Editor’s note: On October 7 of this year, Israel was attacked by the terrorist group Hamas, with more Jews slaughtered in a single day than any day since the Holocaust. Since then, Israel has vowed to dismantle Hamas and its networks inside of the Gaza Strip, an area crowded with civilians that the terrorists use to hide themselves. Thousands have been killed. Let me be unequivocal here: civilian deaths are horrific. Both Israeli and Palestinian civilians deserve to live in peace and dignity, with two states side by side. But a country cannot sit by and allow a terrorist organization with a stated goal to wipe out their population (“from the river to the sea” means the total elimination of Israel and Jews from the land they have called home for thousands of years) to rearm and keep their promise of doing this again and again. I was in Israel for several months in 2002, during which time suicide bombings were a regular occurrence. The bus I took each morning in Jerusalem, the 6, was bombed on multiple occasions. This is life for Israelis. But whenever Israel responds, doing more than pretty much any country would do to minimize civilian casualties, the only condemnation is for the Jewish state. Ask yourself why. Why is Israel condemned for closing borders with Gaza when Egypt is not? Why is UN outrage only for Palestinian deaths and not for Israelis, or for the hostages still missing, stolen by Hamas on October 7? The answer is the millennia-old problem of anti-Semitism. Here at The Royal Tour, we stand with those who desire peace. We stand against terrorism. We stand with both Jews and Arabs who want to live side by side. And we stand with Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. I am so proud that Rabbi Sam Spector has chosen to be in Israel to show support in this most difficult time, and that he has written about it for us. For more of Sam’s writing, please click here to visit his index page.
I am writing this article from Tel Aviv. I do not write about Israel much for The Royal Tour, which is curious since I come here typically at least once a year and have traveled to almost every single nook and cranny of the country. I even lived here for over a year. But Israel is less of a travel destination for me and is more of a second home. Yet, I am writing this article from Israel at a very interesting time as I chose to come to Israel during a war. While Israel seems to be at war every couple years, this is Israel’s biggest war in 50 years following a massacre on October 7 that was the largest single-day murder of Jews since the Holocaust. To be clear, I did not come to Israel because there was a war; I was supposed to be here at this time anyhow, as I am part of a delegation of young pro-Israel rabbis who were coming for a week to show solidarity with Israel and discover ways that we could strengthen ties between Israel and progressive Jewish communities in the United States, and also promote progressive Judaism within Israel. We had an entire itinerary planned where we would go to the tip of the northern border with Lebanon and then to towns on the border with Gaza. And then on October 7, the world for every Jew changed, and Israel changed forever. In addition to the approximately 1400 Israelis murdered on October 7, 240 were taken hostage. In the past month Israel has been struck by over 10,000 rockets. Our group had intense conversations even a week before our trip departed surrounding one question, “Do we still go or not?” In answering this question, we had to ask several other questions. “Will we be able to help?” “Do Israelis want us to come, or will be an additional burden? Are we taking hotel rooms from displaced Israelis or will our tourism dollars be welcomed?” “Will we be safe?”
After much discussion we made our decision: we would still go to Israel. Of our group, four of the thirteen decided not to come, and I respect that decision; I do not know their personal or family circumstances. However, as a Jew, let alone as a Jewish leader, I have always believed that Israel is a place that Jews run to, not a place where we run from; my friends in Israel cannot leave, so why, when they are maintaining a Jewish state, should I use my privilege of not going? That is how I have always seen it, as during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) Israelis felt abandoned by the Diaspora Jewish world and many travel businesses went under. It seemed that showing solidarity was more important than ever before, but yet, I will admit, I had more anxiety about going to Israel than I ever have.
