It was Simchat Torah in Jerusalem. I had come to celebrate, as I have for 17 years, at the Western Wall. The joyful singing and dancing were suddenly pierced by a siren, then interrupted by an instruction to take shelter.
Was this merely an ambulance, I wondered? But no — it was an air raid warning.
Something terrible had happened near Gaza, we would later learn. The sirens and loudspeakers signaled this was no mere skirmish; it was war. Missile volleys came one after another, with booms overhead as Iron Dome interceptors deployed. Military helicopters filled the skies, confirming my gravest fears.
In the quiet Sabbath streets, information slowly emerged. With phones silenced, we relied on fragmentary reports. Taxi drivers at the Jaffa Gate murmured of Hamas attacking the South. Security guards whispered of reservist call-ups. The scale only became clear after nightfall: thousands of rockets slamming into Israel, hundreds murdered, hostages taken.
This was Israel’s 9/11. Politics evaporated in an instant. We were Jews under fire, identity transcending ideology. The terrorists didn’t pause to ask about voting records before inflicting violence. All that remained was the primal struggle for survival.
Perhaps it should not have surprised me how rapidly Jewish unity emerged. But it did, and it was inspiring. The differences of Left and Right vanished amid smoke and sirens. There was only us. There was only now. (RELATED: ‘Right or Wrong, My Country’: Americans Need to Imitate Israel)
Nor was I shocked as international opinion turned against Israel’s self-defense in the weeks that followed. But Jewish solidarity in crisis has always astounded the world. Israel’s choice was stark: act or perish.
The world will revile Israel for defending itself, just as it has before. But the judgment of history is slower and surer. No nation on Earth would tolerate an unprovoked attack on its people. Israel did not seek this conflict, and it cannot shrink from it now. To protect its citizens, harsh countermeasures are required. There is no alternative.
Every life lost is a tragedy. But Israel must shut out the faux morality of global condemnations that are divorced from reality and do what it must to safeguard its children. There is a fog of war, but some things are eternally clear.
Israel blooms free and proud by democratic values we hold sacred. The threats aligning to destroy it should terrify civilized humanity everywhere. (READ MORE: This Evil Will Not Stop With the Jews)
Will this war descend into a Gaza occupation? It seems inevitable for a period, with no easy exits. And occupy Gaza Israel must, for a time, to root out the terrorists. It is a grave and unwelcome burden, but with no viable alternative. Israel yearns to live in peace but will not surrender its children to the knife of terrorism.
It will take months, not years, to neutralize the threat and restore order. Israel has weathered storms before, and life will regain its rhythms. Throughout, American support must remain firm and moral clarity unwavering. Our country knows right from wrong when we see it.
What comes after? Gaza must be demilitarized, with Israel ensuring compliance. Israelis cannot live as missile targets in perpetual fear. The people of Gaza must reject extremism for any hope of progress. And America should press Arab nations: No more terrorism can take root in the region.
American Jewry must also unite and organize. Support for Israel is too vital to be transactional, traded away for domestic priorities. Progressives must confront anti-Semitism within their ranks. And unbreakable unity must carry the day.
Oct. 7 must be engraved on our collective memory. Just as the imagery of falling towers shapes America’s resolve, visions of Israeli families fleeing into shelters will define our Jewish identity. When we waver, we will recall those sirens, those booms, and those screams.
Already, American Jewry’s political landscape has been reshaped. No true progressive can watch their cousins bombed yet somehow claim Israel deserves no right to self-defense. This attack has awakened our communal conscience.
American Jews have powerful voices. We will use them, wield them, unite them. Too much hangs in the balance for silence. Israel is a light among nations. That light must not be dimmed by violence or vitriol.
We understand now, deep in our bones, that Israel’s fight is our fight. Security for Jews everywhere depends on Jewish unity and resolve. I am heartened by how rapidly Jews have come together, passions of left and right forgotten, at least for now. I know this unity will sustain us in the challenging days ahead, as Israel does what it must to ensure “never again” triumphs. (RELATED: Israelis From All Sides Come Together)
No attack can shatter our spirit, dim our faith, or disrupt our rhythms for long. In time, the rubble will be cleared. The sirens will fade. Terror will fall back before the enduring strength of our people. Israeli resilience will shine, as it has since 1948. And Jews worldwide will cherish the miracle of a single unified people, our ranks closed tight, lifting each other up in a time of ultimate testing.
As for me, no terror will keep me from traveling next year to Jerusalem, from dancing at the Western Wall for an 18th Simchat Torah. Let the freed hostages dance with us. Let everyone sway and sing in the shadow of ancient stones. Jewry persists, and so shall we.
Paul Packer is the former chairman of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.