Rabbi Elkana Visel
Rabbi Elkana ViselCourtesy of the fanily

Photo: Master Sgt.(Res) Rabbi Elkana Vizel, who fell in Gaza on January 22

This piece first appeared on Melanie Phillips's website -- melaniephillips.substack.com -- and is republished here with permission.

Already numb with grief over the flower of Israel’s youth falling in the war in Gaza, Israelis have been further shattered by the killing on Monday of no fewer than 21 reservists in one deadly incident and three other soldiers the same day.

Not surprisingly, this has increased calls from the public for an end to the war. Even more understandably, the families of the Israeli hostages are becoming ever more desperate about the captives’ likely horrific fate in the dungeons of Hamas, and are stepping up demonstrations calling for a deal to end the war and secure the hostages’ release.

Would that it were that simple. Israel faces a horrific binary choice: to end the threat from Hamas, or end the ordeal of the hostages. It almost certainly can’t achieve both.

Hamas will not give up all the hostages without a guaranteed end to Israeli hostilities and a pledge not to assassinate the Hamas leaders. If Israel were to agree to that, a revitalised Hamas would remain a mortal threat to Israeli lives, more hostages would be taken in future and more Israelis murdered.

The residents of Israel’s communities near the border with Gaza would be unable to return safely to their homes; nor would the families that have been evacuated from communities near the border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s 150,000 missiles are embedded in the civilian population ready for the signal to strike the entire Jewish state and where Hezbollah’s Radwan force remains poised to invade Israel to order to murder and abduct more Jews.

There is hardly an Israeli family that isn’t personally affected by this war. In such a tiny country, almost everyone has family members on the front lines, has relatives or friends who have been murdered or been abducted into Gaza, or knows people in such situations.

Yet most of the country remains resolute. Polling suggests that sixty percent of Jewish Israelis oppose a deal that would see the remaining hostages returned in exchange for releasing all Palestinian security prisoners and an end to hostilities in Gaza. These Israelis understand that such a deal would mean Palestinian Arab murderers being set free to murder more Israelis; that it would incentivise yet more hostage taking; that it would give Hamas a victory that would galvanise not just it but every jihadi to redouble their attacks; and that it would betray the fallen soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in the belief that this was a price worth paying to end the Hamas scourge.

While most of the Israeli public remain clear-sighted and resolute, the campaign by the hostages’ families — for whom one should have nothing but sympathy and compassion — is contributing to a mood of defeatism being whipped up by self-indulgent Israeli journalists which can only damage the war effort, weaken Israel and assist its enemies.

There is, however, a very different story that’s also being told. Ma’arivcorrespondent Ben Caspit and fellow journalist Amit Segal have spent time with an Israeli brigade fighting in Khan Yunis. Caspit wrote:

"In the winter of 2023, Israel is a nation divided into two unequal parts: One part consists of everyone who isn’t either in Gaza or on the northern border, and everyone not recruited for either conscripted or reserve military duty — to wit, nearly all of us. They are all anxious, depressed, arguing, shouting and bickering, putting out negative energy that includes fear, shock, insult, defeatism, incompetence and a great deal of bitterness.

"The second part of Israel is that on the front. I met them on Monday in Khan Yunis. These are a different kind of Israelis. They’re full of energy and confident in their abilities. They’re united and smiling, faithfully eager to complete their mission. They’re calm. They’re not arguing among themselves but, rather, are helping one another, patting each other on the back and, when need be, they rescue each other. Last Monday in Khan Yunis, I realised that our situation in Gaza is much better than the way it looks from Tel Aviv. Even after the dreadful tragedy on Monday…

"The tank guys sleep in their tanks (which I can tell you from personal experience really aren’t that comfortable). The infantry soldiers improvise whatever they can.The troops have their coffee and their backgammon and a true sense of being brothers-in-arms, and we heard the same request from absolutely everyone there. 'Tell them at home, not to stop us. Let us finish our work. We mustn’t stop. We mustn’t let up. We’re here because this has to be done. We’re strong and we hope that you guys on the home front are also strong'…

"We then went up to a look-out…We realised we wouldn’t find a single hospital in Gaza that wasn’t fully fitted with guns, explosives, shafts and tunnels. Nearly all the mosques too [my emphasis]. Gaza isn’t what they told us. We’re now teaching them that we’re not what they’ve been told we are either."

The astonishing attitude among the reservists that Caspit was talking about was exemplified by Elkana Vizel, who was among the 21 who fell on Monday. Rabbi Vizel, a squad commander and a married father of four children, previously fought as a reservist in Gaza in Operation Protective Edge (Tzuk Eitan) in 2014, when he was injured in battle. This is what he wrote in a letter to his family during the current war, in case the worst should happen:

"If you are reading these words, something must have happened to me. If I was kidnapped, I demand that no deal be made for the release of any terrorist to release me. Our overwhelming victory is more important than anything, so please continue to work with all your might so that the victory is as overwhelming as possible.

"Maybe I fell in battle. When a soldier falls in battle, it is sad, but I ask you to be happy. Don't be sad when you part with me. Touch hearts, hold each other's hands, and strengthen each other. We have so much to be proud and happy about.

"We are writing the most significant moments in the history of our nation and the entire world. So please, be happy, be optimistic, keep choosing life all the time. Spread love, light, and optimism. Look at your loved ones in the whites of their eyes and remind them that everything we go through in this life is worth it and we have something to live for.

"Don't stop the power of life for a moment. I was already wounded in Operation Tzuk Eitan, but I do not regret that I returned to fight. This is the best decision I ever made."

It is unspeakable that such a gift to humanity has now had his life so cruelly extinguished. It is unendurable that so many of the very best of a young generation are being lost in this war that has been forced upon the Jewish people yet again by genocidal fanatics bent on the extermination of every Jew and the destruction of their ancestral homeland.

Yet in the midst of this agony, the words of Elkana Vizel reveal something of priceless value that is emerging on these battlefields of pain; something that Ben Caspit discovered among the soldiers fighting at Khan Yunis.

We are witnessing the rebirth once again of Jewish heroism — physical heroism, for sure, military exploits of courage and self-sacrifice which we will be hearing about for years to come, but also a spiritual heroism. We are witnessing the assertion of life in the face of a terrifying cult of death; of optimism and hope in the face of the cynicism and defeatism of the everyday world; of deep love of Israel and its people in the face of the bitterness and rancour that too often divide them; of sweetness and goodness in the face of the disgusting filth of a western world that sides with genocidal murderers against their innocent victims simply because those victims are Jews, or else professes to support Israel in its life and death struggle while leaving it to swing in the murderous wind.

In Elkana Vizel, we have seen a young man for whom fighting for his people and his nation gave his life meaning. The way he lived that life and the words he wrote that resonate beyond his untimely grave give us inspiration; they teach us once again why the Jews are the eternal people.

Don’t cry, he tells us. Choose life, and fight for it. What this stirs within us Jews is the ancient memory of our lion-hearted history, and the realisation of what we still are.

May the memory of Elkana Vizel and all his fallen comrades be a blessing to us all.

Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to: melaniephillips.substack.com.