children by throwing himself on a grenade the Hamas fighters threw into their safe room. His 17 year old eldest, Or, had gone to the beach that morning to go surfing, and was murdered along with everyone else on the beach that day as well.

Their whole community remains evacuated from their homes and are living in a hotel in Tel Aviv, where they’ve built a nursery school and pre-school in some conference rooms, as well as a teen lounge. Given the trauma they’ve been through, their creativity and resilience in re-constructing a temporary life in a hotel for their entire community, is pretty astounding. There are, btw, about 300,000 displaced Israelis from communities across the south near the Gaza fighting and the north, where Hezbollah is firing thousands of rockets on northern towns. They’re all doing this– trying to create some semblance of normal life, against the backdrop of total uncertainty. One of the teen leaders described the mental health challenges all the kids are facing. The displacement, the feeling that everything is temporary, not going to school with their friends, having to move around every few months, the sense of fear and not being safe in their own homes, in their own country, the wondering if they’ll ever have normal lives again. 

I have to say on the day we heard from her, that afternoon, which of course was first thing in the morning in the States, the NYT Daily episode for February 20th came out, and it chronicled the lives of two Gazans stranded in Rafah. And as they described their family’s journeys, evacuating their homes, relocating multiple times in the past four months to avoid bombing, trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy and safety for their children– I could not escape the similarities in sense of parallel trauma that Israelis and Palestinians are undergoing alongside each other. And from that place of abject fear and horror and desire to protect you and your family at all costs, I completely understand why the concern of Gazans is not how Israelis are doing right now, post Oct 7, and the concern of Israeli Jews is not how Gazans are doing post Oct 7… Each people is drowning in its own crisis. Which of course is part of the problem, but also completely understandable, emotionally speaking. And you might say, “Well Israelis have hotels and the homes of friends and family to go to– Gazans have literally nowhere to go. And that may be factually accurate, but psychologically speaking, both peoples are in deep fear and trauma.

But of course there are stories that remind you that this moment cannot be boiled down to one side versus another side… because Hamas doesn’t represent all Palestinians, and even all Palestinians in Gaza, and the Israeli government doesn’t represent all Israelis– it didn’t before the attacks and certainly not now. But finally, there are hundreds of thousands of people who feel a stake in both peoples thriving and survival and refuse to be put into a box.

For example, that night we spoke with one of the heroes of that day, a taxi driver named Yousef AlzayDin who had given a ride to a few guys to the Nova Music festival on October 6th. On the morning of Oct 7 his phone started ringing and at first he ignored it, but then finally picked it up seeing it was the same guy from the day before, wondering if maybe he was drunk or high and needed a ride back. Understanding that there was an ongoing terrorist attack happening, even in that moment, he threw on a shirt and got in his car and drove toward the festival. He described, “My name is Yussif Alzyadn- my name means righteous. He said God help me be righteous to rescue these people. Either I will die or rescue people.”

This guy drove through the field under fire, picked up injured people. When he had the guy he had come for they picked up other injured people and finally made their way to a nearby Kibbutz Tzi’irim to take shelter. Everyone there recognized thim to be a hero, and they said, “we are staying with you until we can see you get home safely.” Just like these Hamas people aren’t reasonable and rational and are killing everyone, if Israelis hear you speaking Arabic they might not be rational either, and shoot you on site. So the kibbutz tzi-irim took care of them til he could safely get home. He learned that a friend he’s hung out with the day before, Abed, happened to be on the beach where Hamas boats landed, and he was shot 17 times. 

Youssef said he thinks every Israeli in the country called to thank him in the following week and weeks. Then he started getting death threats. But here’s what he said to us, “Here’s what I feel like. The people I saved… They’re Israeli citizens and so am I. Second of all, They’re human and so am I. Third of all, fuck off.” And then he went to the police and reported the calls. He said to us, “People is all that we have. We are all we have. Each other. We have to take care of each other.”

He was an incredibly inspiring person to meet, one of those everyday heroes who makes you want to be a better person. And who reminds you that we can and should do everything we can to take care of innocent people being violently pursued not for anything they’ve ever personally done, just the crime of being born into a particular identity group, or into a particular piece of land.

