For Princetonians living in Israel, there is broad agreement that the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed an estimated 1,400 people caught their country — and them personally — profoundly off-guard.
“There was a sense prior to Oct. 7 that we had finished with our wars of existence … that we had moved on to the startup nation, of making the country a success,” says Moshe Friedman ’98, who runs a corporate venture capital fund from an agricultural kibbutz. “We instead find ourselves in a fight of our parents’ generation, securing the borders of our state and tackling threats to our existence.”
The attacks “rocked me to my core,” adds Jonathan Heinberg ’04, a father of seven who works in the tech sector. He says he and other Israelis “knew that Hamas’ charter called for the destruction of Israel” but didn’t realize that the group “had deep plans to attempt to actualize it beyond launching terror attacks and shooting rockets indiscriminately.”
A few weeks after the attacks, and amid an Israeli military counteroffensive in Gaza in which it is estimated thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed, PAW reached out to alumni in Israel and talked to 17 to collect their thoughts on the month’s events. (PAW was unsuccessful in identifying and reaching alumni in Gaza or the West Bank, or alumni who had been in those places recently.)
In a series of email interviews, PAW found several widely shared opinions: A lost sense of security. Dissatisfaction with the Israeli government’s handling of intelligence prior to the attacks. A frustration with the international news media and other governments for not taking Israelis’ losses more seriously. Foreboding over rising antisemitism, including on U.S. college campuses. Agreement over the necessity of knocking out Hamas militarily, often paired with sadness over Palestinian civilians who stand to suffer as a result. A surprising sense of Israeli unity after an unprecedentedly fractious period that was marked by widespread protests of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
And even, despite it all, a flickering hope that Israelis and Palestinians can someday live as peaceful neighbors.
“I don’t know how to get from where we are to what that will be, but one of the things Hamas tried to do is make that seem unimaginable,” says Shanah Glick ’90, a lawyer who lives north of Tel Aviv. “I think we need to fight back against that, just as much as we need to fight back against Hamas.”
The alums we interviewed spanned 50 class years — three from the 1970s, four from the 1980s, six from the 1990s, and four since 2000. All but one had moved to Israel as adults, mostly from the U.S. — a process known as “aliyah.” Thirteen live in cities, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, while two live in a communal entity known as a kibbutz or a moshav, and three live in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Virtually all of those interviewed were either at synagogue or headed there when the Oct. 7 attacks took place. None of the alums faced the most direct attacks. Most heard sirens and an unusually large number of distant explosions, and many huddled in bomb shelters or cellars. For the most religiously observant, the news came in bits and pieces because their cellphones were turned off.
At least half of the alums said they have family members who have been called up for reserve military duty, including Michael Bayme ’85, who has three children who were placed on active duty. Bayme is a surgeon who works in Be’er Sheva, which is less than an hour’s drive from Gaza. Bayme said his hospital treated 685 wounded patients in one day, of whom 150 had life-threatening wounds. That was far more than he’d ever experienced at one time, Bayme said.
The mood in the country, says lawyer Daniel Michael Goldstein ’89, “feels a lot like the first few weeks post-9/11” in the United States. “There’s a dark cloud hanging over most social interactions. You almost can’t walk into a store and avoid discussing some aspect of the tragedy, even with complete strangers.”
Danny Fax ’98 says he cried at his desk at work for more than a week. Israelis “feel vulnerable in a way they have not before — vulnerable about being targeted for extinction and vulnerable because much of the world does not seem to care or understand.”
When Owen Alterman ’99, senior diplomatic correspondent with i24NEWS, went to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz where some of the bloodiest attacks were, “your feet walk over the clothes that the perpetrators threw out of the homes. Your nose smells the smoke and death, and in your helmet and flak jacket your ears hear the artillery firing in the background. I hope one of the communities, or part of one, will not be rebuilt and instead left, as with the concentration camps in Europe, as an eternal testament to what happened.”
