Was it the contrast of the unfurled flowers’ deep jewel tones against the earth’s sandy-desert neutrals? The vivid, joyous folk art adorning the external walls contrasted with the concrete of the reinforced bomb shelters intersecting the playgrounds? Or, was it simply the monochrome brightness of our hostess Chen Abrams’ red shirt playing out against washed-out capris—as she strode forward against a painfully sun-filled sky to greet us—that had prompted my recollection of the poignant words Shakespeare gives to Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice:
If you poison us do we not die?
And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
There was neither revenge nor anger that day. There was hospitality and fortitude, energy and earnestness; a certain notable quickness of reflexes on the part of our Israeli hosts, and an atmosphere of normalcy so pervasive that the absolute abnormality—from an American perspective—was cinematically heightened. White resin patio chairs stood sentinel over potted plants and sunning felines on verandas. These abutted green grassed lawns demarcated by pathways and not by fences. Children’s bikes leaned against each other tidily, expectantly awaiting their rambunctious riders. In snapshot, any of the neighborhoods we walked through could have belonged to a golf course community in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho—only there’d have been fences, if it were Idaho.
Two people were tending to the landscaping, watering trees and bushes. Neighbors were running quick next-door errands. We were witnessing how knitted together, like a family, this community is. How no one locks their doors.
But the hum of human movement was quiet—it was, after all, a working day, and this was a working community, not a summer camp. Many were out in the surrounding fields. It was also a school day, and the kids were being schooled. After entering the kibbutz, we stood alongside the school complex for a while, hearing the murmur of voices within. What remained with me was the sight of the still line of baby strollers near the door, with multiple painted bomb shelters a few yards away.
Hath not a Jew eyes?
This was Kfar Aza, a kibbutz on the Israeli border. It was June 2022, and for about fifteen years of intermittent war already, the farming community had every day had to live with their ears trained for the sound of the air raid siren and with their reflexes quickened to find immediate shelter from rocket fire. Even the toddlers here are so used to it, Abrams told us, that they’ll immediately lift up their arms at the sound. They know instinctively that somebody will rush to pick them up. That’s because, at just about one mile away from the Gaza Strip, the residents here have a mere ten to fifteen seconds to run for cover. And so, from anywhere in the kibbutz, there is a bomb shelter ten seconds away.
Up through 2016, during “mostly peaceful” weeks, the kibbutz would experience between one to five rockets per week. During times of escalation, Kfar Aza and the surrounding areas could experience up to 120 incoming rockets in under 48 hours. But looking back now, one notices something: In 2021, 2022, and May of 2023, Islamic Jihad followed their usual course of rocket launching behavior, but with the distinct difference of also launching barrages of thousands of rockets over a few concentrated days, according to the compilations published by the Jewish Virtual Library. Between October 7-20, 2023 alone, more than 7,380 rockets were fired from Gaza, 6,000 on October 7. That’s a notable difference of patterning from 2008, the year that 48-year-old Jimmy Kdoshim was killed by a Hamas mortar shell from Gaza while working in his Kfar Aza garden: From January through December, the whole year, a total of 3,107 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel, with no one huge concentration.
Before Kdoshim’s shocking death in 2008 (“this kibbutz changed forever,” Abrams has said)—but especially before Israel’s unilateral evacuation of every Israeli household, gravesite, and settlement from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas’ bloody ouster of its rival Fatah within the Gaza Strip in 2006—one could almost have thought of Kfar Aza as one of those idyllic beach-adjacent communities where the abundance of nautical elements in décor, from sea shells to wind chimes, matches the sunniness of disposition and laidback lifestyle of a seaside community. Kfar Aza is, after all, only about ten miles away from the Eastern Mediterranean; its residents “used to go to Gaza and go to the beach there. … We did commerce together.” This history is so obscured now that it took me an afternoon to piece together why those sea shells would be in Kfar Aza gardens.
Also obscured is the deep and once unlikely historical connection for the modern state of Israel between the kibbutzim, their farmers, and the things of the sea. In pre-state years, for those early Jewish advocates for a Jewish nation-state who were making their way back to the region, the focus was on redeeming the soil—reclaiming Eretz Yisrael—and thus the farmer was the hero, the ideal. The sea may have been the necessary pathway, from the port at Odessa or from Trieste or even Portsmouth, but once arrived in Jaffa, the future lay inland. This early neglect of the sea and maritime enterprises may have had a further ideological root, however: the collectivist-socialist (social democratic) mindset that would have been suspicious of fishing as too individualistic and different from the communal lifestyle of the kibbutz.
