Canadian dispatches from Israel at wartime: We will never be the same after Oct. 7

Canadian dispatches from Israel at wartime: We will never be the same after Oct. 7 Aron Heller

Published in The Canadian Jewish News.

When the wailing air-raid sirens woke me in the early morning hours of Oct. 7 and sent me stumbling to the safe room of our apartment in central Israel, my initial instinct was rather benign. Another rocket attack from Gaza, I figured, been there, done that.

You see, once you’ve lived in Israel long enough you start getting the feeling that you’ve seen it all. This is a nation where news comes at you at breakneck speed, where crises abound regularly and where the rapid swings between highs and lows come fast and furious. After a while, you tend to become inured to it all.

But it quickly became apparent that this time would be different.

The news reports were jarring. It wasn’t just a barrage of rockets this time, it was an infiltration. It wasn’t just a few Hamas fighters, it was a full-on invasion. As the day wore on, we watched in disbelief as the climbing count of casualties mounted to unthinkable tallies. The harrowing TV testimonies of petrified residents pleading for help made it abundantly clear: this was something we had never seen before.

I’d grown up on the tales of the transformational shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Now we were watching it unfold live. But this was far, far worse. Worse than the 1973 war, worse than the attack on Pearl Harbor, worse than 9/11. As shocking as it sounded, this was the worst thing that had happened to the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

Even after 75 years, Israel remains a closely-knit society. The sheer scope of the carnage left few in this country without a first- or second-degree personal connection to the tragedy.

I was no exception. Within days, I discovered that former Associated Press cameraman Yaniv Zohar, a longtime colleague of mine, was savagely murdered in his home in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, along with his wife, father-in-law and two daughters. I had to choke back tears when Yaniv’s sister Sivan told me that for their father, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, the experience was akin to a “second Holocaust.”

Then I learned that Ohad Munder-Zichri, a classmate of my eight-year-old daughter, had been abducted to Gaza along with his mother and his grandparents. Their whereabouts and wellbeing remain unknown. Speaking to Ohad’s shattered father was heartbreaking, as was having to explain to my own daughter that such a horrible thing could happen.

Like the rest of the country, I found myself struggling to make sense of this trauma and asking myself existential questions about Israel’s future. Learning about the almost instant eruption of antisemitism around the world – and hearing first-hand about the fears of my extended family in Toronto – only compounded these doubts about whether we Jews could ever escape the wrath of those who seek to harm us.

Much of this musing, however, took a back seat to the daily life of our new war-time reality. Schools and kindergartens were closed and venturing far from home could be unnerving so occupying our young children became the main priority. The occasional air-raid sirens and sounds of explosions outside convinced our three daughters to slumber together for several weeks on mattresses laid out on the floor of our safe room.

But any anguish they were experiencing paled miserably to that of the children of southern Israel: those killed, those kidnapped, those under constant fire, those wounded in body and spirit. When I’d close my eyes, I’d often see their faces.

Our neighborhood set up a local watch of armed volunteers, to try and restore some of the shattered sense of security. Those on early morning walks with their dogs often seemed in a daze until snapping to alert at the sound of any Arabic-speaking laborer nearby.

I struggled to suppress my own suspicions, reminding myself that the warm people caring for my ailing mother spoke the same language of those vile terrorists who carried out the Oct. 7 atrocities. In fact, it was on one of my worst days that I found myself being comforted by the calming words of an Arab nurse.

This was the backdrop to the past month’s mix of emotions, as we’ve witnessed the full gamut of the Israeli experience. Like our neighbors, we’ve tried to make a modest contribution to the unprecedented mobilization of Israeli society, donating clothes to evacuated families, sending care packages to recruited reserve soldiers and helping friends in their volunteer aid efforts.

We’ve tried to balance a desire to keep up on all the news, with a need to occasionally tune out and relax. We’ve sought comfort in family and community.

Mostly, we’ve tried to keep ours heads up amid this dreadful tragedy and look ahead in hope to how our future could one day be better.

Much remains unknown but one thing is clear. We, and our country, will never be the same.