The quiet heroism of everyday people also is happening through art, poetry, and humor. We met Eliaz Cohen, a poet and father of four who co-founded a few different peace-and-coexistence organizations with with Palestinians who live nearby his West Bank kibbutz of Kfar Etsion, trying to envision a life where they get to live where they all live without displacement, inequality or occupation, building empathy, mutual recognition. Those organizations are called Shorashim (Roots) and A Land for All. He also has an organization that helps people write their own amateur poetry as a way of getting through stress and trauma and after October 7th this organization, Mashiv HaRuach, has helped thousands of people process trauma and PTSD through convening free open poetry writing workshops every single night online on Zoom. For me that was a powerful demonstration of how average citizens and groups are stepping up with the particular talent or gift that is theirs, and offering it freely to help people– particularly when the government has been so unhelpful and in some cases even harmful– see the stories about this past weekend’s protests and how the families of the hostages still in captivity are being treated by the police on horses with water cannons. So Eliaz’s thing, his offering, is poetry. And with it he’s touching and changing lives, helping people through their suffering. Never think your art doesn’t matter! It can really make a difference in people’s lives.

On our last day, Thursday, we sat down with Mishy Harman, the Ira Glass of Israel, responsible for the podcast Sipur Yisraeli or Israel Story, the most listened to Jewish podcast in the world, been running almost 10 years– really really good– which since October 7th has been doing Wartime Diaries, interviews with individuals across the country, of all stripes and backgrounds, people of all different life stories and experiences. He mentioned that in the days and weeks right after October 7th, in his neighborhood of Abu Tor in Jerusalem, he would see Arabs getting stopped on the street by police, checking their phones to see if they had been posting anything against Israel or supporting Hamas, and if they had, they were detained. He described how hard it was in those first few weeks to find any Arabs that would talk to him on the record, for fear of retaliation from the government. That said, over the next few months, the show was able to incorporate more voices of the diversity of Israel. Truly, it’s worth downloading the show and going back a decade and listening to every episode they’ve run, if you’re interested in complicating your understanding of the country. 

Anyway– he shared a story about his own family, how his grandparents made Aliyah in the 30s from Europe, the Nazis. They had met in England at a Jewish debate event, where his grandfather had been arguing for Zionism, and Zena his grandmother had been arguing against Zionism, back in those pre WW2 days when Jews thought their best chance at thriving was in diaspora. They fell in love and got married, and in the late 30’s, when it became clear that Europe wasn’t a safe place for Jews, they went together to Israel and dedicated themselves to the building of the state. Yet they were always dedicated to peace with their Arab neighbors. Mishi shared a memory of sitting with his grandmother Zena during the second Lebanon war, watching TV with her, and the news reported on a death, Motti Cohen or something, as well as the name of someone on the Lebanon side of the border– and she looked up at him, and said “Such a strange thing, there are hills up in the north with flowers and trees, and somebody drew a border and decided that I should care about Motti Cohen, the person who dies on my side of the border who I don’t know. I don’t know the guy who died on the other side of the border either, but I’m supposed to mourn the person on my side of the border, not his side. But to me,” she said, “people are people are people.”

Almost exactly like what we’d heard Youssef say two days earlier. I was struck by that line, because it feels instinctually true. It certainly echoes the first chapter of the Torah, that expresses that the human being, all human beings, are created Tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and are all therefore worthy of infinite dignity and respect. Which I know Jewish tradition believes. It echoes the section in Sanhedrein that describes how, when you take a life, you’re not just taking one life– you’re taking all its infinite potential forever more, which is radically unique, and yet fundamentally equal to every other human being. So when you save a life you save the world, and when you take a life, you destroy a world. 

However our same legal system says you don’t owe that same infinite respect to the person tunneling into your house to kill you. That person you’re permitted, even obligated, to kill first. 

And right now the whole country is feeling the existential fear of having someone tunneling into their house, who said they’d do it again and again if given the opportunity– and therefore much of the country feels basically justified in doing whatever needs to be done in Gaza to neutralize Hamas. My experience was that when you ask Israelis about the death toll in Gaza, or the horrific and complete destruction of wide swaths of land– the vast majority of Israelis just don’t have the emotional space for it. They’re too inside of their own trauma. People may be people may be people, but when you’re in a state of acute trauma, actually, the only person you can muster concern for is yourself and your family, and if someone looks like a threat, it’s nearly impossible to see them as anything other than a threat, and you’re justified in doing whatever you need to do to survive. I’m not saying that to justify the extent of the damage in Gaza, btw… that’s just the emotional reality of what’s happening. 

