Gary Willig is a newswriter at Arutz Sheva.
No day was more formative in my childhood than September 11, 2001. I remember my principal summoning the entire student body to the auditorium to tell us that a terrorist attack had been committed in lower Manhattan, but not providing any more details.
I remember the tears of a classmate who was terrified because his older sister went to college in Manhattan. I remember my father coming to pick me up during gym class and telling me in the car that the World Trade Center was no more and that thousands of people were dead. I remember the giant plume of dark purple smoke that cut through the otherwise clear blue skies during the drive home to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and the knowledge that the world would never be the same again.
9/11 was a day I thought would never, could never happen again. Until October 7, 2023.
In Jerusalem, like in the rest of the country, we were celebrating the Simchat Torah holiday. The first sign that something was wrong was the Red Alert siren going off at about 8:15 am, just as I was about to leave for synagogue. The sound of the explosion of the Iron Dome system intercepting a rocket was quite loud, signaling that the rocket had been close to the Katamon neighborhood where I live.
On the way to synagogue, the first person I encountered on the street had not even heard the siren or the explosion. Others had. One person told me that the rocket had come from Gaza and not Lebanon, and for a while that was all I knew.
The prayer service I attended was supposed to be held on the roof of a local yeshiva, with outdoor Hakafot and a meat breakfast. Another siren went off at about 8:45, right as the service was supposed to begin, and we all went inside to wait for the siren to end. A third siren activated minutes later, and the decision was made to move the services entirely indoors.
The sirens continued to go off throughout the morning. There were numerous thuds from explosions caused by Iron Dome interceptions, but no more loud bangs from a close explosion like that first rocket attack. At one point, after the immediate danger had passed for the moment, we could see the white streaks of the Iron Dome interceptors on the path they had taken to save Israeli lives. The sight took me back to the cloud of 9/11, though while that dark cloud symbolized death and destruction, these white streaks symbolized life and resiliency.
No one at this prayer service knew exactly what was happening. We did not check our phones due to it being Shabbat and a yom tov (holiday). This many rocket attacks on the Jerusalem area obviously meant a very serious conflict was underway with the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, but we had no way of knowing how bad it truly was. We knew that however bad it was in Jerusalem, in the south, in Sderot, in Ashkelon, and in all the communities near the Gaza border, it must have been a hundred times worse.
Make that a million times.
At about 11:30 am, while we were in the middle of reading from the Torah, the central part of the Simchat Torah services, a member of the yeshiva administration came in and told us that the order had been given to close all synagogues in Jerusalem and that we all had to go home. It was not just the rockets being fired at us, but there was intelligence that terrorists could infiltrate the city and synagogues where large numbers of Jews gathered would be prime targets. So we dispersed and concluded our prayers in private at home.
Once at home, there was no way to hear the instructions of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Safed, to keep our phones on. There was nothing to do but keep our doors locked and wait until the sun had set and Shabbat was over to learn the truth of what was happening.
After dark, we turned on the news. It was worse than I could ever have imagined.
Nothing could have prepared me for the headline: “Massive terror attack in Israel, more than 100 killed.” Nothing could have prepared me for the details of this attack, that in addition to the expected thousands of rockets, Hamas had sent hundreds of terrorists across the border through and over the fence and even by sea to attack and murder Israelis in their cities, in their synagogues, in their homes, and in their sleep.
This was a long-planned and well-coordinated attack on Israel and the Jewish people’s very existence, and a security and intelligence failure at least on par with the Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack at the start of the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.
Just like on 9/11, the scale and magnitude of this terrorist attack are unimaginable. Just like on 9/11, the videos from the scene were horrifying, the sense of being under siege and at war was palpable. Just like that fateful day 22 years ago, nothing would ever be the same.
I thought 9/11 would never happen again. I should have known better. The same blind hatred, the same love and worship of death that led 19 men to take 3,000 lives in addition to their own, still exists. It can be seen in the videos of the captives, especially innocent civilians, being paraded through Gaza. It can be seen in the images of terrified families, children, and the elderly, hiding in protected areas of their homes or wailing for loved ones who were killed or taken captive.
We Jews have seen this evil before. We saw it in the massacres of Jewish communities in Europe during the crusades, in the pogroms of 19th Century Russia, and in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust Genocide of 6 million men, women, and children for no other reason than that they are Jews.
We’ve seen it in the massacres of Darfur, Rwanda, and Xinjiang, and all the other mass murders That evil is constantly reborn every generation, now it lives in the hearts of the terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah and their masters in Tehran. This kind of evil makes man do the bestial, the unthinkable, from flying passenger jets into skyscrapers to massacring Jews on their religious holidays.
Every victim has a name, friends, family, a life. The people who called their loved ones from the planes or from inside the towers before they fell that September morning gave voice to the fact that every one of the 3,000 victims of those attacks were more than numbers and statistics. They were human beings who endured horrors no one should ever have to face before their lives were cruelly snuffed out.
It is the same with the victims of Hamas’ barbarism. As of the writing of this piece, the death toll is over 500. That is 500 lives snuffed out, 500 worlds ended. 500 stories suddenly stopped in the middle. And for what? Not in any fight for freedom, but in a fight to ensure that Jews have no rights, not the right to self-determination, and not the right to live.
So much has changed since September 11, 2001. I am no longer an elementary school pupil, blissfully unaware of the evil of those who worship death and hate those they call "infidels.". But against this kind of evil, there is little one person can do. It takes a nation, a world even, to stand up to the evil of Hamas and Iran, as the United States once stood up to Japan and the Nazis after Pearl Harbor. It will take all of us, standing together, to defeat this evil and ensure that this time, it cannot happen. October 7, 2023 must be the last 9/11.
May the Almighty guard and protect the brave soldiers who are risking their lives to protect their loved ones and fellow citizens and in defense of life itself. May He speedily deliver the captives from their captivity. May the souls of the slain find peace and tranquility in heaven, their names and stories never forgotten by the living. May their murderers rot forever in the pits of hell where they will go. And may the name of Hamas and all like it, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and Hezbollah, be blotted out so those who love life and peace no longer have to fear those who love and worship death above all else.