Israel fights a lot of wars. But Hamas’s surprise invasion from Gaza last October 7 drew the Jewish state into a war unlike any it has fought. The deadliest day in Israel’s history has been followed by what is now its deadliest war. The killed run into the tens of thousands, the majority of them Palestinian civilians caught up in Israeli bombardments and armored assaults in the Gaza Strip, which have brought sustained popular opposition in the West.

This is now the longest war in Israel’s history, too. For the first time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israelis have withdrawn from significant stretches of their own territory: residents fled the southern city of Sderot (population 35,000), where the guerrillas of Hamas attacked the police station on October 7 and left 70 dead; by this spring only about two-thirds had returned. Many Israelis who live near the Lebanese border in the north, far from Hamas but close to the rockets and militias of Iran-supported Hezbollah, have fled to Israel’s cities for refuge. These lands, suddenly so insecure, include (in the north) the historic heartland of Zionism, between Mount Carmel and once-Christian Lebanon, and (in the south) the farm belt of the northern Negev—not something a country frequently threatened with boycotts can easily do without. Hamas, understanding this, has for years fired incendiary devices into Israel’s combustible croplands. All told, it is a grave military predicament.

Israel’s Two-Front War

Israel, with its 9.5 million people, 7 million of them Jews, is the size of New Jersey. The Muslim Middle East surrounding it has half a billion people and is largely hostile. Any war that pitted the former squarely against the latter would be, almost by definition, a war for Israel’s survival. Yet it has never really come to that. For its defense, Israel requires firepower sophisticated enough to spare Israeli soliders and potent enough to inflict disproportionate casualties on its foes. This Israel gets. On top of its own large military budget, the country receives significant, reliable military aid from the United States—$4 billion year-in, year-out. In April, it was granted a $26 billion bonus, tucked into the massive Ukrainian supplemental defense appropriation that Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson helped Democrats pass against the wishes of his own party. The United States also helps Israel by transferring technology and intelligence, by leaning on European allies not to break solidarity with Israel in the face of popular protests against it, and by vetoing frequent U.N. Security Council resolutions against Israel in peacetime as well as wartime.

This type of defense requires Israel to present an accounting of its deeds that is satisfactory to public opinion in the United States—something it has managed with little difficulty for half a century. Israel may no longer be the strategic asset it was when the Soviet Union’s allies were threatening the Mediterranean and the United States was dependent on Middle Eastern oil. But it is a trusty military ally, especially helpful and innovative in this high-tech age, and it benefits from multiple well-funded Washington lobbies, of which the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the flagship and symbol. Support for Israel has been bipartisan.

Until now. In early May, President Joe Biden condemned Israel’s plans to attack Rafah, a crowded city in southern Gaza where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had taken refuge, and where Hamas’s leadership had probably holed up, bringing with them the hundred or so Israeli hostages presumed still alive. The president announced he would embargo thousands of bombs due to be sent to Israel unless Israel called off its attack. His hopes of winning the election appeared to depend on it. Amid growing protests at elite universities and increasing hostility to Israel among the Democratic Party’s 90-member-strong Congressional Progressive Caucus, it is becoming evident that Israel can no longer expect support across the American political spectrum but only from part of it. America is changing demographically. Today, more immigrants arrive from Arab lands outraged about Israel’s wars than from European lands remorseful about the Holocaust. The use of anti-discrimination law for political intimidation—“woke,” in common parlance—has given activists a powerful strategy for influencing corporations and foundations. It is a strategy to which Israel, understanding itself as the homeland and refuge of the Jewish people and thus ethnically exclusive in its very conception, is particularly vulnerable.

A few weeks after the Hamas attacks, a retired Israeli general remarked in an interview, “The United States has been a miracle for us.” And the U.S. remains Israel’s most trustworthy ally. But you do not have to travel to Columbia University to see that Israel’s luster is dimming. A majority of Americans (58%) believe Israel has good reason to fight Hamas, versus just 15% who do not, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. But things are changing. Baby Boomers back Israel, by a margin of 78% to 6%. Twenty-somethings do, too, but only by a margin of 38% to 27%. Americans under 30 are evenly divided (46% to 44%) on their view of the Israeli people. By 60% to 30% they have a positive view of the Palestinian people. Before we conclude that Gen Z is filling up with outright Israel-haters, it must be stressed that the young consider Hamas’s tactics unacceptable, by 58% to 9%. The biggest American split is along partisan lines: Republicans (and those who lean Republican) accept Israel’s conduct in the war, by 59% to 17%. Democrats (and those who lean Democrat) do not, by 52% to 22%. It is when you put age and party together that you get the most striking result: Democrats under 30 are more likely to back Hamas’s cause (44%) than Israel’s (35%).

