In addition to checking the news and checking in with friends and family over the last three months, we have found ourselves rethinking many of our convictions and assumptions. So we began asking distinguished friends, contributors, and editorial board members a simple question: What did you believe before October 7 that you no longer believe? Here are some of their responses.
Between 1968, when the Association for Jewish Studies was founded by forty-seven scholars in Boston, and now, the field of Jewish studies has enjoyed a meteoric expansion. The association now has some 1,800 members, and programs or individual positions exist at virtually every North American university. Benefiting from the postwar diminishment of antisemitism and the assimilation of Jews to American society, the scholarly study of the Jews found homes in university departments such as history, religious studies, and comparative literature. Although a niche field, few questioned its integration into standard academic disciplines. Donors from the Jewish community generously funded endowed chairs as part of the assimilationist project. It was the golden age of Jewish studies.
Could that golden age have come to an end on October 7, 2023? To be sure, with the decline in the humanities generally, Jewish studies enrollments have been declining for a number of years. But the sudden explosion of anti-Israelism, with its close cousin, antisemitism, has rendered the position of Jewish studies precarious. Already, we hear of an academic department at a major North American university declaring itself “Israel-free.” If Israel studies is a subdiscipline of Jewish studies, can the larger field remain immune from such assaults? Endowed chairs may continue to be filled, but will they still be welcome in the major disciplines, or will they instead be forced into segregated departments of Jewish studies? It is too soon to know for sure, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that something fundamental shifted on that Black Sabbath and its aftermath, not only in Israel but here in America.
David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.
Much of what we thought we knew about Israel, America, and the world has been shattered. Perhaps the greatest optimistic change in my belief system, however, has been the realization that the muscle of American Jewish solidarity and responsibility has not atrophied, as many had thought. This is true not only of the established American Jewish community but specifically of young American Jews. Before October 7, sociologists, leaders, and pundits increasingly operated under the assumption that, aside from the Orthodox, young American Jews were distancing themselves from collective bonds, particularly with Israel. While it is true that there are significant generational differences in how American Jews perceive their connection to Israel, I no longer subscribe to the superficial portrayal of young American Jews as detached from Jewish peoplehood.
Since October 7, I’ve engaged with dozens of educators and thousands of young Jews of widely varying religious and political perspectives. I’ve been struck by their identification with the broader Jewish community and the depth of their sentiments. They are largely liberal and neither Orthodox nor activist, and I now believe that they constitute a new Jewish middle ground—neither strictly observant nor fervently woke. Yet they have a profound sense of commitment and responsibility to their people and a natural affinity toward Israel as a home for Jews.
The previous predictions of the decline of Jewish peoplehood among non-Orthodox young American Jews often relied on amplifying the loudest and angriest voices on social media. Such forecasts were also fueled by underlying anxieties within the Jewish establishment about whether we possess an appealing and compelling product. What has transpired since October 7, in response to events both in Israel and America, should serve as a wake-up call to the organized Jewish community. The muscle of Jewish peoplehood still works. It is incumbent upon us to recognize the young inhabitants of this new Jewish middle ground and help them prepare for the future.
Mijal Bitton is the spiritual leader of the Downtown Minyan in New York and a sociologist of American Jews.
Growing up in Israel in the 1970s, I often fell victim to a dark fantasy. In my imagination, I would be riding the train alone from my hometown of Haifa to my grandparents’ place in Tel Aviv—something I used to do every summer—when suddenly terrorists would rise up from random seats and take the passengers hostage. It wasn’t a scenario so far removed from reality. In 1974, twenty-six schoolchildren were held hostage inside their school in Ma’alot and then, within hours, murdered; in 1976, 106 Israeli passengers on an Air France flight were famously held hostage in Entebbe. Israel in the 1970s was a poor and vulnerable country, one in which I and many others lived in constant, low-simmering fear.
When I moved to New York in 1993, the city, full of homeless people, muggers, and druggies, still felt safer and less claustrophobic to me than any Israeli city. But within a decade, things had changed. Although Israel continued to face challenges—many of which were its own fault—it was no longer the isolated, vulnerable, and scary country I grew up in. And in the decades that followed, I sometimes felt the joke was on me. America and academia grew more limiting; Israel grew freer and more energetic and creative. In the aftermath of October 7, this new Israel seems to have collapsed onto itself, and the old vulnerable, scary, isolated one has reemerged.
