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Why I Was Compelled to Visit a War Zone to Bear Witness

By Marty Schneer

I recently returned from the JCC Association Leadership Solidarity Mission to Israel, and as I sat on the flight home reflecting on our trip, I was overcome with mixed emotions—a combination of sadness, fear, and anger, but mostly pride and hope.

How did we get here? How did we reach the point where I felt compelled to travel to an active war zone to bear witness to the aftermath of events that occurred in our homeland 100 days before my arrival? Hundreds of people were killed on one tragic day in October. Hundreds more—many young IDF soldiers—heroically and without hesitation stepped up, leaving their homes, families, jobs, and lives to defend the Jewish homeland. I had the honor to pay my respects in person and to see firsthand the current state of the country during yet another devastating point in its history.

I have previously visited Israel several times, including during the second intifada in the early 2000s, when civilians were being blown up on buses and in restaurants and very few people were visiting from abroad. During that trip, Israelis frequently stopped me on the street to thank me for coming to show support and solidarity, so I’m aware of how important it is for them to witness Diaspora Jews and others during times like these when it feels like the world is mostly against them.

I’m relatively well educated on the complicated history of Israel, Gaza, the occupied territories, and Israel’s plight in defending itself against enemies in the region through the years. Yet, the reality of what I saw and experienced still felt shocking and difficult to comprehend without seeing it firsthand.

I’ll share some (but very little) of the context, as I hope this message will reach many and not everyone has the level of background necessary to understand it just yet. In 2005, Israel left Gaza. Months later, in 2006, Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian legislative elections and assumed administrative control over Gaza. Billions of dollars in humanitarian aid from countries all over the world have flowed to Hamas over the years, intended to help the Palestinian people. Instead, much of the aid has been used to terrorize and wage war against Israel and to build protection for the terrorists themselves—not to protect or aid the civilians. If you have any doubts about this sad reality, there are verified videos, pictures, and other documentation of the hundreds of miles of concrete tunnels built under the civilian Palestinian population, including strategic placement under hospitals, schools, mosques, and U.N. facilities. Although Gazans had an opportunity to use the money to build on their land, create a peaceful society, and prove to the world that they want to live side-by-side and peacefully with Israelis, the money was used instead to prepare for war against Israel, and it wasn’t long after disengagement that missiles were landing in Israel from Gaza. Peace never was and never will be the goal for Hamas. The terrorists, if they remain, have made it clear that they will repeat the atrocities of October 7 again and again.

According to the Hamas Charter:

Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it….the hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind the trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: “Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him, except for the Gharqad tree, for it is the tree of the Jews.”

This charter and those who live their lives to uphold it are rather clear with their intent: the elimination of Israel and the Jewish people. These terrorists are not looking to make peace, to create a two-state solution, or to better the lives of the Palestinian people. Their mission is clear. And so, 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel was again caught with its guard down, this time on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. Hamas attacked innocent Israeli civilians (and others) in their homes and at a dance festival—raped, tortured, murdered, and captured them. And they are proud of what they did—celebrating their “success,” documenting their depravity, publicizing their actions.

Of course, Hamas knew that Israel would retaliate (though the immediate retaliation took longer than anyone would have guessed). Hamas was ready for the retaliation with a pre-meditated, multi-tiered defense, as one of our speakers explained.

They prepared with:

  1. Hidden tunnels to protect only Hamas leaders and operatives
  2. A plan to place Palestinians strategically to serve as human shields
  3. Israeli hostages to use as bargaining tools
  4. The understanding that the international community would call for premature cease-fires while Israel continued to defend itself
  5. Lawfare, as we have now seen, in the International Court of Justice at The Hague

As predicted, Israel would be blamed in short order for a disproportionate response after October 7, though I don’t believe most realized just how quickly international opinion would turn against the country. Even before Israel responded militarily, calling up 360,000 reservists who dropped everything to race to wherever their army units were needed, many around the world already were placing blame on Israel. So now Israelis, justifiably, feel like much of the world is against them, and that few care about the lives of their brave soldiers and their right to defend their home. Being there showed me firsthand just why Israel deserves and needs our support now and in the future—which for me was never in question.