This will scramble some political assumptions. While both parties have historically sided with the Jews, Jews over the years have shown a clear preference for the Democrats. The last Republican to outpoll his Democratic rival among American Jews in a presidential race was Warren Harding in 1920, and that only because 38% of the Jewish electorate defected to the Socialist candidate Eugene Debs. Biden took 68% of the Jewish vote in 2020, the weakest Democratic showing since the 1980s. As the battle over April’s supplemental defense appropriation shows, Democrats, at least for now, are more likely to back foreign aid in general, whatever their misgivings about Israel in particular. But things are in flux. Biden now finds the young “people of color” at the core of his voter base pitted against the pro-Israel Jews at the core of his donor base.

The situation is delicate for Israel, which must take care that its battlefield maneuvers in Gaza not undermine its political support in the United States—a strange kind of two-front war.

It is, of course, not a war Israelis chose.

The Hamas Attack

The Israel defense forces, or IDF, uses women to monitor its border with Gaza for much the same reason it uses autists to study satellite surveillance photography: it has found them to be more detail-oriented and less distractable. Before 7:00 in the morning on October 7, at the Nahal Oz base next to the Gaza barrier, 15 border-watching Israeli soldiers, all of them women, were surprised and overwhelmed by Hamas fighters. They were killed on the spot. Six more were carried off to Gaza as hostages. Hostilities had begun a few minutes earlier with a distracting, if by now familiar, barrage of rockets from Gaza. Around dawn, bulldozers made 60 breaches in the 24-mile-long high-tech fence that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. Two thousand well-drilled warriors crossed into Israel with detailed battle plans for taking various strongpoints—military bases, armories, communications hubs, surveillance centers—but also for wreaking havoc in two dozen small towns. One of the combat groups disguised itself in IDF uniforms.

The atrocities began immediately: the idyllic Kfar Aza kibbutz, which raises sunflowers, had a “young people’s neighborhood” just 50 yards from the Gaza border fence. Terrorists got there in seconds, killing eleven and kidnapping seven. At least 60 people were massacred in Kfar Aza altogether. At the Nova rave festival, three miles from the Gaza border, 3,000 young people were dancing as the sun came up, and more than 350 were slaughtered.

By 7:30 a team of Hamas commandos had arrived at Israel’s Urim military base, 15 miles from the Gaza border, and taken over the war room there. They killed the Israeli soldiers manning it and held it till 2:30 in the afternoon. Urim is a center for Unit 8200, Israel’s elite cyber, signals, and surveillance unit. The Urim base has always had an air of mystery about it, even for Israelis. Now Hamas was in it, and almost halfway to the West Bank, where they hoped to hook up with the Palestinian population and spark a further conflagration. At this point battles stretched across a region of Israel as large as Gaza itself.

The intimate violence inflicted on 800 civilians that day, and especially on women and small children, defies description. It should not lead us to underestimate the grim purposefulness of the attack or its unnerving competence. This was a military operation, not a riot. Hamas engaged Israeli soldiers and police directly, killing 370 of them. Again, 70 people were killed in various battles over the police station in Sderot, the largest city in the region, 20 of them Israeli police. All told, about 1,200 Israelis died on October 7. More than 200 were carried off as hostages. Of these, 112 have been freed, most of them women and children released in November; Israel estimates about 89 hostages remain alive.

After most of the communications centers in the area had been knocked out, Israeli police and soldiers, over-reliant on signals, were left in the dark. Israelis outside the region, even those getting increasingly desperate cell phone calls, didn’t have a clear picture for several hours of what was going on. Roaming around behind the Hamas fighters came a mob of freelance soldiers, criminals, and curiosity-seekers almost as large as the assault force itself. Some of them knew their way around the area, having worked there. To travel to that region today is to hear story after story about fighters whose knowledge of their targets was creepily detailed: In Yakhini, terrorists taking the only car in the village that always, as every local knew, had a key in the ignition. In Kissufim, a platoon of gunmen attacking the house of the kibbutz’s head of security, who said later, “They knew exactly where I was.” Elsewhere, intruders knocking on the doors of houses and trying to coax the residents out, calling them by their given names. Operational plans, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has alleged, reached down to the level of “who to rape.” Hamas held out in parts of Israeli territory for three days. “It was a dramatic technical achievement with strategic meaning,” said the retired general mentioned earlier. “There is no way they will ever be our neighbors again, physically or geographically.”

