Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar

Dear Shiri Bibas

If you, your children, and the remaining hostages are not returned, we will not be able to look ourselves in the mirror
Shiri Bibas and her sons Ariel, 4, and baby Kfir, are abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Posterized screenshot)
Shiri Bibas and her sons Ariel, 4, and baby Kfir, are abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 (Posterized screenshot)

Dear Shiri,

You don’t know me, but I know you. I fall asleep with you at night and wake up with you in the morning. In between, I dream about you. More than fifty days in captivity, dozens of hostages released, and you are still not home. My heart skips a beat every time you and your little redheads cross my mind, which is all the time. I have seen the pictures of you in the good times, happy and calm, and I have seen two terrifying screen captures of your abduction, and it is these that allow me no rest; no peace. Pictures from the Holocaust are supposed to be in black and white, something from long ago. But these are pictures from now, in vivid color.

From the moment I saw you and your children, I tried to figure out where you had the strength to hold them both together. In one picture, they are clinging to you, all three of you with expressions of terror and shock, but they trust you. Since then I have been murmuring to myself, “Please let them be together, don’t let them be separated, so at least she knows what’s happening to them.”

I constantly ask myself how you’re doing. How are you coping? Is Yarden with you? And the grandparents? I ask a mother’s questions: Can you feed them, living on only rice and pita? Do you have clean water? Enough diapers? Wipes? Changes of clothing? How do you wash a baby in captivity? How do you change Kfir’s diapers? What if they have a fever, or their teeth hurt? I cry when I imagine you telling them the story of Where is Pluto? or A Tale of Five Balloons from memory, singing them songs and rocking them to sleep…How does a mother create a routine for her children in hell? 

I ask myself, as I’m sure all mothers did when they saw your picture: What would I have done? Would I have had the strength to hold both little children? What does a mother feel when she can’t fulfill the most basic maternal instinct of protecting her children?

So why is it you who occupies such space in my mind? Perhaps the number of captives still in Gaza is impossible to comprehend. My heart misses a beat with every single name, every picture. It’s impossible to take in so much horror. But you and the little redheads, Ariel and Kfir, you went straight to my heart. Perhaps it’s my weakness for redheads, perhaps the Holocaust anxiety that is encoded into my genes and was suddenly awakened, perhaps your desperate attempt to hold them both tightly to you, to make them feel that mommy is here, even in all this horror.

I just can’t grasp the number of 1,200 murdered. I cry day and night for David Meir, my cousin, that heroic officer who was killed in the battle at Be’eri. I cry for the wonderful Yasmin Zohar from Sapir College, for Aran Goren, my former student. There are many, many soldiers in Gaza, but I’m frantic with worry for Moshe Zvi, my little brother, an officer in the Givati brigade. I worry about Yitzhak, a relative of mine who married just a few months ago. I think it’s impossible to comprehend the scale of it all. I can just take in one mother.

For years I asked myself, when they read the news of the Holocaust, what did the average American do for my family who were slaughtered? What did the Allies do for the six million? And now I am racked with guilt: What have I done for you? I am doing what I can with the little power I have. I wish I could go into Gaza myself, to pass through those tunnels and search for you, for all of you who remain. Instead, I am trying to help the wives of reservists to survive: I cook for them; I help my nephews who are missing their father the soldier to fall asleep. Every morning, I add the names of all of you, all the hostages, to my morning prayers, and it takes a long time. I go to rallies. I sign petitions. And it’s all nothing, a drop in the ocean.

I’ve rejoiced at each and every person who has returned, and yet it is not enough. I just want to cry out to the government of Israel, to those who really have the power to do something, that they should bring you back, bring back Kfir and Ariel, bring everyone who remains back. To bring you back is worth any price. This is our moral obligation as Jews, as Israelis. This is what will enable us to continue living here, to enlist in the IDF, and to pay our taxes. I feel that if they don’t bring you and everyone else who remains back home, I will no longer be able to get up every morning and live here. As a people, we will not be able to look at ourselves in the mirror. We will not be able to raise our children here. The divisions and fissures will become a wound that cannot heal, sinkholes that will swallow us all, a corrosive chemical that will consume Israeli society from within.

I dream of how when you come back, thousands of hands will reach out to welcome you (and all the others), the hands of all the mothers who dream of you at night. Everyone will want to look after Ariel and Kfir for you, to help you, to give you relief; let you rest. For a while, you will stay close to one another, because Ariel and Kfir will only want their mom. And then very slowly, they will reach out a hand to all those who love you here, and you can lie down, rest, close your eyes, feel that you and the children are in a safe place, and this nightmare will pass like a bad dream.

About the Author
Dr. Rivka Neriya–Ben Shahar is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer at Sapir Academic College.