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The Trauma and Heros of Israel

By Ashley Lerner, Maccabi GB CEO

(The following article contains content that readers may find disturbing and upsetting)


I was privileged to have been invited on the Board of Deputies solidarity mission to Israel.  The visits that we made and the people that we met will live with me forever.  It is truly impossible to comprehend the human suffering that the October 7 attacks have had on this region as a whole.


The mission was to go Israel and to meet Israelis. It was both challenging and exceptionally moving and we received genuine thanks from those we met and witnessed remarkable shows of resilience and strength.


At time of writing, I have been back from Israel for less time than I was there and I either haven’t had the chance to properly reflect and process the trip, or what I think is more likely, is there are some conversations and sights that I saw, that I am just not ready to revisit yet.


I have been fortunate to have spent a lot of time in Israel; from my gap year, to Maccabiot, to visiting family and even getting married in Jerusalem overlooking the Old City.  On the superficial face of it Israel is operating as business as usual.  However, once you dig just a fraction deeper, despite that semblance of normalcy, the country is enduring immense trauma and is in a state of national mourning. 


For me, the mission was about the people that I met.


I met with Shay, a police officer in Sderot who told us and showed us of the devastation when the Hamas terrorists captured their police station and after 24 hours and to save further life, an Israeli army tank did the unthinkable and blew up the police station to kill the terrorists within.  Shay showed us footage of terrorists murdering parents in front of their children in their car.  When the children were freed by their rescuers, I could see the children had the same car seats as my two sons have, yet theirs were strewn with broken glass and soaked in blood.  Shay is a hero and led the resistance in the town of Sderot that day, saving many many lives.  He didn’t want to be called a hero, he lost friends and colleagues that day.


I met Ron, a survivor of the Nova Festival massacre where Israeli flags and memorials cover the forest, now a field of grief, to mark where over 370 young partygoers were hunted down that day (and worse).  Ron and his brother managed to defy all reasonable logic and escape.  He put others before his own safety by travelling back risking severe danger in order to rescue his friends and strangers a like.  He didn’t want to be called a hero, he is traumatised and where peace and love for all once filled his heart, he is left with anger and fury and a worry for his fellow survivors who may have escaped with their lives but will be damaged for ever more.


I met with Dar at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv where vigils and memorials are spread across the ground opposite the army base with a giant led screen counting the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds since the hostages were taken, to remind the officers inside the base – as if they needed it.  Dar is from one of the many effected communities in the South and has been at the square on and off since October 7.  Dar had visited London in the summer just gone and loved Camden, but not as much as she loves Harry Styles (I may have said I knew where he lived…!).  She actually thought I was a hero living in London.  She was worried about my safety at home and the antisemitism!  That discussion is for another day…  I also learnt about Omer Wenkert at the Square.  Omer was kidnapped at Nova.  Omer like me has ulcerative colitis and hasn’t had his medication since October 7.  I know what my health would be like if I hadn’t taken my tablets for 5 months.


I met with Elisha a soldier, a father, a businessman (in Hi-tech bee keeping).  An officer and reservist in two units, called up on October 7 to first defend Israel in the Gaza Envelope and once secured its borders went straight into Gaza.  Elisha lost both his legs in Gaza.  He is currently undergoing intense physiotherapy whilst trying to save his business and get home to be with his children and family. Elisha is a hero and when asked if he saw himself being able to rejoin his units in the future, he had zero doubt or hesitation that of course he would be back. Elisha’s 3-year-old son is a hero. When he saw that his abba (daddy) had lost both his legs, he went home and broke off the legs of all his toys so they could be the same as his dad.


I met with Ditza Or, the mother of Avinathan a 31-year-old hostage. Avinathan is a hero. You will recall seeing the unspeakable look of his girlfriend Noa Argamani when she was taken from the Nova Festival with Avinathan, a strong athletic man, who according to his mother clearly chose to not evade his captors, but rather be taken with Noa to whatever hell they were heading into. Ditza, a religious woman prays for her son’s release and sees him in her prayers each morning. Ditza’s grandmother was part of the Maccabi Great Britain delegation at the first Maccabiah Games and Ditza proudly showed us a video of Avinathan running a 5km run around Tel Aviv. Ditza, Avinathan and Noa are all heroes and with the help of Ditza’s incredible faith she knows her son will be coming home – I told her that when he does, he is going to start our 5km run at the next Maccabi GB Community Fun Run.


There were more people I met, many more heroes and stories I heard and more places I saw, but for now they will remain within me as the hurt and horror is too unimaginable to share.


With all the people we were privileged to speak with, a message we were asked to convey to the diaspora, to our colleagues and to our friends and family is that despite the trauma, which will take time to heal, is that of “Am Yisrael Chai” – “The People of Israel Live”.


The mission wasn’t about politics, it wasn’t about the region as a whole or the desperate need for a future of peace.  This was the opportunity to learn firsthand about the now and to show support to the Israeli people that we met and to see and hear about a fraction of what they and the country has and is continuing to endure.

The Board of Deputies solidarity mission to Israel was organised by Ilana Kevehazi of Maccabi World Union.

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