Harrowing. That is the only word I’ve been able to use about the Labour Friends of Israel solidarity visit to Israel I went on at the beginning of January.
No part of our visit was not unsettling or heartbreaking. It was an emotional rollercoaster. I felt constantly on the verge of tears. The pain in Israel is palpable and it is only when I was actually in Israel that I could fully appreciate the shared collective trauma that Israelis are experiencing.
The evidence of that trauma starts as soon as you get off the plane. Through the walkways of the airports are the faces of the hostages. When we left the airport it became clear that those pictures were everywhere. The whole country is waiting for their release, the whole nation held captive waiting for news of their release.
The faces of the victims are ever present. In the lobby of our hotel were 21 pictures of people murdered on October 7, massacred at Netiv HaAsara. Their faces were displayed because the hotel was doubling as a safe haven for the refugees from that village.
Meeting rooms have become schoolrooms, young people congregate in the hallway, and parents are trying their best to establish a level of normality even with private space at a premium.
Elsewhere, we met a woman who had to sit shiva alone for her brother, a victim of the massacre, as her mum and other brother were being held hostage in Gaza. When Hamas released her mother, their first conversation was about the death of a beloved son and brother. She then had to listen to the stories of what her mother had experienced as the terrorists’ hostage. As we spoke she held a picture of her hostage brother.
I listened to another mother, of a hostage daughter and a survivor of the massacre. I know her daughter is beautiful because she too was holding a picture. Her daughter is 28.
She said words which left me cold — that the young female hostages need to be urgently released so that if the rapists have impregnated them, they have time for an abortion.
At the Nova exhibition there are photos everywhere of the hostages and of those who will never again have their photo taken.
A young woman who had survived joined us as we saw the burned out cars, the festival toilets riddled with gun holes, the fridges where people hid from the terrorists and the lost and found filled with the property of those that didn’t survive. On screens throughout the venue there were recordings of the party taken before the massacre — young people dancing before hell was unleashed. Nova was a trance music festival and as we toured the exhibition the music played. One song, a trance version of the Hatikvah, nearly broke me.
Our guide told us that in the days that followed she had to choose which funerals to go to. She had lost 20 friends and her boyfriend had lost 45. She could not attend them all. Now she works with other survivors helping them heal by painting pictures of the victims, making sure their images live on.
At Kfar Aza Kibbutz, a 25 minute walk from the Gaza border and a site of one of the pogroms, there were more pictures. The kibbutz was built on the promise of peace, and is now frozen in time. On October 7 municipal elections were just days away. Up for re-election was Ofar Libstein, a resident of the kibbutz and the mayor of Sha’ar Hanegev. His election posters are everywhere as you walk through the bomb damaged houses and those riddled with bullets. He was one of the first to be murdered.
We came to one property where a lone St George’s flag was flying amongst the debris — a remnant from the World Cup, a heartbreaking reminder of the global nature of the victims. As I struggled to comprehend this English link we were told the occupant of the house is still a hostage in Gaza.
No one wants more death and destruction. No one wants war — they want a safe and secure peace for both Israel and the Palestinian people. What the Israelis we met wanted was the hostages home and peace to collectively grieve.
When I think of Israel I think of loud arguments and loud people. I think of sunshine and young people enjoying the beach. I think of my family and their kibbutz and my great aunt painting. That’s not what I saw on this visit. I saw pain and people who are still shell shocked and frightened. These are new memories for which I shall never forget.
The horror of the October 7, the loss of life and the war that now rages are a reminder that evil exists, compelling us to think what more we can do to be the champions of peace so that when we say “never again”, it means exactly that.
The theme of last weekend’s we Holocaust Memorial Day was the fragility of freedom. Since my visit to bear witness to a pogrom, I realised I have never fully appreciated how fragile our freedom has become.