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The Agony of IDF-Envy

How comfortably are American Jews sleeping these days? Does Oct. 7 haunt any of them?
[additional-authors]
January 31, 2024
Amir Levy/Getty Images

On Jan. 22, twenty-four soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces were killed in a single day — 21 in a detonated building in northern Gaza, and three more in combat in the south. That’s the largest death toll of military personnel since the ground invasion into Gaza began, bringing the total loss of Israeli warriors to 220.

Israel is a small country of 9 million. On a percentage basis, the over 1,200 who were slaughtered on Oct. 7 translates to roughly 50,000 Americans (instead of the 2,900) on September 11, if the same ratio were applied. 

Let that number sink in. 

New York University has 51,000 students; the University of California in Los Angeles has 46,000. If you have a son or daughter attending either of those universities, imagine the entire student body perishing within a few hours.

Isolating military casualties does not assuage these grim statistics one bit. When it comes to the body count of the IDF in Gaza, comparing it to earlier military campaigns, the 1948 War of Independence left 4,000 Jews killed in action (combined with civilian dead, over 1% of the entire Israeli population at the time never made it to Yom Ha’atzmaut); the 1956 Suez War, 231; the Six-Day War, 776; and the Yom Kippur War, 2,668. (These totals include Israeli police, Shin Bet, and Mossad.)

Since Oct. 7, global Jewry has been attacked, held to account for Israel’s justifiable military reprisals — vengeance taken against Jews who may have never been to Israel, or eaten an Israeli salad. But it is the Israeli people who are suffering excruciatingly—the parents of victims, hostages, or children serving in the IDF, all experiencing severe emotional trauma. So tiny is its population, there isn’t a single Israeli who doesn’t know of at least one Oct. 7 victim. 

At no other time in its history has the Jewish state been invaded — actually had its border breached. No greater proof of a state’s vulnerability exists than enemies crashing through its gates and penetrating the homeland. Ask the Ukrainians of today, or the Czechs and Poles of 1939. Closer to home, ask any New Yorker what it felt like on September 12, 2001.

In those earlier military campaigns, Israel, overwhelmingly outnumbered, squared off against combined Arab armies in uniform, deploying sophisticated munitions, and largely adhering to the laws of war. 

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists — and, we have since come to learn, ordinary Gazans, as well — all wearing street clothes, were set loose upon Israeli civilians. The rules for engagement were replaced by lawless barbarism: beheadings, gang-rapes, the murdering of babies, young girls, and grandmothers — none of whom were among the “settlers” of the “occupied” West Bank, but the dovish Jews of southern Israel. 

Gazans were not satisfied with mere bloodthirsty killings, kidnappings, and sexual atrocities. They ransacked closets and refrigerators, casually sitting down for meals in Israeli kitchens, a weeping orphaned child cowering in the corner.

How will Israelis ever recover from such nightmares? How will they ever rest easy again?

But here’s a more local question: How comfortably are American Jews sleeping these days? Does Oct. 7 haunt any of them?

Since its founding, Israel has been a nation renowned for its universal military service. In the 1950s, images of Israeli women in uniform confounded the bland domesticity of Eisenhower’s placid America. American women were discovering how all those dazzlingly new kitchen appliances worked; Israeli sabras were toting Uzi submachine guns when not planting olive trees and orange groves.

So much of the Israeli identity is bound up in IDF service. Fighter pilots are rock stars—Giora Epstein, an Air Force ace who downed 17 enemy aircraft, is more lionized than Mick Jagger. Before donning Wonder Woman’s bracelets, Gal Gadot served as a combat instructor. Israelis in elite special forces like Unit 101, Golani Brigade, and Sayeret Matkal carry those medals into their future careers. 

Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu each had decorated careers in Israel’s armed forces. In their bestselling book about Israel’s high-tech culture, “Start-up Nation,” Dan Senor and Saul Singer credit the IDF for nurturing intangible skills, like creativity and improvisational instincts, one of the reasons why Silicon Valley must compete with Israel’s Silicon Wadi.

American Jews, and Jews across the Diaspora, are not products of the same Jewish military culture and tribal call-to-arms. Israel was fashioned from the flames of Auschwitz. Millenia of mass death is internalized at birth. IDF soldiers are inducted into the military on the Masada mountaintop, where the Romans first conquered the Jews in 72 C.E. Israeli youth swear an oath to defend every rock that has survived the original Kingdom of Judea.

American Jewish teenagers, by contrast, get pumped-up cheering for the University of Florida Gators or the Trojans of Southern Cal.

These disparate mindsets have never before been this contrasting. What is happening to Israeli soldiers right now must be on a Western Jew’s mind. Actually, it must be top of mind. First among equals in Jewish guilt — manifested in the agony of IDF-envy.

American Jews, arguably, have a hidden wish that they, too, could be connected to this heroic image of Jews fighting so passionately and winningly for their survival. They privately envy the Israelis and their IDF service.

American Jews, arguably, have a hidden wish that they, too, could be connected to this heroic image of Jews fighting so passionately and winningly for their survival. They privately envy the Israelis and their IDF service. Why must Israel carry the entire burden; and wouldn’t it be nice if we had some medals to show for preserving the flame? 

Every Jewish parent outside of Israel in possession of a soul knows that but for the anomaly of geography, or an allergy to aliyah, their sons would most likely be engaged in combat right now, or lying critically wounded in Soroka Medical Center. If the Jewish parent has daughters, they, too, could be deployed in Gaza. Worse still, they could have been among the teenagers gang-raped, mutilated, or kidnapped on Oct. 7.

That’s probably enough of a reason to exercise some humility at Shabbat dinners on the Upper West Side or in Brentwood, and restrain oneself from unleashing arrogant judgments on how Israel is committing war crimes — that it must do everything to spare the lives of all Gazans. 

Here’s a thought. If your son or daughter isn’t serving in the IDF, then stick to what you know: renovating a kitchen or renting a beach house in the Hamptons. At this very moment, no Israeli — even on the far left — has any excess emotional capacity to indulge in the narcissism that gives voice to your stupidity. 

Israelis are making the ultimate sacrifice; American Jews are not. If you’re a parent fretting about the declining number of Jews admitted to the Ivy League, it’s time for a serious recalibration of priorities. Even a token glance on social media will reveal all those dead Israeli teenagers and young soldiers—many, still babyfaced. 

It should leave you shaken, and guilt-ridden.


Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro University, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.” 

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