OPINION: I feared my UJIA trip to Israel would be ‘terrorism tourism’. It wasn’t

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OPINION: I feared my UJIA trip to Israel would be ‘terrorism tourism’. It wasn’t

By Marc Lester, who heads an IT company and is a graduate of the Gamechangers Jewish Leadership programme

The damage inflicted on Israeli kibbutzim near the Gaza border
The damage inflicted on Israeli kibbutzim near the Gaza border

I have been to Israel more times than I can count but write this coming back from a very different trip. When October 7 struck I had just stepped down as a trustee of UJIA after 8 years. Terrible timing – like everyone I felt helpless watching events in Israel from afar and wanted to do something.

So I was grateful when UJIA invited me on an emergency three day delegation to Israel – one of the first of its kind from the Diaspora after the atrocity. I wondered if I should go.

I discussed it with my wife. Was it necessary to go? Would I be a burden to those I met there? Was it terrorism tourism? On top of that, UJIA suggested we might want to see a counsellor on our return to the UK.

But I decided to go. I wanted to be able to tell my children and eventually grandchildren what happened in this horrific time. I would have regretted not going.

We landed in the early hours and headed to the Dead Sea where many residents from border towns and kibbutzim have been evacuated. The high rise hotels are now emergency accommodation for displaced communities. Families, crammed into single hotel rooms, have been there for weeks. Thank God they’re alive.

Their teamwork and community spirit is unbelievable. They cannot and will not rely on the government for help. Hotel restaurants have been converted into children’s nurseries, events areas into games rooms for older kids. Their togetherness is inspiring to see but they have no choice.

They witnessed their families’ murders. Many have family held hostage. But in their spirit and working together they are role models for any circumstances and any walk of life. They are inspirational.

I worried we were encroaching on their pain, but without exception everyone thanked us for being there to see them and listen. Israelis feel alone and were grateful we had come.

We met survivors from Kibbutz Be’eri: like an amazing 85 year old born in Hungary, who spent two days in her safe room while terrorists used the rest of her house as an operations base. Soldiers who found her on the kibbutz days later were amazed –they had no idea anyone alive was still left.

The next morning we met former Jerusalem Post editor, Yaacov Katz, before visiting the Knesset. The driving rain and wind felt aligned to the journey we were on. Gideon Sa’ar MK, told us about Israel’s war priorities and gave us some hope that the country could put its differences aside for now.

After helping out at a packing factory, we drove to the Gaza envelope, and Kibbutz Kfar Aza, 1.5km from the Gaza border – the most striking part of our visit. 4km away, the IDF gave us bullet-proof vests and helmets. Thanks to the pause in fighting, things were relatively quiet, apart from drones buzzing around.

The words devastation and massacre have lost their weight the past couple of months but the scene was hard to describe. Each building had codes spraypainted on the outside. A dot with a circle around it meant an Israel body was found, with the dates they were discovered also written.

Homes were riddled with bullets, and shrapnel. Others were burnt-out shells. The smell of burning in the air was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

The lull in fighting meant a few residents had returned to pick up clothes and belongings. Again, they were pleased we were there.

One kibbutznik complained the house we were looking at had been cleaned up too much for us to see the full extent of the devastation – and we saw clearly all the bullet holes and 50 holes in the ceiling from grenades.

At any moment throughout the trip I would look at others in the group and someone would have tears running done their face, whether at dinner, meeting a survivor, or just on the coach.

Back in Jerusalem, Yossi Klein HaLevi gave us some badly needed optimism over dinner. He spoke about the amazing national unity and said that something has to now change in Israeli politics to stabilise the country.

On final day, by now mentally drained, we visited a hotel on the outskirts of Jerusalem converted into a refugee campus. We met UJIA’s partner organisation, the National Trauma Coalition. The people we met were struggling. What could we say other than promising things would get better.

It gave us a much needed lift when the last person we met before our flight home was Eylon Levy – what a hero! The familiar, friendly face we see on our screens, apart from with Kay Burley.

I have no idea, in truth, how long it will take to process this visit. Watching from the UK, we can’t possibly comprehend the extent of the displacement and trauma. The country will be traumatised for years. The impact on Israeli children is life-changing for a whole generation.

We need to bear witness. We need to sit face to face with people, listen to them and show love to our Israeli family. If you have a chance to go, take it.

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