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The Rape of the Innocents

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Flag of Israel before a cloudy sky

Evil is like a shadow. It has no real substance of its own, it is simply a lack of light. You cannot cause a shadow to disappear by trying to fight it, stamp on it, by railing against it, or any other form of emotional or physical resistance. In order to cause a shadow to disappear, you must shine light on it. Shakti Gawain

A haunting story from the first attack on Israel

We were physically and emotionally exhausted getting off the bus at our hotel in Jerusalem. We arrived that morning on an overnight flight and hit the ground running. The intrepid members of our Philadelphia synagogue’s solidarity mission had a packed first day.

The second day started the night before, as days do in Israel. About 20 of us sat in a circle of chairs in a hotel meeting room to listen to a young man named David describe his ordeal and ultimate escape from the Hamas terrorist brigade that opened fire on hundreds of innocent, young revelers and rained rockets down onto the Nova music festival on Oct. 7.

David is a 27-year-old reserve soldier who brought his sister Shira along for moral support. Their parents emigrated to Israel when they were kids, so they spoke English like Americans. They grew up in a religious community, but both are secular by now.

The festival morning started with great vibes. David and his friends were up early, ready for the first psytrance band to start jamming around daybreak. Just after the music began, around 6:30 a.m., they heard and saw the first rockets from Gaza.

Everything was going by the book. Smiles. Good people.

Running for their lives

They raced to find their car, but the ride didn’t last long. The path out of the campgrounds required driving through a shooting gallery. By 7:30 the bad guys were pouring in by car and on motorcycles, toting AK-47 assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, and machine guns mounted atop their Isuzu SUVs. Before long, David and his crew of three ditched their car and began running for their lives.

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He estimates the festival grounds withstood a 2,500-missile barrage in one day.

People were murdered. They were firing missiles at us from Gaza. We came together for a music festival.

When people around him started having full-blown panic attacks, David remembers taking charge of his shellshocked friends and instinctively saying, “Follow me. I know what I’m doing.”

He didn’t really, but six of them ran together through fields, away from the gunfire, seeking a safe place to wait for the reinforcements that neither arrived nor provided any instruction.

There was no army. No police. We feel like we’re alone. I’m still out of it, waiting for orders. But we never get any.

At 9:00 they found an overturned tree that would become their protection. After some debate, they convinced themselves of its feasibility and built a makeshift hideaway – a place to lie quietly for the next eight hours.

Faces covered, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” the terrorists ran past them multiple times. David recalls trying to calm the others. There were now nine of them, and they managed to remain mostly invisible until 5 p.m. That’s when one of their fathers showed up in an SUV, with one of his army buddies, to take them to safety.

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In the aftermath

David remembers packing 11 swampy, scared people into the vehicle and driving thirty minutes to a well-lit gas station on the corner of a dark road. He describes a hellscape scene out of a sci-fi movie, with Israeli police, bloody body parts everywhere, and dozens of people wandering around like zombies.

I could see in their eyes, what they’d all been through.

So many months later, and David says he still has a hard time believing that his memories are real. He doesn’t quite see his survival as a miracle. He’s numb.

Perhaps jetlag was a blessing, as none of us reported any trouble falling asleep after David’s nightmarish stories. We woke up early on day two, had an Israeli breakfast at the hotel, and boarded our tour bus for a 90-minute journey toward the southern Israeli region that borders Gaza.

It rained hard for most of the way down, which allowed Luzi, our tour guide, to explain how much Israelis love and need the rain. When we got close to our destination, the sun came out. As the farmland tumbled into settlements, Luzi pointed out the roadside bomb shelters, positioned every 100 yards or so.

We disembarked from the bus at a large municipal building in Netivot, a growing, young city with a population of 46,000 – up from 27,000 in 2009. Netivot is known as the home of Jewish mystics and serves as a popular pilgrimage site. Most of the residents have blue-collar jobs, largely in food processing, metals, plastics, and construction.

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Relief warehouse

The front building contains a makeshift relief warehouse that serves Israeli families whose homes were either attacked on Oct. 7, or evacuated due to Hezbollah’s rocket barrage in the North. We tried to be helpful, so half our team sorted and repackaged boxes of dry goods, while others sliced vegetables to make shakshuka for the army officers stationed in the building.

After a couple hours, we left Netivot for a short ride to the outskirts of town, where we met Rafi, the head of security for the region. He seemed glad to see us, in a hardscrabble way. Like he’s been seeking recruits to join the cause.

We walked a few steps down a short slope into a puddled, dirt field that borders a gravel parking lot. It took until we got closer to notice that the cars we saw in front of us had bullet holes and cracked windshields. Just beyond was the burned-out rust pile twenty-feet high.

Rafi began telling a story from his visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland many years ago. He compared the burnt car stacks in front of us to the mound of children’s shoes on display at the camp.

