Monday, May 20, 2024

Home alone?

 (Originally published in The Times of Israel)

My wife and I arrived back in Israel two weeks ago after an extended stay in the U.S.  Even with the overwhelming problems and challenges, it felt great—liberating—to be back. You immediately feel that here Jews are making our destiny, are in control of our life as a people, that we have agency.

The contrast to the current situation in the U.S. is striking. The contrast to where we had been staying, Oakland, California, where the Jew-hatred and the goal of destroying our nation are loudly and proudly asserted at city council and school board meetings, on signs of demonstrators, and in windows of residents and businesses, is particularly striking.

Beginning with the poignant posters and artistic displays at the airport of dog tags representing the hostages, you are overwhelmed immediately with the sadness everyone feels for the hostages and the apprehension about the future.

We arrived just 48 hours before Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, whose somber mood resonated even more deeply this year. On the afternoon of Erev Yom HaShoa, as restaurants and shops closed, as the radio played appropriate music and programming, you could feel the heaviness in the air. We then marked our people’s greatest tragedy while renewing our vow that we will never be defenseless again.

Just a week after Yom HaShoa came two particularly difficult days. First it was Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), never an easy one when Israelis remember the thousands of mostly young people who have died defending the nation, as well as the thousands of victims of terror.

This year, with the events of October 7th still raw, with hostages then in their 221st day of captivity, with the bodies of murdered hostages being recovered, and with soldiers being killed and wounded daily, was especially tough.

We then transitioned into Yom HaAtzamaut (Independence Day).  The atmosphere usually turns light and we rejoice in the anniversary of the re-creation of a free and independent Jewish nation.  Israelis play music, barbecue, watch a tremendous air force flyover, and dance.

This year was much more subdued.  We did have some friends over for the traditional barbecue, although many others did not engage in the usual activities.

Despite the situation, we felt it was good to be together and to express thanks for the fact that we live when Jews have their sovereignty and are not subjugated as victims to the whims of the world.

After the barbecue we went to a local square, where we remembered the hostages, listened to some appropriate music, and heard from relatives of hostages.

Israelis are deeply saddened by the current situation.  They are traumatized by the events of October 7th.

While committed to defeating Hamas and not ever allowing the slaughter that happened on October 7th to happen again, no one is happy about being at war.  People are worried about the future.  Israelis feel terribly isolated.

We are bewildered by a world so upside down, so crazy that much of it is attacking and condemning the victims of October 7th, the people who are fighting the terrorists whose ideology is one of intolerance, hatred of others, subjugation of minorities and women.

Israelis are isolated and bewildered, but also resolute and determined to survive, to live.  In a strange way, life goes on.  People go shopping, go jogging and walking, take the kids to school, go to work, go to soccer games, generally do all the things that make up daily life.

But the hostages and the war are never far away.  There are pictures of hostages on bus stops, on billboards, on the side of the supermarkets, just about any surface imaginable.

There are many young people who were in Gaza or the north now trying to catch up with studies, with families, with their lives. There are many who know they will be going back in, either to Gaza or, possibly, eventually Lebanon.

There are families whose lives are disrupted, whose kids are confused and traumatized.  There are thousands of very, very worried parents.

There are daily reports of soldiers killed and injured, of bodies of hostages recovered. There are daily vigils and protests, religious services at public squares and at “hostage tents,” discussions and debates, often heated, on the streets and in the Knesset (parliament).

And there is bewilderment with and some anger at President Biden, whose initial response to the horrors inflicted by Hamas was so supportive and genuine.

Why, many Israelis ask, would Hamas agree to give up hostages or surrender in exchange for Israel agreeing to a ceasefire when President Biden is pressuring Israel to cease or minimize its fire?

The Administration appears to be saying that Israel can fight Hamas but not if it might result in deaths or suffering of civilians. That is undoubtedly impossible when Hamas and its infrastructure are buried among and below civilians.

Doesn’t this position by the Biden Administration simply encourage Hamas to continue its practice of using civilians as human shields?  It works!

Some of the explanations and rationalizations coming from the Administration are absurd.  The award for most absurd: White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby asserting that invading Rafah would embolden Hamas.

It was near torture watching Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a strong supporter of Israel’s war against Hamas and an admirer of the IDF, defending the Administration’s “fight a war but don’t really fight it” policy at a recent Congressional hearing. If body language was audible, his was screaming.

There is a tendency to make this all about Prime Minister Netanyahu and to paint him as evil as dictators like Putin and Kim Jong Un. Among the media and many liberals, it is more like an obsession.

Netanyahu certainly is not the ideal person to be charting Israel’s path or to be making its case.  Many in the U.S., including in the Administration, do not trust him.

He and his Likud Party are no more popular in Israel. Polls show that if there were an election today, Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its coalition would drop to about 51 seats from its current 64.  (It requires 61 seats out of the 120 member Knesset to constitute the ruling coalition.)  Over 60% of Israelis would like elections moved up from their otherwise required date of October, 2026.

