Nir Oz, a kibbutz on the southern border of Israel, had 400 residents last week. Today there are currently only 160 known survivors. Jonathan Dekel-Chen is one of them. Dekel-Chen, a Connecticut native, has lived on Nir Oz since 1990 as have his children and grandchildren. His son Sagui, 35, is one of the American Israelis assumed to be held hostage in Gaza. Dekel-Chen zoomed with me at around 9:30 pm on Wednesday night from a hotel in Eilat, where the army had taken the surviving residents of the kibbutz. Dekel-Chen seemed exhausted but determined, and as we were talking he continued to field phone calls from concerned friends and media. Perhaps because he is a historian, Dekel-Chen was able to discuss what was happening now in the context of the Israeli past while also looking to the future. But when I strayed into the more personal, he stopped me. “Don’t ask me about feeling things. I’m sorry, that’s not a question I can answer right now.” Below is a version of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
“I was actually in New York on Saturday, but I was in live contact with my family on the kibbutz until their phones went dead. The terrorists were first spotted on the kibbutz a little after 6:00 a.m.. The alarm went out, but we’re talking about hundreds of terrorists in a small space in the community, heavily armed, well-trained, well-coordinated, with only one goal, which was to kill as many people as they could, destroy or loot all the property that they could, and to capture a large number of people. And in great part, my kibbutz being one example of many, they succeeded. They caught us completely by surprise. And not just the people on the kibbutz, but our own military was caught completely off-guard. And we are living proof of the results. My son is one of a couple of dozen missing people from the kibbutz. There are another few dozen who are confirmed in captivity, meaning that someone on the kibbutz that survived saw this or that person being led away from the kibbutz by Hamas terrorists. The other two dozen or so people like my son are assumed to be in captivity. We absolutely know that they were on the kibbutz when the attack began, but by the time the army got to the kibbutz nine hours after the attack began, there was no evidence of them. They were gone. And we know that some of the young men on the kibbutz, like my son, engaged in close combat with the terrorists to save their families and other families. Most of them are among the missing. That’s what we know, and communications were lost in any case at around 9:30 in the morning.
“Sagui is my younger son. He’s my little 35-year-old boy. He’s been my playmate since he was little. We shared a lot of interests. He’s the proud, wonderful father of two young girls, three- and six-year-olds. His wife Avital is now seven months pregnant. He was able to lock them into the attached bomb shelter safe room in their home on the kibbutz, and then went out to do battle like many other young men on the kibbutz to try to distract, divert, stop the rampaging terrorists on the kibbutz. In the case of Avital and the girls, we are pretty sure that the active fighting ended at around 9:00, 9:30, with the young men, kibbutz people doing battle, either dead or in captivity. For the next six hours Hamas terrorists tried to breach the safe rooms of the women and children, or elderly, who were left in the kibbutz.
“When that failed, they lit fires in all of the homes to essentially incinerate people in the bomb shelters or have them die of asphyxiation. Entire families died that way, or some, out of fear of being asphyxiated, left their bomb shelters and were executed on the spot or taken into captivity. Including my ex-wife, by the way, mother of my children, who by some miracle and fortitude was able to escape at the Gaza border and make her way back to the kibbutz, while the fighting was going on and join my younger daughter, who also lives on the kibbutz with a young family, in their bomb shelter.
“Some of the armored doors held against the bullets and the explosive charges that were set by Hamas, others did not. And wherever Hamas breached those doors, the families, the people behind them, the civilians of all ages, were executed or taken into captivity. On Friday night, we estimate there were about 400 people on the kibbutz. By Saturday noon or by the time the army cleared the kibbutz in the mid-afternoon, there were 160 people alive—the rest had either been murdered or taken into captivity or were missing. The assumption is that they’re in captivity. We have no idea what happened. We are hoping for the best.
