I have just returned from a four-day solidarity mission with UJIA to Israel.
I do not even know how you start to write about a trip to Israel at this time. I do not know how you start to put into words the atrocities that I’ve seen and heard.
Before I went, I was asked, why did I want to come? I have been a Zionist my whole life in good times and in bad, and I felt it was important to go and show my solidarity with Israel, which is so intertwined with my identity.
Israel is a nation in shock. We heard many times that the Israel we knew on 6th October is not the Israel of today or tomorrow: The fabric of society has fundamentally changed.
UJIA organised a trip reminiscent of a Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) trip; diverse and jam packed. But having been immersed in the news from Israel since 7th October, we knew what we would witness carried a different heavy responsibility.
Our first meeting was with survivors from Kibbutz Be’eri who are now living in hotels in the Dead Sea. Families who have witnessed friends and family members slaughtered and held hostage, their whole lives uprooted, every element of normality gone. We heard how the children act out war games, shooting and killing during play. Families who had the space and freedom of a kibbutz community, crammed into one hotel room, having left everything familiar and comforting behind.
We met Perach, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, who hid in her safe room for 48 hours while her home was being used by Hamas as an operations base. When she crawled out of the shelter window such was the devastation around her that Perach didn’t know where she was. She has lost everything but told her story with dignity and strength, her daughter clinging onto her. She had not known if her mother was safe for 48 hours. Perach wanted to go back to her home and rebuild it, such was her courage.
This resilience was reflected in all the survivors we talked to. They want to go back and rebuild the lives and communities they had to leave. This energized them, and I felt, gave them purpose and a focus, to distract them from their shock and grief. They were clear that they wanted to see people and tell their stories – witness testimony at its most raw.
They were also clear in their appreciation of the British government’s support, less happy with the BBC and Sky News!
We met various civil society organizations supported by UJIA, who have mobilized volunteering support, responding to the immediate need of whole communities, and planning for the long term, with both practical and emotional support. As a group we assembled food packages and saw children’s play schemes, run by volunteers who have moved from all over Israel, having given up their lives to support this traumatized group. We met families advocating for the release of their mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings or friends held hostage. Their frustration and anxiety palpable, with organizations from the Red Cross to the Israeli Government, a focus of their attention.
As on a CFI trip, over the three days we met journalists and think tanks as well as Gideon Sa’ar MK, to discuss Israel’s war priorities and current political situation. They all spoke about the current unity across Israeli society and were grateful for the visits from Prime Minister Sunak, then-Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Lord David Cameron.
On the second day, in the pouring rain, we drove down south. Many participants of a CFI trip have been with us to Sderot, Kfar Aza and Netiv Hasara communities on the front line of the attacks in the Gaza envelope.
Nothing prepares you for visiting Kfar Aza. Signs of lives lived everywhere. Bikes, art, toys beautiful gardens, orange trees heavy with fruit ready to be picked. But no one there to pick it and death heavily in the air. You see the senseless destruction and brutal devastation. An apocalyptic nightmare perpetrated by deviants. The scale of violence is beyond comprehension. The smell in the air was something I had never experienced.
We met a few people who had taken the opportunity of the temporary ceasefire to return to what was left of their homes, to salvage what they could. We were uncomfortable that we were intruding on their private lives and grief, but they were glad we were there to bear witness. We were meeting families of victims who have no choice but to see the horror of homes riddled with bullet holes, burnt to the ground. Families experiencing the nightmare of knowing the barbaric death of their loved ones, or the pain of reliving the heinous experience of the survivors. The newly married survivor we met made us promise we would come back when she has filled the rebuilt kibbutz with her little blonde babies.
Hearing directly from the survivors of the most atrocious terror attack, with the rawness of their experience so visibly exposed was humbling. We are aware from Holocaust education that there is nothing like hearing testimony from the survivors themselves. I heard but I will not be able to do their story justice. I am not able to express their pain eloquently onto a piece of paper but I will carry the weight of this responsibility and bear witness. I urge others to do the same.
I do not know what the outcome of this war will be. I was inspired by the cohesiveness of Israel and Israeli society, its resilience and determination, to feel reassured that even though the Israel I knew is broken, it has not been destroyed. There will be a new Israel.
I ask what I can do to help? What can we do in the UK to be a part of helping them to move from their trauma for the country we love?
We need to stand side by side with Israel, unequivocally, and make sure we are a part of its future. Am Yisroel Chai.