Interview‘No more secular vs. religious; now I see everyone’s role’

Iris Haim, mother of killed hostage, tells US Jews: ‘I bring Israel a new voice of hope’

On a speaking tour of North America, nurse whose son Yotam Haim was accidentally shot dead by IDF soldiers calls to end Israeli polarization and hints at a run in politics

Iris Haim speaks at the Chabad house in San Mateo, California, May 27, 2024, while on a speaking tour of North America. (Jeff Bartee Photography)
Iris Haim speaks at the Chabad house in San Mateo, California, May 27, 2024, while on a speaking tour of North America. (Jeff Bartee Photography)

On December 15, during a daring escape from Hamas captivity, Yotam Haim and two other hostages, Alon Shamriz and Samar Talalka, were misidentified by IDF soldiers and tragically shot dead while unarmed and waving a white flag.

They had been abducted by Hamas terrorists from Kibbutz Kfar Aza during the brutal onslaught of October 7, in which 1,200 people were murdered and 251 were taken hostage.

Yotam’s mother, Iris Haim, said in an interview with Israeli media that the commander of the IDF’s Bislamach Brigade’s 17th Battalion recognized her son as a hostage and ordered his troops to hold their fire — but a second too late. One of the soldiers had already shot.

Haim, 58, touched the nation when she sent out a message of love to the troops, exonerating them of any blame.

“I am Yotam’s mother,” she said in the recorded statement. “I wanted to tell you that I love you very much, and I hug you here from afar. I know that everything that happened is absolutely not your fault, and nobody’s fault except that of Hamas, may their name be wiped out and their memory erased from the earth.”

“I want you to look after yourselves and to think all the time that you are doing the best thing in the world… Nobody’s going to judge you or be angry. Not me, and not my husband Raviv. Not my daughter Noya. And not Yotam, may his memory be blessed. And not Tuval, Yotam’s brother. We love you very much. And that is all,” the bereaved mother said.

Yotam Haim, left, and his mother, Iris Haim, in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

The resilience and forgiveness Haim conveyed in the face of her personal loss has turned her into a national icon. She has been featured regularly by Israeli news outlets, she lit a torch for the Jewish state’s official Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, and has recently traveled across North America to speak to local Jewish communities there.

Haim kicked off her tour at a pro-Israel fundraising event in Toronto three weeks ago. Her next stop was San Francisco, where she delivered five lectures, and she has now concluded the tour with another event in San Diego.

Speaking in Hebrew via Zoom from a rented apartment in the San Francisco Bay area with her son, Tuval, in the background (because she “doesn’t want to stay alone”), Haim, a palliative nurse, spoke in her characteristic assured tone with The Times of Israel about her central theme of reconciliation and a possible dip into politics, among other subjects.

This translated transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Iris Haim speaks at the Chabad house in San Mateo, California, May 27, 2024, while on a speaking tour of North America. (Jeff Bartee Photography)

The Times of Israel: Instead of anger or dejection, you have become the symbol of forgiveness. How did that happen?

Iris Haim: It’s hard to explain, but after what happened it became clearer to me how much I love Israel. Before October 7, I was entrenched in my own camp; I knew only people like me, who think like me, who talk like me, who look like me. I didn’t know most Israelis… Then my boy was kidnapped into Gaza and all of Israel stood up to help us.

Something had opened up inside me. I can see the humanity in everyone; the good intentions of every person. I’m done with generalizations like, “The Orthodox Jews are taking my money, their religious seminaries are pointless.” I used to talk like that, but not anymore. Now I see everyone’s contribution.

I am coming now with a perspective that is very different. Okay, there are other voices [that you hear in the media], but that doesn’t tell the real story of Israel. We know what we went through on October 7, we remember and won’t forget, and now we’re looking for a new way… No more “us versus them,” right versus left, secular versus Haredi; I am bringing a new voice of hope, of togetherness, and there is a very large demand for this message.

I want the discourse in the State of Israel to change. Sure we can argue, but not in the manner that it’s done today. Politics are very militant; we have many ex-generals in parliament. Israel wants something else, even if you can’t see it right now, and there are a lot of people contacting me to bolster this message of unity [through the Israeli parliament].