Zionism Adjusts to Reality

It is a version—albeit the most harrowing to date—of a problem that has faced Israel since its beginnings. Zionism, the project of establishing a Jewish state in the Holy Land, is older than its detractors and even many of its defenders realize. Israel the place is what a good deal of Jewish Scripture is about, of course. But Israel the modern nation-state is old, too. It had been dreamt about by European rabbis and Jewish poets and reformers since the early 19th century. It had been championed by George Eliot and other philosemitic intellectuals; promoted by Theodor Herzl, Bernard Lazare, and other visionaries at century’s end; laid out under a League of Nations mandate on land that Britain had wrested from the Ottoman Empire in World War I; and rendered demographically feasible by a massive wave of migration to Palestine during the 1930s, when Nazism was rising and America’s borders were closed to immigrants. Israel was born in a series of bloody battles that its already impressive military won in 1948 and 1949 against the ragtag armies of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, as well as the Arab Legion of Jordan’s King Abdullah. Its conquests included territories not in the United Nations’s mandate, land on which native Arabs—mostly Muslims, but with many Christian communities, too—had lived from time immemorial. Israel expelled most of the natives and kept the land, believing, probably correctly, that the country as a whole was indefensible without it.

The original League of Nations mandate a century ago was based on the so-called Balfour Declaration of early 1917, in which the British Foreign Office envisioned a “national home” for Jews in the Holy Land. As the late Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien showed in The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986), British diplomats hoped to rally American Jews, whom they reckoned hugely influential, behind the cause of bringing the United States into the Great War. The idea was that Jews and Arabs would find a mutually agreeable way to share Palestine—the area between the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. No such plan has ever proved durable. It was evident by 1929 at the latest that the Arabs among whom the European Jews had settled were violently hostile to Jewish self-rule there. So, Jews armed. They were joined after World War II by refugees ready to fight and battle-hardened Jewish veterans of the Western armies who knew how. When Britain sought to renege on its commitment in the very different security environment of the 1940s, the Israelis were ready.

Since independence, wars in an almost uninterrupted series have pitted Israel (backed by the United States and most countries with significant Jewish communities) against Palestinian refugees and their Arab and Muslim allies (backed for most of the Cold War by the Soviet bloc and today by university intellectuals and large majorities of Westerners under 30). In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel conquered (from Egypt) the Sinai peninsula to its south, and (from Jordan) the so-called “West Bank,” shaped like a backward-facing “B” with Samaria on the top and Judea on the bottom—both of those Biblical lands a grenade’s throw away from the vulnerable finger of Israeli land pointing east to Jerusalem. Under the 1978 Camp David Accords, Israel returned Sinai to Egypt, but not the adjacent Gaza strip, populated by refugees and their descendants. The West Bank, however, was too valuable a strategic asset to give up. Israel kept it, settling and de facto incorporating areas that were either strategic or convenient, and elbowing aside a new group of natives. This move further inflamed Arab grievances there. But it also made Israel a more secure country and thus perhaps a more trustworthy neighbor. Relations with Egypt and Jordan—each of which had had its own problems with radical movements, including Palestinian ones—improved, and they continue to be peaceful.

This must be the starting point for understanding the differences between Israel and the West over Gaza. Questions that many Westerners examine purely from an ethical perspective Israelis must also examine from a strategic perspective.

A Conservative Coalition

Since the end of the George W. Bush presidency in 2009, the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu has led Israel for all but about 18 months. The present coalition holds 64 of 120 seats in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. Half of these (32 seats) belong to Netanyahu’s own party, Likud, which first came to power in the late 1970s under Menachem Begin, known for taking a hawkish line on Israel’s Arab neighbors. Likud revived the idea that, since the captured West Bank, too, was the Holy Land, Israel had a good claim to keep it. Netanyahu’s coalition partners today include 18 members who represent very pious Haredim—the black-hatted or “ultra-Orthodox” Jews—and 14 who represent the Dati Leumi (“National Religious”). Though both are called “religious” the groups could not be more different.

