By Steve Abrams


The Montréal Review, February 2024


Wind by Victor Skachkov


She spoke as to a child who could not understand
All the futility that lay ahead
Yet who she knew would go on to repeat
Repeat repeat the things men had to learn.1


Those words come from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is the most ancient work of literature that has survived to our modern age. Estimated composition dates hover around 3500 years ago, predating the Hebrew Bible by centuries.2

In the story, the semi-divine Gilgamesh embarks on a quest for immortality following the sudden death of his best friend. Along the way he meets a wise woman named Siduri, who tries and fails to dissuade him from continuing on his journey. Recognizing that Gilgamesh will have to come to terms with his grief and accept his fate on his own, she rests her case and soothes him to sleep.

There are some Jews who might object to drawing wisdom from pagan mythology but the message here is as universal as Hillel’s golden rule: some lessons can only be learned through direct, personal experience. The classic example being the infant and the hot stove - shrieking ‘don’t touch that!’ isn’t going to cut it. The child needs to be burned at least once to truly know the danger.

Gilgamesh, like all of us, must accept he will one day die. But he can’t simply be told of this fact - a headstrong hero like him won’t take no for an answer. He needs to strive with all his might, seeking out this secret to the ends of the earth, before making peace with his mortality.

These lines have left an indelible mark on my understanding of the human condition. So much so that last summer I worked up the nerve to make that mark literal in the form of a tattoo. Cuneiform symbols are now etched into my chest, an abiding reminder to shake me out of my ruminations and daydreams, to live viscerally not vicariously, to accept all the lessons I am destined to learn.

It is not just the individual that needs to touch the hot stove, however. Siduri’s insight applies also to whole peoples. While much knowledge can be passed down from generation to generation, some things cannot be encapsulated in a textbook or folktale. We can be told about a famine or an earthquake or siege warfare. The story can elicit sympathy. But that’s not the same as the rumblings of an empty stomach or climbing shell-shocked out of rubble. If we could bottle and dispense unspeakable experiences such as these, the lessons would assuredly take and our distant descendants need not be taught anew.

Alas, cultural memory fades and the moral instruction of humanity carries on without end. It is seemingly in our nature, a collective rite of passage, a gauntlet to be run again and again and again.

And now, in the year 5784, it is our turn. Jewish civilization is in the midst of relearning an essential lesson. If only it could be for the last and final time.


Jews, of course, aren’t supposed to get tattoos. It is so verboten, so counter to the belief that man is made in the image of God, that an oft-repeated myth claims I have just forfeited my right to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But if observant Jews were to flaunt this halachic prohibition, many would undoubtedly ink their arms and ankles with the phrase Am Yisrael Chai.

Am Yisrael Chai. Translation: the people of Israel live. It is a rallying cry that’s been making the rounds a lot in recent days. That’s because on October 7 of last year, nearly 3000 Palestinians marshaled under the banner of the terror group Hamas infiltrated Israel, killing nearly 1200 Israelis and abducting more than 240 to be held as hostages. They spared neither the children nor the elderly, made no distinction between soldier and civilian; all were among the dead and captured. The brazen and brutal attacks stunned Israeli society, Jews throughout the diaspora, and gentiles of conscience all around the world.

Israel responded to the horror by declaring war. Motivated by a resolve to eradicate Hamas - a decades-old foe hell bent on driving them into the sea - the Israelis trained all available firepower on the Gaza Strip. A tiny slice of land hugging the Mediterranean coast, Gaza is the homebase of these miscreants. It is from here they launched their merciless assault and it is here they returned with their scores of captives.

Months have now passed since that fateful day and the war rages on. The Israeli military has launched untold rockets, dropped innumerable bombs. Israeli troops have stormed into Gaza, battling amidst the rubble and rooting out enemy fighters from a maze of underground tunnels. Hamas’ capacity to strike back has been decimated. The search for the remaining hostages continues.

If that was all Israel was doing - protecting their sovereign territory, attempting the rescue of innocents, killing killers - there would be little need to recount these events. They would be sadly unremarkable. But the Gaza Strip is not just the domain of Hamas - it is also home to over two million people who played no role in the crimes of October 7. And what Israel has unleashed on them has been nothing short of cataclysmic.

