By Shifra Epstein and Clare Kinberg
Last month, my friend Shifra Epstein, an Israeli folklorist and longtime Ann Arbor resident, sent me a series of messages about Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which was among the first communities in the Otef Azza/Gaza Envelope to be invaded and brutalized by Hamas on October 7. Shifra wrote me, “In 1986, when I was the Curator of Ethnography at the Israel Museum, I conducted research on the Gaza’s embroidery. On the way to Gaza, I visited Nahal Oz several times.” Shifra has not stopped thinking about Nahal Oz since October 7.
[For more of Shifra’s writing about Israel and the Palestinians, please see, for example, her article on Ramallah in our Sept 2022 issue, page 23]
Kibbutz Nahal Oz is located in the Northwest Negev, only 4.3 miles from the border with Gaza. It is one of among approximately 20 small, tight-knit communities that are situated along the border and mark the place where the state of Israel begins and ends.
Shifra and I, and most of you, have read about the many hours the Hamas murderers spent in the kibbutz and the unimaginable horrors soldiers encountered as they removed the bodies of victims, including butchered babies and small children and people burned alive. As of November 12, total losses among the members of Nahal Oz were still unknown, at least 40 residents were reported killed, and 20 were kidnapped to Gaza.
The events which took place on October 7 were so horrific that for the first time in the history of Israel, Israelis referred to the events as “pogroms.” Three days after the Hamas attack, Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader, visited the kibbutzim of Otef Azza. During his visit, Lapid quoted from “In the City of Slaughter,” written in 1904 in response to the Kishinev pogrom by the national poet of Israel, Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934).
Every Israeli encounters this poem, Shifra told me, in school or beyond. “I first read ‘In the City of Slaughter’ in high school in Israel. I always thought that Bialik had been in Kishinev during the pogrom; however I discovered that the poem was written by Bialik after he traveled to Kishinev to interview survivors of the massacre.” His resulting 300-line poem consists of as much unrelenting, horrific detail as you could find in the videos of October 7, 2023.
From “In the City of Slaughter”:
Get up and walk through the city of the massacre
And with your hand touch and lock your eyes
On the cooled brain and clots of blood
Dried on tree trunks, rocks, and fences; it is they.
Go to the ruins, to the gaping breaches.
In addition to the descriptive “In the City of Slaughter,” Bialik wrote a political poem, “Al Hashechita”/“On the Slaughter,” also in 1904.
Last stanza of “On the Slaughter”:
And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.
“On the Slaughter” was translated and commented on by Peter Cole in the Paris Review in 2014 after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent Israeli response during which at least 1,300 Palestinians were killed.
Cole was inspired to write about this poem in 2014 because Netanyahu had referenced the “Israeli” poem with the line, “Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,” in defense of the IDF operations in the West Bank.
Cole writes, “Never mind that the poem intoned by Mr. Netanyahu wasn’t Israeli: it was written long before the state was founded and very far from it. ‘On the Slaughter’ was the 30-year-old Odessan Hayim Nahman Bialik’s immediate response to the April 1903 pogroms in the Bessarabian town of Kishinev. … Netanyahu quoted just two lines, carefully avoiding the one preceding them: ‘Cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!’
“Bialik was hardly a pacifist. ‘On the Slaughter’ — the title alludes with the darkest irony to the blessing recited by Jewish ritual slaughterers before ‘humanely’ slitting an animal’s throat, and also to Jewish martyrs in the middle ages who killed themselves before their Christian tormentors could — was, and is, a cry of despair, of hope exploding, of impotent anger in the face of base hatred and brutal injustice. And the poet would go on elsewhere to rail against Jewish passivity and to call for Jews to defend themselves, lambasting writers who retreated into aesthetics and refused to let politics sully their work.”
After treating us to an Arabic translation of the poem in 1966 by “the first star of Palestinian resistance poetry, Rashid Hussein,” Cole invites us to imagine a “reading of Hussein’s translation by a 30-year-old poet in what’s left of the Gazan neighborhood of Sheja’iyeh — one could easily think it had been written by a Palestinian. Yesterday.”
Cole concludes his 2014 reflections, “Who is being slaughtered now? Who cries out for an absent justice? Who for revenge? Where is cruelty? And where iniquity?”
One hundred and twenty years after 49 Jews were massacred by the mob in Kishinev, more than 1,200 people, mostly Jews, were massacred in Israel. This despite the very different circumstances. Jews in Israel have the means to protect themselves, or so they thought.