But a sea-change in attitude among the Zionists occurred over the course of the 1930s, steered in large part by the man who would be Israel’s primary national founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. As the newish city of Tel Aviv began to come into its own, it opened its own port in 1936 (later moved down the coast to Ashdod), with Ben-Gurion even announcing then:
The conquest of the soil by city people was the great, first adventure of our movement, of our endeavour in the country. A second adventure, great also, and perhaps harder than the first, still awaits us—the conquest of the sea. … The Mediterranean is the natural bridge that connects our small country with the wide world. The sea is an organic, economic and political part of our country. And it is still free. The force that pushed us from the city to the village pushes us now from the land to the sea. … The sea opens unbounded horizons for us. … We should remember: this country of ours combines land and water.
Necessity may have been the initial mother of invention here. As Jewish immigration increased, the Arab sailors, workers, and unions who controlled the Jaffa port became more hostile, eventually even closing it to Jews altogether amid the anti-Jewish and anti-British riots of 1936. But Ben-Gurion harnessed the political and economic opportunity of the moment, writing an essay in 1937 entitled “Going Down to the Sea” in which he deliberately linked a maritime mastery with the Jewish nation-building process.
The sea assumed a pivotal role in the consciousness of this erstwhile traditionally “interior people,” translating into everything from new Jewish shipping lines to the creation of fishing collectives, to “maritime athletics” and even to a new holiday called “Sea Day.” This is the neglected, complicated story that Kobi Cohen-Hattab tells in Zionism’s Maritime Revolution: The Yishuv’s Hold on the Land of Israel’s Sea and Shores. But it is clear that the sea occupies an important role in the story of modern Israeli independence and sovereignty. Culturally at least, the sea ought to continue to hold an important place in the mind of the modern Israeli. But whether the sea was ever as pivotal for the cultural consciousness of the Israeli as it was for the late sixteenth century Venetian, is a harder matter to settle.
Easier is to recognize some situational similarities between the Venice of Shakespeare and the island of Israel in its modern reality, encircled by Arab lands geographically and by anti-Israeli sentiment and lawfare internationally. The classic differentiations between sea and land; between the churn of commercialism and diversity and increasing secularism on the one hand and homogeneity of people and law and custom and religion on the other; between what is fixed and what is unfixed (movement and rest, in Thucydidean terms); between what is rational and governable and what is ungovernable and irrational—are woven into Kfar Aza and the similar kibbutzim on the edges of Israel’s borders as they are woven into the hardly-hidden dynamics of Shakespeare’s Venice.
That’s not where my thoughts wandered to in June 2022, but it is where they have now, as these sociopolitical elements and literary metaphors offer some help toward illustrating the savage clash of dynamics, red in tooth and claw, the world witnessed in action at Kfar Aza on October 7, 2023 and since.
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
Our Israeli hostess had deliberately begun our visit that June day with the playground and the school, the bus stop, and the bomb shelters, to situate us in the physical and mental reality of the deep contrasts of living in the Gaza border kibbutzim. As her survivor father put it recently on a Zoom call, “It’s heaven here 95 percent of the time; 5 percent of the time it’s hell,” or, as Kibbutz Nahal Oz resident Amir Tibon describes it, life here is “like an amazing resort village next to a war zone.” To deal with the rockets and the sirens, they have not only built the physical bomb shelters but invested in mental health care aimed at building resilience in addition to addressing trauma, for their children and for the adults. Some do leave, but many more return—it’s a popular place to spend a year or two during the Israeli equivalent of a “gap year,” living in communal dorms. Once these individuals start to think about raising a family, many settle down here for that sense of community and safety. And that’s where the brightly painted bomb shelter art came in.
The artwork was the product of the young children. There were sunflowers and green grass painted on some; on others, teepee-like depictions with a helmeted soldier figure in front denoting warmth and safety within; zigzagging lines of exploding danger without. One colorful wall depicted a newish tactic that had recently been ramped up by Hamas: the use of birthday balloon bunches to float small explosives into the fields and yards of Kfar Aza—“incendiary balloons”—undetectable and unanswerable by the far more technically advanced Israeli missile defense system. Between 2018–21 alone, such balloons have been responsible for more than 10,400 acres of burnt crops in the Gaza envelope. Falling as they can in individual yards with children playing in them, the adults have had to walk a fine line in teaching young kids how to be cautious about even the harmless things of childhood, without backing them into corners of paralyzing fear.