I, too, feel more vulnerable and isolated in my own world from many of my Jewish American colleagues. It isn’t their political opinions—I’m connected to many on the left in Israel and elsewhere—but their hatred, indifference, and utter lack of compassion toward any Israeli victim that separates us.
“Hatred” may seem to be a crude and simplistic word for an academic to use, but it’s the one that best fits here. We’re not talking about something in the realm of ideology but in the realm of emotions. For some of my Jewish colleagues, Israel and Israelis have crossed a threshold to become objects of hatred and disgust that mountains of intellectualized and reasoned essays cannot conceal. These emotions were on display on the very day of October 7, even before a single Israeli soldier entered Gaza. Decades of BDS and anti-Israel activism around me hadn’t prepared me for that.
Mikhal Dekel is a Distinguished Professor of English and the director of the Rifkind Center for the Humanities and Arts at the City College of New York.
For years, as I wrote in these pages a year ago after Israel’s November 2022 elections, I have lived with the feeling that the country might be headed for a catastrophe. Of this catastrophe’s exact nature, I had no inkling, but I feared its coming. The next-to-last line of my book The Lady of Hebrew and Her Lovers of Zion, which I finished writing in the summer of 2019, spoke of a “dread,” despite Israel’s air of apparent normalcy, of its ultimate failure.
I was right to dread it. But even in the months of terrible discord that followed the elections, I believed we had time. The danger of such failure hardly seemed to me imminent. This belief was mistaken. If Israel does not win its war against Hamas, it will already be a failed state.
I do not mean, of course, that something less than victory—an end to the war, say, that leaves Gaza in ruins and Hamas badly battered but still in power—will spell Israel’s immediate doom. But although the country that emerges from such a scenario might look the same as before and carry on for many more years, its spirit will have been broken. A country whose democratically elected government and citizen army tell its people, “Not only could we not protect you from being killed, burned, raped, beheaded, and taken hostage by your enemies, we also could not destroy them afterward as we promised to,” is a country whose people can have no faith or pride in it, and therefore no faith or pride in themselves. In a world much of which would gladly see it disappear, whether by sudden cataclysm or slow attrition, and part of which is working actively to that end, such an Israel will not pull through.
This is thus truly a war of survival. Not winning it would involve, for Israelis, losing their sense of who they are and what their country is about. But winning will not buy much time either. Pride is different from arrogance, just as faith is different from complacency or blind belief, and an Israel that does not come out of this war purged of the arrogance, complacency, and blindness that led up to it will just have more October 7s to deal with. For too long, Israel has deluded itself into thinking that there was no need to put its relations with the Palestinians on a different footing. It is now paying the price of this delusion.
The war has, paradoxically, made it seem more urgent than ever to reach an understanding with the Palestinians while also making it seem more impossible than ever. Endless words have been written about how to resolve the conflict; nearly all repeat the same useless clichés, and I will not add to them. But perhaps, as wars sometimes do, this one will blow away a leadership on both sides that has been trapped in its own circular thinking and make way for fresh faces and ideas. The behavior of the Israeli people in the course of the war has been as uplifting as that of its politicians has been dispiriting. One hopes that some of its best sons and daughters will enter and change the public arena when the war is over.
Hillel Halkin’s most recent book is A Complicated Jew: Selected Essays (Wicked Son).
Out of a certain bleakness of mood, which may pass, it seems to me that some of my beliefs have been proven fully wrong since October 7.
First, my belief that certain words or actions—to be more exact, certain defamations or certain atrocities—if done or said, would cause even the most venomous among our enemies to hesitate before doing or saying such things again and give pause to even their most resolute supporters. But no, as it turns out—not at all. It is now clear to me—the very worst things having happened and the most repellent things having been said—that we should expect repetition, if our enemies have the chance, and solicitous endorsement, if the chance is taken.
