This piece is one of an ongoing series that we will be sharing in the coming days from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.
It is critical to understand history not just through the books that will be written later, but also through the first-hand testimonies and real-time accounting of events as they occur. At Jewish Book Council, we understand the value of these written testimonials and of sharing these individual experiences. It’s more important now than ever to give space to these voices and narratives.
In collaboration with the Jewish Book Council, JBI is recording writers’ first-hand accounts, as shared with and published by JBC, to increase the accessibility of these accounts for individuals who are blind, have low vision or are print disabled.
Three weeks after the events of October 7, the trauma, horror, and extent of our loss is starting to sink in. It’s our 9/11, people are saying. Hamas has proven itself to be a local version of ISIS. Every single day since then, missile alarms go off all over Israel, reminding us – even as we make dinner, or run out to buy a loaf of bread, or watch Netflix – that we are being targeted by a fanatical enemy. It is emerging that this is an event whose magnitude has the power to change one’s inner compass, leading Jews everywhere to reexamine the paradigms that just a few weeks ago seemed not just valid, but obvious.
We, who were born after the Holocaust, grew up in a world that spoke a language never heard before in human history. To systematically murder another people was not merely a consequence of war, but genocide. Every person in the world was deserving of human rights. Every group with a common history was deserving of self-determination. The Vatican finally came out and said that Jews didn’t kill Jesus. Jews were finally full participants in the modern mainstream world and culture. All of which is to say that we believed that we, unlike our ancestors, could draw a long, thick line separating them — those who had to deal with virulent antisemitism, pogroms, inquisitions, exiles, blood libels, and countless other atrocities — and us.
It is clear now that that line is no longer valid. It is not “world peace” and “swords into plowshares” that have proven enduring and constant, but the most violent and brutal aspects of humanity. This devastating realization, along with the realization that Jews are now, still, foremost at the receiving end of this violence, has challenged and shaken our understanding of the human condition.
Jewish families hiding, helplessly fearing for their lives as those looking to murder them go door to door; it is all sickeningly familiar. And yet this time, for perhaps the first time in two-thousand years, there is an important, essential, difference. That difference is that unlike our ancestors, we here in Israel have an army that was created for the sole purpose of defending us. The undeniable and tragic fact that this army largely failed when it was most needed is beside the point. The point is that this army exists. Despite the many mistakes leading up to October 7, some soldiers were able to mobilize, and rescue hundreds who otherwise would not be with us today. Despite its failures, we Israeli Jews, as I write this, are being defended by a military force that is powerful and determined, led by intelligent, deeply committed men and women. We cannot know the outcome of the conflict, but we do know that the people fighting it have our survival at heart.
In these difficult days, I take comfort and inspiration from Letters from the Desert, a collection of translated letters first published in Hebrew in 1944, written by Moshe Mosenson, who served as a truck driver in the British army in North Africa. The letters span from his arrival at training camp in August 1940 to the army’s departure from El Alamein in November 1943. Composed in a period of uncertainty and upheaval – the desperate fight against the Nazis, Jewish communities being annihilated all over Europe, and the fate of the half a million Jews of Palestine yet to be determined — the letters reflect a confidence and faith in the future that feels justified now but must have been far more questionable at the time.
“The term ‘Jewish soldier,’” we’re informed in the English introduction written in 1945, “so strangely direct and unqualified, will be puzzling to many. Is there indeed such a creature as a Jewish soldier, as distinguished from the soldier of the Jewish faith or race in the British of French or American army? Is there a Jewish soldier in the service of the Jewish people?” The letters take us back to a time when this question was asked in earnest, and the notion of an army in the service of Jews sounded both fantastical and miraculous.
The reason that Mosenson served as a truck driver and not a fighter is that in the early years of World War Two, the British opposed the creation of a “Jewish Brigade.” In the documentary film, In Their Own Hands, ex-fighter Mordechai Gichon, recalls that “Although so many Jews from Mandatory Palestine were keen to fight…there was no all-Jewish fighting force that could face the Nazis on the front lines.” For the greater part of the war, Ben Gurion and Weizman’s repeated appeals to create such a force were refused.
What does it mean that the IDF exists in the world as a military force dedicated to the defense of a Jewish state? In light of the events we are living through, events that both call up the harsher realities of our long history and remind us that we are its heirs, it means everything.
Janice Weizman is the author of the award-winning historical novel, The Wayward Moon (Yotzeret, 2012), which will be reissued with Toby Press next month. Her writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Report, Lilith, World Literature Today, and other places. She served for 10 years as a Fiction editor for The Ilanot Review, and now curates the book review website, Reading Jewish Fiction. Her second novel, Our Little Histories, was recently published with Toby Press.