Since 2014, I have known Rabbi Avi Schwartz, an Orthodox Rabbi, an award-winning filmmaker, activist, and the son of the 1948 Palmach fighting legend, Mordechai – Motke Eish HaGarzen, – Motke the Axeman. When I learned that he had recently enlisted in the Israeli Police Swords of Iron War Unit at the age of 58, I was stunned. Hence the reason I was compelled to interview him.
When we first met, it was during the summer of 2014 as Operation Protective Edge was underway – the Israeli military campaign to stop Hamas rockets from firing on Israel. During that conflict, as is now, the media was fanning slander against Israel. As the weeks passed, Rabbi Avi had a brainchild to organize the first march/rally in New York City history protesting antisemitism,entitled, “Silence? Never Again!” It was a 20-block march from CNN to MNBC to call out the media outlets’ gross misrepresentation of Israel. Rabbi Avi had a logical premonition that the seeds of global Jew-hatred were taking root, thus the reason we all wore Yellow Stars, and the event broadcast live around the world. Along with Maya Fridman, we had laid the path for future rallies and marches. But no one in their wildest imagination ever expected October 7th.
Jeremy: Where were you when you heard the news?
Rabbi Avi: It was at around 9 am as I was walking to the local community center to partake in the Simchat Torah Shabbat services and celebration. The morning was sunny, quiet, and free of traffic. Suddenly, a small car stopped. Out jumped from the right front passenger side was a young man about 18 years old. “We are at War,” he told me. I was in shock.
Jeremy: The Yom Kippur War surprise all over again.
Rabbi Avi: Exactly. I quickly brought him to the Rabbi of the Shul, and the young man explained that he and his mother were driving from shul to shul alerting everyone about the danger. What was so unexpected and so appreciated was that both he and his mother were secular, and they were warning all the religious sectors. This was surprising since only 11 days earlier a few secular demonstrators had vandalized the open shuls conducting Yom Kippur services in the area.
Jeremy: It is quite amazing how less than two months ago the level of animosity between so many groups was at a near volcanic eruption that would tear the country apart. I recall reading your powerful TOI blog, “Have We Gone Insane: The Jewish Two-State Solution.”
Rabbi Avi: It was frightening. It was unbelievable that there those who were suggesting turning Israel into two states: Judea and Samaria, one for religious Jews and one for secular Jews. Bottomline, for or against, the Judicial Reform movement and how it was presented was setting our fragile unity ablaze. So to see this secular mother and son travel from shul to shul to alert their religious brethren was heartwarming.
Jeremy: Beautiful story. Those first few days were surreal. Every time I heard or saw more information about the massacre, I, like so many others, was angry, upset, dumbfounded, and broken with great grief. But more importantly, was how in a split moment we had remembered we are Jews first.
Rabbi Avi: Yes. What a wake-up call it was! Ironic, and otherworldly, how Simchat Torah, the holiday that affirms and reconnects all Jews, of all backgrounds, to our national identity was the day it happened. Meaning, the great sage, Saadia HaGaon, over 1000 years ago said that what makes the Jewish Nation unique among the nations is the Torah and our attachment to it.
Jeremy: Wow. I can tell you that I felt a different Israel since that day. It was if Israelis had a collective shockwave of two thousand years of our inner fears of oppression and persecution rise to the surface again.
Rabbi Avi: Exactly. During the first few weeks, the deep memories that all of us carry in our national DNA were reawakened. We were no longer the “Israeli.” We were the “Jew.” Our very core was opened. In a spiritual sense, we reconnected to the Jewish communities both living in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora – the Exile – for the last two thousand years. Just when Zionism was on its last legs, so to speak, the Massacre reminded everyone why the Jewish People need, deserve, and have the right to have their nation-state on their ancestral homeland. We are the indigenous natives. We are the only indigenous Nation in history to speak the same language, keep the same religion, hold the same customs, feel the same connection to its Land as we did two thousand years ago, and to return home. But more importantly, we have maintained that connection for over the past two thousand years. As we say at the end of every Passover Seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” The Shofar Blast to Return Home was sounded this past Simchat Torah, October 7th.
Jeremy: It was mind-blowing to see how many Jews returned from abroad to join the war effort. How many ultra-Orthodox volunteered to the army. And how many Jews around the world responded to the “Shofar Blast” as you say.
Rabbi Avi: When you, Maya, and I made the “Silence? Never Again!” rally in 2014, some were put off that we had everyone wear the Yellow Star. Some thought we were too extreme.
Jeremy: That reminds me when you wrote the TOI article “Jew Season” in 2019 predicting that in 2030 graduates from Ivy League universities and universities around the world would become world leaders and vote Israel out of existence and then proceed with a global hunt to wipe out all the Jews. At the time, many thought your overactive imagination got the best of you. Now we see that not only Israel, but the Jewish people’s very existence is at jeopardy with so many protests on campus calling for “Jewish Genocide.”
Rabbi Avi: BDS has created a global war against the Jews. We have Hezbollah in Lebanon with 150,000 powerful missiles at Israel’s North, Hamas in the South, the Houthi of Yemen in the Southeast, Iran funding the terror, and the Muslim Brotherhood and BDS fanning worldwide Jew-hatred.
Jeremy: I am always amazed at the lack of history that the Pro-Palestine protestors have. The October 7th massacre was not new. Since the Arabian conquest of the Land of Israel in the 7th Century, there have been many massacres against Jewish communities. Hebron in 1929 was horrible.
