It is a mistake to compare Saturday’s massacre in southern Israel with 9/11, a massacre that risks underestimating its impact on the country’s psyche and perhaps its reaction. I went to work at a kibbutz in Israel after leaving school and immediately fell in love with the place. Falafel in pitta, melting pot kasbahs, elegant art galleries, orthodoxy of all flavors in one of the most liberal democracies in the world. Communes, factories, fields, mountains and deserts: Israel has it all.
However, it is not only diversity that gives Israel its energy, but also its size. You are never more than an hour by bus from a border, and many times you are only a few minutes away. The last time I visited in late 2017, I was planning to dive with a journalist friend in the Red Sea. In the end, we covered a confrontation in the West Bank, visited a gallery in Tel Aviv, and climbed the upper end of the Rift Valley, all in a day or two.
To a tourist, Israel’s size seems like a blessing, and in many ways it is, but you don’t have to live there long to see that it is also its Achilles heel. When I first arrived, naïve and unread, at 18, I foolishly disparaged the mandatory military service of a young couple who had invited me and a friend over for drinks. Even today I can feel the heat of his withering reaction: part anger, part pity.
“The other day you asked the man who brought you back how he lost his arm,” said the girl, who was only a year or two older than me. “He was my father. He didn’t say anything because he was angry. He lost it fighting. Fighting for us.”
“It can happen again,” her boyfriend added, equally direct. “They want to push us into the sea. “This isn’t like your daddy’s army back home.”
I’ve said some pretty dumb things over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more embarrassed. Sitting on a Kibbutz just a couple of miles from the West Bank and a missile away from the Golan Heights, how could I have been so stupid?
Just nine years earlier, Syria and Egypt had launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, sparking the fourth Arab-Israeli war. If the war had gone against Israel – and in the first 48 hours it seemed that it would – few doubt that the kind of bestial behavior committed by Hamas earlier this week in the south would have occurred throughout Israel. As the late author and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel is credited with saying, “When someone says he wants to kill you, believe him.”
Of course, 9/11 and Pearl Harbor were also horrendous, but I suspect the way Americans felt about them was very different. Their surprise, and partly their horror, derived from how distant and seemingly isolated the United States was from the battle fronts from which they emanated. In Israel the opposite happens. It’s not just that more Israelis died per capita on Saturday than on 9/11, but that a horror like this has always been around the corner, anticipated in the public’s mind for almost every moment of the country’s existence.
Furthermore, the threat is existential. Israel’s enemies – those who have long said they want to kill its Jewish citizens – do not reside on the other side of the world, but just a few minutes away, on all borders other than those bounded by the sea.
For most of Israel’s history, the immediacy of the threat it faces has made it disciplined and strong. And, for the most part, it has avoided the terrible military misadventures suffered by countries fighting their wars thousands of miles away. But the pressure cooker atmosphere created by the country’s size could also work against it. The political populism it has generated could well have played a role in the intelligence failure that preceded Saturday’s attack and allowed the terrorists to enter.
As the country prepares – as it surely must – to bury Hamas once and for all, in the same way the West did with ISIS, it must muster the courage to maintain its humanity and discipline. Anything else risks giving a victory to terror and terrorism.