TEL AVIV – It has been four months since October 7th, the day that Hamas, the military organization that controls the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist organization by most Western governments, launched its invasion of Israel. The initial attack claimed the lives of 1100 people; Hamas also took some 250 others hostage. In turn, Israel declared war on Hamas and began an intensive bombing campaign and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that has, as of this writing, led to 28,000 Palestinian deaths and the displacement of nearly two million Palestinian people.
The war is the most polarizing issue in international politics, with blocs aligned with Israel, the Palestinian cause in general, or Hamas’s Islamist ideology in particular. Last month, in a case brought against Israel by South Africa, the International Criminal Court ruled that Israel must take measures to avoid committing genocide in Palestine, while also calling on Hamas to immediately release all hostages. The ruling did not order Israel to halt its military action in Gaza. The ruling strengthened existing divisions, contributing to totalizing narratives that pit one monolithic side against another, while the voices of the individuals affected by the conflict are ignored, if not altogether discarded.
One group that has received no coverage during this crisis has been the Pagan and Witchcraft communities in Israel and Palestine. While the conflict in the region is generally flattened into “Judaism versus Islam,” in fact there are numerous faith communities in Palestine and Israel, including some Pagans, all of whom are suffering under this conflict.
The Wild Hunt spoke to four Witches and Pagans in Israel during December 2023 and January 2024, offering them the chance to share their perspectives with our readers. This article should not be viewed as an authoritative work on the October 7th attacks or the Israel-Hamas War; rather, it aims to simply allow individual people from this small community to tell their individual stories.
Editor’s Note: The Wild Hunt seeks to cover all Pagans or Witches affected by the Israel-Hamas war. We were unable to identify any Pagans or Witches living within Palestinian territory for this story. We recognize this is a substantial lack of representation of those affected by the war. We would appreciate any tips to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“What I remember first was something that felt like an earthquake.”
This is how Arden, a 40-year-old Pagan and Vodun practitioner from the northern city of Tiberias, remembers October 7.
“The whole building was shaking,” he says. “I was at a friend’s in another city, and soon after, we heard lots of sirens and quickly ran to the safe room. Then we got messages about explosions, and that Israel was being invaded by people from Gaza.
“My host ended up grabbing an axe and standing by the door in case anyone would be coming,” he continues. “Meanwhile, my other friend who was there was left paralyzed due to panic attacks and spent the whole day prostrated and crying.”
While ground assaults were limited to settlements near the Gaza Strip, Hamas and its associates launched a barrage of rockets which paralyzed much of Israel. If none of the people interviewed by The Wild Hunt were harmed on that day, some have vulnerable relatives who were more directly affected.
Zohara, a 54-year-old Israeli Pagan and erstwhile member of a local all-female coven, told TWH how family members very closely came to harm’s way on that day.
“I have cousins and nieces who live in a Kibbutz near the Gaza border,” she says. “They had to shut themselves in the residential shelter and were there for 10 hours without food, water or toilets, until it was safe. Their Kibbutz was spared the carnage thanks to the commander of the alert squad, who luckily noticed the terrorists as they were trying to break through the gate. He fought them bravely and managed to prevent them from entering the Kibbutz. But many of their friends from nearby kibbutzim were murdered and some kidnapped.
“As you can imagine I was frantic the whole day about my family,” she says. “I sat glued to the phone and the TV for news about the atrocities as they unfolded for the following weeks.”
“It is like when you are working on raising a protective circle, make a boundary and then, the boundary is breached, and there is evil running loose,” described Rena Kessem, a 61-year-old Pagan elder and animist, who was for many years involved with the Reclaiming tradition. “That is how it felt. It was destabilizing, on an emotional, energetic, and ancestral level. Others Jews involved in ancestor practice I talked to, even outside Israel, told how this triggered inter-generational trauma – trauma about pogroms and massacres.”
Prior to the October 7th attack, Israeli society was already tense, with the country divided over reforms brought by the right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The reforms aimed to, among other things, weaken the power of the judiciary and especially the Israeli supreme court.
“The legal reforms were really controversial,” said Kessem. “We have the most right-wing government we ever had – one that also includes a lot of religious fanatics.”
Zohara expressed similar feelings. “I have participated almost weekly in protests and marches against Netanyahu government’s moves to weaken Israeli democracy,” she says. “He promotes extremism and division in order to serve his own goals, and our society is very divided.”
This massive political upheaval impacted the small Israeli Pagan community as well. “This is a community deep within the broom closet,” says Orly, a 66-year-old doctor in religious studies, and herself a decades-long practitioner of a blend of traditional and eclectic Witchcraft.
Research by scholars like Orly, who dedicated her academic research to the Israeli Pagan scene, and Dr. Shai Feraro from the University of Haifa, has in recent years uncovered a small community made up of only a few hundred individuals gathered in numerous independent groups.
One can find many kinds of Pagan or magickal traditions in Israel, but at a very small scale. Vodun, Ásatrú, Reclaiming, Chaos Magic, Druidry, folk magic and more are present, but mostly within micro-communities made of a literal handful of people scattered across the country.
The controversies around the legislative reforms disrupted some Pagan groups. “In the spring,” says Kessem, “I, alongside other colleagues, were going to start a course on magical work, but it just did not work. Everyone was so politically preoccupied. People were busy, out protesting.” After October 7th, however, protests over domestic policy fell into the background. Last month, in the midst of the war, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the reforms.
While the ground fighting moved from Israeli territory to Gaza, rocket attacks continued throughout Israel, including in the north as the Lebanon-based militia Hezbollah began attacking, claiming solidarity with Hamas. Hezbollah’s attacks prompted the Israeli government to evacuate hundreds of thousands from the border area, many of whom are now sheltering in Tiberias, Arden’s hometown.