By early December, almost 85% of the people of Gaza had been uprooted by the war and rendered refugees.3 By mid-December, Israeli ordnance had destroyed or damaged nearly 70% of the homes in Gaza and half of its buildings.4 By Christmas, Israeli retaliation had snuffed out over 20,000 Palestinian lives, yet 75% of Jewish Israelis still supported the continuation of their military’s bombardment campaign.5 By the dawning of the new year, Gaza had become “uninhabitable”, with “famine around the corner”6, the devastation having surpassed that of Aleppo during the Syrian civil war and Mariupol during the Russian invasion.7

Sympathy for the victims of Hamas terror has evaporated. The world is in an uproar yet Israel refuses to relent. Justifications for this collective punishment reach my eyes and ears from diaspora Jews and sabras alike. They hurt my heart.

This is how we preserve Judaism for our posterity. This is how we secure the Jewish homeland. This is how we ensure the people of Israel live.

There is now talk of “voluntary emigration” from Gaza. Politicians possessing real power in Israel would like to see the enclave practically emptied.8 In reprisal for the savagery of a few thousand the expulsion of nearly two million is on the table. How has it come to this?

Israel will win this war militarily, no problem. That outcome is not in doubt. But at what cost spiritually? After achieving victory, after annihilating the current incarnation of Hamas, after expending the last of their wrath on the people of Gaza, how can the Israelis still plausibly claim anything resembling the moral high ground?

"If the State of Israel manifested merely the same viciousness as every other modern state, then I—and most Israelis, I am certain—would feel this behavior to be a betrayal of the Jewish people and its tradition,” wrote Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz fifty years ago.9

Bibi, Benny, Yoav10, you assert yourselves the stewards of our people and traditions. Tell me - how has it come to this?


There is a Jewish custom known as sitting shiva. For one week following the funeral of a parent or child, spouse or sibling, we remove ourselves from the community. We stay home, refrain from pleasurable activities, and process our grief. Friends and family come to us, providing consolation (and food). This custom stretches back to biblical times.

It’s rather ingenious. One can imagine Jewish wise men recognizing a basic truth thousands of years ago: when you are in mourning, you are emotionally vulnerable. You are apt to make decisions that are foolish or wicked - or both. Best to give yourself a cooling off period before doing anything rash. If you still want to do it a week later, go nuts.

The Israeli people failed to sit shiva. They remain locked in a frenzied state, and terrible deeds are being committed because of this impiety. The destruction being wrought in Gaza is neither just nor righteous. It is unholy vengeance - and I foresee profound consequences if it continues unabated.

Global public opinion shifts decisively against Zionism, turning Israel into a pariah among nations, akin to South Africa in the 80s. The dream of not only a two-state solution, but of a secular and democratic Jewish state withers and dies, as religious zealots and ultranationalists seize total control. They vow to safeguard the Promised Land with all their might and abandon any lingering moral compunctions toward the Palestinians. Finally, the peoples of the Arab world plant a stake in the ground, unite with one voice and one fist, and carry out their own apocalyptic retribution. Condemned by the callousness and hubris and sacrilege of its people, the State of Israel is overwhelmed and is no more.

Call me hysterical, but we have been here before. Hosea, a biblical prophet, warned the Israelites of their impending doom. They had turned away from God, breaking the covenant and violating the commandments. “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind,” he proclaimed. 11 Within his lifetime, the awful prophecy came true. A mighty empire descended upon the northern kingdom, conquering the sinful nation and scattering the people to strange lands. Over time, their identity as Jews was lost.12

2700 years later, I fear that history has begun to repeat itself. I fear that, like in the days of Hosea, Israel has chosen to reap the whirlwind.


The leaders of Hamas were able to recruit thousands of Palestinians to carry out their murderous plot. In the aftermath of the carnage, scenes of celebratory crowds in Gaza City and Nablus and Jenin seeped onto the internet. What possessed these men to slaughter my people and their compatriots to revel in our deaths?

Hamas codenamed their attack ‘Operation Al-Aqsa Flood’. Al-Aqsa Mosque sits on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a supremely sacred space to Muslims and Jews. In recent years a shaky status quo regarding religious activity on the site has been violated repeatedly by fundamentalist Jews, at times with the backing of Israeli police. Palestinians protesting these actions have been barred from worship, tear gassed, beaten, and arrested. These provocations have been headline news in the Arab world. This is the proximate cause of the attack.