Second, my belief that the right way to think about anti-Zionism was as a cosmopolitanism polluted by antisemitism or a Palestinian nationalism polluted by antisemitism. Anti-Zionism, with an effort, could avoid such pollution—if only conceptually. That was wrong too. It is now clear to me that Jews face two enemy ideologies; one is antisemitism, and the other is anti-Zionism. Antisemitism is a hatred of the Jewish people. Anti-Zionism is a hatred of the Jewish state. It was easy to muddle the two but they are, in fact, distinct, if similar and similarly dangerous, ideologies. They are both nihilistic, both vicious, both stupid, and both threaten Jewish life, Jewish morale, the Jewish future. It is an open question which, in current times, is the more lethal.
Third, my belief that the institutions on which we rely would remain strong and would protect us. I was wrong about this too. Institutions are a double disappointment—weak and indifferent (when not actively hostile). From a British perspective, the greatest disappointments have been certain universities, the London police, the BBC. They have shown Jews a very cold, hard face. The universities prompted least surprise, the BBC, the greatest surprise. The unforgivable misreporting of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital incident, insouciantly dismissed weeks later by International Editor Jeremy Bowen, still shocks me.
Other beliefs, however, have become stronger. I hold them now with a greater intensity of conviction than I did before October 7.
First, my belief that each one among us must do everything we can to frustrate the recurrence of that unpunished historical phenomenon, the mass murder of Jews. The discovery in early December of a Hamas terror plot against Europe’s Jews may have been a first indication that we are already on the back foot.
Second, my belief that no arguments, no reasons or facts, no appeals or compromises will weaken the enmity directed at us. We should drop all such efforts, then. It is as pointless as it is ignominious—ignominious because pointless. Of course, this does not mean we should stop reasoning about our situation among ourselves. This is critical, if only to limit the demoralization experienced by many on our side, especially students and other young people, who are most susceptible to the tribal attractions of the post-left anti-Zionist movement.
Third, my belief that the postwar period, in which Jews enjoyed relative security, was utterly anomalous.
Anthony Julius is the deputy chairman of Mishcon de Reya LLP and a professor in the Faculty of Laws, University College London.
I’m not an anxious person, but for years, especially the last two, I found myself haunted by a dystopian nightmare in which Israel is militarily defeated and its citizens become refugees.
I even remember an argument during my time at the Prime Minister’s Office, when I pushed for a more liberal approach toward the Ukrainian war refugees: “One day this could be us; Israelis could be fleeing a war zone, only to find that someone is questioning their visa,” I said, probably allowing too much of a glimpse into my subconscious. My counterpart looked at me as if I had lost it completely.
Like most Israelis, I’m a product of a lifelong indoctrination of “never again” education—not as aspiration but determination. Yes, Israel can be a lot, with its impossibly diverse society. Yes, this is the most awful, violent neighborhood in the world. Yes, our political elite is both mediocre and reckless. But still, our predecessors built a strong, rich, warm country. It is here to stay.
During the long morning of October 7, the view from my window was the blue Hudson River, but I saw black. My phone exploded: What is going on. Where are they. Where is the army. Where is the air force. I don’t understand. Hours and hours of helpless conversations. Like a horror movie that doesn’t seem to end.
We had thought that the Jewish history of instability, with disaster always looming, came to an end in May 1948, when a new history began. The Jewish state, we believed, was a given. The home that will always be there. You can take it for granted, be estranged, even abuse it a little. It can take it. After October 7, I don’t believe that anymore.
Shimrit Meir was the senior adviser to Naftali Bennett when he was prime minister of Israel.
In late August 2023—what seems by now like an eon ago—representatives from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) concluded a three-day summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. For the first time since the organization was established in 2009, the member states announced the expansion of the group with the addition of several members next year: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran, and Ethiopia (and Argentina, which, under the new leadership of Javier Milei, is now unlikely to join). This conference may signal the end of the US-led unipolar order of the post–Cold War period. One journalist whom I follow even compared the summit to the Bandung Conference in 1955, which led to the establishment of the third bloc or nonaligned movement during the Cold War. The difference is that now there is no Soviet Bloc. The new BRICS coalition is being established to serve only one purpose: to provide an alternative to the Western axis and American leadership.