The devout Haredim want little out of politics, beyond ensuring that their traditions—including a decades-old exemption from military service—be protected. Their politicians are canny, clannish, and occasionally corrupt. The National Religious make explicit claims to the whole of the Land of Israel. They resemble, mutatis mutandis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Hindu nationalist” Bharatiya Janata in India. “National” gives a better idea of what they stand for than “religious,” religious though they may be. They defend the rights of the settlers who have built up comfortable, modern, and heavily fortified communities in the occupied West Bank. Indeed, they don’t use the word “occupied.” They view the Pentateuch as a deed of title. In that light, all they are doing is “keeping God’s land.” Their leaders, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, leave the country’s largely secular cultural elite aghast. Author Thomas Friedman, the most influential American commentator on Israel, calls them “Jewish supremacists.” As the center-Left newspaper Ha’aretz sees it, bringing such people anywhere near power could only be the result of Netanyahu’s duplicity or voters’ gullibility.

It is not that simple. Smotrich has been a capable minister of transport and of finance. Ben-Gvir is in a more Trump-like situation. An irrepressible and highly abrasive activist in a number of causes, he has attended banned demonstrations and said a lot of offensive things about Arabs, often winding up on the wrong side of the law. He has been convicted of incitement, possession of terrorist propaganda, and obstructing the police. But he has not lost his supporters, who are convinced that his real crime, in the eyes of the courts, is just being right-wing. Young Haredim are drawn to him, and the events of October 7 have not dimmed his popularity in the country at large. Together, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich make up less than a quarter of the Netanyahu coalition. On the one hand, their influence is blown out of proportion. On the other, the only non-Netanyahu governments formed during the last two decades included the National Religious leader Naftali Bennett. They will have a role to play no matter what befalls the politically vulnerable Netanyahu.

That is partly because the settlers whose interests they champion have an actual strategic vision for Israel, one that has grown in attractiveness domestically in the months since the Hamas attacks. Secular people, people on the Israeli left, make the case that the West Bank settlements inflame Arab opinion, alienate sympathetic Americans, and therefore render Israel less secure. They are right about inflaming the Arabs and mostly right about alienating the Americans—but they might be quite wrong about the security. If one looks at Israel as a battlefield, then Israel’s most crying need is strategic depth. That is what the settlements provide. The establishment of the settlement of Ramot, to the northwest of Jerusalem, protects Highway 1, which runs to the coast—a vital artery in wartime. The settlement of Gilo to the south buffers western Jerusalem from Palestinian populations of Beit Jala and Bethlehem. The vast and controversial Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, in turn, separates those populations from larger concentrations further east, like Jericho.

For much of this century, Israelis lost sight of their perilous geographic position. That may be why real estate prices across Israel roughly doubled in the decade before the October 7 attacks. In the months since, Israelis have grown less comfortable with the idea of a large population of sovereign, organizable Palestinians a 50-yard sprint from their homes. The lobby of the King David Hotel in the heart of touristic Jerusalem is about as far from the “Green Line”—the border established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War—as the “young people’s neighborhood” near Kibbutz Kfar Aza was from the Gaza fence.

In general, the settlements are part of a conscious but never-written-down government policy: to divide the Palestinian population in such a way as to make the massing of force difficult and conspicuous, to separate Jerusalem from the Palestinian hinterland, and to provide the populated areas of Israel with enough strategic depth to minimize the damage of a sudden invasion. A lot more people than will openly declare it, including many who describe themselves as on the “left,” share this vision of Israel’s predicament and are willing to accept this as a solution. The defensible country—the country as a logical geostrategic unit—runs from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, “from the river to the sea.” On this, hardline Israelis and radical Palestinians can seemingly agree.

Geographic Conundrums

Of course, a geostrategic definition can bring moral conundrums. Judaism is older than Christianity, which, in turn, is older than Islam. But there is truth in the claim of Israel’s Muslim and Christian Arabs (about 2 million of the 9.5 million people in Israel proper) that their actual families were here before those of most Jews. The same is true of the 5 million people in the largely Arab occupied territories, where half a million settlers live. In 1948, Israelis conquered 78% of historic Palestine for a Jewish state. That would feel like a raw deal for the defeated natives in any case. But what they have is even less than it sounds. Of course, they do not have full sovereignty over the areas they occupy, only a broken splatter-pattern of settlements, most of them under direct Israeli security control. Nor do they have any real prospect of sovereignty—Israel has on many occasions specified that the Palestinian state of the future would be a demilitarized state, and a state that cannot defend itself is no state at all.

