Jewish combatants, Israel, May 20, 1948

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The Spirit of ’48

For countless long hours, on Oct. 7, the darkest of dark days, the state vanished. But then, in the midst of a war for survival against armed savages, an exceptional, unparalleled heroism emerged, a heroism that we had almost forgotten existed.

Ran Baratz
October 30, 2023
Jewish combatants, Israel, May 20, 1948

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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First, we need to take a deep breath, confront reality squarely and speak the truth, the whole truth. For too long, we have allowed ourselves to be deceived, relying on comfortable and reassuring fictions from others. Now, we must acknowledge that the security challenge lying ahead of us is long-term and will require us to readapt and to rethink the situation. There will be a battle for Gaza and perhaps in the north too, but it would be a grave historic mistake to assume that when they are over, the security events are over too, and that we will be able to return to a situation similar to that which existed before the pogrom on Oct. 7. We will have to change our national priorities, not only because a series of convenient lies has been shattered, but because fundamental security concepts—not only ours, but of our enemies too—have been shattered.

But before that, from within the immense national pain in the wake of an unprecedented event in the history of our state, I want to refute a claim that, while understandable as an initial reaction to the horrifying massacre, is absolutely wrong from a historical perspective: the claim that Zionism failed because we faced the worst pogrom since the Holocaust.

The last part is certainly correct. There’s no denying that the enemy dealt us a very severe blow, demonically targeting innocents with brutal savagery. But it is equally clear that the first part of the claim is untrue. It was not Zionism that failed, it was the state that faltered; it was the state and its security institutions and decision-makers that failed. But Zionism?

On that fateful Shabbat, we were thrown back in time 75 years. For a few long hours, we were taken by complete surprise and transported back to 1948, with the enemy having all the advantages and we all the disadvantages. Bunkers and shelters, the few against the many, with civilian communities under attack against overwhelming odds, with ill-equipped rapid-response teams, youngsters and retirees fighting alone against well-trained Hamas units armed to the teeth. Even worse, forward military outposts taken completely off guard, infiltrated thanks to precise intelligence and commando operations that paralyzed the IDF and the local and national command. For many long hours, Israel the state ceased to exist. All that was left were the citizens.

We are not consumed with fear; we are filled with extreme heroism. And that is why this people will defeat its enemies. Even if our leadership seems akin to the Generation of the Wilderness, this people is forged in the spirit of Caleb and Joshua.

But there, in the depths of the abyss, far removed from all the failed technologies of the General Staff and disconnected politicians, when the people of Israel were unexpectedly thrust to their lowest point into a life-or-death struggle against armed savages, one fact became undeniably clear: We possess an overwhelming advantage over our enemies. In those moments, an indescribable valor arose, a tenacity that we had almost forgotten existed, a supreme courage that we had thought we would no longer need.

Our chief of staff ignored the reality. Our leadership forgot its role. They believed with all their hearts that war was a thing of the past. That air power, technology, cyber, intelligence, and special operations would suffice. That we were no longer vulnerable to any conventional threat. Arrogance clouded their judgment. Lack of professionalism and bluster overcame common sense, basic military principles, and national security responsibility.

But when the moment of truth arrived and the complacent ones at the top faltered, the answer emerged from the ranks. It came in the form of soldiers from the Golani, Nahal and armored brigades who took over the battle lines, fighting until the last bullet and then some. It came in the form of citizens, men and women, members of the rapid-response teams in their communities, who took up arms and engaged the enemy in pitched battles. It came in the form of reservists and police officers who upon hearing that something terrible had happened, took up arms and rushed down south on their own accord, charging into the line of fire, risking their lives to save as many as they could. Many, many like that. Stories of heroism beyond belief. Each and every one of these individuals took upon themselves the heavy national burden without question, doubt or hesitation. In those long dark hours when the state appeared to have vanished, the people of Israel rose to the occasion.

Even in the midst of our searing anguish, we must recognize that this marks a complete departure from our history in the diaspora. No Jewish community anywhere in the world could have displayed such extraordinary heroism, on such a grand scale and with such remarkable capabilities. We paid a terrible price for the professional and conceptual failures of the security and state systems, from the strategic level to the decisions in the field. There is no denying the magnitude of this failure. Nevertheless, the historical analogy is crystal clear. In every Jewish community, over a history spanning hundreds of years, what occurred would have been the first day of a pogrom, leaving the Jews only with a pervasive sense of helplessness, pain and despair. In Israel, just the opposite transpired. The pogrom ended with unwavering counterattacks, followed by a major counteroffensive. And instead of feeling helpless, what we now feel is an entirely different emotion: rage.

This rage is the diametric opposite of the fear, helplessness and despair that characterized the Jews in the diaspora. It is the antithesis of these emotions. This rage is concrete evidence of the profound transformation that has occurred within us. Our anger is directed at our leadership because we understand that the responsibility lies with us, that we are in control of the situation, and that our destiny lies firmly within our grasp. This is the essence of the Zionist revolution.

A warrior nation

So yes, the state faltered. But Zionism has triumphed. On that darkest of dark days, it became evident that the people of Israel is not a fragile “spider’s web,” and is characterized by neither coddling nor weakness. At the moment of truth, the warrior spirit within us stirred in a matter of minutes. Ultimately, in times of war, it is not the air force, cyber capabilities, technological fences, reinforced slurry walls or active protection systems that secure victory. It is the valiant fighters. And on the day of the pogrom, one thing became undeniably clear: Israel is a nation of warriors. We are all warriors and we will not retreat in the face of adversity.

In these circumstances, no enemy can defeat us. Undoubtedly, we have numerous challenges to confront. We have suffered a devastatingly painful blow that will resonate in Jewish history for all eternity. But even at that moment, when the leadership and the state utterly failed, we were not at the mercy of others. We are not consumed with fear; on the contrary, we are filled with extreme heroism. And that is why this people will prevail over its adversaries. Even if our leadership seems akin to the Generation of the Wilderness, this people is forged in the spirit of Caleb and Joshua.

We are reliving the spirit of ’48 in another sense because much remains to be said about the tectonic changes awaiting us at the strategic and operational levels, the new landscape of threats created by our failures, the national and security challenges we face, and the lessons we can already draw from the national mistakes we have made. We stand at a Ben-Gurion-like juncture, marked by the need for dramatic decisions and the reconstruction of our collective consciousness, as well as of our national institutions and strength.

But now we know—it is achievable. Because the spirit of ’48 remains vibrant within us. Because Zionism has emerged—and will continue to emerge—victorious. This truth may have been obscured by affluence and success, by the political conflicts that made us feel that we were in the midst of an irreconcilable social rift. The proliferation of national institutions, flush with budgets and authority, dulled our sense of engagement and personal responsibility. The people of Israel dozed off, but when the day of reckoning arrived, arising from the distress and crisis, it awoke from its slumber, cast off the dust of complacency and behold: It is a lion.

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Reprinted with permission from the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon. Translated by Ruchie Avital.

Ran Baratz is the founding editor of the Israeli magazine Mida and a regular contributor to Makor Rishon.