“The survivors at the kibbutz were evacuated by the army on Sunday, late afternoon. And most of the evacuees are now together in a hotel in Eilat, the southernmost city. We don’t have anywhere to go back to. The kibbutz was destroyed. It’s a burnt shell. So even when the fighting stops, we can’t go back. I doubt that many will want to, in any case, because of the trauma that they experienced, the death of loved ones, the torture and execution of loved ones that in some cases they actually saw happening. Some of it was taped. There is Hamas social media footage posted from Nir Oz of the execution and torture of my friends, my neighbors. So it’s very difficult to imagine right now what the future looks like for the place, the kibbutz, or for our community. Right now, we’re in an existential situation. We’re all very proud people. It was part of our very existence—proud, independent people.
“There doesn’t seem to be much government interest in our fate right now. And sadly, particularly with this government, I’m not surprised, for most, their priorities lie elsewhere. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the conduct of the war. These are two completely different things. The provisions made for us, other than the hotel, are being provided by volunteer civil society organizations, and not by the government. I don’t want to be too grandiose, but it’s incredibly heart-warming to see these people who don’t know us, maybe don’t even know where Nir Oz is (we’re pretty far out there by Israeli standards), really, really making enormous efforts to assist us in our hours of need in ways that we’ve done in the past for others. In general, this is no secret. I believe that Israelis can be magnificent people. We deserve better governments than we’ve had over the course of the last 20 or 30 years, but we’re in this impossible cycle of politicians of many different colors who simply don’t seem to have first and foremost the welfare of Israelis, certainly not Israelis down by the border, or on any periphery for that matter, anywhere near the top of their list.
“The kibbutzniks in general have contributed per capita far more to the security of the state of Israel since its inception than any other group, by many orders of magnitude. Yet, the kibbutz movements by far are amongst the most progressive, liberal and peace-loving people. So these two things—being dedicated to the security of the country, while seeking peace—they can coexist. And the question is now, what do we do, people like me? Honestly, the dust hasn’t settled yet. I have many more existential challenges right now in terms of the welfare of my family and my community, but it does seem to me that there has to be, at some point, peace, real peace, between Israelis and Palestinians. There must be, there is, no other solution. That cannot happen as long as Hamas is in existence.
“If there was any gray area among perhaps a handful of Israelis and perhaps among progressive Jews in all sorts of places about what Hamas is, it’s not a silver lining but a somewhat helpful outcome of this massacre that there is no more room for argument about what Hamas is and what its intentions have been. This was not some spontaneous pogrom because of too much drinking in the taverns in some town in southeast Ukraine. This was planned for months, perhaps longer. Again, this attack was not about capturing territory or creating a Palestinian state, or even making an international statement. This was about the murder of as many innocent civilians as they could possibly murder, and the taking of hostages as some kind of human capital in a warped inhuman, barbaric game that they believe they’re playing. With whom, I’m not quite sure.
“So I believe that two things can be true at once. I have to believe that there still can be peace between Israelis and Palestinians. There are over a million-and-a-half people in Gaza alone. They’re not all Hamasniks. No one asked them if they want Hamas to be in control of Gaza. I want to believe that the vast majority of them want what I want for my children and my grandchildren, but that cannot happen as long as the Gaza Strip, or anywhere around their borders, are controlled by Hamas or other organizations with different names that are essentially doing the same kind of work, exactly like ISIS. It is the same kind of organization. And I’m sorry, anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. Today, especially. Maybe on Friday night, it was still possible to somehow rationalize. I cannot imagine a world in which any thinking person would believe today that Hamas is anything other than what it is, which is an organization set on one thing alone, which is the destruction of Israel as a state and the murder of Israelis. Not the Army, not the Navy, not the Air Force. Israelis. Infants and toddlers were killed on my kibbutz. Eighty-eight-year-olds were executed on my kibbutz. There’s no gray area anymore.
“If you care as an American Jew, write to your member of Congress, write to your senator. The United States can’t solve the hostage problem. I understand that. But it’s helpful to let the Biden administration know that there’s also a popular demand that the U.S. administration do whatever it can, directly or indirectly, to ensure at least the safety, if not the release, of these men, women and children. And that is something that American Jews can actively do today.
Top image: Jonathan Dekel-Chen. Photo courtesy of the Wilson Center. Inset: Jonathan’s son, Sagui, who was abducted by Hamas.