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Grief-stricken mothers, wailing helplessly as their terrified children were violently torn from their arms. Couples separated at gunpoint: men to the right, women to the left, and marched away in separate directions. Entire families rounded up and shot. Elderly disabled women, unable to even get up by themselves, carted into automobiles by force. Panic-stricken youths running for their lives from a hail of bullets into forests, seeking shelter by crawling under bushes and into ditches. Injured women stripped naked, publicly assaulted and humiliated, dragged through the streets by barbarous men with hate-filled eyes and demonic smiles. Young kids—too young and innocent to even understand what was happening around them—kidnapped from their homes, after witnessing their parents murdered in cold blood, and surrounded by other young children, whose minds were poisoned with antisemitic enmity, torturing them for fun.
These heart-wrenching images that we are used to seeing in photos and documentary films about the Holocaust are not from events in Europe 80 years ago. They are from events in Israel 48 hours ago. They were not perpetrated by the Nazis but by the Islamist terrorists of Hamas. They occurred inside the internationally recognized borders of a sovereign state. And, maybe more than any catastrophe in Israel’s tragic history to date, reflect the colossal failure of the Jewish state to fulfill its most sacred duty, for which it was originally founded: to protect Jews.
The staggering cost—and simply unfathomable numbers—of the many hundreds of murdered and kidnapped Israelis from Saturday’s deadly Hamas attack from Gaza, have already been dubbed by Israelis as our own national “9/11” or “Pearl Harbor.” But unfortunately, given the nature and scale of the horrific crimes perpetrated against Israelis—the vast majority of them civilians not soldiers, including many children, women, and the elderly—the more appropriate analogy is that of the Holocaust.
While Israelis will no doubt investigate these events one day and hold to account those to blame for this epic and unprecedented failure—beginning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his utterly incompetent government that, for all intents and purposes, has ceased to function since Saturday’s attacks—the more immediate lesson that can already be drawn from these shocking events, is that Israel’s government and nearly all state institutions, including the military, have failed miserably at carrying out their most fundamental task of protecting its citizenry.
“Survivors of the Nazi holocaust in Europe, as well as Jews from other parts of the world, continued to migrate to Eretz-Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.” These words, taken from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, are a vital reminder that the basic premise of the Jewish state, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, was not necessarily democracy, liberalism, equality or even freedom—all important values, the preservation of which has, for the past six months, been tearing Israeli society from within. Rather, the Jewish state had been founded first and foremost to secure the life of Jews; only after ensuring this, could the broader development and cultivation of the various norms, ideals, and institutions that give purpose and meaning to life be undertaken.
Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, clearly understood that the need to protect Jewish lives took precedence over all else, and was therefore to be prioritized above any other objective of the fledgling state. This vision helps explain the decision-making process that led to some of the darker chapters in Israeli history that regrettably saw gross human rights violations and unsanctioned violence by the state against Israel’s Palestinian population in its earlier years. Similarly, the Law of Return (1950), one of Israel’s most foundational acts of legislation, explicitly seeks to provide a safe haven for Jews anywhere in the world, by allowing them to immigrate to Israel and settle within its borders, no questions asked.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had always been the predominant institution of Israeli society, and its leaders the predominant actors of Israeli politics, exactly because they were tasked with underwriting this basic guarantee for protecting Jewish lives in Israel (and at times, even abroad). Its projection of power, both practically by fighting and defending Israel and its citizens, and symbolically, by its representation of a newfound Jewish power (for example, during the flyby of Israeli fighter jets above Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2003), reflected an explicit commitment that, as countless Israeli soldiers have sworn time and again over the years during Memorial Day ceremonies, the horrors of the Holocaust will “never again” befall the Jewish people.
So what is left of the basic promise for a Jewish safe haven? Since Saturday, as more and more images, videos, and testimonies of Hamas’ brutal and bestial attacks surface, more and more Israelis are asking themselves this. The streets of many Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, resemble ghost towns. Shelves in supermarkets have nearly emptied and officials have already conceded that there are problems with the supply chain and shortages. It seems the entire country is currently on edge, waiting for what appears, at this stage, to be an inevitable showdown with Iran and its proxies in a long protracted and painful war: not only with Hamas inside Gaza, but with Hezbollah in Lebanon and possibly Iran itself.
While it’s too early to judge the long-term consequences of Saturday’s traumatic events—and there is no doubt they will reverberate for decades to come—what is becoming clear is that many Israelis are experiencing a new feeling, one we have never known before, and more importantly, that we were never supposed to know: that of victimhood. And unlike Jews outside Israel, that feeling is now compounded and worsened by the fear that we have become not merely victims, but victims in our own land.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.