Interview'I'm doing this because I want my son back'

As Israel tussles with UN, hostage’s father says maintaining talks best way forward

US-born Jonathan Dekel-Chen, whose son Sagui was kidnapped on October 7, sees little benefit in shutting out foreign officials with power to help bring home captives alive

Jessica Steinberg

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Jonathan Dekel-Chen, left, holds a picture of his son Sagui Dekel-Chen, as he stands next to Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, following a White House meeting of families of hostages held in Gaza on December 13, 2023, in Washington, DC. (AP/Evan Vucci)
Jonathan Dekel-Chen, left, holds a picture of his son Sagui Dekel-Chen, as he stands next to Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, following a White House meeting of families of hostages held in Gaza on December 13, 2023, in Washington, DC. (AP/Evan Vucci)

On day 136 of the war, Jonathan Dekel-Chen was at the United Nations again, for the fourth or fifth time — he’s lost count — since his son, Sagui Dekel-Chen, was taken hostage on October 7 from Kibbutz Nir Oz.

“I’m doing this because I want my son back,” said Dekel-Chen. “It’s my love and commitment to my son and his family, and different people take action in different ways.”

On this particular trip, Dekel-Chen, 60, and his wife, fellow activist Gillian Kaye, had traveled to New York to meet with UN officials and to speak at the weekly gathering for the hostages held outside the home of United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The US-born Hebrew University historian is well aware of Israel’s combative relationship with the world body, which has only grown more fractious since October.

UN bodies, along with Guterres, have been among the harshest critics of Israeli military action aimed at toppling Hamas and winning the hostages’ freedom. Israel has repeatedly aimed harsh brickbats at UN officials for their comments and stances, and alleges that employees of the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, took part in the October 7 and have widespread links to Hamas.

That closeness to those being fought by Israel is exactly why “it’s wise to meet them and not shut them down,” said Dekel-Chen.

“As a hostage family member, I can meet with officials at the UN. I’m not trying to convince them of the justice of the Israeli war against Hamas, but to meet with UN officials to talk and try to move forward any kind of momentum for the benefit of the hostages,” he said.

Sagui Dekel-Chen, a resident of Kibbutz Nir Oz, was taken captive on October 7, 2023 by Hamas terrorists (Courtesy screenshot)

Dekel-Chen lives on Kibbutz Nir Oz, which was among the hardest hit communities on October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists stormed from Gaza into southern Israel massacring 1,200 people and kidnapping 253.

Some 40 people from Nir Oz were murdered and another 80 were taken hostage, including Sagui Dekel-Chen, 35.

The younger Dekel-Chen was out of the house early that morning and was one of the first to realize that a terrorist incursion was taking place. He checked that his wife, Avital, and their children were safe and then went back outside with the rest of the kibbutz security team.

He was last heard from at 9:30 a.m.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen was in the US for an academic conference on October 7 when a friend notified him about the attacks that were taking place. He logged on to the kibbutz WhatsApp groups and saw what was unfolding.

Since then, his energy and emotions are focused on getting Sagui and the other hostages home. As an American citizen, Dekel-Chen said he takes action by bringing as much pressure as he can on all governments abroad.

Dekel-Chen said his conversations with UN officials weren’t a secret, but he couldn’t talk about their content.

Demonstrators gather for a rally calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip, outside of United Nations headquarters in New York City, on December 12, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

He is critical of Israel’s government, which has taken a tough line in talks mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt aimed at freeing the hostages and pausing or ending the fighting.

“To negotiate, you have to be in the room to negotiate,” said Dekel-Chen. “This is a unique situation. It’s the first time in Israel’s history that the government is acting not in the best interests of the people of Israel. That has never happened before and that must change for the long-term survival of Israel.”

He is now in Washington, DC to meet with Jewish communal leaders about their role in helping get the hostages home alive, and has scheduled meetings with senior White House administration officials. On Friday, he is scheduled to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a flagship Republican gathering where presumed GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump will also appear.