Rabbi Avi: True. The difference is that an ISIS-Hamas, Hamas-ISIS, however, you want to term it, was able to enter Israel with almost two thousand terrorists in such a surprise fashion, do such damage and kidnap over 240 civilians. The problem was those at the top had tricked themselves into a worldview that Hamas had accepted the status quo and was willing to live by the cease-fire.
Jeremy: From all the reports, we now know, warnings were sounded, but no one took them seriously. Similar to the warnings you gave about a global attack on Jews resulting from BDS.
Rabbi Avi: You just mentioned the lack of history. Correct. And a lack of moral clarity. It is outrageous how so-called Social Justice activists tore down posters of the kidnapped, referred to the terrorist prisoners as hostages, and by so doing equate their “plight” as a kidnapping, and dared to say we targeted civilians and engaged in collective punishment.
Jeremy: Hamas, as now verified, actually used hospitals, schools, mosques, and even children’s bedrooms to store weapons and launch from those areas.
Rabbi Avi: As the Green Prince, the son of the Hamas leader, Mosab Hassan Yousef, said, Israel has the capacity to wipe out every Arab state, but does not abuse its power. The notion of collective punishment is absurd. Why? Because Israel is not seeking revenge. If it did, it could have wiped out all of Gaza. The holding back of humanitarian aid was a strategic and tactical maneuver to have the Gazans place pressure on Hamas to release the hostages. Many want to make all the Gazans innocent… The children are… But it was very telling of the Gazans when it was revealed that Roni Kirvoi, a hostage who escaped during the Israeli shelling, and hid for four days in Gaza, was found and caught by Gazans and then returned to Hamas. That makes those who returned him to Hamas war criminals. Even the 10-month-old baby hostage is still missing.
Jeremy: Very tragic. No one talks about the raped women who became pregnant and those who received severe sexually transmitted diseases.
Rabbi Avi: Just horrible.
Jeremy: After the hostages are returned should there be a cease-fire?
Rabbi Avi: No. Hamas is ISIS. They swore they will do October 7th again and again. It must be eliminated. Our main problem is Hezbollah. Their missiles can take down cities.
Jeremy: Will it ever end?
Rabbi Avi: We are dealing with a religious ideology that seeks to fulfill a thousand-year dream to have a worldwide caliphate and destroy Western and Eastern values. In other words, the whole world must follow it. Might makes Right. And Right Makes Right. We need to enlighten the youth via social media, a youth that is being duped by BDS and two prominent behind-the-scenes nations that are making Israel look like the bad guy to make the USA lose its hold in the region. It is a geopolitical power struggle at the expense of the Jewish People. These two nations don’t realize they are only playing into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. Remember, chess is an Iranian (Persian) game, and the Iranians, whose culture is nearly three thousand-year-old, are grandmasters. That is why, We, the Jewish People, as the keepers of the Light – Hanukkah is fast approaching – must fight with life, limb, heart, and soul to save Hashem’s, G-d’s Presence and ourselves in the World.
Jeremy: And that is why I was stunned to learn that you enlisted in the Israeli Police Swords of Iron War Unit. I understand you’re a Rabbi, a community leader, a filmmaker, and you write and speak on Jewish topics, but why enlist at the age of 58? I can see you are in great physical shape, but still, leave the fighting and the danger for the younger guys.
Rabbi Avi: Good question. I will tell you. My family returned to the Land in the 1870s, long before there was a Zionist movement. My Father, Mordechai son of Yitzhak HaLevi, was a Freedom Fighter. He was a Palmach commander in the Harel Brigade, Portzim – Elite Commando Unit – who led the 21 Palmachnikim Freedom Fighters up the slopes of Mount Zion and liberated Mount Zion, saving 1,700 Jewish men, women, and children in the Jewish Quarter from the Jordanian onslaught on May 17/18, 1948. He told me long ago, “The day will come when you will have to place life and limb in danger, in harm’s way, not as a young man, but as an older man. When one is young, life seems eternal, and nothing will be lost because nothing was yet achieved. But when one reaches a certain age, and things have been achieved, no one expects of such a person, to sacrifice or show courage, when the call to arms is sounded in defense of one’s People, Land, Family and Way of Life. When that call is answered it has an even greater impact on others and oneself. Remember, you are a Levite, a Palmachnik, son of a Palmachnik. The Palmach’s acronym means Pa(Po) Here; L (Lo) – Not; M (Maznichim) – Abandon; Ch (Chaver) – Friend. Palmach – Po Lo Maznichim Chaver. Here We Do Not Abandon A Friend. On that day, I know you will find the boldness and courage to answer the call.”
Jeremy: Are you ready?
Rabbi Avi: I had excellent training, especially from my good friend and teacher, Tomer Israeli, and his tactical school.
Jeremy: Wow. Just Wow. And what did your precious and amazing wife, Patty Sarah, say, or you didn’t tell her?
Rabbi Avi: Of course, I told her. Otherwise, she’d kill me. Just joking. She blessed me wholeheartedly. Baruch Hashem. Thank G-d, in the Merits of my Holy Parents, I have such a wonderful wife, for whom the Jewish Nation’s Survival, Freedom, and Honor come before anything. Palmach: Po Lo Maznichim Chaver. It is the way of the Jewish Heart and Soul. It is the Way of the Torah.