Interview'It's perverse to celebrate freedom when our son is not free'

Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s parents contemplate Passover with their son in captivity

Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin talk about how the Iranian strike offered an opportunity for the Jewish state to realign with allies even as anti-Israel sentiment grows in the US

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

Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, parents of Hamas hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin (Courtesy)
Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin, parents of Hamas hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin (Courtesy)

It’s the week before Passover, and were Rachel Goldberg and Jon Polin to have one wish this holiday, it would be to have their hostage son Hersh Goldberg-Polin released from captivity in Gaza.

Barring that possibility, Goldberg would like to skip the holiday this year.

“I don’t even want to be a part of it,” said Goldberg. “There’s something perverse about even going through the motions of celebrating a holiday of freedom from captivity when our only son is not free and is in the worst form of captivity that any of us can imagine. It feels completely inappropriate.”

Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, was at the Supernova desert rave on October 7, partying with friends, when the Hamas terrorists attacked. He and his friends tried to escape, eventually crowding into an outdoor field shelter with more than two dozen others.

Aner Shapira, Goldberg-Polin’s best friend, stood guard at the entrance, catching and tossing back the grenades thrown by the terrorists until the eighth grenade blew up and killed him.

Goldberg-Polin’s left arm was blown off from the elbow down, and with a bloody tourniquet wrapped hastily around his injury, he and two others were pushed onto a Hamas pickup truck, and taken into Gaza.

Since that morning, when Hersh sent two text messages to his mother, “I love you” and “I’m sorry,” his parents have spent every moment trying to get their boy home.

A screenshot of Hersh Goldberg-Polin (left) and his friend, Aner Shapira, in a field shelter early Saturday morning, October 7, 2023. Goldberg-Polin is missing, Shapira was later declared dead. (Courtesy)

This week, speaking to The Times of Israel alongside her husband, Goldberg said that this year’s Seder will have more than four questions.

“I think for sure, the fifth question that everybody everywhere should be asking is, ‘Why are we not all here?'” she added.

Goldberg was named earlier this week in Time’s Influential 100 list. The couple recently spent time with members of the United States administration and elected officials and were interviewed by major media outlets in the US.

This kind of whirlwind trip has become part of their routine over the last half year, as the pair spends every waking moment of each day doing whatever they can to bring their son home.

Rachel Goldberg, center, mother of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, and her husband, Hersh’s father, Jon Polin (third from left), along with other families of hostages in Gaza, speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“Congress has been unbelievably generous and open and helpful to us,” said Goldberg. “Jon says, ‘On a scale of 1-10, we give them a 16.’ But still, at the end of the day, unfortunately, it’s a binary situation. And if he’s not home, we have failed. When I say we, I include every single person who’s involved, including ourselves.”

There was a hostage deal under discussion when Polin and Goldberg were in Washington, one that Hamas later rejected. Polin viewed the most recent proposal as Hamas’s opportunity to accept the ceasefire and end the suffering of the Gazans.

“We were hoping they would step up, we still are,” said Polin. “We think it’s a real chance.”

They both spoke about the palpable shift in US attitudes, a tone that has felt more aggressively anti-Israel over the last few weeks and months.

“Our push to the US was, don’t cave completely to the very loud voices from the liberal left. Don’t separate the concepts of a ceasefire of any kind from the release of the hostages,” said Polin.

And then, shortly after they returned home to Jerusalem, came Iran’s early Sunday morning attack of some 300 rockets and missiles launched toward Israel, a moment that may have changed everything, said Polin.

As they rushed into the bomb shelter in the early hours of Sunday morning, Goldberg noticed that she wasn’t scared at all.

“I think when you’ve been in total terror for such a prolonged time, that was not scary,” she said. Goldberg said she heard the booms of the missiles being intercepted by the Iron Dome, “but there was not even a whisper of fear. I think I’m so beyond fear,” she said. “I’ve been falling off a cliff for so long.”

Rachel Goldberg, mother of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, during a press conference by families of American hostages in Gaza and elected officials, April. 5, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

In conversation earlier in the week, Polin had hoped that Israel would recognize the possibility of a moment in which Israel was again bolstered by its allies to ward off the Iran strike.

“We have a moment, after feeling like we were alone in the world with only the assistance of the United States, but largely alone, we got defense help on Saturday night from many countries,” said Polin.

He proposed that Israel seize this opportunity — while the country is backed by the global community that doesn’t want a military escalation — to say that Israel will not respond if the hostages are released within the coming days.

“Release 133 hostages, and that is the single best way to diffuse tension in this region,” said Polin. “Let’s get the international backing that we have at this moment. Let’s keep it. Let’s harness it.”

Since the Iranian attack, Polin and Goldberg, and their team of friends, family and volunteers, have been reaching out to people within Congress and the administration to build a coalition and silence the tensions that have engulfed much of the region.

Parents of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin and others attend a rally on the 100th day of captivity outside the Jerusalem Municipality on January 14, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

They’ve been doing the same at the Knesset all along, said Goldberg, having meetings with politicians who are the voices and decision-makers in the Israeli government.

Yet while the American-born couple and their three children have lived in Israel for the last 15 years, Goldberg and Polin have sometimes found it harder to connect with Israeli politicians and leaders than with the US administration.

Goldberg thinks it’s because there are 133 hostage families in Israel, all grappling with this hostage mess, whereas only eight Americans were being held, and three are no longer alive.

“The doors are more open because fewer people are coming through,” said Goldberg.

When they go to the Knesset, they often bring a picture of Hersh, and talk about him as a little boy, what schools he went to, and his passions and dreams.

Hersh Goldberg-Polin was taken captive by Hamas terrorists from the Supernova desert rave on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy: Rachel Goldberg)

“We try to describe the planet that we now live on,” she said. “And we’re not asking them for anything except to look into our eyes and to share in our story and to try and understand who we are and who Hersh is.”

As for this Passover, they’d rather skip it, said Polin, even as they have thousands of supporters asking them what to put on the seder plate, to do, say or add to Monday’s night ceremony that marks the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom.

“It’s not that we’re stumped, it’s that we don’t want to hash it out to figure out something creative because it’s sickening,” said Goldberg. “And so we’re praying as they say in certain circles, in the blink of an eye, that Hersh will be home, and we don’t have to worry about it.”

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