Bari Weiss: The Holiday from History Is Over

by Bari Weiss at The Free Press: On a recent Tuesday morning I found myself two kilometers from Gaza. Every few minutes we could hear the boom of a 155 mm howitzer sending fire across the border, but I was trying to focus on the historian Michael Oren, who was talking to me not about the war raging around us but about Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman general who walked the world 500 years before Jesus was born, some 200 kilometers from the spot we were standing.

“Cincinnatus was a farmer. All he wanted was to be at his plow,” Oren told me as the winter rain poured down. “But every time he went back to his farm the Roman Republic came to him and said, ‘We need you to come back. We need you to lead an army.’ ”

“The Cincinnatus myth was the foundational myth for the American Revolution, specifically for Washington himself,” Oren said. “It is also the most foundational Israeli myth. It is David Ben-Gurion. It is Moshe Dayan. It is Ariel Sharon. These people just wanted to farm. But they were called to pick up arms and defend their country. Israel is the Cincinnatus nation.” 

Many have never heard the name Cincinnatus in Israel, where the Romans are remembered more as the empire that destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, slaughtered and sold its inhabitants, and renamed the land Syria Palestina. But the Jewish people—who long outlived that empire and reconstituted the Jewish national home in the land the Romans had once conquered—are also democratic heirs to Cincinnatus. 

On the morning of October 7, ordinary Israelis left their offices, closed their laptops, and abandoned their fields to pick up weapons, in many cases without waiting for instructions from the state or its army. 

On that black morning, and in the weeks and months since, these men and women have displayed the kind of heroism most thought belonged to the mythic past, or the generation of 1948, when the armies of five invading Arab nations turned every kibbutz and moshav, and every town and village, into a battlefield. 

For twenty-first-century inhabitants of the Middle East’s start-up nation, such individual and collective courage had become something to be studied in the past—not enacted in the present. Not inside the land of Israel. Not in the twenty-first century. And certainly not by them.

But I met successors to Cincinnatus everywhere I went.

They are ordinary Israelis like Inbar Lieberman. Lieberman is a 25-year-old woman who is the security coordinator of Kibbutz Nir Am. She killed five terrorists by herself on October 7. The rest of her team repelled an additional 20 over the course of four hours. “I’m not a hero,” she says. “I wasn’t there by myself.”

Ordinary Israelis like my friend Jessica’s father-in-law, Noam Tibon, a 62-year-old grandfather who got in a jeep with his pistol and his wife, Gali. He drove south from Tel Aviv and shot his way through terrorists to liberate his son and granddaughters, who were hiding in their safe room in Kibbutz Nahal Oz from hundreds of Hamas terrorists who were swarming the kibbutz. 

Or like Yair Golan, another 61-year-old retired general—his career cut short because of his leftist views—who drove alone through the fields near the Gaza Strip and followed pins dropped by panicked young people hiding in the bushes at the Nova music festival to save them. 

Or like the special forces reservist who had just returned from vacation outside Israel. Then he got the call. “I didn’t understand by any means the scale of what we were about to get into. We’re on our way out and the commander says, all right, guys, load your weapons. We’re about to get into a firefight. And I was like, oh, shit, I did not see my Saturday going this way.” He went on: “There was no centralized command. No one was telling us what to do. We were just doing our job and going from one place to the other and doing our best.”

Or like Masad Armilat, the 23-year-old Arab Israeli I bumped into at a gas station where we stopped to buy a coffee near the killing fields of the music festival. On that day Armilat, who typically works in the storeroom, saved scores of wounded people. Meantime, his father “left his house and helped close all the paths into Ofakim, where the terrorists would have entered.” 

Or like Rachel Goldberg Polin, who told me more than 100 days after her only son, Hersh, had his arm blown off and was taken into Gaza—she didn’t know if he was alive or dead: “I still think we have so many blessings.” She invoked Psalm 23—the poem King David wrote about his cup overflowing. “Right now it overflows with tears,” she said, “but I know it will overflow with joy again.” 

Or like Arab Israeli news broadcaster, Lucy Aharish, who recalled watching that morning as her husband, Fauda actor Tsahi Halevi, having aged out of the reserves, nevertheless put on his old uniform and walked out the door. She thought through a plan she never imagined she would need: “If the terrorists come into this building, should I hide my son Adam in the washing machine? Or in the closet?”

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