The terror that grips us as parents of IDF soldiers

The terror that grips us as parents of IDF soldiers

NIR OZ, Israel, on the Gaza border — This is not an easy column to write, for several reasons. First, because my wife doesn’t want me to write it. She feels it’s too personal and it raises an issue that we’re finding challenging to confront — the safety of sons at war.

Second, because the Jewish concept of ayin harah, either a real or an imagined superstition, tells you not to discuss things so as not to jinx them. Israel is at war. Let’s pray in general but not speak about anything in particular.

Third, because I have a lot of anger about this particular issue. How did God allow so many Jews to die in a single day, 80 years after the Holocaust and after the creation of a state and an army that is supposed to protect them?

And fourth, because my thoughts on the subject are in no way fully formed.

When you have sons at war in Israel for the IDF, you live in a state of personal and permanent emotional conflict about the war and about the state of the Jewish people. Pride and fear. Defiance and surrender. Love and hate. You’re confused. Better not to write, no?

On the one hand, we’re an American family. My son Mendy was born in Oxford, England, where I served as the rebbe’s shaliach and rabbi at the university, and my son Yosef was born in Englewood. What the heck are my American sons doing at war in the Middle East against savage terrorists?

On the other hand (and I know I now sound like Tevya the milkman), don’t all Jews have to bear the burden of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s security? On the other hand, why my sons, who actually had a choice not to serve, especially our elder son, currently in an active war theater, who sustained a serious training injury and was released from combat duty, only to spend years strengthening the injury in order to reenlist.

But I decided, as I return, dejected and depressed, from a day spent at the Nova festival site, which my daughter Cheftziba told me reminded her of our visit to Auschwitz, and at Kibbutz Nir Oz right by the Rafah border, witnessing the charred ruins of homes that looked like the remnants of the Warsaw ghetto, that I had to justify to myself why my sons are at war.

As we heard the nonstop booms of what presumably were Israeli tanks and artillery at war in Rafah just five kilometers from us, fighting to ensure that Never Again is an actual policy as opposed to an empty slogan, that I had to confront why my own sons are in danger. After hearing the stories of whole families burned alive and young women raped, and after going to the freshly dug grave of Shani Louk, to whom I dedicated a Torah with Robert Kennedy Jr. speaking, with her parents at their moshav, I had to come to terms with why every Jewish man and woman on earth must be invested in the fight for Israel’s survival.

When you have sons at war, your deepest values and political principles are immediately compromised. I have been steadfastly opposed to any ceasefire with Hamas for the most obvious of reasons. If Hamas survives, there will be another October 7, pure and simple. They say it outright, and their barbarity and savagery easily equal that of the Nazis (with the one major difference that whereas the Nazis feared future international tribunals and therefore covered their crimes, Hamas actually broadcast in the world, secure in the knowledge that an immoral U.N. would later indict the Israel prime minister and defense minister rather than terrorists). But when it’s your sons fighting them, you pray for an immediate ceasefire, whatever the costs, which I guess is why it’s not the families of the hostages, facing something infinitely worse than we are, or IDF parents who alone can make these decisions.

Even odious, terror-funding Qatar, which I have fought for seven years in global media and which, according to the New York Times, hacked my emails in retribution — you start to think that even these monsters may play some role in a ceasefire. (They won’t. They are liars and murderers from whom the USA must remove our air force base once and for all.)

Then there is the anger.

I love the Jewish people and I love being a Jew. But when you return to the USA and see how few of us American Jews shoulder the burden of Israel’s defense, you become instantly judgmental. Why were my sons naive enough to enlist? Why aren’t they working on Wall Street, making money or building a tech startup? And how pathetic are we American Jews that we actually believe that eating five-star fare at plush hotels in Jerusalem as smiling tourists and giving $1000 to FIDF, who have not even bought a single ballistic helmet or bulletproof vest for the soldiers (they claim, strangely, that their lawyers don’t allow it, which begs the question why they exist at all and maybe they should find new attorneys), somehow passes for real support of Israel?

You know that these emotions are wrong. And you try to fight them.

But the anger at God is real and perhaps justified. The word Israel literally translates as “he who fights with God” and it gives you a mandate to do just that. My wife chooses the opposite approach — complete trust in God — saying Tehillim for our sons’ safety throughout the day.

But I’m angry at the Creator. What, Lord, do You want from the Jewish people? Almighty God, are you serious that we alone as a nation must die in order to live? We have to fight just to survive? Are Swedish kids evading booby-trapped buildings to breathe? Are Australian kids frolicking at Bondi beach suddenly called to dodge drone strikes at their borders? Are Belgian parents mourning their 20-year-old sons? What do you want from us, Lord? And how long will this go on?

