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While Rachel Weeps
A lament for Israel
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. — Matthew 2:18
Two videos will especially haunt me.
In one, a hostage Israeli family huddles together on the floor, weeping in shock that one of the older daughters has been killed. The father caresses his little son, tousling blond hair with bloody hands. The mother calms her still-living young daughter, who asks tearfully if there’s any chance her sister might “come back.” Off-camera, one of the kidnappers says she is “in heaven.” “Maybe it’s better for her there,” the girl says between sobs. As guns and sirens go off in the distance, the parents repeatedly push their children to the ground, sometimes covering them with their own bodies. “I can’t afford to lose another life,” the mother tells her daughter, then murmurs to herself, “It’s not real. It’s not real.”
In the other, a small hostage boy stands alone in a group of Palestinian children. He’s barefoot, wearing a soccer T-shirt. In tearful confusion, he squints up at the camera as the children tug him by the head, poke him with a stick. They tease and shove him, grinning, telling him to cry “Ima”—mother.
I won’t enumerate all the atrocities here. If you’re getting your news from something other than Arab television or the New York Times, you know. They are so savage and so numerous that recently disputed reports of beheaded babies already feel like extra. (It’s possible that some of the babies may just have had their throats cut. Fact-checkers are working around the clock to keep us posted.) If you’re on social media, you might have seen some of the footage. To protect yourself, you might have taken steps to avoid seeing more than is good for your soul. More of us may want to do that in the coming days. It will only get worse from here.
We have heard the usual takes, from the usual sources. There’s been much talk talked about “both sides.” There have been non-specific, scolding calls for “non-violence.” Even among public figures and pundits who have cleared the low bar of not excusing murder and rape, there have been variations on the theme of “I don’t support murder and rape, but…” Shadi Hamid, for example, says people need to not forget that “Israel has been a perpetrator of an often brutal occupation against the Palestinian people.”
For those of us with any memory of the history of this conflict, these memes grew stale long ago—the talk of “occupation,” the calls for a “two-state solution,” the calls to give peace a chance, man. I’m old enough to remember 2005, when Israel forced its own settlers out of the Gaza strip. That was 18 years ago. It is chilling to reflect that many of the terrorists in this new attack were no older than this, and some were even younger. In the massacre of hundreds at a music festival, one eyewitness saw a couple dragged away by teenage boys, perhaps 16 or 17.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the singing and dancing goes on. I’ve been haunted by the image of a little girl on a young man’s shoulders, carrying American guns in both hands.
Israel now faces a horrible dilemma. Israeli diplomat Michael Oren puts it starkly in a podcast with Bari Weiss: If international sympathy is like money, then in the world’s eyes, Israel already has an “overdraft.” She put money in the bank when she defended herself in 1967, and again in 1973. But as the decades have worn on into the new millennium, and as her great battles have become grueling lose-lose contests with enemies who brainwash their children and hide among civilians, her accounts have slowly been depleted. The terrorists know this, of course. They know they won’t conquer Israel in the short term, but they are playing a long game—the game of “Leave Israel no choice but to retaliate in a way that bankrupts her.”
For the moment, the sheer brutality of the attacks has prompted a sympathetic response from the West’s world leaders (though Justin Trudeau couldn’t be reached for a signature on their fairly pedestrian joint statement). But how long will that last? Writing in The Atlantic, Yossi Klein Halavi doesn’t mince words:
As gratifying as it is to see the facades of parliaments and other public buildings lit with images of the Israeli flag, we know that much of that support will disappear as civilian casualties in Gaza—and perhaps in Lebanon—mount. Israelis will tell you: We don’t need the world’s sympathy only when the violated bodies of our family and friends are being displayed to cheering mobs in Gaza. We need that sympathy most when we attack those who have carried out these atrocities. If you can’t distinguish between an army that tries to avoid civilian casualties and a terrorist group that seeks to inflict them, then spare us the condolences.