But, as I have written before, it is misleading to hold Netanyahu exclusively, or even primarily, responsible for Israel’s war policies.

Most of the important decisions made in the last six months have been made by the war cabinet, which includes respected representatives of the opposition. Former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Gantz, leader of an opposition party, is a member.

The war cabinet also includes as an observer former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who has lost a son and a nephew in the Gaza fighting. Even though he is not in the government, until recently Opposition Leader Yair Lapid has backed virtually all the government’s important war decisions.

Unfortunately, to stay in power and out of prison, Netanyahu brought into the government and gave important positions to some very far right, racist, despicable people, and he sometimes gives into them and frequently lets them shoot their mouths off.

To appease the two poster-children for irresponsible, racist government, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Netanyahu has refused several significant requests made by the Biden Administration.

Firstly, he refused to work on a plan for what entity, countries, or international organization could administer Gaza after the war is over and Hamas is supposedly no longer in power, thereby leaving the impression that he is open to Israel controlling the territory for an extended period.

Secondly, he has rejected a “pathway” to a two-state solution, even though he previously expressed a willingness to accept two states under the right circumstances.

But for his need to keep Ben Gvir and Smotrich and their supporters happy, he could have easily said, “Yes, we will consider a pathway and as soon as you find a Palestinian leader who is willing to release all hostages, call for and enforce a complete disarmament, publicly accept a Jewish nation in the region, recognize that Jews also have rights to Jerusalem, and create a model of democracy for the nation, we’ll start walking on the pathway.”

The likelihood of those conditions being met anytime this century are about nil to zero, but the statement would have likely been enough for Biden. It is unforgiveable but not surprising for Netanyahu to have put his political survival over Israel’s interests.

None of this, however, excuses the terrible decisions Biden has made to hold up an arms shipment and threaten to hold up more and to put the brakes on Israel wiping out Hamas in Rafah.

By publicly pressing Israel not to finish the job in Gaza and by constantly expressing its desire to prevent escalation, Biden has set the stage for more conflict here, which will cause more Israeli and Palestinian suffering.

His actions, admonitions, and threats will encourage more aggression and terror by Iran and its proxies, more aggressive action on Israel’s northern border that could cause Israel to have to attack Southern Lebanon, and more attacks on international shipping by the Houthis.

Even if the Biden Administration had every reason to want to stick it to Netanyahu and even to Israel, it should have ignored those inclinations and instead done what is smart for the interests of Israel, the U.S., the western world, and ultimately, peace.

John Spencer is the chair of urban warfare studies with the Modern War Institute at West Point. He previously served 25 years as an infantry soldier, including two combat tours in Iraq. In other words, he knows something about the subject.

Spencer has written several pieces since October 7th explaining how Israel has taken more actions to protect noncombatants in Gaza than any other nation has ever taken in modern warfare, and how Israel has complied with international law.

In a recent interview with CNN, he explains how the Biden Administration’s go-slow, don’t win decisively approach will cost more lives and not produce peace.

President Biden should heed Spencer’s advice.


Hezbollah has fired over 75 missiles at Israel’s north on Friday. These are largely if not exclusively targeting civilians. This sort of barrage has been taking place on a near daily basis for months. About 60,000 or 70,000 Israeli civilians from the north have been living in hotels and with family because they cannot return to their homes. Those that have remained in the north are forced to take shelter on a regular basis.

The media have said next to nothing.  World bodies have done next to nothing.

I am sure that CNN, MSNBC, the NY Times, the Washington Post, the EU and, of course, the UN will all take note when Israel finally says enough and enters Lebanon to put a stop to it.



  1. Important and well-said, as always. I’m forwarding this around to friends.

  2. Crazy times in the US. College protests supporting terrorists and making demands. And a President who fails to mention hostages still held.

  3. Wow!!! Very sadly, your comments are so very, very accurate! We are in a losing situation in so many ways — as you point out. Hatred is running/ruining this world. Those condemning the Israeli attacks which kill civilians are ignorant of the fact that the USA killed probably millions of Japanese civilians when dropping two atomic bombs ending WW II. Not that it makes it ok but, given the options that the Israelis have — in particular having the Hamas leaders using civilians as cover — there is no other way for them to operate.

  4. I share you feeling, and I support Israel. President Biden is just plain wrong, and the Israeli Desk at the State Department should all be fired.

  5. It would be a blessing if you could figure out a way to moderate Israeli hate from extremists. It’s hypocritical, even accounting for Oct. 11.

  6. Thank you Alan. Keep the commentary coming. Your insights are helpful and important. I take no comfort that your blog validates my frustrations and consternation with the Administration, legacy media, and what seems to be unbridled anti-Semitism. Stay safe.

  7. The UN (security council?) had a moment of silence for the Iranian President that was killed in the helicopter crash. The American ambassador to the UN also stood up. Why????

  8. I can well imagine your descriptive emotions and thoughts and feelings at this very difficult time. What’s going on in Israel is, indeed, very very sad and antisemitism it’s overwhelming and equally if not more sad.