November 21, 2023

Darkness and Light

Dov Ben-Shimon Federation CEO

Dear Federation and Community Leaders,

I’ve had several conversations these past few days about the state of Israeli society. My colleagues in JFN note that while the morale of Israelis remains high, the lengthy duration of this crisis is being felt in many ways. For example, the outpouring of voluntarism in Israeli society is starting to recede, mostly because volunteers need to return to their jobs, or in some cases, can’t cope with the emotional stress of some of the tasks they’ve been performing – like assisting victims and their families. Jewish federations like ours may, for instance, need to hire paid workers to do tasks that were being performed by volunteers, This is going to put great financial stress on capacity and staffing from some of the relief organizations that we’re funding on the ground.

It’s also clear that the length of the crisis is taking a toll on the reservists’ families. This reserves call-up, in both magnitude and duration, is unprecedented. As a comparison, the Yom Kippur War lasted 18 days, and we’re already past double that timeframe with no end in sight. Spouses of reservists are stretched thin, taking care of work, childcare, and helping others. Children are experiencing emotional stress from the situation and some families are starting to experience economic hardship. We’ll need to be alert to emerging needs in that area.

JFN and others share our concern about evacuees. There’s a growing feeling that the situation of the self-evacuees is not being properly managed by the relevant authorities, and Jewish Federations will need to contribute in a bigger way. The problem is compounded by the fact that many local authorities and municipalities – which did a good job of keeping tabs of their residents dispersed around the country – are losing track of their people as evacuees move from one temporary residence to another. Despite this, local authorities, municipalities, and regional councils continue to provide vital services for their displaced residents. In many cases, they operate much better, and closer to the ground, than the national government. I certainly saw this in my visits this last month.

The economic toll of the war is significant. The reservists’ mobilization is costing the economy USD 600 million a week, and many businesses are suffering due to lack of staff and/or customers. Obviously, the businesses in the evacuation zones are devastated, but restaurants in Tel Aviv, for example, are suffering too. This is prompting strategic conversations about strengthening the resilience and flexibility of Israel’s labor force. One particularly affected sector is agriculture, both because of the damage to the kibbutzim in the south and north, and also due to the lack of foreign workers, many of whom left the country after Oct. 7th. A significant number of Palestinians worked in Israel, and their absence is now felt. The government has approved the emergency recruitment of 140,000 foreign workers. In general, this crisis is sparking questions about the resilience of Israeli economy, from food self-sufficiency to redundancies in the hi-tech sector. The shock to some sectors has been so strong that there’s an openness to rethink them and even rebuild them from the ground up.

68 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the ground offensive began, and 388 soldiers since October 7. See a list of all soldiers who have fallen (with details, in Hebrew) in this war, here. Vered Benvenisti, who tragically lost her father and then her brother in previous Israeli wars, has now lost her son, who fell in battle in Gaza last night. Reports continue of an imminent deal on some hostages. Commenting on a possible agreement, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said, “We’re closer now than we’ve been before.” According to many media outlets, the deal will likely involve the freeing of around 50 hostages (comprised of women, children, and non-Israeli nationals) in exchange for an unknown number of Hamas prisoners, alongside a 3-5 day ceasefire.

It’s not true that residents of the Gaza Envelope in communities that are located within four kilometers or more from the Gaza Strip can now return home (there were some reports on this yesterday). Our beloved Erez residents, and many others, have to stay put for now.

Israel Defense Forces Operations
As the ground operation progresses, the IDF has completed the encirclement of Jabaliya in northern Gaza. It says that heavy strikes were carried out by artillery and air force units in the area to “prepare the ground for battle.” On the outskirts of Jabaliya, three tunnel entrances were struck with Hamas operatives inside. The military also found and destroyed rocket launchers nearby. See footage here of the IDF operating around Jabaliya, and see photos here.

The IDF also carried out airstrikes against an additional 250 Hamas targets over the past day and hit terrorists, rocket launchers, and military infrastructure. Troops continue to discover large quantities of weapons hidden in civilian locations including in mosques, and even one anti-tank missile was even found under the mattress of a baby’s crib). See the photos here and the video here. The level of rocket fire from Gaza remains low, presumably due to Hamas’ diminished capabilities. However, following one barrage last night, a 54-year-old woman was pronounced dead after she collapsed while running to a shelter in the center of the country. In the north, rocket and other fire by Hezbollah continues at a steady pace, as do Israel’s retaliations against Hezbollah. Hezbollah has fired more than 1,000 rockets and other projectiles at Israel since fighting began on October 7.

Meanwhile, 29 premature Palestinian babies arrived in Egypt yesterday after they were evacuated from Shifa Hospital. The babies were transported across the border, a day after they were evacuated from Gaza’s largest hospital, which has become a focal point of fighting. The infants were evacuated with Israeli assistance after troops took control of the hospital over the weekend (see video here). Also yesterday, the first Jordanian field hospital was set up in southern Gaza. See here footage of a captured Palestinian giving information about Hamas’ use of hospitals.

It has also been revealed that two weeks ago, two Hamas terrorists were arrested in the southern Bedouin city of Rahat,  after having apparently hidden out in the town for a month following their part in the attacks of October 7.

The Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry says that over 13,000 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, as a result of the war.

