Parents of IDF Soldiers: The Terror that Grips Us

When you have sons fighting in the IDF, you live in a state of personal and permanent emotional conflict about the war and about the state of the Jewish people.
June 18, 2024
IDF soldiers ride in armored personnel carriers on October 17, 2023 in Be’eri, Israel. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

This is not an easy column to write, for several reasons. First, my wife doesn’t want me to write it. She feels it’s too personal and raises an issue that we find challenging to confront, namely, the safety of our sons at war. Second, the Jewish concept of Ayin Harah (the evil eye), either real or an imagined superstition, cautions against discussing certain issues so as not to jinx them. Israel is at war. Let’s pray in general but not speak about anything in particular, like our own children. Third, 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 are supposed to protect them? And fourth, my thoughts on the subject are not in any way fully formed.

When you have sons fighting in 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, isn’t it?

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 (emissary) and rabbi at the university, and my son Yosef was born in Englewood, NJ. 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 Tevye the milkman), don’t all Jews have to bear the burden of Israel and the Jewish people’s security? Then again, why MY sons, who actually had the 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 after spending a day at the Nova festival site, which my daughter Cheftziba said reminded her of our visit to Auschwitz, and Kibbutz Nir Oz, near the Rafah border, where I saw the charred ruins of homes that resembled the remnants of the Warsaw ghetto, I returned feeling dejected and depressed. As we listened to the non-stop booms of what appeared to be Israeli tanks and artillery engaged in combat in Rafah, a mere five kilometers away, where the IDF was striving to establish Never Again as a tangible policy rather than a mere slogan, I found myself grappling with the question of why my own sons are in such danger.

After hearing the accounts of entire families burned alive and young women raped, as well as visiting the freshly dug grave of Shani Louk, to whose memory I dedicated a Torah – with Robert Kennedy, Jr. speaking with her parents at their moshav – I had to come to terms with the reason 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 – plain and simple. They say it outright, and their barbarity and savagery easily equal that of the Nazis, with one major difference: whereas the Nazis feared future international tribunals and therefore covered their crimes, Hamas broadcast their atrocities to the world, secure in the knowledge that an immoral UN would later indict the Israeli prime minister and defense minister rather than the terrorists.

However, when it’s your sons fighting the terrorists, you pray for an immediate ceasefire, whatever the cost. This is why I assume that it isn’t the hostages’ families, facing something infinitely worse than we are, or the IDF parents, who can make these decisions alone. Even concerning 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 might play some positive role in negotiating a ceasefire. (They won’t. They are liars and murderers from whom the US must remove our Air Force base, once and for all.)

Then there’s the anger. I love the Jewish people, and I love being a Jew. But when you return to the US 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 to believe that dining at plush, five-star hotels in Jerusalem as smiling tourists and donating $1,000 to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which hasn’t even bought a single ballistic helmet or bullet-proof vest for the soldiers, somehow passes for real support of Israel? (Strangely, the FIDF claims that their lawyers don’t allow it, which begs the question: why do they exist at all. Or maybe they should find new attorneys.)

Then there is anger and righteous indignation at the Charedim ultra-orthodox who somehow believe that although Judaism prizes life above every Torah commandment, they are somehow permanently exempted from military service.

You know that these emotions of judgment and anger wrong, and you try and 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, much as my wife chooses the opposite approach of complete trust in God, reciting Psalms for our sons throughout the day. 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? Do we have to fight just to survive? Are Swedish kids fleeing booby-trapped buildings in order 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 at their graves? 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? Does the incineration of 1.5 million Jewish children really have any higher purpose in any celestial sphere?

We have visited so many families who have buried children in Israel. Remarkably, they informed me that this is the “tax” they must pay to restore ancient Israel and live in our ancestral homeland. Almighty God, is such a tax fair in any way whatsoever? A child? When the American colonists faced a tax on their tea, they rebelled. What kind of God demands the very lives of our kids? Who can live like this?

On Shavuot, just days after my father’s fourth yahrzeit (annual date of death), 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 maintain our Judaism solely to embarrass 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, 2024, fell on the Sabbath. Could you not, in your infinite power, have prevented the desecration of the Sabbath on that horrific day? We, Oh Lord, cradle your sacred Torah in our arms on the holiday of Simhat Torah to show our adoration for its sacred text. Why, God, do you not do the same? How will we ever enjoy Simhat Torah again? And even as you allowed the sacrilege and defilement of your Torah on October 7 – Simchat 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 circulating throughout the hotel that eight soldiers had been murdered. My wife and I began to shudder and tremble. The news did not report what had occurred. The families, so many of whom also have sons in harm’s way, told us not to worry; it was only a rumor.  I hurried to the residence of a government minister I am friendly with, and he verified, while we sat trembling, which units had sustained damage. We confirmed it was not our sons’ units. We wanted to feel relief. We did. But at whose expense? Eight other families have been destroyed. Are we Jews not all one family?

Miraculously, after the Sabbath, our son, knowing that we were in hell, called us from a military phone to tell us he was OK. The sound of his voice was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard. I gave thanks to God for his benevolence and kindness. However, not eight, but 10 families were grieving because that was how many soldiers died in one day on Shabbat, the day that God said was his sacred day. As we gave thanks to God for the safety of our son, the earth swallowed those 10 soldiers whole, putting their families in an everlasting hell.

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

When my hero, 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 seven-year-old daughter, needed to see 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 our ancient homeland with an army to protect us.

But as I walked through 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 has become a giant Jewish cemetery.

And I 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 UN. 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.

The writer is the international best-selling author of 36 books, including The Israel Warrior, Holocaust Holiday, and Kosher Hate. Follow him on Instagram and X @RabbiShmuley.

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