Before October 7, I believed Israel could play an important role in this emergent multipolar world. I was under no illusion that the new powers would welcome Israel to the table. But I did believe that Israel was undergoing a transformation, both internally and in the eyes of its neighbors, from a small state dependent on American arms and money to a fully sovereign regional power. I took the Abraham Accords and the impending peace agreement with Saudi Arabia as signs that something was beginning to change. Since October 7, however, I am much less hopeful about Israel’s international status. Not only have members of BRICS upheld their traditional antipathy to Israel and support for the Palestinians, but Israel’s foreign and security policy elites have become even more committed to maintaining Israel’s reliance on the United States and other Western allies.
As has been clear for quite some time, however, this reliance cannot continue. At the end of the war, Israel’s association with the United States must be put under close scrutiny, for the sake of Israel and for the sake of America. Israel then must seek to reposition itself as a player in the new multipolar world. It can only do so by staying the course and pursuing its war aims to their fullest extent so that it is established as victorious. Only total victory will convince the new powers that Israel cannot be destroyed or dispensed with. Otherwise, I fear Israel may decline alongside the rest of the Western alliance.
Yiftach Ofek holds a doctorate in modern Jewish thought from the University of Chicago. Previously, he served as head of the NATO and EU Desk in the IDF Strategic Division.
Curiously, the terrible events of October 7 and what came after have not changed my fundamental view of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they did lead me to abandon or at least question several other convictions. My views have changed on Hamas, Israel’s intelligence services and the IDF, the military implications of Western technological supremacy, the state of Israeli politics, and the health of American higher education.
Until October 7 we all tended to view Hamas as a movement, the Islamist competitor of Fatah for the leadership of Palestinian nationalism. What we discovered after October 7 was that Hamas had built in Gaza a de facto state, one unfortunately dedicated to preparing a full-fledged war on Israel.
Israel’s intelligence community thought this too, and the result was a debacle comparable to that of October 1973. To boot, the IDF was caught off balance and was inexplicably late in responding to the Hamas attack. The IDF, its military intelligence service, and the Shin Bet have rebounded, but it will take a long time for most Israelis, myself included, to trust in their capacity to defend us everywhere and at all times. (Many residents of Northern Galilee doubt it now, as I write.)
It was long assumed that technological supremacy gave Western countries and armies a massive advantage over their non-Western rivals. It was obvious well before October 7 that this edge was eroding. Nonstate actors did not need to develop advanced weapon systems, as long as they could get them from state patrons. The Houthis in Yemen represent a new phase in this dangerous trend. Provided by Hamas’s sponsor Iran with ballistic missiles, coast-to-sea missiles, and military drones, they have been able to attack shipping to and from Eilat, impose a blockade on Israel’s southern naval outlet, and fire ballistic missiles aimed at southern Israel. Thus, a tribal group has extended the arena of Arab-Israeli conflict by a thousand miles using technology provided to them by an external patron.
And now to politics. During the year preceding October 7, I thought that the Israeli political system had reached rock bottom. We had a prime minister charged with criminal offenses, who had formed a coalition with radical right wingers, some of them with criminal records. In league with them, he tried to emasculate the judicial system and other institutional gate keepers. After October 7, I discovered that we could descend yet further. I do credit Benjamin Netanyahu with working to defeat Hamas and bring back the hostages, but he is clearly also seeking to salvage his own position and shift the responsibility for the debacle to others. Meanwhile, some of his political partners continue to loot the public coffers in the middle of a difficult war, shunting funds to West Bank settlers and the ultra-Orthodox.
My disillusionment with regard to America is more cultural than political. What, as the former president of Tel Aviv University, I once called “the American advantage” in higher education is now very much debatable. There have been plenty of worrying signs during the past decade or so but nothing like what we have seen since October 7—from the conduct of faculty and students to the response of university presidents and governing boards.
Itamar Rabinovich served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and as its chief negotiator with Syria. He is the former president of Tel Aviv University, where he is now Ettinger Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern History.
