In the days after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., back in 2017, then-former Vice President Joe Biden wrote an essay for The Atlantic magazine in which he penned the following words:
“The giant forward steps we have taken in recent years on civil liberties and civil rights and human rights are being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America.
“Are we really surprised they rose up? Are we really surprised they lashed back? Did we really think they would be extinguished with a whimper rather than a fight?”
At the time, I was forced to admit to myself that in fact, I was surprised. I had somehow convinced myself over the years that the worst of these fights were in the past, and what Biden had called “the oldest and darkest forces in America” had been defeated, or at least diminished. Since then, I’ve learned—and been repeatedly reminded—how wrong I was.
I’ve been thinking about Biden’s article again in the days since Simchat Torah, not because of my opinions regarding his presidency, but because the questions he asked have forced me to once again confront my own overconfidence about the world in which we live.
Substitute his reference to “civil liberties and civil rights” with the phrase “toward the possibility of peace in the Middle East.” Replace his language about “the oldest and darkest forces in America” with a similar sentiment regarding even older and uglier sentiments among Israel’s enemies. Take Biden’s questions and transplant them halfway around the world and it’s clear that the same self-assurance that led me to believe that racism and bigotry in this country were shrinking forces had also convinced many of us that Israel’s strengths could now protect it from the ancient hatreds that Jews have faced since biblical times.
We were wrong.
This overconfidence was quickly exposed on several operational fronts, from the limitations of the Iron Dome defense system, that was overpowered by unprecedented numbers of incoming missiles, to the vulnerabilities of a high-tech border surveillance system that was easily disabled by rudimentary drone attacks. Terrorist activity in the West Bank and at the Lebanon border convinced Israeli military leaders to redeploy troops from the Gaza area to other parts of the country, leaving outnumbered and inexperienced conscripts to face the sophisticated Hamas onslaught.
But the most damaging error was a fundamental misunderstanding of Hamas’s priorities and goals. The widespread assumption was that a terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel had shifted its focus in recent years to the economic sustenance of the residents of Gaza, and that its leaders were willing to forego their violent past in exchange for financial support. In fact, the lifelong terrorists were merely biding their time until the right opportunity presented itself to wreak maximum death and destruction.
Israel’s intelligence services have been deservedly criticized for their failure to anticipate such a massive terrorist action. But unjustified overconfidence was also an affliction shared throughout Israel and among its supporters in the United States and around the world.
We fell victim to recency bias, assuming that because there had been no overwhelmingly devastating attacks against Israel in recent years that meant that they couldn’t happen anymore. We were distracted by internal arguments, forgetting that the overriding purpose of the Jewish state was to protect Jewish people and that a tiny country in a turbulent region could not afford the luxury of unending internecine feuding. And we believed our own press clippings, believing that a defense system was invulnerable simply because we all knew it was. Until it wasn’t.
The phrase “never again” is justifiably associated with the lessons of the Holocaust and is rarely if ever used in other contexts. But after the single deadliest day for Jews since the days of Nazi Germany, perhaps those same words would also be a helpful reminder for those who care about Israel to carry with us so we can be better prepared to protect ourselves from another horrific massacre, before it happens again.
Originally published by the Jewish Journal.