The Home Front
After meeting with the families of the hostages, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed his commitment to securing their release, calling it “a sacred and supreme mission.” He said, “We will not let up until they are returned, and this is the responsibility of me and the war cabinet. I listened to the pain of the families. We spoke heart to heart. I shared with them as much as I could about the diplomatic, intelligence, and operational efforts we are leading around the clock… We will not stop fighting until we bring our hostages home, destroy Hamas, and ensure there will no longer be a threat from Gaza.”

The country continues to mourn the victims of the massacre of October 7 and soldiers who have fallen in the fighting; and to demand the return of the hostages:

  • In London, the father of Hamas hostage Emily Hand (who turned 9 in captivity last week) pleads, ‘Help me bring her home.’ See here.
  • Watch this video footage from the dashboard of a truck belonging to Oz Davidian, a farmer from the area near the Gaza border who rescued some 120 young people trying to escape the rave on October 7. Davidian made 20 trips between Re’im and his moshav (a 9-mile journey), under fire, taking a different route each time to try to avoid the terrorists.
  • Ori Danino, 25, is presumed captive from the rave. Danino and a friend each left the party in separate vehicles, filling their cars with as many people as possible to help them escape the terrorists. At one point, Danino asked his friend for the phone number of people they had just met at the party, telling him that he was going to go back and save them. That was the last time his friend heard from him. Read more here.
  • A new settlement to be built in the Negev was chosen to be named after our friend Ofir Liebstein, the former head of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, who was murdered during the October 7 massacre while trying to save the lives of his neighbors. The decision was made by the prime minister and the housing minister with the intention of “honoring the memory of our friend. It is still hard to comprehend that he is not at our table.”
  • Read here about Matan Rosenberg, 17, who was murdered by Hamas on October 7 near Kibbutz Nirim.

Israel’s coalition government has announced that it will advance legislation to enshrine the status of Israel’s Druze community, amid the climbing death toll among Druze soldiers in the current war. Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior figures suggested they would find a way to complement the 2018 Basic Law: Nation-State of the Jewish People, which the Druze community says marginalizes them. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and coalition whip Ofir Katz, both of Likud, said the following over the weekend, “In the coming days, we will promote a draft Basic Law for the Druze community, which aims to anchor the important status of the Druze community in the State of Israel.” Remember that our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest is the only Jewish Federation to have a partnership with a Druze community, the beautiful town of Hurfeish in the north, which has suffered military casualties these past weeks as their sons fight for Israel. We love them, and we’re grateful for our partnership with them.

International Response
Roughly 300 UN diplomats attended a screening at UN headquarters in New York of the footage showing atrocities on October 7, which I saw last week. The screening of the 45-minute video, compiled by the IDF and featuring uncensored, difficult-to-watch scenes, many taken from Hamas terrorists’ bodycams, was organized by the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. While the footage will not be released publicly, Israeli diplomats have been holding special screenings for journalists, members of parliaments, diplomats, etc. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a UN protectorate involving US and Arab forces remaining in Gaza for a transitional period after the war.

International Committee of the Red Cross president Mirjana Spoljaric met yesterday with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar. Following the meeting, the Red Cross issued a statement that read, “The ICRC has persistently called for the immediate release of hostages. The ICRC is insisting that our teams be allowed to visit the hostages to check on their welfare and deliver medications, and for the hostages to be able to communicate with their families. Agreements must be reached that allow the ICRC to safely carry out this work. The ICRC cannot force its way in to where hostages are held, nor do we know their location. The ICRC does not take part in negotiations leading to the release of hostages. As a neutral humanitarian intermediary, we remain ready to facilitate any future release that the parties to the conflict agree to, as ICRC staff have already done on two occasions.”

Dramatic footage has been released of Houthi rebels from Yemen seizing a ship in the Red Sea that they say is Israeli-owned. According to Israel, the ship is British-owned and Japanese-run, and no members of the crew are Israeli.

Israelis of all stripes have come together to support soldiers and bolster morale in the country, many sharing inspiring tales.

  • Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy is developing a strong fan following due to his articulate answers in international media. See his latest interview here. He’s totally awesome.
  • Two couples in Israel were celebrating weddings in adjacent halls when rocket sirens interrupted the festivities. Both families gathered in a bomb shelter – but didn’t allow it to ruin the atmosphere. Instead, they continued the celebration together in the shelter, in a perfect showcase of Israeli resilience amidst hardship. Watch here.
  • A touching family reunion unfolded when a father, who had been on reserve duty for over five weeks, surprised his daughter Noga on her 13th birthday. He arrived with a cake in the middle of his daughter’s classmates singing her “Happy Birthday.” While her dad has been away serving the country, Noga has been doing her part as well, preparing care packages for soldiers. Watch the special moment here.
  • Cindy Seni of Netflix’s “Jewish Matchmaking” married her fiancé Eldad, surrounded by 50 close friends and family. (Read more about Cindy on the show here). When the war broke out, exactly one month before her planned wedding date, she struggled with whether to proceed, writing on Instagram: “When the war hit, nothing seemed less important than my wedding. Joy was a commodity we couldn’t afford anymore.” Ultimately, she chose to celebrate her wedding as an act of defiance against Hamas, hoping it would be a “ray of hope and joy in the darkest hour.” Watch here.

Additional Background Reading

With prayers for peace and the swift return of the hostages,

Chief Executive Officer