Before October 7, I did not believe that Israel was vulnerable to an attack from Hamas. It was not only that I didn’t believe Israel could be surprised that way by Hamas to such devastating effect, but I also did not understand how much capability Hamas had amassed. I understood it was a terrorist group with a hateful ideology of rejection, but I did not understand it had become a military with expansive intelligence capabilities and the ability to carry out far-reaching operations. Moreover, I could not imagine that Israel, having been surprised, would take the better part of a day to produce an organized military response.
Cases of strategic surprise are always characterized by the same fundamental reality: all the information was available, but it was interpreted through faulty assumptions. In this case, the Israeli political, military, and intelligence leadership all assumed that Hamas had no interest in a war with Israel, that Israel would have plenty of early warning in the event of any such attack, and that Israel had the means to blunt it relatively easily.
The lack of Israeli preparedness reflected the buildup of forces in the north because of provocations by Hezbollah and a very sizable expansion of Israeli forces in the West Bank to counter shootings and terror attacks against Israelis there. That led to a small, limited military presence in the south—and a surprise that I thought was not possible.
I was not surprised by President Biden’s staunch support for Israel, but I was surprised by how quickly support for Palestinians among so-called progressives led to a defense of Hamas, notwithstanding what it had done. I knew the balance of international opinion would shift once Israel began to carry out its military response, but I thought the atrocities Hamas had committed would, at least, temper the reaction. In fact, support for Palestinians translated not just into attacks against Israel but against Jews as well. Antisemitism came as no surprise to me, but how quickly it was unleashed in response to Israel demonstrating that it could not and would not live with Hamas next door did.
Dennis Ross held key foreign policy roles under Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama. He is currently counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization.
The most substantial shift I have felt is less intellectual or ideological and more experiential. There is something about the tenor and flavor of being Jewish today that simply feels substantively different than it did on October 6.
I’ve spent most of my life considering myself fortunate to be living in a period in which Jews, Jewish life, and Judaism have undergone an enormous positive transformation. It was not that long ago when being Jewish came with a considerable sense of humiliation and degradation. Unlike the individuals I study in the early days of Zionism, I was born into a reality in which Jews had already established a state in their historic homeland and had become an important pillar of American culture. Throughout much of my lifetime, conversion to Judaism has been a relatively widespread phenomenon, unlike the reality in many Western countries in the nineteenth century, when social and occupational pressures provided a powerful temptation to leave Judaism and Jewishness behind. I have lived for half a century with a sense that in most respects, I have been able to live a better life as a Jew than my grandparents and great-grandparents could have imagined. And it was my overall sense that I would be bringing my daughters into a world in which that would be their experience as well.
The attack of October 7 and its aftermath, however, have left me with an unprecedented sense of doubt and anxiety as to what it will mean in my daughters’ lifetimes to be a Jew. I no longer have confidence that they will live in a world in which they need not fear for their safety in places like New York, London, or Berkeley. Or, more importantly, be scarred emotionally and mentally even in the privacy of their own rooms here in Israel by the sense of abandonment and the dehumanization that was the lot of previous generations and that is now polluting the social media they consume.
I have a young relative in the US who is off to college next year. She had Columbia University at the top of her list. Now it’s entirely off it. Another tells me she has been compelled to block numerous erstwhile Facebook friends, given the kind of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli venom they’ve been trafficking. A friend in New York tells me he has been twice accosted since October 7.
What this all might mean remains unclear to me—my thoughts since October 7 have felt like the letter cubes in a game of Boggle, shaken up, unsettled, waiting to see what new words might appear. What is clear to me, both academically and personally, is that those words and their combinations will necessarily be new.
Arieh Saposnik is a historian and an associate professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He is a former president of the Association for Israel Studies.
In 2010, I was just out of a seminary gap year and living in a freshman dorm on Yale’s Old Campus, trying my hardest to live out a dream of Modern Orthodoxy. One night in the fall, a group of fraternity brothers in Delta Kappa Epsilon marched outside of my dorm chanting “No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!” and other assorted supposedly funny calls for sexual violence. These chants were more of a hindrance to my rigorous schedule or Torah study than anything particularly scary. I did not think it was likely that any of the DKE brothers was going to force their way into my dorm room.
