as worlds gaze shifts to gaza israels psyche remains defined by oct 7 attack

Hamas’s brutal raid and taking of hostages has left Israelis deeply traumatized and is expected to reshape the country for years to come.

The Oct. 7 attack on Israel has prompted soul-searching on the Israeli left, undermining faith in a shared future with Palestinians. It has created a crisis of confidence on the Israeli right, sapping support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It has drawn ultra-Orthodox Jews, often ambivalent about their relationship to the Israeli state, closer to the mainstream.

Across religious and political divides, Israelis are coming to terms with what the Hamas-led terrorist attack meant for Israel as a state, for Israelis as a society, and for its citizens as individuals. Just as Israel’s failures in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war ultimately upended its political and cultural life, the Oct. 7 assault and its aftershocks are expected to reshape Israel for years to come.

The attack, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, has collapsed Israelis’ sense of security and shaken their trust in Israel’s leaders. It has shattered the idea that Israel’s blockade of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank could continue indefinitely without significant fallout for Israelis. And for Israel’s Jewish majority, it has broken the country’s central promise.

When Israel was founded in 1948, the defining goal was to provide a sanctuary for Jews, after 2,000 years of statelessness and persecution. On Oct. 7, that same state proved unable to prevent the worst day of violence against Jews since the Holocaust.

“At that moment, our Israeli identity felt so crushed. It felt like 75 years of sovereignty, of Israeliness, had — in a snap — disappeared,” said Dorit Rabinyan, an Israeli novelist.

“We used to be Israelis,” she added. “Now we are Jewish.”

Dorit Rabinyan, an Israeli novelist, at her home in Tel Aviv. At the moment of the attack, “our Israeli identity felt so crushed. It felt like 75 years of sovereignty, of Israeliness, had — in a snap — disappeared,” she said.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

For now, the assault has also unified Israeli society to a degree that felt inconceivable on Oct. 6, when Israelis were deeply divided by Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to reduce the power of the courts; by a dispute about the role of religion in public life; and by Mr. Netanyahu’s own political future.

Throughout this year, Israeli leaders had warned of civil war. Yet in an instant on Oct. 7, Israelis of all stripes found common cause in what they saw as an existential fight for Israel’s future. Since then, they have been collectively stung by international criticism of Israel’s retaliation in Gaza.

And in parts of the ultra-Orthodox community, whose reluctance to serve in the Israeli military had been a source of division before the war, there were signs of an increased appreciation for — and in some cases, involvement in — the armed forces.

Recent polling data paint a picture of a society in profound flux since the Hamas attack.

Nearly 30 percent of the ultra-Orthodox public now supports the idea of military service, twenty points higher than before the war, according to a December poll by the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based research group.

Pictures of hostages in a Tel Aviv square. On Oct. 7, Israelis of all stripes found common cause in what they saw as an existential fight for their country’s future. Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Perhaps surprisingly, 70 percent of Arab Israelis now say they feel part of the state of Israel, according to a November poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group. That is 22 points higher than in June and the highest proportion since the group began polling on the question two decades ago.

Roughly a third of voters for Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, have abandoned the party since Oct. 7, according to every national poll since the attack.

“Something fundamental has changed here, and we don’t know what it is yet,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research group in Jerusalem. “What we do know is that this is kind of a last chance for this country.”

Aryeh Tsaiger, a bus driver from Jerusalem, embodies some of these shifts.

In 2000, Mr. Tsaiger became one of a tiny minority of ultra-Orthodox Israelis to serve as a military conscript. At the time, he felt ostracized by his community.

“Joining the army was something unacceptable,” Mr. Tsaiger said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, are exempt from service so that they can study Jewish law and scripture at government-subsidized seminaries. For decades, they have fought to preserve the exemption, rankling secular Israelis since it allows the Haredim to benefit from the public purse while doing little to protect the nation.

After Oct. 7, when he rushed to rejoin the military, Mr. Tsaiger said he felt welcomed by Haredim. Friends congratulated him, a Haredi rabbi gave him a special blessing, and several Haredi synagogues asked him if he could attend their Sabbath prayers with his gun. Fearing more terrorist attacks, the congregations wanted his protection.

Aryeh Tsaiger, an Israeli Army reserve soldier. In 2000, Mr. Tsaiger became one of a tiny minority of ultra-Orthodox Israelis to serve as a conscript. At the time, he felt ostracized by his community. But that has changed, he says.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

“That’s a big change,” said Mr. Tsaiger, 45. “They want me there.”

His experience reflects a small but meaningful change among parts of Haredi society.

Mr. Tsaiger was among more than 2,000 Haredim who sought to join the military in the 10 weeks since Oct. 7, according to military statistics. That figure is less than one percent of the 360,000 reservists called up after Oct. 7, but it is nearly two times higher than the average, the military said in a statement.

Neri Horowitz, an expert on Haredim, said the shift was too small to be significant, and the rise in social solidarity would ebb as quickly as it did after previous inflection points. Already, an influential Haredi rabbi has been filmed comparing soldiers to garbage collectors. Another video showed Haredi seminary students ushering a soldier from their institution, irritated by his recruitment attempts.

