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Day 263: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

On October 6, Or Levy, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, and Eliya Cohen arrived at the Nova Music Festival with thousands of others to celebrate life, sing, dance, and be happy. At 6:30 a.m. the next morning, the joy was cut short, and a few hours later, bruised and bleeding, they were already in Gaza, bound and tortured. In addition to these three, another 41 Israelis were kidnapped, hundreds of others were injured, and 364 were murdered, many after enduring the worst sex crimes known to humanity.

A video clip showing the abduction of the three was released last night. It was compiled of images taken by the terrorists themselves during their rage. Look at the smiling, happy faces, full of joy as they were until 6:30 a.m. on the morning of October 7, and look at these same faces of horror just a few hours later. Joy and happiness were stolen from so many in that single moment when thousands of bloodthirsty terrorists infiltrated Israel and committed unspeakable atrocities that led to the murder of more than 1,500 Israelis since.

During the attack, Hersh and his best friend, Aner Shapira, and others took refuge in a field shelter. They were all strangers brought together by fate and circumstances. Side by side, they stood in the tiny field shelter, one of many in the Gaza envelope, while Hamas terrorists repeatedly threw grenades into it.

Aner Shapira managed to repel seven of the grenades before he could no longer throw them back. He was killed there, in front of his friend Hersh, who was gravely injured, his arm blown off below the elbow. The last time Hersh’s parents heard from him, was at around 8 a.m. on October 7 when he sent them a text message that said, “I love you.” Ten minutes later he added, “I’m sorry.”

Last night, speaking Hebrew with the American accent of new immigrants from the U.S., Hersh’s parents, Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg, sat in an Israeli television news studio and shared why they, along with the two other families, decided to release the horrifying video. ”If these are the atrocities committed,” said Jon Polin, “this is what the world needs to see.”

Hersh was born in Berkeley, California, and lived in Richmond, Virginia, before immigrating to Israel with his family in 2008 at the age of 7. Growing up in Israel and exposed to the ongoing conflict between our Palestinian neighbors, some within touching distance of his home in Jerusalem, led Hersh to participate in an initiative that used soccer to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together.

Or, Eliya, and Hersh, together with Aner Shapira and too, too many others served in the army. They fought to defend the homeland, their home. They gave so much, knowing that the country they loved would be there for them when they were in trouble. But they have been languishing in enemy tunnels for 263 days, and their return home is not in sight.

It is painfully difficult to look into the sad, brave eyes of Rachel and Jon and of all the parents, spouses, children, and family members of the 120 hostages. It’s hard to look into their eyes without imagining ourselves in their place, if, God forbid, it were our children there in Gaza, kidnapped and tortured.

Many of us are familiar with the constant fear that comes with raising children: May they not get hit when they are just learning to walk; may they not scratch their knee when they start running; may they not get lost; may they not be cold; may they not be exposed to the sun; may they always be well. Israeli parents add: May they return safely from the army; may nothing happen to them during their service; may the ominous knock at the door not come; and may their lives—and ours—not end.

No Israeli parent ever thought to add this prayer: May they not be kidnapped with abysmal cruelty to Gaza. Even in our harsh Israeli reality and as accustomed as we are to wars, we could never have imagined the reality we have been living for the last 263 days, the end of which is not in sight.

Meanwhile, as the front in the north is escalating and the fighting in Gaza continues, Israeli politics has not rested for a moment. The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties are demanding to redeem election promises given by Prime Minister Netanyahu—promises that led to their support in his government. Apparently, now is the right time to advocate for two outrageous laws, as if cynicism has no boundaries: The first seeks to extend mandatory reserve service for those who are already serving in the army, some for close to 200 days, and the other to extend the exemption from enlisting in the army for entire populations that do not serve at all: ultra-Orthodox men. There is no paradox more senseless or outrageous than the one in the promotion of these two laws.

Enlisting ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF has been a point of contention in Israeli society since the establishment of the state in 1948. At the time, compulsory service was introduced with a special arrangement known as “Torah is their art,” according to which ultra-Orthodox men were allowed to postpone conscription into the IDF to engage in Torah study. In 1948, only about 400 men were exempt, a number that eased the law’s passage. Since then, the numbers have grown at a rate that has long been impossible to ignore or overlook.

A yeshiva student who declares that “Torah is their art” must prove that they are solely engaged in Torah study and can’t work for a living. In addition to the exemption from compulsory conscription, these students are eligible for state financial support and establish their reliance on the state for their material existence. It is hard to believe that in a country where our lives depend on our soldiers’ bravery and sacrifice, entire populations, in the name of the law, are not only exempt from service but are funded by the state and encouraged not to go out to work.

It is important to note that in Jewish history, everyone, without exception, was required to fight. Jewish law is full of rules related to ethical conduct during combat. Today, Modern Orthodox Israelis not only serve in the army without exception but they are also known for their motivation. Unfortunately, the number of Modern Orthodox killed since the beginning of this current war is above and beyond their share in the general population.

Over the years, following massive public protests, various committees were formed to try to regulate the distortion and the discrimination—discrimination that has divided Israeli society since the country’s inception.

Perhaps today a first swallow heralds the end of this discrimination as a first ray of sunshine emerges. Today, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the government must draft Haredi men to military service. In the ruling, the court says there can be no state funding for yeshiva students who do not enlist. This groundbreaking decision will not be accepted quietly. Most likely, in the coming hours, huge demonstrations will fill the streets of Israel. On one side of the barricade will stand the ultra-Orthodox, who will refuse to accept the new decree. On the other side will be the rest of the country’s citizens, tired of the unjust distribution of the burden, demanding that the government immediately implement the decision of the Supreme Court legislators.

The sights and sounds in the coming days will not be those of unity or shared destiny, but even then, we must remember that we have no other choice. Only together, united, we will overcome.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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