While the conversation over here in the States is about what kind of pressure to put on Israel to stop the bombing of Gaza and Gazans, cities like Chicago passing symbolic resolutions to pressure Biden to pressure Israel into a ceasefire… that is so far from the conversation there. Israelis recognize that they don’t necessarily know what the end of this will look like but something has to be done to demilitarize Hamas, and get the hostages back. Hamas has put its weapons, computer servers, and military in civilian areas like schools, hospitals and under the UN Headquarters, well then, Hamas is to blame when they get bombed. That’s the attitude I heard a lot.. The only context in which I heard ceasefire being discussed is as a pause so that the hostages can be returned. Hostages keep being reported dead or even killed in the bombings or by friendly fire and so Israelis are beginning to see that the two goals of destroying Hamas and getting back the remaining hostages, seem to be more and more in conflict as the war rages on despite what the government says … and yet many Israelis can see no other course of action right now but to keep fighting. 

That said, the families and friends of the captives in Gaza have set up tent cities around the Prime Minister’s home and outside the Tel Aviv Art Museum; they’re sleeping and eating and protesting every day, surrounded by pictures of their loved ones, trying to put pressure on the government to prioritize them. They’re asking, if not for a ceasefire, for a pause long enough to negotiate the release of the remaining hostages. They don’t buy what the government is saying, which is that the best way to get the hostages home is to keep fighting in Gaza. They watched as during the mutual ceasefire back in November, as some women and children were released and want to see that happen again. And there’s immense frustration every time there’s talk of a deal that falls through because of one side or the other’s intransigence, including their own government. On the one hand; the government is all they have to do the negotiating- on the other, trust in the government is low- people don’t believe it’s operating in their best interest. 

One thing I was just struck by over and over again is the gap between the conversation I heard in Israel and in the U.S. Whereas here and around the rest of the world there are calls and resolutions for ceasefire that don’t necessarily involve a hostage release, meaning Israel stops bombing– like enough already, you’ve gotten your revenge– Israelis are mystified by this call, because for them it’s all about Hamas is still holding on to their hostages, Hamas and Hezbollah still firing thousands of rockets into Israel, and having vowed to continue to be violent neighbors until they can replace Israel an Islamic Palestine from the river to the sea. Israelis wonder, is that what the world would like to see happen? They wonder, where is the international pressure on Hamas to release the hostages? At the very least, the language of mutual ceasefire seems like a more appropriate request– one that places some accountability on the side that began this fighting on October 7th. 

To challenge or question the policies of the current government isn’t anti-Israel, it’s actually supporting the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who want a change of leadership, a change of direction, and a different strategy for maintaining safety in their country. But whereas here and around the world the response to that seems to be, Ok, so stop bombing already, what I perceived is that Israelis both remain in a state of deep trauma and shock, and as long as the hostages remain in Gaza, many people feel justified in continuing to fight, whether for Hamas’ takedown or for the release of the hostages, or both. Release the hostage you stole from their beds and homes on Simchat Torah, send the children you’re holding in tunnels, home. And on an emotional level, that’s about all most of them can muster concern for right now. 

I know I’ve shared a lot here, and as I said, I’m more in the mode of witnessing now, passing on the witnessing we did so that you’ll feel a little more like a witness. I’m sure you have questions, or are dealing with your own emotional response to this war, or maybe you’re shouting at me as I speak wondering why I’m not addressing the devastation in Gaza or the lives of Palestinians on the West Bank and instead focuses on the stories I heard of what some Israelis are going through. Someone came up to me Friday night and said, “OK, so what’s the answer??” And I laughed out loud. You think if I had the answer I’d be here? I wish I could be more helpful right now. What’s clear to me is that Israelis are in a different place emotionally than most of us here are from this distance, that that distance is both helpful in thinking with clearer eyes, but it also can blind us from how to act most effectively within the context of the Israeli reality. I left with a deeper understanding of why Israel’s leaders feel compelled to continue the war in the name of security. There is real debate and doubt among Israelis, about to what extent this war will leave Israelis more secure, how much security for Israel will result from what they’re doing in Gaza… but what’s clear to me is lecturing Israelis about military strategy from the comfort of our diaspora homes, won’t be effective either.

One more person we met– and with this I’ll close– said something which gave me the faintest glimmer of a sense of hope for the possibility of peace in some far off distant future.

We sat down with Yarden Liel Yablonska, a senior director at the Peres Center for Peace, which is responsible for many of the cross cultural people to people peace-building initiatives from soccer teams for Jewish and Arab kids to collaboration in the fields of medicine and technology. Shimon Peres as you may recall was the right hand man to David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister when the state was created in 1948, as well as himself served as the eighth prime minister of Israel 40 years later, and its ninth president. Apparently Ben Gurion said to him, “As Prime Minister, my job is to deal in reality, with what is. Your job” he said, is to imagine what could be.” So the Peres Center was created with that vision in mind, to innovate and create and work toward a peace and coexistence that doesn’t yet exist, but to live it into reality. 