Mr. Tsaiger feels that a more lasting change is underway.

“The same people who cut ties with me 20 years ago, they’re now very proud of me,” he said.

For Israel’s Arab minority, these evolving dynamics have left them in a bewildering, contradictory position.

Roughly a fifth of Israel’s more than 9 million residents are Arabs. Many of them identify as Palestinians despite holding Israeli citizenship, and many feel solidarity with Gazans killed in Israeli strikes — a sentiment that has grown stronger as the reported death toll in Gaza has risen to roughly 20,000.

Several Arab Israeli leaders were detained in November after trying to organize an unsanctioned antiwar protest. Others were investigated by the police for social media posts deemed to be supportive of Hamas.

But some Arab Israelis also feel a competing emotion: a greater sense of belonging in Israel.

Scores of Arabs were killed or kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7, bestowing their communities with a greater sense of solidarity with Jewish Israelis.

“If I was given two options, Hamas or Israel, I would choose Israel without thinking twice,” said Bashir Ziyadna, an Arab Israeli law student.

Bashir Ziyadna, an Arab Israeli law student, hanging a picture at the square in Tel Aviv of Hamza Alziadna, a relative who was among those kidnapped and taken to Gaza.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Several members of Mr. Ziyadna’s family were killed and abducted in the attack.

Mr. Ziyadna later became a family spokesman as they lobbied the government to do more to rescue their relatives. In the process, Mr. Ziyadna, 26, began to engage more with Jewish society, forming bonds with the families of other hostages and getting to know Israeli politicians and leaders.

While he still feels Palestinian and has deep issues with the government’s treatment of Palestinians, the horror of Oct. 7, and the feeling that he, too, could have died, has made him feel more Israeli and strive to play a bigger role in Israeli public life.

“I don’t want to help my community by criticizing the system,” he said. “Now, I want to be part of the system to make it better.”

This growing social consensus has occurred in spite of Mr. Netanyahu.

Israelis have rallied around each other, through a shared belief in the military campaign that Mr. Netanyahu leads. But they have not rallied around the prime minister.

Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli author, in his office in Jerusalem. “Something fundamental has changed here, and we don’t know what it is yet,” he said. “What we do know is that this is kind of a last chance for this country.”Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Part of the right’s frustration with Mr. Netanyahu is rooted in how his governments fostered a sense of complacency about Gaza. Officials regularly and wrongly spoke about how Hamas was deterred, and that Israel’s biggest immediate threats lay in Iran and Lebanon.

The anger also comes from the fact that Mr. Netanyahu had presided over the widening of deep rifts in Israeli society and a toxic public discourse.

At a time of such turmoil, some right-wing Israelis want a more measured public discourse, said Netanel Elyashiv, a rabbi and publisher who lives on a West Bank settlement.

“You know in those cartoons, when Roadrunner goes off the cliff and keeps running for a bit and doesn’t notice that it’s unsustainable?” Mr. Elyashiv asked. “Netanyahu’s rule is in the same situation. I think this is the end of his term.”

Regardless of Mr. Netanyahu’s personal fate, his approach to the Palestinians — including opposition to a Palestinian state and support for West Bank settlements — remains popular.

More than half of Jewish Israelis oppose restarting negotiations to create a Palestinian state, according to a poll conducted in late November by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Jewish settlers in the West Bank also feel they have conclusively won the argument about maintaining Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territory.

New buildings at the Israeli settlement of Eli in the West Bank.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

According to Mr. Elyashiv, the Oct. 7 attack would not have happened if Israeli soldiers and settlers had remained in Gaza.

“The reason that hasn’t happened in Judea and Samaria is because of the settlements,” Mr. Elyashiv said, using a biblical term for the West Bank. “Security-wise, we need to be here.”

“Wherever we pull out, it becomes a nightmare,” he added.

Some Israelis still say that the conflict could be resolved by the establishment of a functional Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

But for others, the scale of the Oct. 7 atrocities has left them struggling to even empathize with Gazans, let alone retain hope in a peaceful solution to the conflict.

In 2018, Mr. Klein Halevi, the author, wrote a book addressed to an imagined Palestinian, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” in which he attempted to set out a vision for a shared future between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.

Since Oct. 7, Mr. Halevi said, he has found it hard to even consider what such a future looks like. An observant Jew, he still prays for Palestinians, but more from duty than empathy, he said.

“I spent years explaining the Israeli narrative and absorbing the Palestinian narrative — and I tried to find a space where both could live together,” Mr. Klein Halevi said.

“I don’t have that language right now,” he said. “It’s emotionally unavailable to me.”

Netanel Elyashiv lives on a West Bank settlement. “You know in those cartoons, when Roadrunner goes off the cliff and keeps running for a bit and doesn’t notice that it’s unsustainable?” he said. “Netanyahu’s rule is in the same situation.”Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Natan Odenheimer in Jerusalem; Johnatan Reiss in Tel Aviv; and Jonathan Rosen in Rehovot, Israel.

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