For thousands of years, God, we have been slaughtered, crucified, and cremated. Can you tell us, oh Lord, that there really is some higher plan for this?

We have visited so many families who have buried children in Israel. Amazingly, they tell me that this is the “tax” that is demanded of them to recreate ancient Israel and dwell in our ancient homeland. Almighty God, is such a tax fair in any way whatsoever? The American colonists rebelled when their tea was taxed. What kind of God demands a tax of the lives of parents’ children? Who can live like this?

On Shavuos, just days after my father’s fourth yahrtzeit, I read the Ten Commandments from a Torah with a crowd of some 100,000 people. As I did so, I began to believe that we Jews continue to keep our Judaism just to shame God into doing so Himself. We do not murder, oh Lord. So why do you? We keep Shabbat. So why don’t you? October 7 was a Sabbath. Could you not, in your infinite power, have prevented the desecration of the Sabbath on that horrid day? We, oh Lord, cradle your sacred Torah in our arms on Simchas Torah to show our adoration for its sacred text. Why, God, do you not do the same? How will we ever enjoy Simchas Torah ever again?

And even as you allowed the sacrilege and defilement of your Torah on October 7, Simchas Torah, we will continue to dance. We will dance again even if you try and stop us.

We will keep your Torah, Oh Lord, even when you degrade it. And perhaps as you watch us, crying and dancing, you will follow our lead and allow us to dance again undeterred.

We are staying in a hotel where we are the only tourists. We are here in Israel hoping, God willing, that our son will be released from the theater of war so we can see him. The rest of the hotel is populated by refugees from the North, dozens of families who have lived there for eight months. On Shabbat a rumor began to spread through the hotel that eight soldiers had been murdered. My wife and I began to shudder and tremble. The news was not reporting what had happened. The families, so many of whom also have sons in the army, told us not to worry. It was only a rumor.

I quickly ran to the home of a government minister with whom I am friendly and he checked which units had been hit, as we sat and trembled. We confirmed it was not our sons’ units. We wanted to feel relief. We did. But at whose expense? Eight other families whose lives had been destroyed utterly? Are we Jews not all one family?

After Shabbat, our son, knowing that we were in hell, called us, miraculously, from a military phone, to tell us he was OK. The sound of his voice was the sweetest thing I had ever heard. I gave thanks to God and thanked Him for his benevolence and kindness. But not eight but 10 families, because that’s how many soldiers died in one day on Shabbat, the day God said was his sacred day, had been murdered. As we gave thanks to God, the earth swallowed them whole into an everlasting hell.

And so Jewish history continues, with no end in sight. We Jews live in a land where to live we pay with our lives in a world that condemns us as Nazis even as we bury our children who died in self-defense.

When my hero and mentor and dearest friend Elie Wiesel died in 2016, I took my children on a three-month trip to the killing fields of Europe. The world’s most famous Holocaust survivor had died, the witnesses to the Holocaust were disappearing, and my children, including our 9-year-old youngest daughter, needed to see firsthand what had happened before the firsthand witnesses were all gone.

My daughter Rochel Leah, today one of America’s most prominent Jewish social media influencers and fighters for Israel, grew more upset as the trip from hell, which would eventually be memorialized in my book “Holocaust Holiday,” dragged on. In Budapest, which witnessed the complete decimation of its community in the summer of 1944, she finally confronted me. “Tatty, why did you bring me here? I just finished a year of seminary in Israel, where I witnessed a living, joyous Judaism. But you destroyed it. You brought me to a continent-wide cemetery of Jewishness called Europe.” With futility, I attempted to comfort her. I knew she was right. Were we a triumphant or a tragic nation? But at least there was Israel. A Jewish rebirth. A reborn Jewish nation reestablished in their ancient homeland with an army to protect us.

But as I walked the giant cemetery of Nova and looked at the hundreds of faces of the beautiful young Jews slaughtered there, and as I was led through the blood-soaked houses of Nir Oz, and as I prayed with Nissim Louk at his daughter Shani’s freshly dug grave, it struck me. Even Israel had become a giant Jewish cemetery.

And I also knew then that there was only one solution. Fight, fight, fight. Fight for Jewish survival. Fight for Jewish continuity. Fight the terrorists. Fight the antisemites. Fight the U.N. Fight the European Union. Fight the vile entitled Hollywood set who condemn our struggle for self-defense as genocide. Fight the blood libels. Fight the haters.

Never capitulate. Never lose faith in God. And never give in.

Israel is the greatest miracle of the Jewish people in 2,000 years. And no matter how much the world wants to take it from us, we will never surrender.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of 36 books, including “The Israel Warrior,” “Holocaust Holiday,” and “Kosher Hate.” Follow him on Instagram and X @RabbiShmuley.

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