A New Yorker Whose Israeli Hometown Became the Scene of a Massacre
Dan talks about how his family survived the assault, why he left Kfar Aza for good, and the anguish he feels when he sees the tragedy being used to justify more bloodshed.
2:34 PM EDT on October 13, 2023
Kfar Aza is a kibbutz in Israel located just under two miles from the border of the Gaza Strip. Last weekend, it was the scene of mass death and destruction, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing at least 1,000 people. A Reuters report notes that Kfar Aza was "among the communities hit hardest by the Hamas assault."
It's also where Dan, a Brooklynite, grew up, and where his parents still live. On Wednesday, we called Dan, who asked that we only use his first name, to talk about how his family survived the assault, why he left Kfar Aza for good in 2008, and the anguish he feels when he sees the tragedy affecting his hometown being used to justify more bloodshed.
"I saw what inaction toward this conflict can lead to," Dan told Hell Gate. "The inaction to pursue a permanent safety for everyone on the Israeli side, on the Palestinian side. That has been the true failure of all of this. We know that so many more people are probably going to lose their lives in the upcoming rounds, on both sides."
He added, "If we're going to keep on fearmongering, if we're going to keep on dividing people, if we're going to keep on telling people to hate each other, then we've absolutely learned nothing from what we're going through right now, and from the last 100 years."
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
I first learned that the attack happened, when I was in Williamsburg on Friday night, just about to head home, and I looked at my phone and saw I had 27 unread messages. We have a family WhatsApp group. First, my aunt reached out to my parents, saying, "Hey, we heard there's some missile launches happening," very early in the morning. My parents were like, "Yes, we're in our above-ground bomb shelter, but there are also gunmen on foot outside, so we've been instructed to stay inside."
At first, when I heard there was a missile attack against Israel from Gaza, that part did not sound unusual to me at all, because that has been happening for years and years now, and the Israeli government has done nothing about that. In middle school and high school, we would often have to hide under tables, or wherever you could find shelter. The part where they said there might be more than one gunman around us, trying to come into the house, that was highly unusual. There has never been anything like that in the history of where I'm from. Every so often, you'd hear that one gunman was able to enter through the border and cause some damage, but nothing on this scale.
In 2010, the Israeli government agreed to install this extension to our home, a kind of above-ground shelter that is made of concrete. It's not a bunker-type thing, it's specifically made to protect you against these improvised missiles and mortars, but otherwise they don't do much. It's never meant for a prolonged stay.
My parents described to me how they were sitting in the shelter and heard shots and people talking inside their home. And then the people came toward their bomb shelter. There's no lock on the shelter's door. To keep the door shut, they had to hold the handle up, push against it, and they had to hold it for hours.
The intruders tried to access the shelter through the window. And they started shooting at the door, bullets got through the door. My dad was injured because of shrapnel from the bullet. He had to get stitches on his abdomen, but it was pretty superficial. And the back of his hand got messed up from holding the knob.
It took around 12 hours for my parents to be rescued out of there. For some other people, it took over 24 hours to rescue them, so I consider myself and my parents very, very lucky. At the same time, their home, where I was raised, was destroyed. Which is a thing that we've unfortunately seen on this land way too many times, people's homes just being destroyed on both sides, intentionally, with malice. But this time it was us, you know?
To hear the BBC say that there was a "massacre," it's something that I had emotionally prepared for. There's something very unusual about hearing the name of your hometown on the news and the word "massacre" next to it. There's a Wikipedia page already for the massacre. I remember growing up you would tell people you live in Kfar Aza and they'd be like, "Where's that?" People in Israel, not even in the U.S.
Kfar Aza is a very small community of mostly left-leaning Israeli centrists. Around 850 people, so very small, but that's considered big for a kibbutz. What's really messed up is that I knew most of the people who have died. Because it's such a small community, one person might have been your kindergarten teacher, the other person might have been your counselor at some point. These are all people my parents have known since they have lived there. My dad moved there in the 1970s, and he has lived there since. He doesn't know anything else. A lot of my friends lost their loved ones. Obviously, retelling my parents' own story is chilling and really scary, but we got off easy. We really did. We know so many people who were just murdered, plain and simple. These are all people we ate at a dining hall with on a daily basis, or I went to the bus stop to go to school with. It's all really really strange, because you just know all these names.
When I was born, the kibbutz was pretty socialist. It was a lot of social accountability and making sure there was a safety net for everyone; there were three shared meals a day in the dining hall. My dad was working in agriculture as a farmer. A lot of food was grown in the kibbutz and got distributed from there. At the end of a long day, he'd bring us home a massive bag of carrots or something from the field.
Growing up in a very, very small town has its ups and downs. I personally had a very good childhood, growing up there in the '90s. We were the kids who grew up in the image of Yitzhak Rabin, and we later saw him get murdered. But we were told we had to work hard to achieve this peace. It was kind of the golden era—we had a "Sesame Street"-type show in Israel, and it was very strong on delivering a message of unity between the two people—we are different but we are so similar to each other, they call this place home and we call this place home. This is something that I remember in my upbringing. There was a strong drive for us to be peace-loving, truth-seeking, diplomatic people who want to do what's best for everyone. When Rabin got murdered, that got derailed completely, and that was when we first had Netanyahu assume office a few years after, and basically there has not been a true trajectory toward peace since then.