An attendee of Iris Haim’s speaking tour at the Chabad house in San Mateo, California, wears a Star of David and yellow ribbon charm on her wrist, symbolizing a call to free the Hamas-held hostages, May 27, 2024. (Jeff Bartee Photography)

After the accidental killing of the three hostages, Yotam among them, tensions in Israel seethed, with harsh accusations hurled at the IDF. It seemed like your famous recording managed to calm everybody down.

The wife of the battalion commander [of the involved soldiers] contacted me in the morning and related how bad the military’s situation was. I recorded the message on WhatsApp and requested to pass it on to the soldiers.

In the evening, I was told that people were criticizing the military and berating the soldiers in the media. I said, “No way,” and released the famous message to the media. After that, the voices went mute. Following the ritual week of mourning, I spoke to the media. I was sitting in the studio, and the panelists and military reporters tried to force an angry statement out of me. I told them, “I am not angry and you will not persuade me that I need to be.”

Personally, I don’t watch television. I find it to be very demoralizing. I would like more positive feedback, more backing [of the government]. Not just focusing on what’s wrong. It weakens us as a state, and Hamas exploits it.

Iris Haim sits with attendees of her speaking tour at the Chabad house in San Mateo, California, May 27, 2024. (Jeff Bartee Photography)

Were you always like this?

It’s a process. It’s not that I suddenly became who I am today. My character is the same, but on October 7 something transpired within me that I call responsibility. I realized that I am not just Yotam’s mother. I am not just Iris Haim. I am a citizen of the State of Israel.

I didn’t intend my message [to become popular]. In the beginning, I simply spoke about Yotam, and my optimistic, positive message — that we can do this together — really touched people. I did not treat October 7 as a disaster that finished us and butchered all of us without the ability to live in this country. I rejected victimhood.

Can you tell us about your current tour?

Jews [in America] ask me how they can help Israel. I tell them that we are in this together; it’s not that Israel is weak and the Jews in the United States are powerful. Our relationship is mutually beneficial. We [Israelis] bring pride to these communities.

They tell me that they encounter antisemitic sentiments that remind them of things that happened 80 years ago. They are in disbelief.

One of my messages is to immigrate to Israel now, to “return home.” People are [in the US] not because they don’t love Israel — everybody loves Israel — but it’s that place of comfort that makes it difficult to leave. They live there, but their hearts are in Israel.

Attendees of Iris Haim’s speaking tour at the Chabad house in San Mateo, California, May 27, 2024. (Jeff Bartee Photography)

Where do you muster your strength from?

I am a palliative nurse. I treat and accompany terminally ill patients and their families. Life has led me to a place that requires a lot of sensitivity but also disconnection. I learned through my work that there are things beyond our control. I don’t collapse every time my patients die; I know that we don’t choose our time of death. And although I’m not a religious person, I have a lot of faith. I believe in an orderly world, with a certain plan for every one of us.

Iris, Raviv and Tuval Haim, at the funeral of Yotam Haim, a hostage mistakenly killed by the IDF in Gaza, in Kibbutz Gvulot, December 18, 2023. (Screenshot used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

You said that Yotam died a free man. Can you talk about that?

Yotam was born with several physical illnesses and was also diagnosed with mental illness, leading to a very close, even protective relationship between us. A few months before October 7, Yotam asked me to let go a little. He told me: “I’m strong. You don’t see enough of what I am capable of.”

On the day of the Hamas-led attack in Israel’s south, I spoke with him on the phone as he hid in a safe room until he was taken into Gaza. He was strong in those harrowing moments and in his subsequent 60 days in captivity. Later we found a photo of him in captivity, in which he looked very thin, but his eyes radiated strength. Along with other information that we collected, we managed to lay out a picture of a mentally strong individual who was able to cope with the difficult circumstances.

After we were informed of his death, we as a family went through a spiritual and psychological process. Yotam came into this world doing amazing things and he did not die in captivity. His end was a moment of triumph, of heroism. He did not “fall,” which is a difficult word for me — he “went up.” Yotam left this world as a free man.

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