Israel is a small country, but when it goes to war, the front is extraordinarily broad. On Sunday of last week, it reached “Gan Dalia,” the kindergarten my five-year-old son David attends in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. That morning, officers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) came looking for veteran head teacher Dalia Emanuelof. She was off that day, so they continued searching elsewhere, ultimately waiting outside her home in the nearby suburb of Givat Ze’ev until she returned that afternoon.
The news the officers brought was unbearable: Her 22-year-old son, Dvir, had been killed in Jabalya, making him the first Israeli casualty of the ground campaign in Gaza. Fighting there as a staff sergeant in his infantry unit, the elite Golani brigade, he was felled by Hamas mortar fire. Though Israel has a conscript army, Dvir did not have to be in Gaza, as he had received high marks as instructor of a squad leader course, was asked to go to officer school, and would still have been in training had he accepted; he deferred, however, saying he would not be fit to command until he had first fought alongside his comrades. In fact, Dvir did not have to be in any front-line position: His father Netanel had died of cancer at age 46, shortly before Dvir’s service began; as an only son in a single-parent family, Dvir was exempt under IDF rules from combat duty. Before accepting him to Golani, his commanding officer visited Dalia and asked if she acquiesced in her son’s opting for a dangerous path he was not obligated to choose. Her answer: “If this is how Dvir wants to serve his country, then this is what he will do.” Two days before entering Gaza, Dvir had called home and said: “Mom, I have to fight. I have to be there.” He went, and he fought—and was buried on Sunday night in the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.
A few days later, I was thinking about Dvir as I prepared to speak at an Israel solidarity rally at the Ramaz high school in Manhattan. I opened by talking about Dvir’s words to his mother, and then explained why he had to fight—that is, why Israel had no choice but to wage war to stop Hamas from firing missiles at homes and schools in Sderot and other cities in the country’s south. After describing Israel’s war aims, I addressed the issue on the minds of these morally sensitive young people: How we could be sure that, in the pursuit of moral ends, Israel was using moral means? I stressed the lengths to which the IDF goes to protect Palestinian civilians, and contrasted it with Hamas’s systematic strategy of using non-combatants—women, children, even hospital patients—as “human shields,” to prevent the Israeli army from attacking its fighters or to saddle the Jewish state with the blame for the civilians who are killed.
Afterwards, I fielded questions from seniors in one of Ramaz’s honors classes, of which the most difficult was posed by an earnest young woman named Julie. She accepted that Israel was right to launch an offensive and was fighting in accordance with the dictates of morality, but was deeply concerned about the outcome: If Hamas was eager for Palestinian non-combatants to be killed, while the IDF did its best to prevent such casualties, how could Israel hope to win? Either the Israeli army would be deterred from landing the blows needed to defeat Hamas, or Israel would end up killing large numbers of civilians and be forced by international pressure to accept a cease-fire prematurely—which would be perceived as a Hamas victory, on the model of Hizbollah’s “triumph by surviving” in the Second Lebanon War. She offered a chillingly apt understanding of the statement made in 2004 by Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and later echoed by many Hamas leaders: “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable….We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.” Nasrallah had meant that the Jews loved their own lives while Muslim radicals embraced death in the pursuit of jihad, but in Gaza, it turned out that Jews also cared more for the lives of Arab civilians than did the leaders of Hamas. I answered, haltingly, on the level of tactics, pointing out that the IDF’s detailed intelligence and precise execution enabled it to limit the bulk of Palestinian casualties to Hamas fighters, and that international condemnation of Israel has been kept in check by widespread revulsion at the use of human shields.
The question was still on my mind when I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport the next morning and headed to a shiva visit at the Emanuelofs. The first floor was overflowing with well-wishers, some sitting and most standing, centered around Dalia, her three daughters, and the general in charge of Israel’s ground forces, Avi Mizrahi, who in an extraordinary gesture of respect was making a condolence visit in the midst of war. Due to his rare combination of gentleness and determination, he became, with Dalia, the center of attention, and the two engaged in a dialogue interspersed with occasional comments from Dalia’s eldest daughter, Hadas, who got married less than a year ago and was visibly pregnant with the family’s first grandchild
From this dialogue, an extraordinary portrait emerged of Dvir—a modest, idealistic young man who was a leader in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, delighted in taking his friends on hikes throughout Israel, and could never be found without his trademark smile, which radiated out from his sparkling eyes and lit up everyone around him—a point amply attested to in the photos displayed in the Emanuelofs’ home. He loved life, with a passion, but was willing to risk his own because he felt a sense of mission to protect Israelis living in the country’s south. Dalia, too, was heroic in her own, quiet way. On her face and in her voice one could discern profound sadness, but also pride in her son and the army in which he served, and resolve that Israel must continue to fight until victory. One could also detect a spirit of hope, bordering on faith, that her people would triumph—and that, as Jews traditionally say, Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker, the Eternal One of Israel will not fail us.