But the ultimate cause goes back much further. Mohammed Deif, the mastermind behind October 7, declaimed a litany of grievances to justify the pogrom: the imprisonment of thousands of Palestinians on dubious legal grounds; escalating settler violence in the West Bank; a sixteen year blockade of the Gaza Strip; international indifference to an unending stream of human rights abuses; and the bitter reality of living a lifetime under military occupation.13

What did the Israelis think was going to happen? That the Palestinians were just going to lie there and accept getting sodomized until the end of time? That not even 1 percent of them would - when backed into a corner, deprived of hope, simmering with rage - let loose their own unholy vengeance? That the Palestinians would be the first people in all of recorded history to accept their lot without a fight?

We of all people should know better. The Diaspora only began in earnest following a failed revolt against Roman rule in the 130s CE. It was the third such Jewish revolt in less than a century. Yes, three times our people rebelled against these conquerors. Hundreds of thousands were killed or enslaved, and the Second Temple was destroyed. We were denied sovereignty in our homeland, expelled entirely from Jerusalem, and dispersed to every corner of the known world.14

Hamas, as monstrous as their infamous reputation, are simply following in our footsteps: resisting the conquest of their land and the oppression of their brethren. From their perspective, we are the Romans. Seen in this godforsaken light, October 7 - the deadliest day in Israeli history, the bloodiest day for Jews anywhere since the Holocaust - was inevitable. The policies pursued by the Israeli government and their unremitting support by a critical mass of Israelis made this day inevitable.

Consider this. If I was a twenty-year-old Ahmed or Ali living in Gaza City. If all I had known was a life of squalor among gray concrete and dirt. If my horizons were obscured by walls tipped with barbed wire and foreigner soldiers armed to the teeth. If I had held the mangled, bloodied, lifeless bodies of friends and family, and seen their killers face zero repercussions - I very likely would have joined Hamas.15

I might not have decapitated babies or abducted the elderly, but I would have enlisted in their fight. I would have dedicated all my energies to making our enemies suffer.

And why shouldn’t I? The people of Gaza live at the mercy of the people of Israel. The Israeli state can deny access to food and fuel, electricity and internet service. The Israeli military can level homes and hospitals and houses of worship. The Israeli youth can rave carefree in the desert while the Gaza youth are penned in like barnyard animals.

If the lottery of birth had placed me in Gaza City, and the last twenty years were the last twenty years, how could the Israelis not be my enemies?


Jews tell stories. And one of our defining stories is that we are a persecuted people. Across the ages, time and again, we have suffered at the hands of others: slavery, exile, mob violence, attempted annihilation. All this has transpired.

But I think we have internalized this story of innumerable persecutions so deeply that we have come to believe we can never be the persecutors ourselves. That somehow we - as a community, as the Children of Israel, as God’s chosen people - could never be in the wrong. That our banners could never be the harbingers of death nor our weapons ever call forth cries of anguish from widows and orphans.

Which is, of course, absurd. Like Shylock insisted, we Jews are full-fledged human beings. And we are capable of heinous deeds, just like all the other men and women that walk this earth. Yet the question remains: how could my people, targeted for extermination within living memory, so suddenly flip the script, inflicting and rationalizing death and destruction on such a horrifying scale?

Uri Avnery fled Hitler’s Germany as a child, fought as a commando during the Israeli War of Independence in the prime of life, and established a leading peace advocacy group, Gush Shalom, as an old man.16 He was once asked this very question. His response:

“I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it’s the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism. [...] Sick people, when they are in pain, cannot speak about anyone but themselves. And when such monstrous things have happened to your people, you feel nothing can be compared to it. You get a moral ‘power of attorney’, a permit to do anything you want – because nothing can compare to what has happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel.”17

Is it that simple? As the adage goes, hurt people hurt people. Everyone you love and hold dear is brutalized and shot and gassed, so you now have license to commit atrocities yourself. Kill or be killed, right? To walk a different path, that would be impossible.

