The Hebrew Bible discloses the deed and destiny of the Jewish people, David Ben-Gurion thought. It gave them “an awareness of its origin, its great past, its political, military, cultural, and spiritual struggles with its neighbors, its moral and religious uniqueness, as well as its historical destiny for the future.” Abraham marshalled forces into battle to rescue a hostage, his nephew Lot. When the Israelites were camped at Refidim after escaping Pharaoh’s battalions, they repelled an attack from the Amalekites. Moses led battles against Og and the Amorites and waged a major war against Midian. And that’s all before the children of Israel arrived back in the land of Israel. There, Joshua led campaigns on Jericho and Ai and fought his way throughout the country. Nor did ancient Israel’s military travails cease once it won back its land. Israel’s national history there can be told through its military leaders and warrior-kings: from Deborah and Gideon to Saul and David. War is the way of the world. Peace is the exception: a fragile and blessed reprieve.
The Jewish state is again at war. On October 7, at 6:30 am, Israelis were awoken to rocket fire from Gaza. Soon thereafter, Hamas terrorists breached Israel’s borders by sea, land, and air, occupied over twenty Israeli communities and military bases, murdered hundreds, wounded thousands, and seized hundreds more children, women, and men, who were taken hostage inside of the very territories from which, in 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew.
There will be time enough in the coming days and weeks to analyze the manifold intelligence and operational failures that allowed for Simḥat Torah of 5784 to become the bloodiest single day in Israeli history. There will likewise be time enough to examine the political consequences of this event for Israel’s military administration and its government. Starting this week, Mosaic will be bringing you reflections from some of the sharpest analysts of Israeli security and Israeli society. They’ll look at the origins and purposes of this attack, the geopolitical ramifications, the role of Israel’s relationship with the United States, and every other critical dimension of this war. Let me begin by sharing, briefly, two observations related to the use of technology and the war.
The first observation should chasten the techno-optimism of even the most enthusiastic champion of the Start-Up Nation. Israel is a high-tech military power. Even so, Hamas was able to overwhelm or outmaneuver the smart fences, tunnel surveillance, sensors, cyber-capabilities, and the multi-tiered missile-defense system that the IDF relies on to keep Israelis secure. No one would choose to forego the protection these life-saving tools offer. I lived in Israel in the days before Iron Dome, and I’ve been there under its operational umbrella. But the Hamas invasion showed us that no matter how sophisticated Israel’s tech may be, it cannot replace the muscle and will of Israel’s soldiers—men and women on the border ready to respond.
What’s true of defense is no less true of intelligence. Advanced technology has made Israel’s signals intelligence very powerful, and information gleaned from the surveillance it enables has saved many lives. Once again, no one would choose to forego the information it conveys. But it cannot replace human intelligence gathered by savvy operators in dangerous conditions. Technological innovation must be a supplement, not a substitute.
Whereas my first observation is about technology’s limitations, my second is about what the use of technology revealed. Over the weekend, Hamas deployed a familiar form of technology against Israel in a horrifying way. Islamists live in an economy of honor and shame, and they used smartphone cameras and social media to humiliate Israelis. Social-media platforms are full of grotesque images of Israeli hostages suffering mental torment and physical abuse, and haunting video clips showing disgraceful violations of dead bodies. As the Israeli journalist Haviv Rettig Gur has written, these images did not show Hamas supporters getting “carried away”; they were instead “the essence of the whole enterprise.” The humiliation of Jews is the point. Those images attune us to the reality of evil, and the reality of evil obliges us to confront it.
The material and political achievements of the modern age have camouflaged evil; in times of peace and prosperity, it is especially harder to discern. American Jews in particular have been tempted to historicize evil, and think that it belonged to an earlier, darker age. But the bruised corpses of Jewish women and men instantly and simultaneously displayed on phones around the world is a desecration that cannot be unseen.
There are those who believe that it is possible for mankind to uproot evil from the earth, that, to return to the language of the Bible, we can reinhabit Eden. Eruptions of evil like this disprove that utopian delusion. There are those who believe that we can understand evil and redeem the suffering it causes by growing closer to God. Perhaps. But looking at the images of women and children suggest to me something else.
The moral reality of evil is the reason for the practical necessity of defense. The evil on Israel’s borders must be confronted and neutralized. As long as the evil of Hamas is close at hand, that is not a hard conviction to sustain, and the battles to come will keep evil at the forefront of Israeli attention. But the sensation will soon become dull for public officials and journalists and NGO and foundation officers throughout the West. When that time comes, such voices will try and restrain Israel, and call on the IDF to act “proportionately.” With those calls, which will blur the purposes of Israel together with the sinister designs of Hamas, the reality of evil will retreat a little farther from view.