Dr. Gili Zavon who was evacuated from Kibbutz Sa'ad to the Dead Sea. (Dafna Talmon)
Dr. Gili Zavon who was evacuated from Kibbutz Sa'ad to the Dead Sea. (Dafna Talmon)

'After the euphoria of returning home, we are struggling to take root again. Essentially, the spirit is still uprooted'

Gili Zivan, married mother of five who teaches at the Mandel Leadership Institute, evacuated to the Dead Sea and returned home six months later ● This is her story

This is part of a series, “Uprooted.” Each column is a curated monologue from an individual among the tens of thousands of internally displaced Israelis during the war with Hamas who were evacuated from the country’s northern border and the Gaza envelope. This interview was originally published in Hebrew on May 4, 2024.

Saturday, October 7

On Friday, we celebrated Simchat Torah eve. We hosted Or and Tehillah, our daughters who also live in Sa’ad, with their partners and children, and my son Yigal, his wife, and their four daughters from Ein HaNatziv.

Simchat Torah is a high point in the year for a group of religious women from Sa’ad and guests from nearby towns — women who are on the religious feminism spectrum and lead Torah-reading in the synagogue. It’s a tradition that has existed for 20 years under my guidance [as a religious educator]. We pray with the whole community and then go to “our own synagogue” in the belief that this change is blessed.

I went to sleep knowing that the next morning I would need to wake up and arrange things for the prayer service. I needed to take care of some logistical issues like making sure the hot water urn was full and some spiritual issues like checking that all the sermons were ready.

At 6:30 a.m., we woke up to rocket sirens and a rattling house. From our living room window, you can see Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which is 700 meters (less than half a mile) away from Sa’ad. Behind it, from certain angles, you can see the edge of Gaza. We heard volleys of rocket fire and got ready to go into our safe room. I remember saying, “Wait, does that mean there’s no prayer service?” The transition from spiritual ascension to a massive rocket attack was very dramatic.

Because we’re religious, we don’t watch TV on Shabbat, but as soon as the sirens began, we turned on our phones. We didn’t want to feel more panicked, so we only went into the safe room when there were sirens, and because it was cramped, we left as soon as we could to breathe.

The women of Kibbutz Sa’ad hold a reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim, February 2024, (L) and the kibbutz synagogue after it was hit by a rocket. (Courtesy Gili Zavon)

And then we started to get a series of messages in the Women Wage Peace WhatsApp group: “We have terrorists here!”

A friend of mine from Kfar Aza wrote that Ofir Libstein, head of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, was killed. But the message that most scared me was the one from Vivian Silver from Kibbutz Be’eri.

Three days prior, we had been at the Dead Sea for a Women Wage Peace event together with its Palestinian equivalent, the Women of the Sun. There were participants there from different countries and we called for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

I was still riding on the waves of the meeting when we got Vivian’s message: “They broke down my door. I’m hiding in a closet in the safe room. If I survive, I’m going to keep a big knife in the safe room. I cannot believe I’m able to write, I’m shaking.”

Immediately after that, she sent another message: “Don’t call me.”

Vivian is the most logical and unhysterical character. I took her message as a sign that the world I knew had fallen apart. I remember saying to Yigal, “This is a historic story like the Kishinev Pogrom. This cannot be our reality now.”

Canadian-born Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver (left), who was confirmed on November 13, 2023, to have been killed in her home in Kibbutz Be’eri by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy)

We realized the situation was out of control, and I was agitated. Jacob, my son-in-law and a member of Sa’ad’s emergency response team, told us at some point, “You don’t understand the scope of the situation. Get into the safe room and don’t come back out.” Later, he used an armored vehicle to bring Or and the children to be with us.

Dozens of injured people from the Supernova music festival came to Sa’ad. We opened our gate to them, there was no doubt we would. Some people had survivors knocking on their doors. A few nurses and a doctor from the kibbutz opened a control center and gave the injured initial medical care.

On Saturday night, I got messages from people all over the country asking after us. One of the messages came from a Muslim colleague from Nazareth who asked how I was doing, and an emotional message came from another colleague, Prof. Ayman Agbaria. No one dared message friends from Be’eri or Kfar Aza.

The evacuation

On Sunday afternoon, Sa’ad’s members were evacuated to a hotel in the Dead Sea. I didn’t want to evacuate. I was in denial. I said, “Let me answer all the messages, let me get organized, let me clean the house, it’s a mess.” Cleaning for the soul was a delusion as if this horror could be cleansed.

We drove to another daughter of ours who lives in Karmit, and on Tuesday, we went to the Dead Sea. Tehillah has four children and her husband was called up for reserve duty. Or has two kids, and her husband stayed behind with the emergency response team.