Fascinatingly, the world exploded in rage. DKE was kicked off campus for five years. Under internal and external pressure, Yale created its Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Education and Prevention, a group of female students and alumnae filed a Title IX complaint, and I watched with wonder as the culture around sexual assault started to change at Yale and in America. Rape, meaning any nonconsensual sexual act, is an unforgiveable act of violence. Victims are to be believed; perpetrators are to be punished. In 2017 millions of women around the world (myself included) filled the streets, promoting just these messages. Believe all women! Rape is rape! MeToo!
In 2023, I was astonished to learn that while young Jewish women in Yale dorms are to be protected even from empty jokey threats, Jewish women at music festivals in Israel are fair game for bloody sexual violence: rape, torture, and murder. The world presented a range of responses—from ignorance, to silence, to excuse, to celebration. A government perpetrated a mass gang rape. Streets around the world should have been filled with protestors—more than the millions of the 2017 Women’s Marches. But it turns out that we didn’t mean believe all women. Rape is rape unless it’s being used as a reasonable tool to overthrow a desert music festival. MeToo but not, um, you.
For a long time, I believed that peace would come from women. That women, who collectively bring life into this world at great personal cost, would eventually join together to protect life. That women, who all know fear and vulnerability, would stand up for each other and show the world how to deal with conflict. Instead, the global sisterhood has gone silent, choosing the murderers and rapists of Hamas. It turns out that there is no global sisterhood; she was murdered on October 7 too.
Leah Sarna is the director of teen programs at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.
On the morning of Monday, October 2, I took part in a sit-down video interview with the dean of the liberal arts college of George Washington University, where I teach. The college produces a few of these videos each year to spotlight faculty expertise on the topics of the day. This year I was asked to discuss antisemitism with the dean.
Toward the end of the interview, he asked whether I believed right-wing or left-wing antisemitism posed the greater threat to American Jews. It was far from the first time I had been asked that question. I had no illusions about the anti-Zionism that long ago had become the “cultural code” (to borrow Shulamit Volkov’s phrase) of the progressive left. It was clear to me from episodes on my own campus that anti-Zionism was increasingly crossing the line into animus toward Jews, at least those Jews who refused to go the Jewish Voice for Peace route of publicly disavowing and lambasting Zionism. Still, the no-holds-barred, white supremacist antisemitism of the far right—the antisemitism that was pervasive on social media, that had a growing number of fellow travelers or at least dog whistlers in high places, and that had turned violent and even murderous in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Poway—struck me as the greater threat. And so, I answered the dean the same way I had answered the question the many times it had been put to me since President Trump’s election in 2016—antisemitism on the right.
On Wednesday, October 11, I emailed the dean and the head of communications for the college and asked that the video interview be discarded. By that point, the Democratic Socialists of America had already held a rally in Manhattan practically cheering Hamas’s atrocities. Thirty-three student groups at Harvard had signed a public statement that ignored Hamas’s wanton rampage and held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” “I am certain,” I wrote to the dean, “that an interview about antisemitism that I would do today would not be the same as the one we did last week.”
Daniel B. Schwartz is a professor of history and Judaic studies at George Washington University.
When I was young and Israel was less than ten years old, terrorists, who were then known as “fedayeen,” killed Ro’i Rotberg, the security officer of Nahal Oz. Moshe Dayan, the chief of staff at the time, came to the funeral at the kibbutz and delivered his famous eulogy:
We are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the cannon’s maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home.… Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs.…Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life’s choice-to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.
This was a prophecy that, three generations later, has not lost its relevance.
The dangers on the border of the Gaza Strip did not prevent us, members of Rotberg’s youth movement, from coming in that same summer of 1956 to work in kibbutz Nir Am, just as they did not prevent hundreds of thousands of young people from coming to settle on the border. The ideology that the border of the state is the last furrow of a Zionist plow was deeply implanted in us. It was taken for granted that the IDF guarded the kibbutzim, the moshavim, and the cities that sat on the border. Since the state was established, terrorists had never taken over a settlement, let alone an entire region. What happened on October 7 was unprecedented, a mind-numbing shock. It undermined the existential security of all citizens of the state. If one cannot live safely in the Gaza Envelope, it will be impossible tomorrow to live in Tel Aviv. The war taking place now in Gaza is designed to restore existential security to the citizens of Israel. But it has not yet succeeded in doing so.