The Israeli GDP per capita has passed $50,000 a year. The Israeli Arab figure is less than half that. Arab workers from East Jerusalem fill roughly half the service jobs (waitresses, hairdressers, garbagemen) in the wealthier Jewish neighborhoods in the west. They occupy certain high-status professions as well: almost all pharmacists and perhaps a majority of Jerusalem doctors are Israeli Arabs. In the Palestinian territories, GDP per capita is a tenth of the Israeli figure. This is a desert society, with no backwoods where you can “strike out on your own,” and no yeomanry. Connected to a trade network, you thrive. Deprived of one, you don’t. And West Bank Arabs have only limited access to the prosperity blossoming around them. David Ben Gurion International Airport is a 20-minute light-rail trip from Navon Station in Jerusalem, which in turn is only five miles from Bethlehem, in the West Bank. But if you live in Bethlehem you cannot use Ben Gurion without special permission. You have to travel to Jordan and fly out of Amman. If you take the bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, you may travel miles past it down a security road to Beit Jala before making a hairpin turn and traveling miles back. You might see your house and sit in traffic for an hour before your bus is allowed to stop. It’s a pain.

When Israel walled off most of the West Bank at the height of the intifada two decades ago, the Palestinian Authority’s representatives maintained it was sneakily claiming their territory. Embarrassingly for them, the complaints were even louder in places where the barrier gave territory to Palestinians. The Shuafat refugee camp, inside the boundaries of Jerusalem, found itself outside the security barrier—a catastrophe for the residents. Anything cut off from Jerusalem must beg for re-inclusion. Today the purpose of the barrier is as much to prevent immigration as to prevent terrorism. Similarly, in 2016 when then-defense minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that a group of relatively prosperous and pleasant Arab towns in the Israeli north could join a future Palestinian entity, there was outrage—not from Israeli Jews but from Israeli Arabs.

People who try to administer non-European places following European norms are at risk of behaving abusively. It is a risk that, for now, Israelis are willing to run. Trusting that people in the occupied territories will do constructive things that build peace hasn’t worked, Israelis say. In these Arab societies, the path of political least resistance leads to extremism. There are grounds for saying so: in 2005 Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza and handed power to Fatah, the movement of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat and today’s Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Within a year, voters had brought Hamas to power. No one trusts anyone’s intentions. Maybe the West Bank could blow up. Maybe even East Jerusalem, too. In May 2021, Arab riots spread across Israel—not the occupied territories but Israel itself—with ten synagogues burned and 300 policemen injured.

Israelis often repeat what some of the female hostages released from Gaza in November said on their return: “There are no civilians.”

The Israeli Left

This has made things difficult for Israel’s so-called Left. The mighty socialist tradition that in living memory included Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak has collapsed. Mapai, the Workers Party of founding days, with its hammer-and-sickle logo, changed its name to Labor after Israel’s 1967 victory over the Soviet-friendly Arab states, and changed its focus, too. By the 1990s it was the party of the Clinton Administration’s “peace process” and “Oslo” and the “two-state solution.” The failure of both sides to come to an agreement, followed at the turn of this century by a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, discredited and frustrated Labor. The party imploded. Today it has four seats in the Knesset.

The heart of the center-Left is the party of ex-journalist Yair Lapid, who managed to become prime minister for a few months in 2022. But that required allying not only with Bennett’s religious party, Yamina, which alienated his partisans, but also with the largest Arab party, which would be a non-starter in wartime.

For people who belong to Israel’s venerable left-wing tradition, questioning government authority is understood as love of country. Yet internationally, questioning the Israeli government’s authority often accompanies a wish to see it wiped off the face of the earth. These two anti-government audiences—patriotic skeptics at home and implacable enemies abroad—never used to meet. But in the internet age they can’t avoid each other. Subscribers to the online edition of Ha’aretz find kindly Uncle Shmuel, who wishes Likud were nicer, sharing the Comments section with some bloodthirsty jihadi, and not everyone is discerning enough to see the distinction between the two. It must be demoralizing for the Left. Under the influence of both religiosity and constant war, Israel is becoming the most right-wing advanced society on the planet. Recent polls, asking Israelis whom they’d prefer among American presidential candidates, had Donald Trump leading Joe Biden by 14 percentage points. Israel grows steadily more attractive, as a place to move to, for those Jews who understand their religion and their peoplehood in a conservative way. It is the red state of world Jewry.

