An American perspective on Israel in a time of war
OpinionGuest Columnist

An American perspective on Israel in a time of war

"There is a quantifiable amount of trauma and grief that one can perceive before all perception goes numb."

Hillel JUC students visit Israel as part of a Campus Ambassadors program. (Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC)
Hillel JUC students visit Israel as part of a Campus Ambassadors program. (Photo courtesy of Hillel JUC)

In March, I was part of a delegation of students from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh to Israel to gain a deeper understanding of the current geopolitical climate and bear witness to the remnants of the Oct. 7 attacks.

My motivation for joining the Hillel JUC Campus Ambassadors trip, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was personal. At a time when American college campuses seem to be grappling with a loss of critical thinking, a symptom of a generation adept in comprehending only the level of nuance transmittable in a 15-second TikTok video, I saw it as my duty to deepen my understanding.

Many college campuses, including mine, have seen the right of Israel to exist called into question by a crowd that sees the conflict in the binary of oppressed and oppressor, a new mutation in the long strain of virulent antisemitism in many past societies. The counterargument requires an understanding of not only the current state of Israeli society but also the decades of history since the establishment of the Jewish state and the millennia of history that preceded it.

Despite being born in Israel, my impression of the Jewish state was limited to the non-representative socialite surroundings of Tel Aviv where my family resides. Upon leaving the city, I quickly became attuned to the details that mark the divisions and complexity of Israeli society. What to one is Judea and Samaria is the West Bank or Palestine to another, just as judicial reform to one is democratic erosion through a different lens. It’s related to how the country’s tender balance of secularism and deep religion, economic views varying from the socialist kibbutzim to the Western capitalist high-tech sector, and a general mélange of identities seemingly at odds. However, Israeli society is now palpably united in ways not seen before as the country reels from an indiscriminate attack that took the lives of people from every walk of life, and is notably at odds with a government that appears to unilaterally cater to a non-representative subset of its population.

As a part of our trip, we ventured south to the scenes of the Oct. 7 attacks in Kfar Aza and Re’im, the site of the Nova Music Festival Massacre.

On Oct. 7, like many, I found myself scrolling through the endless images gradually emerging from border communities; yet as we bore witness in person, it was clear that the toll and suffering cannot begin to be conveyed through a phone screen.

There’s little that can do justice to the scenes in Kfar Aza and other kibbutzim. Death cannot usually be smelled or heard, yet six months on, the remaining palpable aura in Kfar Aza is felt on a deeper level than sight. Bullet holes riddle every visible wall. There are torn curtains, walls left gaping from tank shells, spray-painted markings from first responders lining the remaining structures indicating where bodies were found. A former scene of vibrant young life turned upside down, a sight and feeling verbally inexplicable. In the background, a reminder of the war persisted: Bombs were heard dropping mere kilometers away while artillery fired from nearby.

It is deeply paradoxical that these attacks targeted Israeli communities that had been at the forefront of peace efforts for decades, willing to put their lives within seconds of rocket fire. The parting words of a Kfar Aza resident stuck with me: “I leave you with one word, ‘Shalom.’ Shalom means peace, and we believe in peace, but now is not the time for peace.” From the voices we heard on the trip, this shift is mirrored across Israeli society as a general waning optimism toward a conflict that appears to have no peaceful or logical resolution. In a country that raised hell for the return of Gilad Shalit, the concept of Israeli women and men trapped in the depths of Gazan tunnels without an end in sight is indigestible.

There is a quantifiable amount of trauma and grief that one can perceive before all perception goes numb.

Walking through Re’im, now converted into a memorial for the victims, I could not begin to process the loss of life. When I saw the faces of 19-year-old boys whose memory now consists of only candles and photos, I saw myself. The human mind cannot appreciate what it means to suddenly cease to exist so illogically early. I became numb, looking in the eyes of kids my age propped up in hand-crafted photographic memorials lining the forest near the festival grounds, trying to cleanse my mind of the grotesque imagery that the remaining scenes imply.

In spite of it all, life goes on. The cognitive dissonance is impressive — walking down Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, one would be hard-pressed to say that this is a country at war just tens of kilometers away, with the notable exception of the lack of young faces. Cafes are full, streets bustling and markets crawling with vendors, all with the characteristic controlled chaos that I had come to love.

As I look back on the many voices we heard from on the trip, ranging from Knesset members to Israeli-Arab journalists, settlers, and beyond — each with their own unique perception of Israel in this dark hour — I would be lying if I said that I didn’t leave more confused than I came. While the majority of issues are clear-cut, it is the most difficult questions that cannot possibly have a singular answer.

Fundamentally, how do we grapple with a neighboring population brainwashed into losing sight of the beauty of life, while optimistically maintaining that this is not a natural human state, but rather the result of pervasive conditioning?

Yet, my conclusion was clear. In this conflict, there is no obligation to be fully objective. One cannot reasonably be expected to process the events of Oct. 7 and simultaneously appreciate the full scale of human suffering in Gaza as a result of war. We cannot begin processing until all of our people are back home. Until then, the wound remains wide open. However, we must be reasonable and practical, not lose sight of our distinct humanity, and continue to retain a cautious optimism that one day all will be well.

As we get back to campus, each of us will continue to carry perspectives learned while we fight our own battles on our own fronts, trying once again to argue a case for our undeniable right to exist. PJC

Julius Arolovitch is a sophomore and Hillel student president at Carnegie Mellon University.

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