Bearing witness to the horrors of this war means remembering the pain on both sides

We can grieve for two peoples at once, and we must, but we can’t let political debate erase the events of Oct. 7.

A resident of the kibbutz K’far Aza looks at destroyed houses near the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, Nov. 13, 2023. The kibbutz was attacked during the Hamas cross-border attack on Oct. 7, killing and capturing members of its community. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

(RNS) — Our bus parked next to the fence separating Israel from Gaza; the same fence that had been breached by Hamas terrorists just months earlier, on Oct. 7. With me, I brought members from my Manhattan synagogue, to bear witness to the horrors of Hamas’ attack on Israel and to learn more about the ongoing war.

Wearing Kevlar vests to protect us from shrapnel — Hamas rockets were liable to fly at any moment — we stepped down to be greeted by Liora, a resident of K’far Aza who survived the attack on the kibbutz.

Initially, K’far Aza appeared as beautiful as ever: lush, green with grass, trees and flowers. Birds were chirping, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining. It was remarkably tranquil, if you disregarded the periodic booms of Israeli munitions coming from the other side of the border; the sounds of the ongoing war. We could see a plume of smoke in the distance. 

As Liora guided us down a winding path and turned a corner, we were suddenly faced with houses blocked off with police tape. Children’s bicycles, balls and toys were strewn across the lawns. Doors were covered with bullet holes, windows shattered. Roofs charred and caving in.

Down the road, an entire neighborhood — dozens of homes — was in the same condition.  One after the next, after the next, scarred by a massacre. At several of the properties, there were lawn signs with smiling portraits of the people who once lived happily inside. Notices in blue Hebrew lettering taped to each door indicated the number of dead bodies that had been found inside. As I entered one home, my shoes stuck to the smudged, reddish brown streaks on the floor. In the living room, there were spatters of dried blood. 

Wreckage from the Oct. 7 Hamas attack is witnessed during a tour of K'far Aza in southern Israel. (Photo courtesy Olivia Brodsky)

Wreckage from the Oct. 7 Hamas attack is witnessed during a tour of K’far Aza in southern Israel. (Photo courtesy Olivia Brodsky)

Later, we stood in the rubble of Liora’s home as she recounted how she hid in the bomb shelter with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren for 35 hours without food, water or light. They sat in dark silence, hoping the terrorists wouldn’t find them. The shelter’s doors didn’t lock — it was not intended to keep out intruders, only to shield them from the frequent rocket fire coming from Gaza. She and her daughter took shifts holding the door closed in case terrorists tried to force their way in. She pointed to the spot where two Israeli soldiers who had come to rescue them were killed in her backyard.

She told us how her son was murdered that day as he tried to protect other families on the kibbutz. 

As this morbid tour continued, with the sounds of war nearby, I had a disturbing realization: I actually found them comforting. I knew those were “our” bombs, keeping terrorism at bay. I felt protected, safer even.

In the next moment, I was overcome with guilt for feeling this way. I was cognizant of the fact that each boom I heard might be concealing the sounds of screaming Palestinians who just watched another building collapse or another civilian dying. I didn’t want sounds that represented death to bring me any sense of comfort. It felt depraved and filled me with shame. Every thud heightened my awareness of the contrasts and contradictions, both internal and external.

Olivia Brodsky, right, hugs local resident and guide Liora during a visit to K'far Aza, near Gaza in southern Israel. (Photo courtesy Olivia Brodsky)

Olivia Brodsky, right, hugs local resident and guide Liora during a visit to K’far Aza, near Gaza in southern Israel. (Photo courtesy Olivia Brodsky)

It dawned on me at some point that I had been here before. In the summer of 2011, my high school senior class had gone to Israel for a month for a final Jewish bonding experience before graduating. We traveled all over Israel, taking a deep dive into biblical history, the contemporary foundations of Zionism and the state of Israel. We traveled to the Kerem Shalom border crossing, on the southern border of Gaza, and made our way north along the border, visiting historical sites along the way.

At Tel Re’im (“hill of friends”), rich with ancient history and archaeology, we lodged at a nearby kibbutz with guesthouses grouped together like tiny neighborhoods with communal courtyards, picnic tables and hammocks, lush trees and fields of flowers. It was a place of joy, relaxation and comfort. 

The contrast between then and now is gut-wrenching. 

Walking solemnly back toward the bus, we passed a bomb shelter where residents had hidden in vain. Displayed on the wall outside of the door was the final WhatsApp exchange between family members. It ended with consecutive texts: “Are you okay?” “What happened?” “Are you still there?” “Please answer me.” There was no reply.

Before we left, a few of us asked to use a restroom. In a nearby building, I entered a stall and sat on the toilet. I soon noticed several small holes piercing the stall door. I knew what they were: bullet holes. I rolled up pieces of toilet paper and shoved them in the holes, blocking the light. The thought crossed my mind: Was someone murdered on this toilet? I never wanted to get off of a toilet so quickly. When I exited the bathroom, I overheard others noticing the bullet holes as well. 

I walked away to sit on a stoop under a tree, overlooking a brightly colored children’s playground with murals and chalk drawings. As I sat, I recalled my high school trip. Swinging on the swings, goofing around with friends as we left the dining hall. I was disturbed that the sun was shining and the birds were chirping. Given the atrocities that occurred here and the ongoing war, it should have been dark and ugly. 

This wasn’t some random foreign land. It wasn’t a memorial to atrocities committed 80 years ago and read about in history books. I had stayed at these kibbutzim. The once joyous place I remembered will now forever be stained with the blood of my people.  

I hope that one day the playground will be filled with the laughter of children again, that couples will lie together in the hammocks and families will grill in the courtyards. I hope to one day walk along these paths again without the sounds of war in the distance.

Until then, it’s our job to tell these stories; to serve as living witnesses of the worst atrocity our people have faced since the Holocaust. We must make sure that the stories of people like Liora are not forgotten. 

FILE - Palestinians visit their destroyed homes after Israeli forces left Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, March 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Palestinians visit their destroyed homes after Israeli forces left Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, March 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

The truth is, we can grieve for two peoples at once, and we must: Our humanity demands this of us. The death and destruction in Gaza are overwhelming. Urban warfare is savage, with too many innocents caught in the crossfire. In many ways, Gaza’s civilians are also being held as hostages of Hamas. They cannot escape the violence and abuse of their elected leaders, a terrorist organization. We must not be so focused on Israel’s survival that we turn a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinian civilians.

But nor can we deny my people’s story of Oct. 7, allow it to be dismissed, regarded as fake news, overshadowed by a war that we didn’t initiate. Does anyone have an alternative, beyond a simplistic charge for Israel to stop, to forgo justice for those murdered, raped and captured on Oct. 7, or allow Hamas to both survive and retain the ability to commit future atrocities against Israelis and Palestinians alike?

Is there anyone who could tour K’far Aza and only feel for Gaza? The truth matters. The lives of Israelis matter. Families are still grieving. Babies, children, parents, grandparents and Holocaust survivors are still being held hostage.  

As antisemitism explodes globally, it only reinforces that we must ensure that the state of Israel continues to exist as a refuge for every Jew worldwide, not just those who currently reside there. We must remain steadfast in our dedication to its existence as both a Jewish and democratic state that safeguards the rights of all of its citizens equally. We must work tirelessly for it to be a country that we are proud of, and one that is indeed a light unto other nations. 

(Olivia Brodsky is the cantor and spiritual co-leader of East End Temple in Manhattan. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!