Israel-Hamas War: How do we fight back against our dark history? - comment

Finding a way to connect to our fellow Jew, bringing our society that much closer together, is a tangible victory against this darkness around us.

 IDF soldiers light candles for Hanukkah near Israel’s border with Gaza in southern Israel on December 14, 2023.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
IDF soldiers light candles for Hanukkah near Israel’s border with Gaza in southern Israel on December 14, 2023.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Klee and Benjamin

In his 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin describes his conception of the Angel of History, an angel depicted in the monoprint Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, which watches over the history of mankind.

“His face is turned toward the past,” Benjamin writes of the angel. “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future… while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Benjamin’s grim view of history, written out just months before he himself fell victim to the Holocaust, rings truer than ever today in light of the October 7 atrocities, the unconscionable hatred directed against the Jewish people worldwide, and the immense, incomprehensible suffering we are currently seeing and experiencing. As Jews, how do we avoid being like the angel, unable to repair the world and heal the tragedies of our past as we are pulled into the catastrophe of the present? How do we fight back against this dark, dark history of ours?

A psychologist’s approach

My mother, a psychologist, told me that since October 7 a number of people have come to her for assistance or personal advice, only to find that the horror of what happened, and what is still happening, overshadows all of their personal issues. “How can I talk about what’s going on in my life, about my own little problems, when something like this is happening? What are my issues compared to all that?” they ask. 

“In fact, it’s exactly the opposite,” she tells them. Hamas’s evil is twofold, she explains. The first part is their despicable actions. The second is how they aim to fill the hearts and minds of everyone they can with their evil deeds, filming themselves, amplifying their evil as far as they can, in the hopes that we all will live in fear, misery, rage, pain, and be unable to think of anything else. They want us to lose ourselves in the horror that they created.

 ‘Angelus Novus’ by Paul Klee, 1920 (credit: ISRAEL MUSEUM/WIKIPEDIA)
‘Angelus Novus’ by Paul Klee, 1920 (credit: ISRAEL MUSEUM/WIKIPEDIA)

This second part, my mother explains, is something that we can all fight back against, no matter who or where we are. 

“Connect to yourself. Talk about your lives and your problems, precisely now during these times,” she tells people. Continuing to live, to grow, to just be who we are under such circumstances is the first step toward taking our power back and not letting the horror consume us. 

We love life more than they love death. Simply being present in our own lives during these times is a victory.

Purpose, making a difference

Our leaders were so unprepared for the attack of October 7, partially for the same reason that we lost Jerusalem and were forced into exile 2,000 years ago: baseless hatred. 

We all know our own story, but we lost sight of the stories of our brothers and sisters and began to fight amongs ourselves. And our murderous enemies, seeing this, smelled weakness.

The other day I saw a bus driver, an elderly Iraqi-Jewish grandpa, offering chocolates to passengers as they stepped onto the bus. This unnamed hero simply saw the pain that everybody is going through and wanted to do a little something to sweeten everybody’s day and to let them know that he, a complete stranger, sees them.

Not all of us can be on the front lines physically defending our nation, but we certainly can defend it, and the way to do it is to connect with one another. You can volunteer somewhere in the community, you can give charity, you can even go outside and buy a bag of chocolates and hand them out to people you see on the street who look sad. Even stepping out of your inner turmoil to genuinely ask the people around you how they’re doing and what they’re going through makes a difference. I guarantee that you won’t have any issue finding them, and I have no doubt that the look on their faces when they understand that someone sees them, sees what they’re going through, and wants them to feel a little happier, will be worthwhile.

It’s more than just feel-good ideology. The Jewish people survived the worst horrors the world could throw at them for thousands of years, and managed to achieve unbelievable success despite it all, all the while arguing non-stop among themselves and scattered across the globe. If we could accomplish all that we’ve done under those abysmal circumstances, what can we do when we’re united, connected to one another? Finding a way to connect to our fellow Jew, bringing our society that much closer together, is a tangible victory against this darkness around us.

But what about all of our dead?

