When I was invited to join a UJIA mission to Israel last month, I participated with a degree of apprehension. Not because of the security situation or the ongoing missile attacks, but more because I just wasn’t sure why I needed to go. What difference would my three-day presence make? Yet my prevailing thought was that by going and seeing what had happened for myself, I would be in a position to bear witness. This made sense. It is, after all, what sits behind so much Holocaust education. Experiences such as March of the Living are built on the notion that, “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness”. As we made our way south to Kfar Aza, less than two miles from the Gaza border, I had Elie Wiesel’s words echoing in my mind.
There was something unbelievable, almost implausible, to what we saw. A site that just a few weeks earlier had been home to more than 700 people was desolate, save the IDF soldiers for whom the kibbutz was now a makeshift base. There was a movie-set feel to the place. One created by the most fastidious art department under the watchful eye of a director with an unparalleled attention to detail. The bullet shells strewn across the floor, the blood on the bedroom walls, the shattered window panes and the burnt roofs. The smell of death and the absence of life. This was October 7 on repeat. And for those that survived the massacre, perhaps it always will be.
In preparing to visit the communities in the so-called Gaza envelope, I had tried to imagine what it would be like. My only frame of reference was previous trips to the concentration camps of Poland. Memorials to the lives lost and a reminder of what the very worst of humanity is capable of. But Kfar Aza is no memorial. The artefacts are not set out like a museum to provide an education. The abandoned motorbike that transported a Hamas terrorist across the border still had petrol in the tank. The hole in the fence was the exit point from heaven to hell for the numerous residents still held hostage by their captors. Every last detail is a reminder of the intimately personal nature of the atrocity. We were told that when the terrorists had done with the raping and murdering they sat in their victims’ kitchens and made themselves lunch.
Those who lost their physical home that day attempt to retain the last remnants of community in the lounges and dining rooms of Dead Sea hotels. These are the survivors. Refugees in their own country, living an existence that is nether here nor there. They simultaneously mourn their dead, await news of loved ones still missing and tell the tales of the miracles that spared their lives. For all the horror of the devastation, destruction and death at Kfar Aza, nothing prepared me for this. It is impossible not to be moved by the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor who, once again, is questioning where on earth it is safe to live as a Jew. She thought she knew the answer. Now she’s not so sure.
There is a functionality to bearing witness. The responsibility is straightforward. Listen and repeat. In the immediate aftermath of October 7, we can and must do more. It starts now with the support we can provide to Israel’s tens of thousands of victims of terror and trauma. Tomorrow it will be as partners in the physical rebuilding of the south, so that the thriving communities that were destroyed can live once more. And in the future it will be a partnership that reshapes the Jewish state and its relationship with Jews around the world.
Israel is more than a strip of land. It is more than a Jewish home located among the many neighbours who wish it to disappear. Israel is its people. Those that live within its borders and those across the globe whose lives are inextricably linked to its past, present and future. We are more than witnesses. This is our story too.