Dekel-Chen already met with US President Joe Biden in December, along with 12 other relatives of hostages. At the time he said the meeting was “further affirmation that the Biden administration — the president, the secretary of state — are completely committed to gaining the release of all the hostages, including the Americans among them.”

Jonathan Dekel-Chen pleads at a press conference in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2023 for the US government to take a prominent role in seeking the release of its citizens, including his son Sagui, held hostage by Hamas in Gaza. (Times of Israel/Canaan Lidor)

While he is doing what he can from abroad, he appealed to the public to engage with the Israeli government as much as possible to pressure it to bring the hostages home.

“I want to get them home alive and not in boxes,” Dekel-Chen said several times during the conversation, apologizing for repeating that line so often, but wanting it to be clear.

“As a lay citizen, I have no way of knowing what the status of the talks are,” he said of the hostage negotiations.  “What I do know is that the vast majority of hostage families and people who are concerned demand from our government an absolute commitment to get the hostages out alive and not in boxes.”

Some 40 people from Nir Oz were released at the end of November as part of a Qatar-brokered weeklong truce that saw over 100 hostages freed.

Israel believes around 100 hostages and the remains of around 30 more people are still being held in Gaza, including some 40 people from Nir Oz who the kibbutz members hope are still alive.

Maya Palty, left, comforts Efrat Machikawa, who both have relatives in Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip since their kidnapping from Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7, as families of hostages call out to their loved ones on loudspeakers in hopes that the hostages will hear, at the Gaza border in Kibbutz Nirim, southern Israel, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

Jonathan Dekel-Chen has been a kibbutznik for nearly 50 years but grew up in a small, semi-rural Connecticut town. He’s the son of a “hard-core” Holocaust survivor father and refugee mother who came to the US from Nazi Germany, and was brought up in a small community of Holocaust survivors who came from his father’s hometown.

“I was a normal American kid with the consciousness of the Second World War and very Zionistic,” he said.

Dekel-Chen came to Israel on a six-month youth program when he was 17 and decided to stay. He was familiar with Kibbutz Nir Oz but wanted to be part of a new kibbutz and landed in Kibbutz Geshur in the Golan Heights while serving in the army. He stayed there, marrying a young woman from the kibbutz and starting a family.

They moved to Nir Oz in 1990, and Dekel-Chen, his wife, his ex-wife and two of their four children and their families remained there until October 7, when the shock Hamas assault decimated their community.

“Nir Oz was a beautiful place,” said Dekel-Chen.

Today, many kibbutz members are living in a cluster of new apartment buildings in Carmei Gat, a northern neighborhood of Kiryat Gat.

Maya Argov and Jonathan Dekel-Chen enter an apartment building in Kiryat Gat where survivors of Kibbutz Nir Oz are staying on January 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Dekel-Chen and his wife are currently living there, along with Sagui’s wife Avital and her three young daughters, including the youngest, Shachar, who was born in December.

Another one of Dekel-Chen’s daughters is also living in Carmei Gat with her husband and two little boys, as well as Dekel-Chen’s ex-wife, the mother of his four children.

“We are there, the survivors,” said Dekel-Chen, referring to the temporary community of some 200 people. “That’s what we call ourselves, there’s no other word for it, and we’re trying to figure out what’s next amid the grieving and inability to grieve.”

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7, 2023, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, November 21, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Dekel-Chen, with children and grandchildren at the kibbutz, said he will go where his kids go. Right now, the idea is for the surviving kibbutz members to move permanently to Kibbutz Beit Nir, also near Kiryat Gat.

“We’ll resettle wherever they have enough housing units,” he said. “It’s our own individual action, the government has been useless around these things.”

Even if there is a drive to rebuild Nir Oz, Dekel-Chen is fairly sure that most of the survivors will never go back, especially those with small kids, like his son Sagui.

“Ninety percent will never return,” he said. “We were betrayed and abandoned and utterly terrorized. It’s difficult to imagine that any young parent would take a chance.”

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