CONTENT IN CONTEXT: LOOKING BACK TO LOOK FORWARD
Oct 17, 2023 Carl Schrag
The news from Israel is moving quickly, and there’s extensive speculation about what may happen today, tonight, and tomorrow. The only thing that’s certain is that whatever snapshot I could offer here would be woefully outdated by the time I hit “Save.”
As educators, we strive to provide context for understanding the content we teach. It can be overwhelming to learn about current developments if they’re approached in a vacuum, as if nothing that happened previously has set the scene. Likewise, when approaching painful and challenging realities, like those Israel is experiencing today, a glimmer of hope—however faint—can make all the difference in the world.
With that in mind, I’ll use this space to offer thoughts to enhance foundational understanding that may help educators navigate productive, healthy, and even hopeful paths as we guide learners through the painful, complicated, and important parsing of the 2023 Israel-Gaza war.
October 7, 2023, will be remembered as a watershed date along with September 11, 2001, November 4, 1995, and December 7, 1941, among others. It’s not the kind of history we relish living through.
We’ve seen and read about countless stories of horrifying brutality and hatred, along with accounts of inspirational bravery. Stories that put the humanity of the people at the Nova festival, in the kibbutzim and towns that border Gaza, and the soldiers who fought valiantly in the first hours of the attack deserve to be amplified. The horrific pain of more than 1,300 people who were killed that day, the thousands of injured, and the almost 200 who are being held hostage in Gaza is seared into our collective memory and will guide all of us as we search for meaning and strive to engage our communities. Likewise, the human toll being paid by Gazan civilians is central to how we approach the challenge of teaching today.
Up until now, we’re focused on the news, events that have unfolded since October 7. Let’s go back in time to search for context that will help us make sense of the present-day events.We can begin by going back to the day before Hamas’ murderous attack: October 6. It was the 50th anniversary of another watershed date, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria staged a coordinated surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, catching Israel woefully unprepared.
So much has been written about the faulty assumptions on which the Israeli political, military, and intelligence leadership based their assessment and the steps taken to remedy those faulty assumptions. And on October 6, 2023, as Israel marked the anniversary of that painful war, journalists, academics, and commentators rehashed many aspects of the war.
I caught part of a televised discussion between three military experts who were considering whether a debacle like the Yom Kippur War could ever happen again. Less than 24 hours later, we got the answer.
In order to appreciate the context, let’s go all the way back to 1973, when the faulty “concept” embraced by Israelis held that, in the aftermath of the Arab armies’ stinging defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, there was zero chance any Arab army would attack Israel. When you “know” that there’s no chance of war, you ignore clear signs of military buildups and you let most frontline soldiers go home to spend the holiday with their families. But the underlying concept was wrong. Israel was caught unprepared and paid a heavy price.
In the years leading up to October 7, 2023, Israel embraced a multi-pronged “concept”: Hamas is weak; Hamas craves stability; and the billion-dollar high-tech fence separating Gaza from Israel is impenetrable, making it impossible for terrorists to get anywhere near potential targets. Israel’s political and military and intelligence leadership bought every part of this mistaken concept.
There’s a lot to be learned by studying the flawed concepts of 1973 and 2023, but we won’t know the full extent of the current debacle until a commission of inquiry is appointed and completes its investigation. After the Yom Kippur War, the commission took months to issue its findings, and Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned half a year after the war.
What’s already clear is that the entire concept on which Israel’s security doctrine rests has been erased.
When you know the barriers are effective, you can let people live normal lives, even in Sderot and Kfar Aza and even at a desert rave. When that underlying premise is faulty, everything falls apart.
Many of us have been weighed down by a heavy sadness and sense of despair. These are perfectly normal responses to the devastating violence and cruelty that Israel has experienced. It may seem hard to offer a positive message, but I’d like to suggest that we turn to history for inspiration.
Fifty years ago, at the start of that awful Yom Kippur War, when the entire country had taken a gut-punch, the Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, feared that all was lost and the state would be overrun. Nobody could have foreseen that four short years later Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would journey to Jerusalem and set in motion a process that would lead to a peace treaty.
It seems likely that Sadat’s move couldn’t have happened without the Yom Kippur War. After suffering a string of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Israelis, the Arab armies for the first time could point to better performance on the battlefield. Sadat, it seems clear, parlayed that respectable military performance into making the case for accepting Israel as a reality and ending the state of war.
Although the rest of the Arab world rejected Egypt’s moves toward peace and isolated the largest country in the Arab world, Sadat’s brave move to end the state of war changed the balance of power in the Mideast, ultimately helping pave the way to the growing number of Arab countries that maintain normal ties with Israel today.
Maybe—just maybe—the horror we’re experiencing now will lead to changes, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Israel, in the Arab world, and in the West, that will pave the way to a breakthrough. We can’t see it from our place of grief and shock and anger today—and it may not materialize—but let’s try to hold on to the hope that peace will come, that good will triumph over evil, and that this isn’t how Israel is doomed to live forever and ever.
Carl Schrag is a senior educator at The iCenter.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
1. What milestone dates in your lifetime stand out for you?
2. How do you think you might remember the milestone date of October 7, 2023?
3. What would you like to learn more about, and where might you go to find information?
4. What hopeful messages can you draw from the events of early October 2023?