In the 1948 War of Independence, settlements were evacuated. There were seventy thousand Jewish refugees in the war, and some of them couldn’t return because their homes remained in enemy territory—in the Etzion Bloc, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, and a few other places. Today in Israel there are 150,000 evacuees, from the Gaza envelope and also from the northern border. Now, whole cities were evacuated. Not just from the envelope, which was destroyed, but from the north, which is being destroyed by Hezbollah attacks on its infrastructure. We have never experienced total evacuations like these. In the past, the inhabitants were asked to grit their teeth and to rely on the government. But this time the government lost its self-confidence; it didn’t know how to project security to its citizens.
Before October 7, I thought that it would be possible to contain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Admittedly, the Palestinian Authority didn’t develop into an embryonic state as the Jewish Yishuv had. Admittedly, the Palestinians missed opportunities to arrive at an agreement with Israel. Admittedly, the settlers sought to undermine any possible agreement, and, together with the prime minister of Israel, did everything they could to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. But I thought that we could live alongside one another and eventually hammer out a sort of coexistence. Before October 7, I believed that a rise in the Palestinian standard of living, partly as a result of the possibility of working in Israel, would improve the situation on the ground. Today it is clear to me that we have to separate from the Palestinians.
The idea of Jewish domination of all of the western Land of Israel and rule over a people of millions that seeks self-rule is a twisted idea. The idea of partition was always the right idea. If you ask me now whether the Palestinians will reconcile themselves to Jewish rule over part of the Land of Israel, I am not sure. But to rule over millions of people who hate us—this is a blueprint for disaster. On the eve of October 7, battalions of soldiers were transferred from the Gaza Envelope to the West Bank to protect settlers’ Simchat Torah celebrations. The marginal became the essential, the border was neglected, and the disaster took place. A border is something that must always be guarded.
Before October 7, I never imagined that the most terrible slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust would inspire a wave of antisemitism. The demonstrations calling for the destruction of the State of Israel and denying the atrocious deeds of Hamas in the United States, Great Britain, and France reflected the revival of the old hatred. No longer is it a question of borders but of the very right to exist of the Jewish state, the only state in the world whose right to exist is placed in doubt. After October 7, we learned that the vision of Herzl—that the establishment of a normal Jewish state would bring about the end of antisemitism—was illusory.
On the other hand, before October 7 we thought that a gap was opening up between Israel and the diaspora, but the disaster and the antisemitism that followed showed that Jewish solidarity still exists and that our fate as Jews in Israel and the diaspora is shared.
Anita Shapira is professor emerita of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University and the former head of its Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel.
Like everyone else, I believed in the military strength of Israel and in the competence of its intelligence organizations. Now I worry about both—again, like everyone else. But maybe there is a deeper issue. I thought that Israelis were very smart, and now I don’t. Perhaps this is a sign of Zionism’s triumph: we aimed at normality, we wanted a state like all the others, and now we have a state that is indeed like all the others. And what that means is that we have a state that will be run, not all the time, but many times, by people who are really dumb. I used to think that Israeli policy over the past several decades was dangerously wrongheaded, but I see now that in many ways it was simply clueless. Consider just a few examples:
Israel has pursued policies of occupation and settlement on the West Bank without thinking or caring about the possible response of Palestinians to those policies.
It challenged the status quo in Jerusalem without thinking or caring about the possible response of Palestinians to those policies.
It believed that Hamas could be used to weaken the Palestinian Authority and thereby justify continued occupation and settlement—without thinking or caring about… well, you know.
It also learned about Hamas’s financial capacity and its radical plans and continued to believe that Hamas posed no military danger and still could be used to weaken the PA etc.
It relied on technocratic means of containing Hamas, ignoring the lessons of asymmetric wars in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan—where the high-tech army could not defeat a low-tech insurgency.
