Elchanan Poupko

The Unforgivable Search For Foreign Citizenships

Illustrative: Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza march to 'Hostage Square,' outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

This week, New York will welcome a most tragic coming together of Jews from two sides of the Atlantic–American Jews and Israeli relatives of victims kidnapped by Hamas terrorists into Gaza. Sure, it is beautiful to see how, during these times of crisis, Jews come together to help one another. Yet the open secret that families of victims have been scrambling to find foreign citizenships of their kidnapped relatives so that other governments can advocate for their kidnapped relatives is a challenge to the very legitimacy of the State of Israel and the reason Israel was established. If Jews are once again knocking doors, begging foreign embassies, and scrambling for foreign passports, then the very raison d’etre of Israel’s existence loses its legitimacy. 

For centuries–twenty of them to be precise–Jews, including my own family, have begged. On a personal level, I can say my great-grandfather begged Stalin to let Jews out of Soviet Russia, when in America, he begged Roosevelt to let Jewish Holocaust refugees into the British-controlled land of Israel; my grandfather was one of the first to demand Soviet Russia Let My People Go and let Russian Jews leave, and many other episodes of Shtadlanut, Askanut, begging, lobbying, pleading, schnorrering and whatever other words we had for advocating for our very existence. The State of Israel was established to say: no longer will Jews need to beg to live. No longer will Jews have to knock doors to survive, and no longer will Jews need the mercy of charitable people to enjoy the most basic right possible–the right to life. That’s it, just to live. Since October 7th, Israelis have lost much of the very reason their state was created for.  

One of the stories Netanyahu loves sharing is that of his grandfather, Nathan Milikovsky, standing in a train station in Europe, beaten to the ground by antisemites. With blood all over him, Milikovsky swore that never again would he be so helpless at the violent hands of the Jewish people’s oppressors. He moved to Israel, where his grandson, Yoni Netanyahu, embodied that spirit to the highest degree possible. 

In 1976, when 105 Jewish Israelis were kidnapped to an airport hundreds of miles away from Israel, Entebbe, Uganda, Yoni Netanyahu led a small force of IDF elite fighters and in a dazzling mission of daring bravery, got the kidnapped Israel out of Uganda and back to Israel. Yoni, who commanded this force, lost his life, and the Entebbe mission, which would inspire generations, was named for him–Mivtza Yonatan, operation Jonathan. 

It is hard to begin imagining what Yoni Netanyahu would say if he heard that, just a ten to twenty-minute drive from Israel’s sovereign territory, there are more than two hundred (!) helpless Israelis held in the merciless hands of Hamas. The idea that Israelis and tourists who were sitting in their bedrooms, kitchens, army bases, and backyards are kidnapped into the hands of a cruel terrorist group and are held in captivity just a mile or two away from sovereign Israeli territory is unprecedented in Jewish history and a violation of the most basic tenant of Israel’s existence. 

The fact that American families of those taken hostage got to meet with the President of the United States while Israeli families were finding out on television that their loved ones had been kidnapped with minimal to no government contact, should shake the moral foundations of the state of Israel. It took PM Netanyahu eight full days to speak with representatives of families of kidnapped Israelis. Even then, the meeting was fraught with chaos and distrust. Israel’s prime minister, did he deliver a speech to the nation addressing this situation is a dagger in the hearts of families whom the state failed in its most basic function–defending its own citizens. The fact that families—living in Israel—wish that their loved ones were foreign citizens rather than Israeli ones is another testimony to the extent to which Netanyahu’s government has abdicated so much of its responsibility to the people of Israel. 

I cannot speak to the horrors of the more than 1400 already murdered by Hamas terrorists. There will be a state commission investigating how that horror took place and what shortcomings allowed for that to happen. We do not know enough about what allowed Hamas to catch Israel so much by surprise. We do know that after two weeks of having their loved ones taken from them, the vast majority of families whose loved ones were kidnapped did not get a phone call from the prime minister and feel like they were better off having the American, Canadian, British or EU governments advocating on their behalf than their own Israeli government doing so. It is an unforgivable sin against Israel that Netanyahu and his mishandling of this crisis have led families to look elsewhere. It is an abdication of Israel’s most basic responsibility to its citizens.

History could not have written a more tragic plot twist in Israel’s history than this one. Almost fifty years after Operation Entebbe in which Israeli commander Yoni Netanyahu helped rescue Israelis from captivity 2933 miles away from Israel, Yoni’s brother, Benjamin Netanyahu, failed to even pick up the phone and call the families whose loved ones are held helplessly less than two miles away from Israel. Today’s reports saying fifty hostages might be released by Hamas in a Qatar brokered deal once again highlight the helplessness of those with an Israeli passport and none other. 

A photograph taken following the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, when 49 Jews were murdered following a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community. (public domain)

In 1903, the world was shocked by the cruelty of the Koshinev pogrom, in which forty nice Jews were murdered, and many others were injured with great cruelty. The aftershock of the Kishinev pogrom motivated many young Jews to join the Zionist movement. Jews can no longer remain in a place where they are subjected to the horrors of such cruelty. The events of October 7th and the secondary treatment too many Israeli families got from their own government challenge the foundations of Zionism and Israel. Netanyahu’s breathtaking lack of leadership in the wake of the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust, which left even the most right-wing Israeli publications with headlines like: “Biden Gave the Speech We Wanted to Hear From Netanyahu,” deals a blow to the very foundation of the state of Israel. The pogrom of October 7th and the profound mistreatment of the families of hosteges carvs a lethal hole in the heart of Zionism and the state of Israel. It will be the job of Netanyahu’s successors to restore that role of Israel as the safest place in the world for Jews. A place where Jews do not need to plead with foreign powers for their very existence. A place to which Nathan Milikovsky, Netanyahu’s grandfather, would flee to from Europe, rather than flee from.    

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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