Yarden said everything changed on October 7th. She was shocked that many of the usual partners she works with didn’t call, didn’t check in. She was confused, felt even more isolated and lonely. She said prior to this awful thing everyone reaches out whenever something terrible happens, and it goes both ways, but with this particular attack, it seems that everyone was at a loss for words.

So she reached out to the director of the largest organization of people-to-people peace builders in the country, who happens to be an Irish guy and a Palestinian woman. They came and sat in a cafe in Tel Aviv to talk about where they are and next steps. And she described that the Palestinian director gave her full and undivided attention, her full empathy, to Yarden as she spoke. It was the first time she felt truly listened to and seen and heard, by a Palestinian, since the attack. And she realized, watching this woman, who has endured so much pain and humiliation in her own life and in the life of her people, to sit and give her full empathetic attention to Yarden and her Jewish partners, to sit and listen to their pain even as her own community is suffering, too… she realized that to hold complexity, to be empathic, is a muscle. It’s like going to the gym. You need to practice every day. It is hard, it is counter instinctual, once we’ve been conditioned to understand what side we’re on, it’s not how we’re built. Many adults don’t have that muscle and ability. But this Palestinian leader, involved in peace building projects for years – she had practice. And so she could transcend the trauma of her own history, and be present for another human being, even one who is being positioned as the “Other,” or even enemy right now. Yarden said, that’s what I want you to take home to your communities: the ability to hold complexity, to expand beyond your own narratives to hold the pain of the other. That’s what we need to heal this place.

Yarden mentioned that when Hamas took power in Gaza in 2006 they stopped letting people out of Gaza to participate in people-to-people peace building programs. So just think: about 18 years ago. How old do you imagine the thousands of young men were, who burst into Israel the morning of October 7th, visiting unimaginable brutality with their bare hands on anyone they could find? The adults now are the generation of people who had no access to seeing the humanity of the other, who were kept fully insulated from the possibility of seeing Israelis as human beings, worthy of any amount of compassion, respect. That kind of dehumanization leads to violence. And it goes both ways. So cross cultural, bi-directional peace building– the kind that’s not all sunshine and soccer, but also is talking about the traumas of our collective histories, and the traumas we’ve visited up each other– that is what we will need if we’re ever going to be able to live side by side, she said.

She has her work cut out for her. This year, she doesn’t think the kids will be ready to play soccer together on mixed teams– there’s too much trauma. And she remains hopeful that grassroots peacebuilding efforts– kids playing on multi-ethnic, interfaith sports teams and working together in the fields of medicine, technology, innovation, business, everyday life, might chart a course forward in which no one can see another as an existential threat. In which all who live in Israel, and Gaza, and the West Bank, can feel a sense of stake in the future of the country. 

Truth be told, that has been our strategy at Mishkan. Empathy, complexity. I’ve heard from some of you that you’d feel so much more supported if we could just unreservedly support Israel in its moment of need. And I believe we have been. But not by unquestioningly supporting every decision of its government or policies or evening defending the strategy of this war– to support Israel first and foremost is to support Israelis. People. More than they want us to back a government even they don’t trust right now–  they want to feel seen, listened to, they want their pain acknowledged, believed. And that’s of course true not just for Israelis but for all people, but in particular people who have such a history of interrelated trauma. In the long term what Yarden described is the only strategy for true peace and security in Israel– the building of enough trust and a sense of common humanity to be able to live side by side without violence. 

And the truth is we need that here too, in our own community. I am seeing such intense investment in one or the other version of how the IDF should or shouldn’t be handling this moment, what support for Israel or for the Palestinians looks like, or shouldn’t look like, as if there’s one way to be supportive, God forbid, this situation needs a lot of people who care, working a lot of angles of support.…I see our unique contribution, as not a political advocacy organization but a spiritual community, and we can, and must  practice holding, with love and empathy, the presence of complexity, of the different ways that people starting in own community, arrive at the conclusions they arrive at on this. If you’re at Mishkan, if you’re listening, I believe you’re in this conversation because you have some connection to and love for the Jewish people and Israel, and that matters, because we all express love differently, and that has to be OK. The lesson of Eliaz Cohen is that expressing one’s self can help a person through the darkness of trauma, and the lesson of Yarden Yablonsky is that being truly listened to can help us find our way out of the feeling of isolation, and toward a place of hope, vision and connection. I want to bless us that we continue to believe in the possibility of flowers blooming again in this place where blood has flown so freely and that we can be agents of shalom, salam, peace, wherever we may be.