Before and after October 7

Three very different Israel visits

Civil society continues to fill the gaps where the government fails to provide services, and life in Tel Aviv and other cities remains vibrant.

The UPJ group with World Union for Progressive Judaism representatives at Hamam Al Pasha restaurant in Haifa.
The UPJ group with World Union for Progressive Judaism representatives at Hamam Al Pasha restaurant in Haifa.

I have been to Israel three times in the past year.

In May last year I attended the World Union of Progressive Judaism Connections Conference. It was a joyous occasion filled with the promise of a positive future. The only storm cloud was the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial review. This would be disastrous for the Progressive Movement in Israel, as well as many other pluralist and progressive causes which the movement supports. Many of the gains we had achieved were the result of petitions to the Supreme Court, its independence crucial to our success.

So, we joined with tens of thousands of Israelis and marched on Kaplan Street and in front of the President’s residence in Jerusalem. The divisions in Israeli society were palpable, but there was also a sense of optimism, sparked by the awakening of many to the threat of a right-wing government.

My second visit was the spontaneous decision to volunteer in Israel 10 days after October 7. I arrived to an Israel in shock. The attack and its ramifications were only just being processed. Israel had yet to enter Gaza. The dead were still being buried. The number of hostages was unclear. Rockets continued to be launched from Gaza into densely populated civilian centres in Israel. The war of attrition in the north had just commenced.

It was a very emotional time. There was so much anger, particularly at the military and the Netanyahu government. An anger that was only held at bay by the priority to grieve. And the grief was visceral, as if every Israeli was sitting shiva. But instead of rending their garments, it was their very souls that had been torn, signifying the loss of not just the individual, but the whole nation. Revenge was the dominant strategic imperative. Other alternatives were either ignored or dismissed in the lust to fulfil the ancient biblical mantra, “an eye for an eye”.

Despite the weight of these emotions, there was quietness. The noise surrounding the judicial reforms seemed as if it was from another era. This was a time to respect the dignity of those in mourning, still burying their dead. This was a time when the voices of the families of hostages was in its infancy, born from the single lone protest of Avichai Brodetz, whose wife and three children were kidnapped from Kfar Aza by terrorists.

But more than anything, the country felt united. United in shared shock, grief, anger and fear. United in the mission ahead, to defeat Hamas and bring the hostages home. The signs on the highway and adorning the buildings, declared “Yachad n’natze’ach – Together we will win.” It was a call to action. It was reassuring. It spoke of a possible future.

On my third trip, motivated by the need to support the people of Israel, I brought a Union for Progressive Judaism solidarity mission, the first ever from our region. Together we navigated the landscape of a post-apocalypse Israel. We were performing the mitzvah of bikur cholim, but not for an individual, and not for a family, but for Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. We were there to show support and help mend their wounded souls.

Sadly, for me, this visit proved the most difficult. Despite the challenges of previous visits, in particular the physical danger and acute grief of the October visit, I felt a great sense of despondency this time. Eight months of war had taken its toll. The divisions that were unleashed by the judicial reforms had reappeared.

More so than before October 7, they are inflamed by a sense of hopelessness. An unpopular government remains in power; the IDF is mired in Gaza; the hostages remain captive; the economy is struggling; soldiers are dying; Israel is seen as a pariah by the rest of the world and its institutions; and Hamas has not yet been defeated.

In our hotel, evacuees from Kiryat Shmona took up 700 of the 1200 rooms. They had been there seven long months, in those small hotel rooms. It is heartbreaking. There is a heaviness hanging over Israel, and it is sapping the energy of its people.

The posters that declared “Together we will win”, that inspired me in October, now felt hollow. Israelis are resilient. Civil society continues to fill the gaps where the government fails to provide services, and life in Tel Aviv and other cities remains vibrant. But a sadness permeates everything. Glimmers of hope, too often disappear in the next moment.

Even the protests divide on each side of the Kiryah: The Kaplan Street protest now devoted to the overthrow of the government, while the Hostage Square protest on the other side, offers a politer version, less aggressive in its condemnation of the government.

These are indeed dark times, for all Jews. And yet, Jews come to Israel on missions or to volunteer, even if small in numbers. The gratitude of Israelis is amazing, and the experience for those that come is enriching and reaffirming. I urge you to go at this important juncture in our history. Walk with the people of Israel and bring them our support and love in this challenging time. In doing this, you will find renewed energy to confront the many challenges we face in Australia.

Danny Hochberg is co-president of the Union for Progressive Judaism.

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