Many Israelis, alums say, have decided to arm themselves, such as Allan Farber ’78, who recently applied for a handgun license. “When I first built my house, I never believed that I would ever need a bomb shelter,” he says. “Now, we are trying to lock the bomb shelter from the inside as defense against intrusions.”
To a person, the alums agree that the Israeli military needed to respond to the Oct. 7 attack by hitting Hamas hard — a unanimity that is especially striking given that about half of the group say they either participated in or supported protests earlier this year against Netanyahu’s attempts to shift power away from the Israeli supreme court. Critics saw his proposal as removing an important check and balance on Israeli law. Most of those who didn’t actively take part in protests say they harbored at least some sympathy for the protesters’ goals.
“Honestly, after so many months of political turmoil, I never would have believed that the Jewish people in Israel could be so united,” Heinberg says. “Of course, it’s tragic that it took such heinous crimes against humanity to wake us up.”
Several Israeli alums say they empathize with the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and have pushed for humanitarian aid for civilians. But they blame Hamas, which runs Gaza’s authoritarian government, for making that difficult.
“Gazans deserve humanitarian aid,” Fax says. “The issue is safe and reliable delivery. Just like the Israel Defense Forces have a seemingly impossible challenge to root out Hamas while they deliberately embed themselves among civilians, so too aid organizations have the problem of delivering aid effectively to Gazans without it getting into the hands of Hamas.”
Carra Glatt ’09, an English professor who lives in Jerusalem, says she feels “terrible for innocent civilians in Gaza being killed, particularly children. But we don’t have a choice, and I think the great majority of Israelis would agree. After what happened on Oct. 7, allowing Hamas to stay in power in Gaza is impossible.” (Glatt is sharing her thoughts about Israel post-Oct. 7 at her Substack.)
Yadin Kaufmann ’80 expresses sadness about how the Oct. 7 attacks have set back his 17-year effort to try to develop a technology sector in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem. Efforts to bridge this divide remain “important for Palestinians — and for Israelis, because the huge economic gaps between the two societies are a recipe for instability,” Kaufmann says.
“I think if anything could be strengthened, it is the public relations front,” says Adam Hitin Bialus ’23, who lives in Tel Aviv and whose family has been in Israel for four generations. “Being a soldier myself with friends in every branch of the army, I know what measures we take to protect citizens on the other side. Yet somehow this information does not propagate outwards. Israel is still assumed to target civilians and its word is compared to that of Hamas, a terror organization.”
Alterman says he’s said on air and in social media from the first days of the war that the international criticism of Israel has been entirely predictable. “Israeli policy blocking access to food, water, and basic medicine for civilians is not realistic. The workings of international relations won’t allow it,” he says.
Many of the alums are also expressing concern about the rise in antisemitism globally. Glatt says she’s concerned by news coverage she’s seen about other Ivy League schools.
“I loved my time at Princeton, but I have no desire for my daughter to go to an Ivy League that has produced students who not only justify, but celebrate, mass murder if the murderers happen to align with their ill-informed politics, or if the victims happen to be Jews,” Glatt says.
Glick says the news she reads about anti-Israel protests is “very, very alarming. People from the U.S. keep telling me they are worried about my safety, and my response is that I am just as worried about their safety.”
One silver lining, some alums say, has been the forging of a closer connection to supporters of Israel in the U.S. A WhatsApp channel to connect Princeton students and alums in Israel and the U.S. had 30 members before Oct. 7, says Rabbi Eitan Webb, director of the Scharf Family Chabad House at Princeton University.
“On Oct. 9, I changed the name from Princetonians in Israel to Princetonians for Israel and added a dozen or so people,” Webb says. “Within a few days it had grown exponentially, and now there are more than 400 alumni and some students. Any alum who identifies as a Princetonian for Israel is welcome to join.”
If you are an alum living in the West Bank or Gaza, have been there recently, or have close ties to the region and would like to share your story, please contact PAW at email@example.com.
Louis Jacobson ’92 is a senior correspondent with PolitiFact.