I recently returned from the Solidarity Trip to Israel with JCCA (JCC Association) and as I sat on the return flight reflecting on our trip, I was overcome with mixed emotions — a combination of sadness, fear, and anger, but mostly pride and hope.
How did we get here? How did we reach the point where I felt compelled to travel to an active war zone to bear witness to the aftermath of events that occurred in our homeland 100 days prior to my arrival? Hundreds of people killed on one tragic day in October. Hundreds more — many young IDF soldiers — heroically stepping up, leaving their homes, their families, their jobs, their lives, without hesitation to defend the Jewish homeland. And I had the honor to pay my respects in person and to see, firsthand, the current state of the country during yet another devastating point in her history.
I have previously visited Israel several times including a trip during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Then civilians were being blown up on buses and in restaurants and very few were visiting from abroad. Israelis frequently stopped me on the street to thank me for coming to show support and solidarity, so I’m aware of how important it is for them to witness diaspora Jews, and others, come during times like these, when it feels the world is mostly against them.
I’m relatively well-educated on the complicated history of Israel, Gaza, the occupied territories, and Israel’s plight in defending herself against enemies in the region through the years. Yet, the reality of what I saw and experienced still felt shocking. And it’s something that one can’t really comprehend unless they see it for themselves.
I’ll share some (but very little) of the context, as I hope this message will reach many and not everyone has a level of background understanding just yet. In 2005, Israel left Gaza. Months later, in 2006, Hamas won a plurality in the Palestinian legislative elections and assumed administrative control over Gaza. Billions of humanitarian dollars, from countries all over the world, have flowed to Hamas over the years with the intention of helping the Palestinian people. Instead, much of the aid has been used to terrorize and wage war against Israel and to build protection for the terrorists themselves, not to protect or aid the civilians. If you have any doubts about this sad reality there are verified videos, pictures, and other documentation of the hundreds of miles of concrete tunnels, built under the civilian Palestinian population, including strategic placement under hospitals, schools, mosques, and U.N. facilities. While Palestinians in Gaza were given the opportunity to build on their land, create a peaceful society, and prove to the world that that want to live side-by-side in peace with Israelis, instead the money was used to prepare for war against Israel and it wasn’t long after disengagement before missiles were landing in Israel from Gaza. Peace was never and never will be the goal for Hamas. They have made it clear that they will repeat the atrocities of Oct. 7 again and again if they remain.
The Hamas charter states the following:
“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it…. the hour of judgement shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind the trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: Oh Muslim, oh servant of God, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him, except for the Gharqad tree, for it is the tree of the Jews.”
This charter and those who live their lives to uphold it are rather clear with their intent: the elimination of Israel and the Jewish people. These terrorists are not looking to make peace, to create a two-state solution, or to better the lives of the Palestinian people. Their mission is clear. And so, 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel was again caught with its guard down on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. Hamas attacked innocent Israeli civilians (and others) in their homes and at a dance festival — raped, tortured, murdered, and captured them. And they are proud of what they did — celebrating their “success,” documenting their depravity, publicizing their actions.
Of course, Hamas knew that Israel would retaliate (though the immediate retaliation took longer than anyone would have guessed.) Hamas was ready for the retaliation with a pre-meditated multi-tiered defense, as one of our speakers explained.
They prepared with:
- Hidden tunnels only to protect Hamas leaders and operatives;
- A plan to place Palestinians strategically so as to serve as human shields;
- Israeli hostages to use as bargaining tools;
- The understanding that the international community would call for premature cease-fires while Israel continued to defend itself;
- Lawfare, as we have seen now in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
As predicted, Israel would be blamed in short order for a disproportionate response after Oct. 7, though I don’t believe most realized just how quickly international opinion would turn against Israel. Even before Israel responded militarily, calling up 360,000 reservists who dropped everything to race to wherever their army units were needed, many around the world were already placing blame on Israel. So now Israelis (justifiably) feel like much of the world is against them, and that few care about the lives of their brave soldiers, and their right to defend their home. Being there showed me firsthand just why Israel deserves and needs our support now and, in the future, (not that for me that was ever in question.)