And meanwhile, through all of this, Abrams is not unique among the residents in voicing pacific, humanitarian thoughts about her Palestinian neighbors: “I believe that on the other side of the fence, there are children like my son. There are lots of children there that are less fortunate than him … And they deserve life like he deserves life. And I can’t give up this hope.”
It’s no secret that the kibbutzim traditionally have been left-leaning—they originated as experiments in voluntary socialism, after all—or, that they have historically filled a deliberate two-fold strategic role in the establishment and development of the Israeli state. They were meant to cultivate the land and to settle the area, but also to be an element of border security, as it were. Out of around 270 such communities around the state of Israel today, 20–50 of these dot the 32-mile border on the east and north of the Gaza Strip. And while always a minority population, the kibbutzim up through recent memory were perceived to be the “vanguard” of Israeli society in agriculture, politics, and the military. (As late as July 2000, 42 percent of the air force came from kibbutzim and similar collectives, for instance.) Thus, it’s not surprising to learn that among Israelis, the kibbutz residents on the Gaza border are actually more likely to have supported the peace process and normalization with their Palestinian neighbors than not, and even to have been activists for the cause, volunteering via a variety of organizations to give physical aide to their Palestinian neighbors.
These were happy to welcome Gazan workers in their fields and orchards, once Israel resumed in 2021 the granting of work permits to Gazan Palestinians that it had halted because of Hamas in 2007. Just this summer, Israeli authorities were reportedly discussing increasing the numbers of those work permits—already around 20,000—due to pressure from the Biden administration. Advocates of the program, whether American or Israeli, argued that by helping to relieve the economic situation and improving the quality of life in the Gaza Strip, they were helping “calm the region and reduc[e] tension.” Kibbutz farmers also welcomed Gazan Palestinian workers because of their shared agricultural knowledge of tending to bananas, citrus fruits, and other crops. For that matter, the Israeli agricultural sector has a distinct reliance on foreign workers, employing some 30,000 Thai farmhands alone, 5,000 of whom work near the Gaza border, where 6 percent of Israel’s milk, 20 percent of its fruit, and 75 percent of its vegetables are grown.
“It is not between me and Hashem or between me and Nabil. It’s between governments,” is how Israeli kibbutz Nir Am defender and survivor Ofer Liberman still thinks about the relationship between himself and some longtime Gaza Palestinian kibbutz workers. Several of those Gazan farmworkers were shot at and killed by their fellow Gazans on October 7. Is it right, is it correct, to think that such an attitude writ large—meaning the deliberate attempt to circumvent the political by merely economic means—is directly responsible for this October having witnessed not the usual harvest of fruits and vegetables from the earth but the more horrific one of human blood and souls? Of the hundreds (thousands) of Hamas terrorists who streamed through these kibbutzim and border villages, there were those who had worked the very same fields alongside their Israeli and foreign counterparts, who used their daily access to relay back to their Hamas commanders detailed information about every single Israeli community eventually targeted, most especially about the location of schools and youth centers, and about the relative populations of women, children, and the elderly there.
An estimated 300 terrorists overran Kfar Aza from six different positions in the early hours of October 7. Of the nearly 1,000 registered residents, about 600 were home that morning, and they felt the siege individually—each thought that they were experiencing an isolated incident, until enlightened via the modern tools of technology that their communal massacre had been planned all along. The mayor and small security team were killed almost immediately, the survivors later pieced together. Nor could the bomb shelters and in-house saferooms—designed with aerial rocket attacks, not urban terrorism, in mind—entirely protect them.
By the end of the day, one out of every ten Kfar Aza residents had been murdered or kidnapped, according to Abrams; half the kibbutz “looks like Hiroshima in 1945,” Abrams’ father says; when the survivors were eventually evacuated by the IDF it was so immediate many didn’t even have shoes on and were not allowed to take anything (the fighting was still active, and booby-traps were everywhere). As they were fleeing, they could not check on the bodies of their friends they had to step around—from the voices that had gradually gone silent on the WhatsApp chat throughout the day, they already had a running tally of their dead. Kfar Aza remains a closed military zone.