This does not always mean that it is governed in a conservative way. Here as elsewhere, progressives hold a good deal of informal power, through their dominance of traditional media and the judicial system, particularly an activist Supreme Court. Netanyahu’s attempt to limit the court’s activism through a 2023 reform was thwarted by massive street demonstrations in which he was accused of staging “an attack on democracy.” This will sound bizarre to many Americans, who are used to understanding courts as a restraint on the democratic element in republican government, not as democracy itself. In the Israeli constitution, by contrast…oh, sorry, excuse me, Israel doesn’t have a constitution. When the court overrules law it is on the grounds not of a constitution, nor even (as one might expect in the land where the Bible was handed down) of some other kind of accumulated textual wisdom, but of “reasonableness,” as one activist chief justice understood the term in the 1980s and 1990s. Netanyahu had at least as good a claim as his foes to be fighting for democracy.

During that controversy, it was commonly observed that Israel was undergoing the same kind of culture war, the same polarization, as the United States. The anti-Netanyahu movement was even led and funded by high-tech multimillionaires, who are the opposition’s real rulers-in-waiting. When, last summer, certain reservists threatened not to report for duty in the case of a hypothetical national emergency, some even argued that Israel’s rival camps were on the verge of civil war.

We can now see that it was untrue. Israel’s domestic political problems bear no real resemblance to the quite grave divisions in the United States. Generally, when reserves are called up in Israel, as many as 40% will find some excuse to postpone reporting for duty, the way some Americans do with jury duty. But when reservists were called up October 7, 130% reported—that is, men not required to go to war at all were refusing to leave army offices until they had received a role in this very dangerous conflict. Israelis get very emotional when they think about and talk about this.

In Israel, soldiers bring their weapons home from the field, the way American soldiers did in the 19th century. Sometimes on the Tel Aviv or Jerusalem subway you’ll see a young soldier carrying an M4 carbine and a violin case. It’s a beautiful sight, not just because he’s keeping alive the cultural tradition of Itzhak Perlman but because violin-playing is an avocation of what we call the cultural elite. Americans in basic training probably don’t meet a lot of violinists. Israel is different. Aside from the many Israelis who do not serve for religious reasons, all men fight, regardless of class and wealth. One hears of parents in wealthy Ra’anana competing to get their eight-year-old sons into elite combat units in a way that their cousins on the Upper West Side would fight to get their sons into selective prep schools. Israelis are one people in a way that Americans are not. The Israeli Left and Right, even when heated and hateful, are doing something more elevated than just anathematizing each other. They are vying, however narrow-mindedly, for patriotic distinction.

Progressives often remark that they paid a higher price for October 7 than others. That day was the holiday of Simchat Torah, in which religious people dance in the street to celebrate the end of the year’s Scriptural readings. Not the biggest holiday of the year, but if you were religious at all you probably wouldn’t leave town to dance at a rave. Kibbutzim of the sort that were attacked on the Gaza border are traditionally strongholds of socialism, too.

Today, in every bus stop, airport, restaurant, and shop window one sees signs depicting individual hostages, proclaiming: “Bring them home now!” What is the audience for this? Who doesn’t want the hostages home? Perhaps this is a way of keeping alive the coalition that inflicted the defeat on Netanyahu last year. But it’s not a defection from the Israeli war effort.


The state of Israel might have a constitutional need for its progressives—especially for their worldliness, which is to say, their godlessness. Whether to be part of the wider world (at the risk of losing yourself, your culture, your connection to God) or to keep to yourself (at the risk of provinciality and lost economic opportunity) is a decision that faces all peoples and individuals. It has always faced Jews in a special way. Let us say one sociological pole of Israeli life is represented by the Haredi scholar spending his days in study in a schoolroom in Me’a She’arim. The other pole is a software engineer who spent his rich, secular childhood on the beach in Herzliya but now lives (like 100,000 other Israelis!) in Silicon Valley. Both are worthy lives. Neither is more “Jewish.” But when so many of the Jewish people’s eggs are put in the vulnerable basket of Israel, which of these lives gets chosen is no longer a matter of indifference.