At Auschwitz they told us to focus on one pair of shoes, to imagine the child who wore them.

Today, Rafi suggested that we focus on just one car.

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Think about the people inside it, and their loved ones. Where were they from? How did they live their last moments?

Another story of rape and pillage

Rafi told us that every car is a crime scene, and no one is declared deceased until the authorities can positively match each person’s DNA. They’ve brought in archaeologists to help sift through the ash to identify fragments of bone or teeth.

We were staring at the aftermath and evidence of pure evil. Hundreds of cars were incinerated into a rusty state, because no water was there to douse the flames. Bullet-riddled vehicles filled the parking field, including several that displayed Hamas’ cold-blooded lethality. They raped and pillaged unarmed civilians, mowing them down with machine guns. They fired grenades and missiles at people attending a music festival, as if it were a scene from Grand Theft Auto.

We boarded the bus and followed Rafi’s SUV to Kibbutz Alumim, where the Hamas fighters first arrived on Oct. 7. From the edge of the farm, we could see the Northern cities in Gaza, and we could hear the intermittent IDF bombs. We were about a kilometer from the fences where the terrorists initially broke through.

They penetrated the back gate of the kibbutz, burned down the barn, and killed a few cows. They also flame-tortured several Thai-Nepali farm workers and took one of them back to Gaza as a hostage. After showing us the burned-out barn and the storage shed that’s been hastily rebuilt, Rafi told us his story from the morning of Oct. 7.

First response

They all woke up to air raid sirens and headed for the safe room. The sabbath before Purim is a holiday, so his home swelled to 19 people, including his mother and several cousins, who were already preparing for the family lunch. At first, Rafi thought this was a normal occurrence for southern Israel, but surprisingly, none of the security people he called had heard much about the situation.

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As the head of security in the region, Rafi’s job was to be a scout, so he bid farewell to his family, got into his truck, and promised he’d be back in time for lunch. He didn’t return until two days later.

Upon leaving Alumim’s main gate, he encountered dozens of cars frantically fleeing the Nova festival, just down the road. Rafi motioned for the cars to follow him on the road toward Kfar Aza. Then things got dicey.

Just in front of the Saad Junction roundabout, a bullet-riddled car passed him from the other direction. The driver reached his bloody hand out the window and warned Rafi of the approaching terrorists. When Rafi’s car got hit with machine-gun fire, he saw for himself.

They spun their cars around and headed back in the other direction. Rafi grabbed his phone to make two calls: first his wife, and then the kibbutz’s security center. He told his wife they were slightly hit, nothing major, and that he loved her.

Infiltration

To his team at the kibbutz, he shared,

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There are terrorists in Israel. I’m hit, but ok. I’m coming back to the gate, and there are lots of other cars with me. Let everyone in, for their safety.

The reply from his men was disturbing,

You cannot come back here. We can see from surveillance footage that the terrorists are inside. They are set up at the front gate and are shooting at cars that come in. They’ve breached the back gate too. Don’t come back to Alumim.

That’s when Rafi got onto his megaphone, waved to the 30 or so cars that were following him, and made a hard turn into the fields of farmland abutting the road. Eventually, after driving for a while he managed to find a haven for the cars who chose to follow. He returned the next day to find that the long country road he exited was the spot that produced many of the burned-out cars in the lot he now tends.

Next, we met Esther at a large community center, for a session about resilience. She also was a resident of the Alumim kibbutz, until her family’s home was decimated on Oct. 7. As the top grief counselor in the region, she’s recently overseen the hiring of a team of 200 therapists to counsel the thousands of trauma victims.

We assembled in a classroom, where Esther told us about her birthday on Oct. 6, and then about the actual day. She says she feels fortunate to have survived with her family mostly intact. Her husband was among several fathers that joined Rafi’s first response team that ultimately managed to neutralize Alumim’s terrorist threat.

Mostly, Esther spoke to us about the traumatized families that she counsels and how she helps deal with the rampant, communal PTSD.

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People have lost family and then lost hope.

Seeing the rape of innocents for what it is

She emphasized the importance of our visit, as well as of tikkun olam, the responsibility she feels as a Jew to make the world a better place. The words translate to “the establishment of Godly qualities throughout the world,” based on the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the wellbeing of society at large.

She rues the fact that some people cannot see this second Holocaust for what it was.

We all have a responsibility to communicate that this was pure evil.

Esther ended our visit by revealing why her family is only mostly intact. Her five grown children have all told her they won’t be returning to the kibbutz where they grew up. The pain and memories are too great. And, last month, her husband died of a heart attack from all the stress he was under. We were days from the start of the Jewish holiday of Purim, and Esther was still sitting shiva, the month-long mourning period when Jews share their grief with their family and community.