In Vinnitsa, Ukraine, where my family comes from, almost all the Jews, old people and children alike, were forced on their knees in front of a big pit and shot in the back of the head. Not everyone, mind you. Some, like my immediate family, had already fled Ukraine. But the vast majority was murdered. The Nazis commemorated their destruction of my people through a 1941 photo titled “The Last Jew of Vinnitsa,” depicting a young Jew staring at the camera with a gun to his head, kneeling in front of a pit of bodies, moments before they shot him. It’s a famous photo nowadays. It even has its own Wikipedia article.

Since I first saw that picture as a child, I’ve felt that young man’s eyes watching me. Watching us.

I, through little doing of my own and completely unlike that young man from Vinnitsa and the majority of our Jewish compatriots throughout history, remain alive and evaded the horrors. And I couldn’t help but feel the weight of that man’s life on my shoulders, pulling at me, asking what I intend to do with this life that I was so miraculously gifted with, but that he and all those other people were not.

It’s not just Vinnitsa. There are millions of Jews in our history – from the Maccabees who died fighting Greek tyranny, to our ancestors who were slaughtered by the Romans, to the victims of the Inquisition, pogroms, wars, intifadas, and so much more – who were killed for being Jews. And now there are the victims of October 7 and the IDF soldiers who fell in Gaza. And I can feel them all.

I walk through a crowd of people at the train station and suddenly I see, in my mind’s eye, pictures of the murdered in the South. I attend a wedding or bar mitzvah, and all I can think about are the countless members of our tribe who will now never get to celebrate joyous events like this. I shut my eyes to kiss my wife goodnight and suddenly I recoil, assaulted by images I cannot unsee and cannot write down. I know I’m not the only one. So how do we live, with all this death?

How could I, could we as Jews, possibly squeeze enough juice out of life to live up to and be worthy of all those sacrifices? How can we withstand the crushing weight of our history?


I’m not a rabbi. I don’t know about God’s plan or understand much about religion in general, but something I noticed about Hanukkah this year, that I’d never thought much about before, got me thinking that maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong.

I noticed the line in our Hanukkah prayer “Hanerot Halalu” where it says that we aren’t allowed to make use of the hanukkiah lights, that they’re for looking at only. According to some interpretations of this custom that I found, the reason for this is to counter that human instinct to squeeze some usefulness out of everything. Hanukkah takes this instinct and turns it on its head. Our Hanukkah light exists, simply for the sake of being light. Instead of striving to make the most out of our light and out of each moment, as we usually do, our Hanukkah tradition simply asks us to make light, and to praise it.

Chava Rosenfarb, a woman who survived the inferno of Auschwitz, wrote a poem about her experiences, called “Praise.” I think it explains this idea better than I ever could:

When the light is down

And the end is approaching

And sudden at last

You find yourself standing

In a gate of deep darkness;

Look once more behind you

To that bubble of being –

And praise it, that day

That drips out of existence,

Dissolving unnoticed

In the light of oblivion

You and I are not standing before Auschwitz as Chava did, but considering our history and in light of recent events, we have most certainly seen the abyss. And in the face of all that, I believe that we must take inspiration from Hanukkah. 

How to make the most out of each moment? What God wants from us? I have no idea. But to each and every Jew I say: Make your little light, simply for the light’s sake, and praise it. And see, every day, what light you can bring to the present moment.

The angel

The Angelus Novus, the strange Paul Klee painting that so compelled Walter Benjamin, still exists. Through a strange twist of fate, it made its way to Jerusalem, where it remains today, at the Israel Museum. There, within that frame, a world war, the Holocaust, countless wars and deaths, and one October 7 later, the angel still hovers, undeterred, striving to “stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” and to heal the gaping wound that is our history. 

I am determined that the angel will succeed.

I do not know what will come to pass before then. Not for you, dear reader, for myself, or for the rest of the Jewish people. 

But when that day does come, when mankind has evolved and elevated to the point that the Angel of History can come and put our dark, dark past behind us and finally make us whole, I know that the lives that you and I have lived, the connections we’ve forged, and the good we strive towards, will make his immense job just that much easier. 

And it’s worth fighting your whole life for that. ■

The writer is a Los Angeles-born former lone soldier and evolutionary ecologist-in-training, currently based in Ashkelon.