I found myself being a full-time grandmother, and that is actually what saved me. In all the noise and the awful news, it was actually the children who brought me some kind of balance even though I sometimes put on a show because the last thing I cared about was sitting in the lobby putting together a puzzle that someone had donated.

Kibbutz Sa’ad, April 2024. (Dafna Talmon)

Yankush, my husband who was born in Sa’ad, went back to the carrot fields three weeks later. He had already retired, but he heard they were looking for volunteers to work in the factory he used to manage, and he went back to lend a hand as a regular worker. Two weeks later, I also went back to work. Every drive to the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem took two and a half hours, but the work lifted me up.

It was the beginning of the school year, and we opened a new program in Beersheba for senior officials in the Negev. How do you support people in a reality that has been completely changed? No one had experience with that. In addition, I offered our representative from the kibbutz to give Bible classes to the elderly in the hotel because they could not sit in front of the news all day. I started to teach Bible stories about loss and death.

We discussed the story of the high priest Aaron amid the celebrations in the Tabernacle. During the description of the great excitement in the crowd as they touched God, fire comes down from the sky and kills his sons. “And Aaron held his peace.” How do we understand his silence?

In our talks, we raised different possibilities. Some of the participants said it was a silence of protest against God. Some of them said it was acceptance. What is there to say? Some said it is a situation for which there are no words. It wasn’t acceptance. Sometimes there are no words to say in the face of death. Our words are small.

That debate touched our experience. Studying Torah together was strengthening. The mere act of studying was a victory for our spirit in an awful reality.

Life in the hotel

At first, there were 800 of us in the hotel. It was a very intense togetherness. Three meals a day in the dining room with all the noise and almost no privacy. Small things became complicated. Many singers came to perform, and you wonder how you can be happy amid the grief, but sometimes it’s what you need.

Dr. Gili Zavon in her home in Kibbutz Sa’ad, April, 2024. (Dafna Talmon)

The elevator up to the ninth floor becomes a microcosm: A child presses all the buttons, an elderly man needs to stop in the middle, families make noise, and your grandchildren make noise for others. All this demanded an open heart and acceptance, and with the challenge came human warmth.

In the lobby, a table was erected with photos of farmers who were murdered — Nevo Arad who was murdered at the Supernova festival and Dor Reder who took care of kids with special needs in Kibbutz Be’eri and was killed in battle with terrorists. We named the school that was opened in the hotel “Dor Nevo.” The hotel we lived in was named Nevo.

No one believed we would be there for so long. When they said it would be three months, I thought some office clerk had thrown out a random number so people wouldn’t nag him. How could it be three months? There was no way.

Three months later, my daughters decided to leave the hotel and find other solutions. Despite the power of the community, they felt that the price the family was paying was high because there wasn’t enough space.

Tehillah is married to a member of Kvutzat Yavneh so the two families moved there, and I think it was a brave decision. The children were worried they wouldn’t be able to make up the gaps in school because they barely studied, and my daughters had to manage all the anxieties — the kids’ and their own.

When they left, I said to myself, “In that case, I’ll go back to Sa’ad.” Between January and March, there were 20 families in the kibbutz. In April, families with small children also came back.

The entrance to Kibbutz Sa’ad, April 2024. (Dafna Talmon)

There were a lot of debates ahead of the return. There were opinions in both directions, but in the end the majority united in favor of returning. It was a majority that did not compel everyone. Fifty families still haven’t returned to Sa’ad, which is a fifth of the kibbutz. Some will come back at the end of the school year, and some won’t come back at all, and that’s okay.

Some people said our healing would only begin when we returned. Some people said returning was like accepting a reality that hadn’t changed. The Sdot Negev Regional Council head, Tamir Idan, was against returning. He said it would make it difficult for him to put pressure on the government.

Most of the members felt that returning would give some resilience to us and the area. When we return and begin turning on the lights, we get stronger. But there were some members who were scared to go back and that’s very complicated.

The kids who came back go to school in Sa’ad. We have a regional school here with students from Sa’ad, Alumim, Netivot, Sderot and Tekuma. Classes and kindergartens were combined, and even though it’s still a mess, there is a certain calm because of the working system. In May, Or came back, and Tehillah will come back at the end of June. At the beginning of May, her husband was called up again for reserve duty.

Kibbutz Sa’ad under the shadow of war

At first, I was high off of sleeping in my bed again. The first time I cooked food in the kitchen, I could feel as I held the knife that I hadn’t chopped vegetables in a while. I was excited by lemon blossoms, I experienced everything like it was the first time. But as time passes, it gets harder for me because the place is boiling in pain.