The most important fact about Israel, aside from its Jewishness, is its smallness. How does a people of 10 million in possession of a great culture defend itself against another people, also in possession of a great culture, but stubbornly hostile and dozens of times Israel’s size? By being efficient in war. To defend itself, Israel must be rich enough to get efficient weapons. It must be connected enough to the world to stay at the cutting edge of science. So, if Israel is to survive there must be some principle creating a preference for the worldly over the godly. (This is the view from outside the Jewish religion…among the religious, of course, there is a powerful contrary argument for prayer.)

Traditionally in wartime, armies grind themselves down in a series of murderous individual encounters, dying at roughly the same rate until one side is exhausted. Israel cannot afford such attrition. It cannot subject its soldiers to the principle of an eye for an eye. We can see the tremendous value Israelis place on the lives of their citizens by the trades they have made for hostages in the past. In 2006, a soldier named Gilad Shalit was kidnapped from a kibbutz near the Gaza border. Years passed, but Israel didn’t forget him. In 2011, Israel traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for his release. This doesn’t mean Shalit’s life is worth more than theirs in God’s eyes. But it means that in Israelis’ eyes, there’s an exchange rate. The trade was a mistake in retrospect, not merely for the incentive it offered to hostage-taking in the abstract but because one of the Palestinians released was Hamas strategist Yahya Sinwar, mastermind of the October 7 attacks.

To avoid simply being obliterated in a war of attrition, Israel must be capable of killing with awesome leverage. That is not the same thing as killing. The hope is that this capacity for leverage will be respected and the leverage itself will never need to be used. But Israel is not the only decision-maker in this conflict, and last October 7 Sinwar called Israel’s bluff.

Now we are seeing just how much leverage an Israeli war requires and it has left the world in a state of shock. How does one measure it? In the days after October 7, Israelis tried to quantify the blow to their country by comparing it to that of 9/11 on the U.S. Three times as many people were killed in the World Trade Center, but in a country 30 times as large. A life is a life, but in terms of the impact on society, you could say the loss of life last fall had ten times the impact on Israeli society that the al-Qaeda attacks of 2001 had on the U.S.

Israel stopped making these comparisons soon after its incursion into Gaza began. Gaza is a territory of 2 million people, and reports quickly reached the figure of 34,000 dead. Israel disputes those figures, which come from interested Palestinian parties, and insists that a large proportion of the dead are combatants. But Israel doesn’t give its own figures, and even if we cut the figure in half we are still looking at 15 times the dead from October 7 in a territory with one-fifth Israel’s population. Focusing on mortality, not morality, bombardment has had the effect on Gaza of 75 October 7ths or 750 9/11s. By some estimates civilian deaths in the Israel-Gaza war already exceed those in the Russo-Ukrainian war, which has pitted two gigantic, state-of-the-art armies against each other for well over two years.

There is not really another way for Israel to defend itself if it is going to be fully sovereign and truly independent. The Israeli minister of social equality May Golan, a Likud member, accepted the moral burden of this kind of deterrence when speaking before the Knesset in May, chastising an Arab leftist politician who had called for peace. “Listen up, Mister Fifth Column,” Golan said. “I am personally proud of the ruins of Gaza and proud that, even 80 years from now, those who are young today will tell their grandchildren what the Jews did when their families were murdered and raped and their civilians were kidnapped. If you and your friends think we will allow you to build a government, dream on…. Because if you think that the prize for slaughtering Jews, raping women, beheading and kidnapping civilians will be to sit in a”—and here Golan flicked air-quotes—“‘Government of Change,’ you are dreaming!”

But the question can be posed: is Israel fully sovereign and truly independent? If it is not, then the arguments for this extravagant use of leverage weaken considerably. Although Israel has been growing toward self-sufficiency, the fact is that this is a country established on a piece of the British Empire wrested from the Ottoman Empire and protected by its special standing within the American empire. Israel’s strategic choices will define what Israel is. Netanyahu’s coalition partners have one vision for defending Israel. It involves sovereignty, pro-natalist policies, prayer, and a command of military strong points—but at the risk of isolation, and even retaliation, from the outside world. The secular tech elites who lead the Israeli opposition propose another vision: good relationships with other global elites, above all those of the United States. But there is a risk here, too. The United States is not the country it was when it forged its relationship with Israel. For the first time, the American alliance with Israel has become a major issue in a presidential election. That is bound to change both countries, no matter how the election goes. The real, objective situation of Israel may not be so different from the one that Europe’s Jews endured before Zionism, when their security was at the mercy of European regimes’ willingness to protect them, and even the best among those regimes proved fickle.