I was living there in 2008 when my kibbutz experienced a loss: one other kibbutz member, after a mortar was shot at him when he was gardening. At the time, that tragedy of that day, seeing that, really shook a lot of people to the core. And that was the loss of one person, that's how unusual it was. That year was thought of as the toughest year Kfar Aza has ever experienced, until what we're seeing right now. A lot of people left after that, a lot of people had taken a break and moved on, or lived further away for a bit until they felt comfortable coming back. But I was among the ones who left and intended to never go back.
After that, a lot of people harbored a lot of anger and calls for vengeance, and I understand those calls. A tragedy is a tragedy, and that's how these people—sometimes some people seek revenge, some people seek solace, some will seek to just mourn. To me, I just felt as though the government let us down. They failed to secure us. The tragedy that I'm recounting from 2008, that was after years of us living around the Gaza Strip border, and my community pleading with the Israeli government to help protect them in any way possible.
There was a sense that the government let us down, they failed to prevent this disaster, so to me, that was the unforgivable part of it all. So that is why I left. It had nothing to do with being chased away by the conflict or fearing the other side. This was, for me at least, a decision to just not let the government make me its own human shield against the missile attacks that were coming in at the time. I also did not want to be used as the government's fig leaf for not trying to promote any kind of peace treaty with Palestinians or any kind of diplomatic solution to something that should have been solved decades ago. I could not personally put myself in harm's way any longer, I could not take the emotional toll this took on me. I was not interested in serving in the army.
I'm probably going to have to go to a mass funeral at some point, seeing as everyone died the same day. We don't even know how many people have died yet. A lot of the people who died wanted to get buried on my kibbutz, there's a cemetery there. A lot of them expressed very explicitly that they wanted to be buried there. But then we're not even sure that people would want to come back ever, right? Because of what just happened.
The vast majority of people where I'm from are just so grief-stricken right now that they have not even had the chance to collect their thoughts and ask questions. But the understanding is that there has been a huge intelligence failure on the Israeli side, absolutely abysmal. The understanding is that there were signs that this was going to happen, that Egypt had warned Israeli intelligence but Netanyahu rebuffed them.
This will be Netanyahu's legacy. One of his campaign slogans said "Netanyahu: Strong against Hamas." That was literally what he said. So for him, such a strong man, who had everything under control, whose sole responsibility was to protect the Jewish people, not only did he fail, he simply didn't care enough to. Every so often, the people of Israel would experience a missile attack that is going to be intercepted by Iron Dome, and that's a small price to pay for him to not have to negotiate anything. So they can move forces to the West Bank, and just defend settlers there, settlers that are trying to cause harm. Whereas the community I grew up in, they've been there since 1951. This is not a new settlement, this is not a location filled with religious zealots. These are secular people.
I think any ideology that glorifies any people over another is never something that I would agree with, and that's what the settlers do. They claim they own that piece of land, they claim that is something that is theirs to take, but they're trying to worsen a situation that is already clearly buckling. To me, it's not just provocative, it's absolutely reckless. It is not informed in reality or in the nuance of the actual situation that they are part of. I think a lot of them are bigoted to the extent that the people who drive their cause have tried to make them bigoted.
And I think their cause is absolutely wrong, what the settlers do is absolutely wrong. I think the way they talk about Muslim people, the way they talk about Islam, the way they put Palestinian in quotation marks as if it's a made up word, I think it's not rooted in reality and it's absolutely crazy and it's absolutely offensive. And to add what is now happening to the grander state of the conflict, it looks as though the settlers on the West Bank enjoyed the security and safety of the IDF that was promised to the citizens of the south of Israel. The safety that was guaranteed to them, the safety that was taken for granted, and now we're living with the results of that.
I have not really read any responses from New York officials in the last few days, because I frankly could not care less. I think that any kind of right-wing motivated support for either side is never something I would ever support. And I think that, especially for an older generation of U.S. Jews, the boomer kind of generation, perhaps there's more of a "support Israel at all costs" mentality. But I have noticed myself, there's a lot of disinformation. At the end of the day, there's a lot of people trying to monetize on fear, and spread misinformation, and those people don't necessarily have the interests of victims on either side at heart. A lot of people are obviously concerned for their loved ones on both sides, and I am one of those people, and we're just caught in the fire of everybody's hot takes right now. It's not very helpful.
But the "justice" the governor is talking about is essentially retaliation. She's saying we must retaliate against those who have been slain. I would never call for more bloodshed. Never. I think that the fact that she put this statement out is very misinformed. You should call for peace. That's what we should do. For a lot of people, that might seem very naive, or like I'm burying my head in the sand. But when we come out of this, there will be plenty more dead, and people will have to figure out how to move on with their lives. If we're going to keep on fearmongering, if we're going to keep on dividing people, if we're going to keep on telling people to hate each other, then we've absolutely learned nothing from what we're going through right now, and from the last 100 years. So the fact that Kathy Hochul would call for that kind of "justice" is absolutely irresponsible in my opinion. It's very disturbing.
I saw what inaction toward this conflict can lead to, when I left in 2008—the inaction to pursue a permanent safety for everyone on the Israeli side, on the Palestinian side. That has been the true failure of all of this. We know that so many more people are probably going to lose their lives in the upcoming rounds, on both sides.
People are entitled to their opinions, but let's try to be respectful to everyone who is mourning right now. We should just stop being so against each other in so many other things and just work for peace. Because this is the only way for us to not find ourselves here again in 100 years. We have to learn our history, we have to own our history. And only if we know what we've come from, where we've come from, what we've done, only when we reckon with that, only when we acknowledge that, can anyone move on. And we have so much work to do.
Read an interview with New Yorker Bader El Ghussein, whose family just evacuated Gaza City, here.
Photo credit: Deror Avi / Wikicommons
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