Getting to Tel Aviv was a bit challenging. My original flight got cancelled, and the only airline really flying in and out of Israel was Israel’s national carrier, El Al. I booked a new flight to Paris, had a fourteen hour layover to sightsee and explore, then hopped a flight on a separate ticket with El Al to Tel Aviv. Flying into Tel Aviv was a strange experience; there were no cars on the highways, and when we landed, there were over 200 posters in the airport showing images of kidnapped Israelis. It is a message that while we are landing at home, many are unable to return to their homes at this time. Having been to Tel Aviv and Israel so many times, the feeling here is now different. It feels very much like the United States on September 12, 2001. Every person has feelings of fear, anger, devastation, and disbelief. An Israeli woman I was talking to thanked me because we had been talking for a while and she realized I had not asked the question, “How are you doing?” She greatly appreciated that because how can she answer it? In a country of less than 10 million people, every single person who I have encountered knows someone who was killed, wounded, or kidnapped on October 7, and has a loved one who is fighting in Gaza at the moment. Each day, the entire country checks the names of soldiers released who were killed that day in fighting and holds their breath to see if they know the person or not.
While just a couple weeks ago, Tel Aviv residents were running to bomb shelters multiple times per day, there has only been one air raid siren that has gone off so far in the four days I have been here, and I was actually outside of downtown Tel Aviv when it went off so I did not need to go to the shelter. (Update from editor: Sam is in a bomb shelter at the moment of publication.) Yet, when you are in an active warzone, those things are constantly on your mind; in sitting down at a restaurant, you will ask the host, “Table for three please, and where is the nearest shelter?” When you walk down the street, you are analyzing every building you walk past with thoughts like, “I could run into that building if the siren goes off. Or I’d better move away from that other building right now; they have too many first floor windows that could shatter.” In the bathroom, you are praying that a siren does not go off. My friend gave me the tip, “Shower in the morning, Hamas does not usually fire at Tel Aviv in the morning.” At night, I sleep in my sweatpants and a t-shirt in case I need to pop out of bed and run to the shelter. That is how people here have to think.
Walking down the street, every few feet there is a poster of a kidnapped person. On the benches are teddy bears whose arms are zip-tied and are covered in blood and bruises with a picture of a child next to them, a reminder of the many children who are being held hostage. The families want more than anything for their loved ones to not be forgotten about, as the world has seemed to do so far in this crisis. Many of the shops and restaurants are closed, as their employees are off fighting in the war. Last night I craved Israeli shwarma for dinner, and I had to walk two miles and go to three different places until I found one that was actually open.
Our travel has been greatly restricted in our time here. The very north of Israel and the south near Gaza have been evacuated, and in a country the size of New Jersey, much of it is now off limits to us, relegating us to the center of the country. While here, we have visited people who were wounded, talked with the families of the 240 hostages currently being held in Gaza, and even gone to console families who have had loved ones who were killed. We also spent hours volunteering and helping sort donated clothing items to be given to the 200,000 internal refugees of Israel who have been displaced. A misconception that I had before coming, given the information that I knew, was that I assumed, like during the Second Intifada, that the hotels would need our business because every tour group has canceled their trip. That was not the case; our hotel is currently completely full of families who have been living here for the past month because they were evacuated and became homeless within their own country. I carry stickers and candies in my pocket to give to the many children who run and play in the hallways of the hotel; they no longer are in school and I am sure are going stir crazy, as are their parents, living in a small room now for weeks on end, unsure of when it will be safe to return to their homes.
Would I recommend going to a war zone during a war? It depends. If your goal is sightseeing and you legitimately fear for your life, then no. However, if you want to connect with people and think you can do so without getting yourself killed, then you will never have a more impactful trip. I have had so many Israelis hug me and with tears in their eyes say, “Thank you for coming, thank you for standing with us. You being here sends a message to your community and makes us feel less alone.” One of my colleagues riffed on a common Jewish parable and gave this great statement as to why we are here: an Israeli falls into a hole and shouts for help. A priest comes by looks at the man and says, “I will pray for you that you will get out of here,” and walks away. A doctor comes by and the man calls out for help, and the doctor writes him a prescription and tosses it into the hole and says, “I do not know how else I can help,” before walking off. An American Jew walks by the hole and the Israeli calls out to him; he looks at the Israeli and jumps into the hole with him. The Israeli asks, “Why did you do that?” The common answer to the parable is, “Because I fell in this hole once and figured out how to climb out and I will show you.” However, this time, the American Jew says, “Because you are my brother and I would rather be stuck in this hole with you than outside without you.”
That is why I am here. These are my brothers and sisters, and I would rather be here with them than on the other side of the world without them, and at the very least be able to tell their stories and let them know that they are not alone.