Gaza War

What I brought back from my 3 weeks in Israel


Our three-week visit to Israel was an exhausting but inspiring amalgam of activities focused on post-Oct. 7 solidarity with soldiers, hostages’ families and the wounded. We also enjoyed time shared with associates, friends and family. Just walking the streets with the diverse mix of Jews and non-Jews intrigued us. The plethora of babies in strollers and people carrying weapons was otherworldly and somehow comforting. The bomb shelter signs and ubiquitous hostage posters were somber reminders that despite everyday life, real evil sat tight on all borders.

Each morning before heading out and at the end of each day, we tracked the madness emanating from outside Israel. The frustrating stories included the Biden administration’s micromanaging of Israel’s campaign in Rafah and withholding of weapons from an ally; Joe Biden’s Morehouse College progressive pandering about the “humanitarian crisis in Gaza” without mentioning the Oct. 7 atrocities; the continuing campus obsession with Hamas; the International Criminal Court’s moral equivalence by calling for arrest warrants for Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and the rush to reward the Hamas-collaborating Palestinians with statehood. The confounding news darkened our mood but we pressed on with uplifting interactions with the Israeli people.

Towards the end of our stay, we began to wonder how we would tolerate American Jewish apathy and the general hostility at home. While most of our friends were engaged in pro-Israel politics, advocacy and philanthropy, we had been frustrated by those sitting on the sidelines or preparing to cast a presidential vote based on some progressive policy issue rather than the security of Israel and the Jews. These concerns cast a shadow on what was otherwise a singular focus on Israel and Israelis.

• • •

A few days before returning to America, we joined the thousands of Israelis attending the funeral of IDF lone soldier Sgt. Ilan Cohen at Jerusalem’s national military cemetery on Har Herzl.

Walking to the gravesite, we passed the rows and columns of flat, raised graves, each with a plot of grass and a headstone engraved with the soldier’s name, parents’ names, date of birth and date of falling in battle; along with age, military branch and personal identification number. Each grave had been personalized with heartfelt mementos left behind by the grieving. They were traditional stones signifying the permanence of memory with photographs of the lost heroes and small Israeli flags.

The section where Ilan’s ceremony took place is for those who have fallen since Oct. 7. They join the over 25,000 who since 1948 have laid down their lives for the State of Israel. Like all of Har Herzl, the area is gracefully tiered with wide avenues bordered with native shrubbery and flowers. It is impossible not to appreciate the sacrifice so many have made in what feels like an endless struggle for the Jewish state’s defense and survival.

The ceremony lasted just over an hour with a mercifully speedy burial and traditional solemn prayers by senior rabbis. Commanders, family and friends struggled to choke back tears and wails as they recalled the too-short life of this soldier. One forlorn comrade, wounded and in a wheelchair, looked on from the side. It is impossible to guess what he had seen and what he was thinking. The honor guard’s three rounds of shots cracked into the Jerusalem air, jarring everyone.

• • •

Days after Ilan’s funeral, we paid a shiva call to the Cohen family at a large hotel. Before entering the building, we assembled outside under a brilliant blue sky. It seemed as if none of the other mourners knew Ilan Cohen or the Cohen family.

At a table near the entryway, there were memorial candles and framed photos of Ilan. In one, he was standing in a field dressed in his combat gear, carrying his weapon. He was wearing a knitted yarmulke and tefillin. He looked very proud, with a humble and gentle smile.

We moved forward to share words of comfort with his parents. An interpreter conveniently translated our English sentences into their native Argentinian Spanish. In this painful but intimate moment, with the warmth of the tight, caring, sad circle, we connected and our eyes watered. We can only assume that the terrible emptiness of their loss was slightly ameliorated by the knowledge that he had died proudly fulfilling his goal of protecting his beloved Israel.

Walking back from the shiva to our apartment just off Jaffa Street, we tried to comprehend Ilan Cohen’s commitment. The contrast between the dedication of Israelis with families or as lone soldiers and American Jews was very hard to reconcile.

Both are under attack, but the Israelis have their backs to the sea and know their children accept that it is their turn to fight. By contrast, American Jews are only now grasping the reality of rising antisemitism. Too many feel safe behind their gated communities, ensconced in assimilated ways of life. To most, antisemitism feels like an aberration they hope will just go away.

When we touch down in America, we will do our very best to encourage American Jews and major Jewish organizations to step forward and act outside of their comfort zones, choose pro-Israel candidates, and reprioritize and increase their pro-Israel charity.

American Jews need to smarten up, toughen up and take action to support the country that meant so much to Ilan Cohen.

Alan Newman an author and a pro-Israel advocate who holds leadership positions at AIPAC and StandWithUs.