Our group of 40 visited the city of Sderot, which sits about 18 kilometers from the Gaza border and was a ghost town when we arrived. On October 7, 2023, 47 people were murdered there, in their cars and homes. I was immediately taken aback by how far the terrorists had traveled to attack here, essentially unopposed, that fateful day. We heard a first-person account from a mother who saw and heard the shootings. She shared a harrowing story of the murder of a 13-year-old girl who had been shot in the head and was found with no clothes on. This woman is among the tens of thousands of other Israelis who have been displaced from the south and the north of the country due to fighting in both regions. Understandably traumatized, she implored us to “Go back and tell the true story.” Her strength and resilience in the face of unimaginable horror were beyond comprehension and impossible to relay with words alone.

We continued to Kibbutz Nir Oz, a community in which members work the fields together, tend to their animals, share resources, and often eat together. Kibbutz Nir Oz sits about a kilometer away from Gaza, with beautiful, lush fields resting between the two. I couldn’t help but think how things could have been so different. Israel’s earliest pioneers made the desert bloom by planting trees and plowing fields, creating a full life for their families. Gazans could have benefited from Israel’s amazing agricultural technology and could have lived similarly on their land. They did not.

In Nir Oz, where 51 Israelis were murdered in their homes and on the streets, a member of a third-generation kibbutz family, guided us through dozens of burned-out, destroyed homes. It seemed as if he needed to do this to help ease his own trauma and pain. In painstaking detail, he told us who had lived in each home and how some survived by hiding but, unfortunately, most were murdered.

He led us through the rubble, surrounded by flowers and trees that were planted when the kibbutz was established in 1955, through the living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens of all those families who had been his neighbors for decades. To its community members, our guide said, residing in Nir Oz was 95% heaven and 5% hell, but only because of occasional rocket fire before October 7. The residents were so committed to living in peace that many helped shepherd Gazans who needed medical care to Israeli hospitals throughout the years. These were the people murdered by Hamas on October 7.

We then visited the killing fields of the Nova music festival, the 24-hour celebration where young Israelis had come together to celebrate music, life, love, and to share their hopes for peace. We were greeted at the site by a sign with the festival’s motto in Hebrew and English: “The privilege to love, The right to love.” An additional sign has been added: “Bring Them Home,” referring, of course, to the remaining hostages. I immediately was devastated at the site.

At first, it was believed that Hamas knew about the festival and had planned to attack there, but captured Hamas terrorists said they were “lucky” to come across so many civilians to attack in one place. “Lucky,” they said. “Lucky.”

Walking through this bucolic setting, I noticed a few makeshift memorials, but most devastating were dozens of large wooden sticks displaying pictures of victims—each one more beautiful and innocent looking than the next, each a victim of Hamas terrorists.

What I was seeing was unimaginable.

We then visited a temporary army base near the border and were honored to provide dinner for about 20 soldiers stationed there. The farcical nature of claims of Israel’s apartheid policies was on full display as I looked at the diversity among the soldiers: some were dark-skinned Bedouin, some dark-skinned Jews from Arab countries, and some white-skinned soldiers, including the commander who had a close-cut haircut and payot, the long hair worn by Orthodox men who adhere to the commandment detailed in Leviticus 19:27 to “not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.” His message and that of other soldiers I spoke to was one of Jewish unity, love of country, and steely determination. These young men spoke of gratitude for our presence, Jewish peoplehood, and concern for the upsurge in antisemitism in our country and around the world. Our delegation of 40 professional and lay leaders collectively came to believe in the common destiny of Diaspora Jews and Israelis.

