They Were Ready to Give Up on Israel. Now They’re All In.

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
Demonstrators hold orange balloons during a rally in Tel Aviv for Kfir Bibas, an Israeli toddler taken hostage on Oct. 7, on his first birthday Thursday.

TEL AVIV – Last summer, the Shapiros gave Israel a deadline. If the right-wing government continued its push to take power from the courts – a campaign that the couple believed put democracy, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ progress in jeopardy – they would leave.

“We said, ‘Let’s give it six months,’” recalled Hanna Shapiro, a 35-year-old graphic designer. She protested the government almost weekly, pushing the strollers of two boys she didn’t want serving in the army of a country they saw drifting from their ideals of equity and justice.

Then came Oct. 7, when Hamas-led fighters streamed out of Gaza to rampage through Israeli communities. Authorities say they killed about 1,200 Israelis, most of them civilians, and kidnapped about 240 more.

Now, as the Israel Defense Forces devastate Gaza, rockets fly overhead and war looms in Lebanon, the Shapiros say they can no longer imagine living anywhere else.

“I feel more Israeli than ever,” said Shapiro, who immigrated here from Paris a decade ago. “Last year, I thought I don’t need to be Israeli; I can just be a Jewish woman somewhere in the world living my life.

“Now, I can’t pretend that I’m not part of these people.”

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
Hanna Shapiro with her sons Ezra, 2, and Elon, 4, at home in Tel Aviv.

For thousands of liberal Israelis, Oct. 7 spurred an impulse not to flee, but to double down on a nation they had feared was heading toward autocracy and theocracy. Many Israelis overseas hurried home. Military reservists who had been boycotting their training raced back to their units. Democracy activists retooled the movement into a vast civil volunteer network.

Some of the progressive, secular, cosmopolitan Israelis who agonized over a political arena that ranged from right to far right are now describing themselves for the first time as Zionists, centering the country’s founding role as a global haven for Jews rather than its current positioning as a creative high-tech hub.

“Jewish people in Israel are dying for Jewish people in the rest of the world to have a Plan B one day,” Shapiro said. “We have to be here.”

After a year in which leaders warned of civil war, Israelis across the political spectrum have quickly unified around an external enemy. Two-thirds of Israelis back the military goal of eliminating Hamas, polls show. That support has barely wavered in the face of growing international condemnation – much of it from the left – of the deaths of more than 25,000 people in Gaza in Israel’s war on Hamas, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Support for the war isn’t unanimous. Some 2,000 Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel marched through Tel Aviv last week to demand an end to the fighting. A typical sign: “Only peace will bring security.” Speakers included three survivors of Oct. 7.

Paradoxically in a time of war and danger, many liberals now report feeling better about Israel, at least for now. The percentage of left-wing Israelis who feel optimistic about the future nearly doubled in the weeks after Oct. 7, from 21 to 41 percent, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

The pivot has been driven by familiar factors, sociologists said, including the initial rally-around-the-flag effect that all countries experience during war. But the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust tapped into deep cultural memories, even among secular Israelis, of pogroms and exile going back millennia.

Many have said their sense of welcome outside Israel has been challenged by a disorienting rise in antisemitism in places they had happily grown up, studied, worked, found community and sometimes marched for liberal causes. Videos of Israelis murdered and mutilated focused the sense of vulnerability – and identity – even among secular Israelis in ways that textbooks and grandparents’ stories never did.

“They became Jews overnight,” said Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Suddenly, they get it. They feel themselves the object of world hatred.”

Asaf Ben-Haim, a 37-year-old doctoral student in archaeology in Jerusalem, grew up in central Israel hearing his Hungarian grandmother talk of fleeing the Nazis and his Iraqi grandfather of being chased out of Baghdad’s Jewish quarter.

They seldom went 10 minutes, he said, without referencing “the miracle of Israel.” But the concept of Israel as sanctuary didn’t fully register, as he enjoyed his progressive, cosmopolitan life: coming out as gay in the country’s open-minded middle class; living in San Francisco for three years while his husband studied at Stanford.

The couple returned in 2021 – in time to join last year’s protests against judicial overhaul. They decided on “red lines” that might send them back overseas: tilting the selection process for Supreme Court justices; rolling back gay rights.

He might be miserable living away from Israel, Ben-Haim thought, but at least he’d be free. He was among the first army reservists to declare a boycott on training until the government backed down.

But Oct. 7 brought his grandparents’ warnings to life. He was back in uniform within weeks.

The shock of the Hamas attack, he said, was followed by equally alarming aftershocks: Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank cheering the killing of Jews; the refusal of some of his own liberal allies to condemn the attacks.

He remembers statements by fellow academics that glossed over evidence of rape and torture. When he saw Black Lives Matter posts on Oct. 11 that featured a hang glider, one of the devices Hamas used to attack Israeli neighborhoods, labeled “I stand with Palestine,” he thought of the BLM shirt in his closet and the marches for racial justice he’d joined in California.

“It should be easy to say both that the occupation [of Palestinian territories] is bad and Hamas did horrible things,” he said. “They do not contradict each other.”

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
Asaf Ben-Haim, left, with his husband, David Gokhman, as they play with their dog at their home in Tal Shahar, Israel.

Shai Rapoport, 33, moved to London almost four years ago to study art. He felt at home in London’s cultural mix, and joined fellow expats protesting the Israeli government. After Oct. 7, he said, he felt a chill from his liberal and Muslim friends. Then outright hostility.

Now he’s moving back to Israel, wars and all. “I felt that people who were once my friends have become my aggressors,” he said from London. “Here, I feel terribly alone.”

Criticism of Israel has grown with new images daily of bloodied children and broken rubble in Gaza, where an estimated two-thirds of buildings are believed to have been destroyed or damaged. Women and children account for 70 percent of the dead, according to Gaza health officials, in a campaign that military analysts say has been one of the most destructive in modern history.

Each of the liberal Israelis interviewed for this article said they deplored the killing of so many Palestinian civilians. Each said they still supported the goal of an independent Palestinian state if it can exist without threatening Israeli lives – a view that three-quarters of left-leaning Israelis continue to share. But all said they could not think of an alternative to all-out war against militants who have embedded themselves in the civilian population and pledge to attack again.

“I think the massacre of October 7th has created a very simple mentality: It’s either them or us,” Illouz said.

But for those who logged hours protesting the government, newfound dedication to Israel doesn’t equal support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his coalition. In this, it is the larger public that has swung their way: More than two-thirds of all Israelis now say that they want Netanyahu out of office.

Politics are slowly coming back. The frequent rallies pushing for the release of hostages have been joined in recent weeks by demonstrations against Netanyahu.

Shapiro has filled her free time in the past three months at hostage protests and volunteering for the civil society groups that grew out of the democracy movement. She raises money and visits the family members of hostages and soldiers and Israelis displaced from the borders with Gaza and Lebanon, where the risk of war with Hezbollah militants is heating up.

She remembers the anguish she and her husband felt last year, fearing that the Israel they loved was morphing into something they couldn’t endure, that they “would be nomads, like Jewish people always have been.”

Now, despite the chaos, the contradictions, the danger – “My biggest fear is really Hezbollah” – all thoughts of leaving Israel are gone.

“It’s a crazy place to be,” she said. “But it isn’t just my community anymore. It’s my family.”