From the Hamas terrorists’ own streamings and uploads, and later the IDF and independent journalists, we know about the pre-civilizational barbarity enacted on these friendly farmer-citizens, their babies, and their grandparents. We also bore witness in real time to how within less than twenty-four hours, Western elites on prestigious college campuses, who perhaps yesterday were inveigling in academic papers against Shakespeare’s “chilling” antisemitism that supposedly “‘prepare[d] the ground’ for the Nazi Holocaust,” excused if not celebrated in public the premeditated rape and butchering of flesh-and-blood Jews and other Israeli citizens.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
While nearly all of our public spaces are filled with moralizing admonishments to Israelis about the value of Gazan life; about how “this is not the time for revenge”; about “proportional response”; or about how war is futile and hate “solves nothing,” Israelis and Jews worldwide—those who have survived, that is—are breathing examples of how nothing is so ferociously destructive as unrestrained hatred. These thoroughly secularized, antireligious modern Antonios believe that their contemporary Shylock counterparts shouldn’t even get the protection of the law; that they have no standing before the court—any court; that they are unworthy of even basic legal protection of their human life because of the mere fact of geography, nationality, and religion. Not even Shakespeare’s supposedly racist Venetians espoused such a view.
When Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice pleads in court with the Duke to invoke executive privilege (Act IV), in order to “do a great right, do a little wrong, / And curb this cruel devil of his will,” Shylock is also present in the court, having been able to have Antonio arrested for defaulting on their contract. The lawyer Balthazar reminds the court that the power to overturn the basic contract law nowhere exists in Venice; moreover, such an “executive order” would create true chaos in the state. Shylock himself reveals why: Venice is a commercial republic wholly reliant on the smooth conduct of international trade amongst peoples of diverse ethnicities, religions, and customs. Stability comes from a mutual trust that Venice will ensure that all lawfully entered, legal contracts are binding and their execution upheld. Shylock thus demands that the law honor his oath. Famously, Balthazar (Portia) ultimately trounces Shylock’s case, using his own strict letter-of-the-law interpretation against him, but with the aim of upholding law and importantly—justice.
But what we forget to our peril is how Shylock’s great anger against Antonio only manifests in demanding his pound of flesh after he has lost his daughter Jessica. Jessica eloped secretly with Lorenzo, a young Christian in Antonio’s circle, having apparently also stolen away with her a great deal of her father’s wealth. In losing his daughter, Shylock believes he’s lost his veritable “flesh and blood” and his connection to future generations—traditional Jewish law recognizes matrilineal descent, and thus Jewishness passes through the mother no matter the status of the father—but Shylock believes that even Jessica’s blood has “rebelled,” forever disconnecting them. And in losing his wealth and his daughter to the very group of Christians who openly castigate him and his business “on principle” while privately utilizing his services, Shylock loses not just his livelihood (his financial blood) but his dignity and reputation. He thus has only his oath with Antonio left, and a reliance on the law and the state. Seemingly denied a future, Shylock has no commerce with mercy.
Mercy, of course, gets visited upon Shylock, when the court and the duke ultimately rule that instead of forfeiting his life and all his remaining wealth to the state, Shylock must eventually convert to Christianity, pay a fine, and officially recognize Jessica and her husband as his legal heirs. But we never see this play out. What we see instead is Shylock exiting the court, and the group of merchants, minor aristocrats, disguised lawyer-wives, and their servants decamping back to Portia’s idyllic refuge from the world, Belmont, where they reconvene with Jessica and Lorenzo. It seems that not even the cosmopolitan, globalist Venetian republic can successfully perpetuate its sociopolitical promise—it’s a fiction that in the best of scenarios can just manage to play out in small enclaves, but which in the worst, ends in mutual distrust, murder, and suicide, as the tragic Venice-based Othello implies. But can even wealthy, idyllic enclaves ever truly escape from the sea of the political that encircles them always?
Shylock is still left to mourn his daughter Jessica. And Israel has not yet been allowed to mourn its murdered children.
Rebecca Burgess is senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute, a contributing editor for Law & Liberty, associate scholar with the Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy Project, and a visiting fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum. Previously, she was a research fellow both in Foreign and Defense Policy and Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.