Marek Edelman was another Jewish hero. He fought against the Nazis in both the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 1944 citywide Warsaw Uprising. He joined the Solidarity movement in defiance of Soviet repression in the 80s and personally delivered humanitarian aid to a besieged Sarajevo in the 90s. He also refused to make aliyah, openly critiqued acts of Israeli oppression, and defended the rights of the Palestinian people.18

Edelman made these choices after surviving the Shoah. He bore witness to our most terrible traumas and yet refused to harden his heart. He is proof that unconditional support for Zionism has never been universal, that our metamorphosis into a society of oppressors was not predestined, that we need not become the monsters we fear and despise in order to live as Jews.

The only righteous response to persecution is a commitment to upholding our common humanity the world over - even with those who contest our homeland. It is not an easy path to tread, but if the battle-scarred and harrowed Edelman could walk it, so can we.


I have been to Israel. I have scaled Masada, the desert hilltop where my forebears chose a martyr’s death over Roman slavery, and saw the sun rise over the Dead Sea. I have touched the surviving stones of the Wailing Wall, sticking my father’s prayers into its cracks. I have walked through markets in Tel Aviv that were torn to shreds by Palestinian suicide bombers and stood in the plaza where Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish fundamentalist for having the audacity to seek peace. Generational trauma dots the land.

And yet, generation upon generation never stopped yearning to set foot in Eretz Yisrael. It is there in Psalm 137 - “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning” - recited by the groom at weddings. It makes itself known at the conclusion of the Passover seder, where we declare our hope to celebrate “next year in Jerusalem!”. And it can be found in the words of an Israeli tour guide to a busload of young American Jews, moments before setting our sights on the Old City: “Welcome back. Even if this is your first time in Jerusalem, welcome back.”

An intrinsically Jewish state now flourishes on this land in realization of those ancient yearnings. My ten days crisscrossing Israel were like a dream come true. Over a decade later, I see that dream cannot last - not as long as it is built on top of another’s nightmare. My people, for the first time in over two millennia, hold all the power in this land. We have abused it terribly. And those who abuse their power must eventually succumb to an unhappy fate.

The biblical kingdoms were swept away, my ancestors butchered and deported en masse, Solomon’s Temple destroyed. The Third Reich did not last a thousand years - the Allies obliterated German cities and ravaged the German people. Rome fell; there are no more Romans.

Can we not learn from their wretched example before it is too late?

Or perhaps we are no different from Gilgamesh, doomed to repeat repeat repeat the things men have to learn.


As a child, I attended a conservative, firmly Zionist synagogue with my family. During the weekly shabbat service, without fail, a congregant would ascend the bimah and recite a prayer for peace, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”19

A message as clear as day to my younger self: the pursuit of world peace is a core tenet of Judaism, of my people.We don’t proselytize our faith to outsiders or demand fealty to our God upon pain of death or fixate on salvation in the hereafter. No, we pine for a Messiah who will usher in the days of fellowship among all peoples here on earth.

Now I am a grown man. I make my living as a seasonal civil servant, of sorts. Looking out from my pro tem workplace where I serve the Minneapolis electorate, the skyline is dominated by a 10-story tower. On each side of this repurposed grain elevator, the words “May Peace Prevail On Earth” have been emblazoned in a multitude of languages. Black type on a gray facade, Hebrew is among them. Sh’hashalom yisror alei adamot.

I read this stark plea, day after day, and bow my head in hope and shame.

Steve Abrams (BA in History, Boston University) is a writer based in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area.


1 Mason, Herbert. Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 64-65.

10 The Israeli war cabinet, cobbled together following October 7 and now responsible for leading the country, consists of Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, and Yoav Gallant.

11 King James Version, Hosea 8.7.

12 Our knowledge of the biblical past keeps expanding and it appears the story is not so simple. Our current understanding is that the Assyrian captivity was extensive but not total - many Israelites remained in the land and many fled to the southern kingdom of Judah. However, thousands were deported throughout the Near East, dispossessed of their culture and creed. These are the Ten Lost Tribes.

14 It is true that substantial Jewish communities existed outside Judea prior to these wars with Rome. But the destruction of the Temple and the mass depopulation of our homeland demarcates a seminal moment in our history.

15 I’m not alone in this. Ehud Barak - commander-in-chief of the IDF in the early 90s and prime minister at the turn of the millennium - once said as much, too.

19 King James Version, Isaiah 2.4.




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