Like Queen Esther before her, the woman sitting in front of us carries the burden of responsibility for her people. There’s no quarter for self-pity. Am Yisrael Chai, a crythat means “The people of Israel live” has become a solidarity anthem and a widely used expression of Jewish peoplehood, an affirmation of the continuity of the Jewish people.

A deep underground command center

Apparently, Netivot and Philadelphia have been sister cities for many years, so we were local VIPs. We reboarded the bus for a special “security tour.” Before long, we received a warning not to take pictures while passing an Iron Dome missile battery.

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Next thing we knew, we were back where our morning began, in front of the main municipal building of Netivot. This time, instead of cooking and packing boxes in the logistics center, we boarded an elevator that dropped us down to level minus 2, and into a bunker.

When we got to the command center, we learned this is the largest bunker in South Israel, and it was built by Yehiel Zohar, the security zealot who’s been mayor of Netivot since 1989. Over the years, they’ve mounted cameras in and around the outskirts of the city and built an underground command center, where the staff and elected officials can be protected and effective, in cases of emergency.

The Netivot head of security, Omri, stood in front of the giant screen in the command center and narrated in Hebrew. He began by showing pictures of the well-armed militia that he led: about 18 former IDF soldiers, clad in the latest tactical gear, posing with their modern weaponry. The translator told us Omri was thanking us for the ceramic vests that were paid for by the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia. We were getting a private show.

Another view of the attack

He casually mentioned that these days folks no longer say boker tov in Netivot, which means “good morning” in Hebrew. For the time being, they just say boker.

We were shown a compiled video from later in the day of Oct. 7, when the Netivot security team got a message that Hamas had car-jacked an Israeli police vehicle and was heading for their city’s gates.

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The footage begins with the police car approaching the city’s main security gate. The vehicle attempts to drive through the gate, but the local security forces, prohibited from using automatic weapons, methodically fire rifle shots to repel the terrorists.

Not to be deterred, the terrorists drive toward another entry point. As they speed to the secondary gate, the local police, now fully mobilized, catch up with them. The officers chase them down and subdue the threat. The police decisively end the standoff by shooting the terrorists in their car.

We emerged from underground and headed to the nearby site of the Nova festival.

Aftermath of the Nova festival

Even though we’d been driving around the area all day, this time around we knew the whole story. The road taking us from Netivot to Be’eri was the scene of the apocalypse just a few months earlier. The images from the day played out in our minds.

We got off the bus in silence, each of us with our own thoughts. Throughout the day, we witnessed evidence of an attack so horrific that it defied our imagination. Now, we got to mix in our own memories of the music concerts we’d all been to.

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Makeshift memorials dotted the campsite, each one a tribute to the life that was cruelly snatched away. As we walked through the festival grounds, it was so easy for us to imagine our own loved ones – daughters, brothers, grandchildren, nieces, friends – among the attendees. I kept thinking about all of them dancing backstage with the band in the sky.

Music festivals are universally loved, places of joy and celebration, yet this one had turned into an epic nightmare. The evidence of violence was stark and brutal – areas where people had been cornered and killed, spots where individuals had tried to hide, and the paths they might have run. The scene was serene, but evil was lurking.

Incapacity to understand evil

It was painfully clear to us that the acts of violence committed here were not just physical but a deep assault on the communal spirit of humanity. To look upon such scenes was to see the darkest capabilities of human nature.

Then, why is it so hard for people to recognize this malevolence?

As the sun was setting, casting its long shadows over the camp, the Rabbi led a short vigil. He reminded us of the Hasidic proverb, “Fear only two: God, and the man who has no fear of God.”

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Here, amid the remnants of joy and the palpable presence of evil, the depth of innocence and cruelty lay bare, intertwined at the very same spot. Clearly, sin is not just in the acts of evil, but in the willingness to overlook or ignore them.

Our solemn reflection underscored the immense responsibility we all carry – to remember, to tell these stories, and to ensure that such darkness is met with shining light. As we boarded the bus, the silence was a collective meditation on our duty to foster peace and understanding in a world too often fragmented by fear and hostility.

As the French intellectual Bernard-Heri Levi has said,

In any event, the result is plain: Appeasement of violent radicalism only encourages more of the same. As a consequence, we find ourselves in an undeclared state of intellectual emergency.

Dealing with this emergency requires, above all, saying and doing the opposite of what has most often been said and done. Specifically, we must call a spade a spade. An Islamist may be a lost Muslim or a Muslim gone astray, but he or she is a Muslim all the same. We must stop repeating ad nauseam that these aberrant Muslims have “nothing to do with Islam.”

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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Eric Spitz is a serial entrepreneur who entered the cannabis industry in 2016. He previously owned Freedom Communications, including the Orange Country Register. He now serves on the board of Rootz.ai, a technology company that provides insights about consumer retail shopping behavior.

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