Enough. Many of my friends in Israel believe that much of this was the result of very bad ideological commitments—and so did I. Maybe ideological blindness was partly or even largely to blame. But to be blinded by ideology is one of the ways that people become stupid. So we have to acknowledge that sheer brainlessness was a major factor in shaping Israel’s situation in the years before October 7.
For much of our long exilic history, Jews had to be smart to survive. It turns out that we need those smarts even when we have a state. Now I pray for a smart war and a smart politics afterward.
Michael Walzer is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
September 13, 1993, was my October 7, which will explain my reaction to this latest shock.
The depravity of Hamas and the revelations of how much of its effort goes into destroying the Jews exceeds what I had known of Palestinian pathology. Similarly, the brazen confidence of anti-Jewish forces in America outstripped my fears. Although my beliefs have not changed, the intensified aggression certainly affects how I think about strategy and response.
I have always known that Jewish options are governed by the nature of the surrounding population—our security depends on their ability to coexist. Zionists were surprised to find that sovereignty, which brought with it the welcome possibility of self-defense, could not affect that feature of Jewish reality. How much effort Israelis must devote to security depends on the political culture of the Arabs and Muslims among whom they live. The same continues to apply to Jews abroad. Everything will henceforth depend on how we take new measure of our enemies and allies and how effectively we put that knowledge to use. Mistakes are costly, failures of intelligence are damaging, but self-delusion can be fatal.
I was once certain that Israel could not survive the fake treaty plotted in Oslo and signed on the lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993, putting Yasser Arafat—then the world’s leading terrorist—in charge of the Palestinians. That the prime minister who had been elected to prevent that outcome should have outsourced part of Israel’s protection to its declared enemy may be the costliest unforced political move any country has ever made.
Watching American Jews—some of whom I knew well—celebrate on the lawn that day, I saw them dancing on the corpses of Israelis, which piled up soon after, making Jew killing so popular that there are now calls to globalize the intifada. The rethinking that should have started thirty years ago has been forced on Israel with every new threat, culminating in the recent unspeakable attacks of October 7.
Nonetheless, v’af al pi chen, v’lamrot hakol, I realize that Israelis are even more remarkable than one knew and are slowly convincing some of their neighbors that they are there to stay—also convincing them that coexistence has its benefits. With the liberalization of Saudi Arabia and perhaps, someday, Iran, the region will know some peace at last. My grief over what is happening in Israel is more acute now than it was after the investiture of Arafat, but Israel’s political realism makes me more confident of its future.
Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund.
Before October 7, I believed that Israel was more vigilant, more meticulous, and more thorough in its assessment of its enemies than it proved to be. I believed that a sufficiently cruel attack would dissolve political boundaries, if only for a moment, so that people would not react according to where they identified on the political spectrum but where they lived on the human spectrum.
Before October 7, I believed there was enough integrity in the faculty on university campuses to guide and teach students even against the students’ own inclinations. I did not understand that professors and administrators would be so terrified of the judgment of their presumed charges that they would allow nineteen-year-olds to dictate their own silence, even when they believed their students to be wrong. I did not know that ideological deformation would run neck and neck with pusillanimity in the most heralded educational institutions in the world.
In short, I believed there was more vigilance, humanity, and courage than I witnessed on October 7 and after. Now I believe that what has been destroyed can be restored. Get back to me in a year to see if I still believe it.
David J. Wolpe is the Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School.
In the four-plus years since the Arab Spring, regimes have fallen, alliances have shifted and re-shifted, and new (and terrifying) actors have appeared on the scene. The diplomatic and strategic assumptions of several decades seem to have been upended. Nowhere is this more dramatically apparent than across Israel’s northern border. What, if anything, should Israel do about the Syrian crisis?
Since January of this year, revolution has spread across North Africa and the Middle East with such velocity that predicting exactly what will happen next is probably a fool's errand. In this issue, we have asked seven writers to return to their bookshelves and tell us what books, authors, and arguments they find helpful in thinking through the causes and implications of these surprising events.
Barry Gewen’s new book argues that Henry Kissinger's "hardheaded Realism” was born of his family’s tragic experience in Nazi Germany.
I would never have said this ten years ago, or even five years ago, but there apparently comes a time in the lives of those who write about Jewish identity when they have to decide whether to write about . . . it.