Equally extraordinary was the picture Dalia painted of the support her family had received. She spoke of two teenage girls who came to her home, and when asked how they had known Dvir, answered that they had never met him but identified with the family’s tragedy and wanted to give whatever comfort they could; of a middle-aged man who said only, ‘I’m a citizen of Israel, and I came to be with you, as a representative of all of Israel’s citizens;’ of an elderly gentleman who walked in leaning on a cane, and declared: “I heard that a Golanchik (young Golani soldier) in your family was killed; I fought in Golani in the War of Independence in 1948, and have come to offer my condolences.” She described a phone call from a woman she didn’t know, who had just had a grandson and wanted permission to name him Dvir. Dalia assented, but urged that he be given a second name, as Jewish tradition says that in calling someone after a person who has suffered an unfortunate fate, one should make this change to symbolize the hope for better fortune. The grandmother answered that the boy’s name would be Dvir Chai—“Dvir lives.” And Dalia concluded the story: “A few days after my son had been killed, I could already say again, ‘Dvir lives.’”
At one point, Dalia turned to General Mizrahi and asked why Israel could not fight in Gaza the way coalition forces have in Iraq and Afghanistan—bombing aggressively against enemy fighters in populated areas. There was no bitterness in her voice at the IDF for having endangered her son’s life by its regard for Palestinian civilians, nor any desire for revenge—only the concerned tones of an Israeli mother anxious to protect the sons of other Israeli mothers. The general answered thoughtfully, but without hesitation, that the IDF had gone to greater lengths to protect its soldiers in Gaza than in previous conflicts, citing the week-long air campaign that preceded the ground invasion. He added, however, that the IDF’s strength is integrally tied to maintaining its humanity and morality. Soldiers are united in part because they know that regardless of religious or political differences, they share a common moral code. Alluding to the widely-held view that Hamas’s military leadership is hiding under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, he said that he wouldn’t give an order to bomb the hospital from the air, because there are certain things one simply doesn’t do. This is an obligation, he stressed, that the IDF has as a Jewish army. From the reactions in the room, it was clear that while everyone identified with Dalia’s question, they accepted the answer—and were impressed that the officer used this opportunity to reinforce the Jewish values binding all of us together.
As I left to return home before the start of the Sabbath, I understood the answer to the question I had been asked by a young woman 6,000 miles away. Yes, on the tactical level it can be a handicap to love life when your opponent loves death. But in the end, it is that love of life that will enable us to prevail. We will defeat those who love death, because we love life so much that we Israelis—from teenage girls to senior officers in wartime—know how to give comfort to those who have lost a loved one, and to say, “We are with you.” Our love of life enables us to confront tragedy, and emerge with the pride and resolve, the hope and the faith, that Dalia showed.
We love life so much that we educate our children to love life, though surrounded by enemies who hope, pray, and work for our deaths. It is this love of life that enabled the Jews to return to our homeland and rebuild a state after 2,000 years, and it is the sense of mission stemming from this love that will sustain the Zionist dream long into the future. We love life so much that we refuse to have our sense of morality dulled by enemies who seek to force us to kill women and children in order to defend our families. Though our principles limit the IDF’s effectiveness, they provide us with intangibles that more than compensate—the confidence and the strength to pursue our aims secure in the knowledge we are acting justly, and the unity that comes from a society acting in accordance with its most cherished values. And yes, let no one err, we will win because we love life so much we are willing to brave death, if necessary, to ensure that our people can lead free lives in the country we have established against all odds. In the end, it is this love of life that will enable us to prevail—not only in the war in Gaza, but in all the challenges we face in the years and generations to come.