President Biden’s condolences ring especially hollow as long as the current administration continues pouring money into Iran, which has proudly announced its essential role behind the attacks. As political philosopher Phillip Blond notes in a chilling analysis, “Strategically what do Hamas hope to achieve? Asking this question is inseparable from asking what does Iran hope to achieve?” The answer, of course, is simple. It always has been. It is nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, across Western cities and university campuses everywhere, it’s been impossible to keep up with the sheer volume of pro-terrorist rallying. From New York, from London, from Toronto, from Sydney, we’ve seen video after video of crowds baying for blood. On the steps of the Sydney Opera House, rising chants of “Gas the Jews!” caused public intellectual Iona Italia to tweet that before all this, she had been among those voices politely saying the Israel situation seemed “very complicated.” No more. She’s been radicalized.
But there have been bright spots. Perhaps the brightest shone with unexpected luster in Paris, as a crowd of French Iranians turned out to wave the Israeli flag, protest Hamas, and shout “Shalom al Israel!” as loudly as possible. I found this footage at once heart-lifting and heartbreaking. Heartbreaking, because this brave minority is just that, a minority. Heart-lifting, because it is a reminder that individual men may yet choose life, may yet choose light, though all around them is ancient darkness.
And what is the source of that darkness? In answering that question, I will speak as a Christian. And as a Christian, I believe the political cannot be detached from the spiritual. The natural cannot be detached from the supernatural. I believe Islam is a false religion, but not because I believe Mohammed saw nothing in his cave.
They always come for the Jews. Always the Jews, through all recorded time. Why? We have an answer in Zechariah 2:8: “For thus sayeth the Lord of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you, for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of His eye.”
I still believe this, even as I might depart from some of the specific ways some Christian denominations frame it. It has saddened me to see some Christians my age make a show of distancing themselves from this idea, perhaps as part of distancing themselves from “boomerism” writ large. In its place, in some circles, there is now a studied indifference to “the latest random conflict in the Middle East.” I would remind my millennial peers that it’s sometimes okay to agree with your parents, actually.
But for those of us for whom this “conflict” is not “random,” who feel a particular chill when we see this particular people butchered, tormented, and raped, the unbearable question remains: If they are the apple of God’s eye, where is God?
Search for rays of light in the darkness, and you will find them. Hundreds of young people managed to escape from the rave massacre and were later found hiding in a rainwater canal. In a smaller miracle, 30 missing people were located alive in a kibbutz. Another kibbutz was saved entire thanks to head of security Inbal Liberman, who opened the arsenal and deployed volunteers to fight off 25 terrorists. Then there’s the wonderful story of Rachel Edri, captured with her husband, who offered to cook their captors a full meal, reasoning that “hungry men are more dangerous.” As the IDF closed in, she gave a signal, and the soldiers mowed the terrorists down even as they stuffed themselves with her cookies. Then perhaps the most epically heart-lifting saga of the whole weekend, the tale of Noam Tibon, a retired general who cut his way through a sea of enemies to rescue his family (aiding soldiers and other civilians along the way). His son, Amir, recalls the moment when Noam banged on the door of their dark safe room and called his name. “Grandfather is here!” his little girl shouted.
Then there are bittersweet stories of lives saved only because of lives lost. Yaniv Sarudi, who drove nine of the festival-goers to safety under fire, kept driving despite his wounds, and later died. Adar and Itai Berdichevsky, who hid their twin babies and fought seven terrorists to the death on the threshold of their own home. Amit Mann, a female paramedic who rushed to the wounded and dying of Kibbut Be’eri, and died with them. Name after name, memory after righteous memory.
And still, we ask, where is God? If God strengthened the arms of Adar and Itai Berdichevsky so that their babies were saved, why did He not do the same for the families slaughtered in their beds? Why doesn’t He even now smite the leaders of Hamas in their palaces, as they kneel down in their business suits and give thanks to Allah? Why doesn’t He smite every terrorist now hiding behind human shields, forcing Israel to make war in a way that will inevitably kill the innocent as well as the guilty?
I have no good answer to these questions. So I will give the last word to Elie Wiesel, from Night:
One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains – and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the Lageralteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”