Our group of 40 visited the city of S’derot, which sits about 18 kilometers from the Gaza border and was a ghost town when we arrived. On Oct. 7, 47 people were murdered there, in their cars and homes. I was immediately taken aback by how far the terrorists had traveled to attack here, essentially unopposed, that fateful day. We heard a first-person account from a mother who saw and heard the shootings. She shared a harrowing story of the murder of a 13-year-old girl who had been shot in the head and was found with no clothes on. This woman is among the tens of thousands of other Israelis who have been displaced in the south and north of the country due to the fighting on both ends. Understandingly traumatized, she implored us to “Go back and tell the true story.” Her strength and resilience in the face of unimaginable horror was beyond comprehension and is impossible to relay with words alone.
We continued to Kibbutz Nir Oz. A kibbutz is essentially a commune where the members of the community work the fields together, tend to their animals, share resources, and often eat together. Kibbutz Nir Oz sits about a kilometer away from Gaza, with beautiful, lush fields resting between the two. I couldn’t help but think how things could have been so different. Israel’s earliest pioneers made the desert land bloom by planting trees and plowing fields, and as such made a full life for their families. Palestinians in Gaza could have benefited from Israel’s amazing agricultural technology and could have lived similarly on their land. They did not.
In Nir Oz, a member of a third-generation family of the community where another 51 Israelis were murdered in their homes and streets, toured us through dozens of burned-out and destroyed homes. It seemed as if he needed to do this to help ease his own trauma and pain. In painstaking detail, he told us who had lived in each home, and how some survived by hiding, but, unfortunately, how most were murdered.
He guided us through the rubble, through the living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens of all those families who had been his neighbors for decades, surrounded by flowers and trees that were planted when the kibbutz was established in 1955. To its community members, our guide said, residing in Nir Oz was 95% heaven and 5% hell, only due to occasional rocket fire (before October 7th.) And those residents were so committed to living in peace that many helped shepherd Palestinians in Gaza who needed medical care to Israeli hospitals throughout the years. These were the people murdered by Hamas in their homes on Oct. 7.
We then visited the killing fields of the Nova Festival, intended to be a 24-hour celebration where young Israelis came together to celebrate music, live, love, and share their hopes for peace. We were greeted at the site by a sign that read: “The privilege to love, The right to love” in both Hebrew and English, as this was one motto of the Nova festival. Now an additional sign has been added and read “Bring Them Home” referring, of course, to all the remaining hostages. I was immediately devastated at the site.
At first it was believed that Hamas knew about the festival and had planned to attack there, but in interviews with captured Hamas members they were quoted as saying that they were, in fact, “lucky” to come across so many civilians in one place that they could attack. “Lucky,” they said. “Lucky.”
I walked through this bucolic setting and noticed a few small makeshift memorials, but most devastating were dozens of wooden sticks with large pictures of the victims on each stick, each one more beautiful and innocent looking than the next. Each one a victim of Hamas terrorists. What I was seeing was simply otherwise unimaginable.
We then visited a makeshift army base near the border and were honored to provide dinner for about 20 soldiers stationed there. The farcical nature of claims of Israel’s apartheid policies were on full display as I looked at the diversity among the soldiers: some were dark-skinned Bedouins, some dark-skinned Jews from Arab countries, and some white-skinned soldiers, including the commander who had a close-cut haircut and “payot,” the long strands of (typically) curled hair that many Orthodox men wear behind their ears. His message, and the message of other soldiers I spoke to, was about Jewish unity, love of country, and steely determination. These young men spoke of gratitude for our presence, Jewish peoplehood, and concern for the upsurge of antisemitism in our country and around the world. Our delegation of 40 professionals and lay leaders collectively felt and heard an emerging realization and belief in the common destiny of diaspora Jews and Israelis.