Although rocket fire inside Israel has weakened in the past few weeks, even large urban centers like Tel Aviv, where Zohara works, are routinely targeted by Hamas’ rockets. “Since the war started, the rockets keep falling,” she says. “The sirens ring and then we have to go to the shelter. People try not to leave the house if it is not necessary, and I no longer leave my 12-year-old son alone at home.”
As rockets kept falling on Israel and fighting intensified in Gaza, the war began to draw ever-increasing attention from abroad. While there were a few notable demonstrations of solidarity for Israel in Europe and North America, there followed a wave of protests denouncing Israel’s military response and expressing sympathy for Palestinians, especially the residents of Gaza. These pro-Palestinian actions were not well received in Israel, including by Israeli Pagans and Witches.
“All of this makes me feel that Jews have no place in the world,” says Zohara. “I feel betrayed by feminists who ignored Israeli women who were violently raped. I feel betrayed by international academia, and I am worried about the simplistic viewpoint and ignorance of the younger generation.”
Orly expresses very much the same sentiment: “Truth be told, I am really upset by these responses. Let us not forget who started this whole situation. We were the ones who were brutally attacked and who live with daily Palestinian terror attacks all over the country, we are just fighting back.”
Kessem, however, who describes herself “as far left as you’re going to find,” expressed her understanding for the pro-Palestine movement but still noted the distress it caused. “I understand where those protestors come from,” she says. “They chant, ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ thinking that everyone will be liberated. But to us, it sounds like ‘kill all the Jews.’”
When asked if they had received any support from Western Pagan or magickal practitioners, most of the interviewees reported receiving mixed messages. While some Westerners expressed sympathy with their situation, most interviewees felt others paid only lip-service and focused on denouncing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
Zohara, for example, expressed dissatisfaction with Starhawk, the Reclaiming leader, whom she felt showed no sympathy for Israeli suffering following the October 7th attack. “Starhawk sorely disappointed me,” Zohara said, referring to a Facebook post of Starhawk’s from October 10th. “She commented with a single sentence on the massacre, but wrote a whole scroll about the Israeli ‘retaliation,’ without any mentions of the complicated geo-political situation.”
While some Western leftists and progressives have remained harsh critics of the state of Israel, the same cannot be said for Israelis. Numerous polls show there is a broad consensus among Israelis, including left-leaning individuals, that military intervention in Gaza is a necessity. The majority of our interviewees echoed this sentiment. As Orly succinctly stated, “We are Israelis first and Neopagans second.”
“After October 7, we saw horrible things, things that cannot go by without a militaristic response,” said Arden. “I do not hate Palestinians. I think that they are badly ruled, that Hamas ought to be taken out of power and that the hostages should be returned.”
When asked how his beliefs and practice lined up with the new reality of an all-out war, he said: “As a Pagan, I sadly recognize war as an entity, and as a part of humanity. I don’t worship war, but I know that under some circumstances, people might be forced towards it.”
Zohara’s experience mirrors Arden’s. “My faith in the basic goodness of all people shattered,” she explains. “It is hard for me to put into words the nature of that change. Prior to this, my belief focused more on the all-nurturing face of the Goddess and whenever trouble erupted between Israel and the Palestinians I, alongside many other Israeli Pagans prayed for her to calm the war.
“Now, however, I am more aware of her dark side,” she says, “and realize much more ‘physically’ that most, if not all, ancient cultures also had war Goddesses, and now I feel more clearly the connection to them. Athena the Goddess of the just war or Anat the Canaanite Goddess of love and war. Just like when a mother is protecting her child, the violent and warlike aspect of the Goddess is sometimes necessary.”
Kessem takes a different standpoint from the others we spoke to. She refuses to accept the current military situation as something unavoidable, or as something that is likely to have positive consequences.
“After the attacks,” she says, “I felt really destabilized, and it took me a very long time to articulate my thoughts. Most people here think that what Israel does is 100% justified. And I get this narrative, it is a solid narrative: ‘we were victims, the war in Gaza is right and necessary to prevent this from happening again.’ But I don’t think it matters.
“What I believe right now,” she says, “is that this right-wing Jewish fanatic government cares a lot more about fighting this war than taking the hostages back. I understand people who think that there is no alternative but this is not the answer.
“I see what is going on now in Israel as one of the most powerful workings ever,” she says, describing the political situation as a ritual, much as she described her initial response to the October 7th attacks. “It feels like the country is possessed. If someone knows how to do a national exorcism, we would really need it.
“This is against everything that I believe in,” she concludes. “We should safeguard the present before safeguarding the future. We should first get the hostages back, and talk about anything else after. Starting where you are, not where you wish you were – this is my favorite magickal principle.”
At the time of writing, the Israel-Hamas War is at a precipice. 107 Israeli hostages were released by Hamas in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners during a pause in fighting in November; it is estimated 30 others have died in the fighting. Negotiations are ongoing for a ceasefire and release of hostages, but at the same time, Israel is poised to begin a ground invasion of Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where about half of the displaced Palestinian people have sheltered – a move that Egypt claims would have “disastrous consequences.”
In the face of such bloodshed, many have no doubt found some measure of peace through faith, regardless of religious tradition. Arden, a former army guard who knows several people who lost their lives so far in the conflict and has family currently serving in the armed forces, prays for the safety of his fellow warriors, and wonders whether some of us ought to do the same.
“Since some Americans have already died in this conflict, people in the United States should maybe start praying for the safety of their own warriors as well.”
The Wild Hunt would like to thank Dr. Shai Feraro for facilitating communication with some of the interviewees.