I spent last December in Jerusalem. It’s a vibrant city unlike any other, ebbing and flowing with ancient religious passions yet still youthful—and filled with the political extremism common to the young. Violence hovers here, enough to be felt, but not enough to paralyze. That’s how Ilya Sosansky, a bartender, 26, told me he felt.
Ilya said that he never felt safe in Jerusalem, though he accepted this as a fact of life. He was born in Ukraine but raised in Israel after his parents fled anti-Semitism there. He was jealous of those, like me, who grew up in quiet America. (My parents left Russia for America instead of Israel.)
A week after I left Israel in January 2023, Ilya was killed by a Palestinian shooter in Jerusalem, along with six others. The terrorist targeted Jews near a synagogue on the Sabbath and, with cool calculation, murdered one Jew after another who rushed to help.
Ilya’s death, while tragic, was, from a global perspective, just another terror attack in Israel. It’s also part of what had been a status quo of the modern Israeli system. Israelis vote for politicians who fall within the norms of Western politics, and terror attacks do occur—shootings, stabbings, bombings, rockets. But casualties stayed in the single digits, and systems like the Iron Dome kept the problem from growing.
Israelis and its leadership had learned to live with it. That’s why it isn’t hard to believe that Israeli leaders brushed off warnings about yet another terror attack. During flare-ups, Israelis yearn for the real but hard solutions that politicians are unwilling to provide. The overwhelming majority believe that politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu, whom the West views as far right, do too little to address the violence. But these sentiments never last long, and there are no easy fixes to be had, so the search for a lasting solution has been convenient to postpone.
Sometimes it’s easy to buy into the Israeli system. The standard of living there feels more European than Arab. Other times, it’s harder—like when you’re shopping in a mall that was the scene of a massacre the year prior, or using the same public transportation system that was bombed the month before, or passing by abandoned buildings that had been attacked by suicide bombers.
Israel always expected another terror attack. But the system is built on Israelis’ hope that the next one won’t affect them. This time the next attack affected all.
I was in synagogue services when my community got word. Services stopped. The rabbi told us that there had been a devastating attack in Israel, with hundreds killed. No, this was not just another terror attack.
Like many attacks on Jews, this one was coordinated to fall on a holiday. Observant Jews don’t have access to electronics, and on this one, Simchat Torah, Jews are supposed to be joyous in honor of the five books of Moses. But how could they? Most Jewish communities in the diaspora have family and friends in Israel and wouldn’t know if their loved ones were alive or dead for another two days.
But this is what Jews do, and we share stories about it. During World War II, in communities far from the atrocities of Nazi Germany, a grand Rabbi would cry six days a week, mourning deeply. On the seventh day, the Sabbath, when Jews were required to be joyous, they would put the Holocaust out of their minds.
For most Israelis, stories like these are supposed to be heard about, not experienced. So when Jews experienced Hamas’s attacks, it was sobering and terrifying. There was a sense of guilt, a feeling that Israel had failed those who came before us, and an instinct that we must do everything we can to ensure that something like this never happens again. That is, after all, why Israel was created.
The attack showed, however, that Israel had failed that founding purpose, as had its political leaders. Israel is not as strong as it has pretended to be: a few hundred terrorists broke through some of the world’s most sophisticated and expensive military forces. Jews, everywhere, were not as safe as we had thought. The Hamas supporters who took to the streets in major cities across the West made that clear, too.
Jewish communities worldwide mobilized, sending equipment to the front lines and booking charter flights loaded with medical equipment for the soldiers who needed it. Instead of running away from war, Jews from across the world rushed home, toward it. But political solutions are required in this situation, and there aren’t any easy ones.
Israel could go back to occupying Gaza. But Hamas rules in Gaza because most Palestinians there believe in its cause; the violence won’t go away even if Hamas is gone. Inside Israel, violent clashes between mixed Israeli-Arab communities are expected to continue. And in the West Bank, terrorists continue to kill Jews living there, despite an increasing military presence.
Now, Israel is preparing and launching another ground operation in Gaza—nothing new. Israeli leadership promises to erase Hamas as a political entity, which some predict would result in an occupation of the region—which would also be nothing new. These situations would only bolster the status quo that brought Israel to this moment, which neither Israelis nor Palestinians have faith in anymore.
Less than a year ago, Ilya was describing to me the hopelessness that many Israelis feel regarding that situation. The national mood has shifted now to one of determined anger, but current options offer no alternatives to violent realities any time soon.
Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images