The soldiers also spoke clearly of the need to do what it takes to eradicate Hamas as a ruling entity and fighting force. Their willingness, obviously with their own lives on the line, to take on not only Hamas but also Hezbollah and all of Israel’s enemies and all that entails left me in awe. They are fighting a war for ALL OF US. The term “brave” fails to adequately describes these men and women.
We listened to an incredible audio tape of a calm 9-year-old boy, who was hiding in a closet with his 6-year-old sister, calling the police for help knowing his parents and sister had already been murdered. He was eventually rescued hours later, and it turned out his other sister had somehow survived.
And then, our delegation collectively released red balloons upon the birthday of 1-year-old redhead K’fir Bibas, who is still being held hostage in Gaza. A 1-YEAR-OLD HOSTAGE.
During his incredibly informative presentation, Rabbi Doran Perez, CEO of the Mizrachi World Union, explained to us that Israel and the U.S. have mainly been playing “defense.”
He used a sports analogy and quoted the famed football coach Vince Lombardi, who said, “You can’t win if you only play defense,” as Israel has done for most of the time Hamas has been in control in Gaza. He went on to say that we are often blinded by what we see, not by what we don’t see. We didn’t see the world like Hamas, who have now shown us that we are not past experiencing genocides like the pogroms and the Shoah (Holocaust.) We Jews are in a covenant of “fate”, not just of faith, he added. His words and perspective were incredibly thought-provoking and powerful, made even more so when he told us that while one of his sons, an officer in the IDF tank corps, had been captured and (he believes) is still alive but being held hostage in Gaza, his older son had a pre-planned leave from army duty to get married, just 10 days after the capture of his other son. The rabbi continued by saying the wedding was simultaneously the holiest, yet saddest, yet happiest wedding. “Judaism is still sweet,” he said, and went on to tell us that we cannot despair and must have hope. We are in a war between good and evil and it is in the DNA of the Jewish people to rise and build up, as the country, our nation, did after the Holocaust. In conclusion, the rabbi asked us how we plan to live our lives? Will we be worthy of our return to Jerusalem after centuries of prayer to return? He was hopeful that we would do what is required. I left with a sense of mission.
In our final session Miriam Peretz, Israel Prize laureate and known as the “mother of the sons,” shared her personal story, which has become a symbol of maternal heroism.
As with so much of what I’ve shared, words cannot describe the emotional impact and power of our last two speakers. Miriam lost both her sons years ago, one fighting in Gaza and one in Lebanon. She described the unimaginable painful emotional journey of trying to find meaning and overcome her losses, to rise and find strength and purpose in life. She shared with us the process of sitting with every hostage family since Oct. 7 to offer some comfort, to be there for them, and to offer some shelter from the emotional storm. Miriam, who has already suffered unimaginable loss, talked about gratitude for our blessings and the importance of utilizing every moment we have been granted to do good and to help others. While she spoke, I held back tears and as she concluded I slowly walked to a private space in the corner of the room to gather myself. In a moment of personal reflection and gratitude, I took out my phone and texted my wife and daughters to tell them how much I love them.
Flying home, I thought about what accounts for the incredible resilience of Israel’s people. For one, they love the country their forefathers built and feel an incredible sense of responsibility to preserve and build on this modern-day miracle country that arose from the ashes of the Shoah. They protect a haven for Jews worldwide who face discrimination and threats of death around the world. They live their lives surrounded by nations and terrorist that openly call for their annihilation. And yet, ironically, Israelis are annually ranked among the highest in the international pole of the word’s happiest people. They live a life of purpose, of meaning, and of spirituality. May they be an example to us all and may they all live long and prosper.
I am grateful for the experience of being in Israel during this time of crisis and for the opportunity to share my experience. Never again is NOW. Together, we must support the citizens of Israel, the IDF soldiers, and the battle to secure Israel’s future.
Am Yisrael Chai!