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MENASource January 26, 2024

My son is being held hostage in Gaza. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, should October 7 be evoked?

By Jonathan Dekel-Chen

Tomorrow is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and as I remember this stain on the world’s history, it’s hard to ignore that four months ago, I watched another atrocity against the Jewish people unfold. On October 7, 2023, Hamas terrorists massacred more than 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped 240 others. Many of the murdered were from my home, Kibbutz Nir Oz. One of the hostages is my thirty-five-year-old American-Israeli son, Sagui, who is said to be alive but unaware that his three daughters and wife survived the Hamas massacre. As both a history professor and the father of a hostage, I’ve made it my job to pour over the details of that catastrophic day, studying its connection to the past and its impact on Israel’s future.

Kibbutz Nir Oz was founded in the mid-1950s. Its purpose was to help create Israel’s “bread basket.” A second goal was to serve as a barrier between Israel and the terror attacks from then Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip.

In 2014, Israel built a supposedly unbreachable fence around Gaza. That did not stop Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from frequently firing mortars, rockets, and anti-tank weapons into border towns or flying incendiary or explosive kites and balloons into farmlands and homes.

Having learned to live with these threats, the people of Kibbutz Nir Oz—nearly all peaceniks to the core—grew crops, orchards, livestock, and ran a successful factory. Most of these, along with our homes, have been destroyed. We have all lived in temporary housing since October 8, 2023, and have no idea when it might be safe to return.

Until the terrorist attack, I believed that the Israeli army would defend the kibbutz within minutes of any breach at the border fence, approximately one mile from our homes. On what has become known in Israel as “Black Saturday,” that entire system collapsed. Had I been home on that date, I, too, would surely be dead or held hostage.

Blurring the atrocities of October 7, 2023

The number of dead from October 7, 2023 constitutes for Israel—a small country of less than 10 million—the equivalent of approximately 44,500 American lives, or nearly fifteen times the deaths from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Since October 7, 2023, many voices have invoked memories and comparisons to the Holocaust and the many pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) that preceded it. These voices loudly rang every day for my son and the 135 other hostages still held in the Gaza Strip.


To my mind, October 7, 2023 was the worst security failure in Israel’s history. But framing it in the context of the Holocaust or pogroms, while perhaps natural, blurs what happened that day. On the one hand, these comparisons obscure the culpability of Hamas for its butchery. On the other, they muddle the inescapable accountability Israel’s government must bear for what happened and its lasting effects.

That date was indeed the deadliest single day for world Jewry since the Holocaust. But there was no sovereign Jewish state—Israel—or strong Jewish army—the Israel Defense Force (IDF)—in 1939. Hamas’ attack would not have happened and certainly would not have been so deadly if Israel’s government and army had done their jobs. By invoking the Holocaust when talking about October 7, 2023, the Israeli government is released from its accountability for the massacre that day and its sacred responsibility to return all the hostages alive.

Calling October 7, 2023 a pogrom is similarly unhelpful. Unlike the spontaneous anti-Jewish mob violence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Eastern Europe, the recent massacre was formulated, organized, funded, and executed by Hamas, who controls the Gaza Strip. By invoking memories of pogroms, it risks obscuring the responsibility of Hamas and its leaders for the mass murders and kidnappings it directed on Israel’s border communities. Whatever the scale of civilian casualties inflicted by the IDF on Gaza’s civilians since that tragic day, Hamas’ brutality must never be brushed over. The Israeli victims and the people of Gaza deserve this truth.

Peace can only be secured if the hostages are freed

The release of approximately a hundred hostages (approximately forty were from my kibbutz) between November 24, 2023 and November 30, 2023 thrilled my community. However, worry continues to grow because males constitute more than a hundred of the remaining group, and their release may seem less urgent to some. A grave concern is that the fate of sons, brothers, fathers, and grandfathers held captive—including my own—will not be prioritized as the news cycle moves forward. Sagui and all the hostages are running out of time.

The Israeli government must live up to its obligation of protecting its citizens and never leaving anyone behind. It must not abandon these hostages like it abandoned the residents of my kibbutz on October 7, 2023 in its desire to destroy Hamas in the Gaza Strip. If Israel does not hold itself to account by getting back all the remaining hostages alive and the remains of those bodies taken by Hamas, the country will never heal the nationwide trauma from October 7, 2023. Invoking the Holocaust around the events of that day is neither historically accurate nor necessary to absorb the magnitude and consequences of the massacre.

The possibility of future peace in a troubled Middle East depends not just on the war ending, but also on all hostages returning home alive. The destruction and suffering wrought by Hamas on that horrible day stand alone. 

Jonathan Dekel-Chen is the Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of Kibbutz Nir Oz. His son, Sagui, is currently held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.

Further reading

Image: Tzili Wenkert, a holocaust survivor and the grandmother of Omer Wenkert who is held hostage by Hamas terrorosts in Gaza, attends an event at the ''Hostages Square'', outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, calling the Israeli government to act for immediate release of the hostages on October 28, 2023. (Photo by Gili Yaari/NurPhoto)