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‘Tell Them to Be Strong’

The feeling of collective pain is clear immediately upon entering Israel. Yet alongside this grief is a depth of national faith, strength and resilience.
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June 6, 2024
Photo courtesy Yael Lerman

At a May 23 House hearing on antisemitism, Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) told Rutgers University President Dr. Jonathan Holloway that a family he met in Israel expressed greater concern for the safety of their daughter at Rutgers than for their own safety in Israel. That sentiment seems odd given that America is not under attack, while Israel is currently under attack from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, the Houthis, and terrorist groups based in Iraq and Syria. But it is nonetheless something I heard repeatedly from Israelis I met on a recent solidarity mission to Israel.

The feeling of collective pain is clear immediately upon entering Israel, as the airport is covered in hostage posters and highways and homes display individualized banners in tribute to fallen soldiers and Oct. 7 victims.

Yet alongside this grief is a depth of national faith, strength and resilience. A father who lost his son on Oct. 7 spoke of the duality of being an Israeli — of his unbearable pain alongside tremendous gratitude and pride that his son died protecting the Jewish state. The message of another father of a fallen soldier’s message was of deep grief and unwavering belief that Israel is fighting the war of civilizations — and that America must realize it must take up the same fight. Or as an Israeli mother stated, “Of course I feel worried and scared. But it’s different when it’s your own land. I see what is happening on your college campuses. At least here, we can protect ourselves. We can physically fight back. There’s nowhere else I want to be right now as a Jew than Israel.”   

Israel today reminds me of England before America joined World War II, when Churchill stood up to Hitler alone and London suffered the relentless Nazi Blitz. The country had moral clarity that England was in an existential fight against evil — and that England would prevail. That is how Israel feels today. It is not the ancient story of Jewish suffering that infuses Israeli society, as American Jews feel now; it is echoes of Jewish warrior sacrifice and victory, like in the story of Hanukkah.

Israelis speak with gratitude and awe of the generation now serving in the IDF, who have stepped into their historic role with strength and focus to protect their country from the eliminationist barbarism of Hamas and Iran.

An enormous difference right now between America and Israel is the polar opposite feeling of the older generation toward the college-age generation. Israelis speak with gratitude and awe of the generation now serving in the IDF, who have stepped into their historic role with strength and focus to protect their country from the eliminationist barbarism of Hamas and Iran. They are nothing like college-age Americans, many of whom are radicalized and contemptuous of their society and history. While many American Jews are deeply worried about what this means for America and the future of Jews here, Israelis are bursting with pride for their young men and women.

Tribute to fallen soldier in front of a home in Ofakim
(Photo courtesy Yael Lerman)

We visited Shura, the IDF morgue that received the victims of Oct. 7 and where all fallen soldiers are taken. While our mission visited the Nova festival site, Kibbutz Be’eri, the Tekuma car cemetery, Har Herzl military cemetery, and so many other Oct. 7 sites, Shura felt the holiest and most emotionally wrenching.

We were brought to the room at Shura for Torahs beyond repair. An IDF rabbi showed us two Torah scrolls emblematic of why Israelis feel such a sense of national purpose, pride and resilience. One Torah is famous — an IDF soldier taken as a prisoner of war by Egypt during the Yom Kippur War brought it with him into captivity. The soldier was released in a prisoner exchange, and years later, Egypt returned only half the Torah, like an amputated limb. Yet Israelis focus not on the scroll’s destruction but with pride on where it was severed — at the passage of the priestly blessing, proclaiming God’s eternal protection of the Jewish people.

The IDF morgue received another desecrated Torah a year ago from an Italian priest. He found a section of a charred Torah scroll in his church’s cellar, stored during the Holocaust. The burnt scroll is from the Torah portion imploring us never to forget Amalek, the eternal enemy of the Jews. The rabbi’s words, as he held the burnt scroll, were words I heard repeatedly from Israelis: Hamas is modern-day Amalek and Israel will prevail because the Jewish people and the Torah’s values are eternal.

On our last day of the mission, we visited wounded soldiers in the hospital. I asked a gorgeous Israeli soldier, only 19 years old and in a wheelchair after being thrown from a third-story window in Gaza, what I could tell American children about the war. He said, “Tell them Am Yisrael Chai. That Israel will prevail. Tell them to be strong, that your prayers work and to keep praying. And tell them that Israeli soldiers are protecting you.”


Yael Lerman is the legal director at StandWithUs, a nonprofit education organization dedicated to supporting Israel and combating antisemitism. Yael participated in a mission to Israel by Rabbi Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. 

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