I just wanted to go home, but I feel distressed and I didn’t think I would feel that way: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” The earth is soaked in grief that spreads like an ink stain on fabric.

Dr. Gili Zavon stands outside Kibbutz Sa’ad’s synagogue, April, 2024. (Dafna Talmon)

What if the tank hadn’t arrived? What if the terrorists had reached us at 6:30 a.m. and not at noon? There were a lot of coincidences that day. They didn’t cross the road between us and Kfar Aza on time, and in the meantime, the army arrived.

I have a hard time with people who say we experienced a miracle. In my eyes, it’s a non-religious statement that drives me crazy. Are we more deserving of a miracle than others? The residents of Kfar Aza are no less worthy than us.

Did Shabbat protect us more than them? Nonsense. Terrorists infiltrated the religious Kibbutz Alumim and 23 dear people were murdered there in heavy battles.

Do you have anger at God?

Those who carried out the murderous rampage were humans. Other people suffered the consequences. Human beings saved each other. God gave us a choice to be animals or to be humane. My standing as a religious woman isn’t expressed through the question of where God was because it was people who made the horrors happen.

I’m angry at the interpretations in God’s name. All that language — that we experienced a miracle and the talk about His accounts — is far from me. How arrogant to think that He works for us.

Remains of the Hermesh family house at Kibbutz Kfar Aza, close to the Gaza border, on January 2, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

I’m concerned by the connection between religion and nationalism as we saw among the Nukhba terrorists who shouted “Allahu akbar” as they came to murder us. Nationalism and violent religious culture also exist at our ends of the spectrum.

Any fundamentalist nationalist worldview that permits hurting other people in the name of God and under His sponsorship is blind and endangers moral judgment and the ability to hear God’s real voice as I see it. As the commandment says, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Has anything in your worldview been broken?

No value of mine has changed other than the understanding that the odds of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are much lower than I thought. After I reread the Hamas charter, I understood that there was no chance of rational conversation with people who live by a murderous fundamentalist worldview.

I cannot say the same for the Palestinian Authority. I always said that if only a leader would come along and reach out a hand for peace, there would be plenty here. We’re a silo that can send produce across the world through the Gaza port. But I’ve woken up from the dream that they could be partners.

Previously, when there was rocket fire on the south, I could somehow still see them as “freedom fighters.” I saw Gazan kids suffering through no fault of their own and the women who wanted to have friendly ties with us, but I underestimated how systematic the situation is and how ingrained in their education.

Dr. Gili Zavon, right, poses with an activist from Acre at a joint Women Wage Peace and Women of the Sun event, October 2023. (Courtesy Gili Zavon)

I have compassion for the children and the women, but I admit that my heart is mainly busy today with my and my friends’ pain even though I know we’re also committing horrors over there.

My opinions haven’t changed, and I hope that another time and different education will lead them to a different understanding: They’re not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere. This is the reality and we have to accept it. It reminds me of an issue from the Talmud in which two people are holding onto one four-cornered garment and one says it’s all his and the other says it’s all his. The Talmud rules that they should share it. I have no doubt that in the end, we’ll share, but I’m very pessimistic about that end.

How do you feel about what’s happening in Israel now?

The country’s job is to protect its citizens. We’re struggling to rise back up because we have no trust in the leadership, and it’s clear to me that that’s a big part of the weight that follows us now, and it’s not exclusive to the residents of the south.

After the euphoria of coming home, the earth voices the pain it absorbed. Being uprooted from our home was taxing on the body, soul, and family. We’re struggling to take root again. The ground is unstable, and we can still hear the sounds of war here. Essentially, our spirit is still uprooted.

Added to all that is the emotional distress and the disgrace. The biggest disgrace is the people who still haven’t taken responsibility. Every time we meet with commanders from the army, they first say, “We messed up, we weren’t there to protect you, we will do everything so that what happened isn’t repeated.” Not one member of the government has taken responsibility, and that is awful.

A photo provided by an anti-judicial overhaul activist shows thousands protesting in Tel Aviv, September 9, 2023. (Gilad Furst)

I won’t be saying anything new if I say that Benjamin Netanyahu is not fit to be prime minister. It can almost be taken for granted that I don’t trust his judgment, and even before October 7, I was among the protesters for democracy.

We continue to feel the betrayal, the abandonment, and the neglect to this day. I wish someone would look the survivors in the eye and say, “The day this all ends, we’ll get up and go home.”

Are you optimistic?

That’s a difficult question. I don’t know how to respond, and that’s not characteristic of a woman like me who has always been accused of being overly optimistic. When I look at our people, I believe we have the strength to thrive, but I still don’t see it happening.

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