The soldiers also spoke clearly about the need to do whatever it takes to eradicate Hamas as a ruling entity and fighting force. Their willingness to put their own lives on the line to take on Hamas, Hezbollah, and all of Israel’s enemies—and all that entails—left me in awe. They are fighting a war for all of us. The term “brave” fails to adequately describe these men and women.

We listened to an incredible audio tape of a calm 9-year-old boy, who was hiding in a closet with his 6-year-old sister and calling the police for help, knowing his parents and another sister already had been murdered. He eventually was rescued hours later, and it turned out his other sister had somehow survived.

And then, our delegation collectively released orange balloons to mark the first birthday of the youngest hostage, redhead K’fir Bibas, who is still captive in Gaza. Who holds a one-year-old hostage?

During his incredibly informative presentation, Rabbi Doran Perez, executive chairman of Mizrachi World, explained that Israel and the U.S. mainly have been playing “defense.” He used a sports analogy, quoting the famed football coach Vince Lombardi, who said, “You can’t win if you only play defense,” which is what Israel has done for most of the time Hamas has been in control in Gaza. He went on to say that we are often blinded by what we see, not by what we don’t see. We don’t see the world the way Hamas does, and the terrorists have shown us that we are not past experiencing genocides like the pogroms and the Shoah (Holocaust). We Jews are in a covenant of “fate,” not only faith, he added. His words and perspective were thought provoking and powerful, made even more so when he told us that although one of his sons, an officer in the IDF tank corps, had been captured and, he believes, is still alive and being held in Gaza, his older son had a pre-planned leave from army duty to get married just 10 days after the capture of his other son. The rabbi continued, telling us the wedding was simultaneously the holiest, saddest, and happiest occasion. “Judaism is still sweet,” he said, and went on to share that we cannot despair and must have hope. We are in a war between good and evil, and it is in the DNA of the Jewish people to rise and build as they did after the Holocaust. The rabbi closed his remarks by asking us how we plan to live our lives. Will we be worthy of our return to Jerusalem after centuries of prayer to return? He is hopeful that we will do what is required. I left with a sense of mission.

In our final session Miriam Perez, recipient of the Israel Prize in 2018 and known as the “mother of the sons,” shared her personal story, which has become a symbol of maternal heroism. As with so much of what I’ve shared, words cannot fully describe the emotional impact and power of our last two speakers. Perez lost both her sons years ago, one fighting in Gaza and one in Lebanon. She described the unimaginably painful, emotional journey to find meaning and overcome her losses, to rise and find strength and purpose in life. She shared how she has sat with every hostage family since October 7 to offer some comfort, to be there for them, and to provide some shelter from the emotional storm. Perez, who suffered tremendous loss, talked about gratitude for our blessings and the importance of using every moment we have been granted to do good and to help others. While she spoke, I held back tears, and as she concluded, I slowly walked to a corner of the room to gather myself. In a personal moment of reflection and gratitude, I texted my wife and daughters to tell them how much I love them.

Flying home, I thought about what accounts for the incredible resilience of Israelis. For one thing, they love the country their forebears built and feel an incredible sense of responsibility to preserve and sustain this modern-day miracle country that arose from the ashes of the Shoah. They protect a haven for Jews worldwide, who increasingly face antisemitism, discrimination and threats of death. They live their lives surrounded by nations and terrorist who openly call for their annihilation. And yet, ironically, Israelis are annually ranked among the highest in the international poll of the world’s happiest people. They live a life of purpose, meaning, and spirituality. May they be an example to us all and may they all live long and prosper.

I am grateful to have been in Israel during this time of crisis and for the opportunity to share my experience. Never again is now. Together, we must support the citizens of Israel, the IDF soldiers, and the battle to secure Israel’s future.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Marty Schneer is executive director of the JCC of the North Shore in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He participated in the JCC Association Leadership Solidarity Mission to Israel in January 2024.

This blog post is one in a series authored by JCC CEOs and executive directors who recently visited Israel on one of two different JCC Movement Solidarity Missions. Read other posts in the series.


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