Housed in Kibbutz Nahal Oz prior to October 7 was an Israeli military base, Unit 414 of the Combat Intelligence. Their duty was to conduct reconnaissance on the border with Gaza as well as to operate the remote-controlled gun turrets stationed on the Iron Wall. Field observers watch for threats along the Gaza border by analyzing video filmed by cameras positioned along the border fences. On the morning of October 7, the soldiers stationed at Nahal Oz opened fire on the Hamas invaders, and killed many; however, Hamas was able to overrun the base, killing many soldiers and taking some captive, including 13 female field observers. Seven were kidnapped and three are missing as of mid-November.
As reported on November 6 in the Times of Israel, “‘The story of the Nahal Oz command center will forever be remembered as a story of heroism and fighting,’ said the commander of Unit 414, Lt. Col. Ofir Avram. ‘We bow our heads in memory of the fallen, embrace and strengthen the dear families who are an inseparable part of the 414th [unit] from now and forever,’ he added, in remarks provided by the IDF.”
Nahal Oz was founded in 1951, the first Nahal (acronym of Noar Halutzi Lohem, literally Fighting Pioneer Youth) settlement. Initially the kibbutz was referred to as Nahlayim Mul Aza, “Nahal soldiers across from Gaza.”
By 1953, Nahal Oz transitioned into a civilian community. Throughout its history, Nahal Oz suffered from attacks by different Palestinian and non-Palestinian guerrilla organizations, mostly, but not only, from the Gaza area. Confronted with security issues, mostly rockets and penetrations from Gaza, Nahal Oz has a special place in Israeli mythology and has been closely engraved in the Israeli consciousness.
In 1956, 67 years before the Hamas massacre in Nahal Oz, the kibbutz was attacked by Sudanese soldiers of the Egyptian army, and Roi Rotberg, a member of the kibbutz and the security officer of the kibbutz, was killed. He was shot off his horse, and his body was dragged into Gaza.
Following the killing, as today, emotions in Israel ran high. However, while it took Benyamin Netanyahu a week to visit the soldiers of Nahal Oz after October 7, Moshe Dayan, then Israeli Chief of Staff, traveled immediately to the kibbutz to give the funeral oration for Roi Rotberg.
Dayan’s eulogy is considered a defining speech of Zionism and Israeli history. The speech has been translated many times into English. It was published by the Israeli Newspaper Yisrael Hayom on April 28, 2016, under the title: “When Moshe Dayan delivered the defining speech of Zionism.”
Translation by Mitch Ginsberg, the former Times of Israel military correspondent.
“Yesterday with daybreak, Roi was murdered. The quiet of a spring morning blinded him, and he did not see the stalkers of his soul on the furrow. Let us not hurl blame at the murderers. Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years have they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and seen, with their own eyes, how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forebears once dwelt.
Not from the Arabs of Gaza must we demand the blood of Roi, but from ourselves. How our eyes are closed to the reality of our fate, unwilling to see the destiny of our generation in its full cruelty. Have we forgotten that this small band of youths, settled in Nahal Oz, carries on its shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza, beyond which hundreds of thousands of eyes and arms huddle together and pray for the onset of our weakness so that they may tear us to pieces — has this been forgotten? For we know that if the hope of our destruction is to perish, we must be, morning and evening, armed and ready.
A generation of settlement are we, and without the steel helmet and the maw of the cannon we shall not plant a tree, nor build a house. Our children shall not have lives to live if we do not dig shelters; and without the barbed wire fence and the machine gun, we shall not pave a path nor drill for water. The millions of Jews, annihilated without a land, peer out at us from the ashes of Israeli history and command us to settle and rebuild a land for our people. But beyond the furrow that marks the border, lies a surging sea of hatred and vengeance, yearning for the day that the tranquility blunts our alertness, for the day that we heed the ambassadors of conspiring hypocrisy, who call for us to lay down our arms.
It is to us that the blood of Roi calls from his shredded body. Although we have vowed a thousand vows that our blood will never again be shed in vain — yesterday we were once again seduced, brought to listen, to believe. Our reckoning with ourselves, we shall make today. We mustn’t flinch from the hatred that accompanies and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, who live around us and are waiting for the moment when their hands may claim our blood. We mustn’t avert our eyes, lest our hands be weakened. That is the decree of our generation. That is the choice of our lives — to be willing and armed, strong and unyielding, lest the sword be knocked from our fists, and our lives severed.
Roi Rotberg, the thin blond lad who left Tel Aviv in order to build his home alongside the gates of Gaza, to serve as our wall. Roi — the light in his heart blinded his eyes and he saw not the flash of the blade. The longing for peace deafened his ears and he heard not the sound of the coiled murderers. The gates of Gaza were too heavy for his shoulders, and they crushed him.”
Since October 7, 330 members of Kibbutz Nahal Oz who survived the Hamas attack have been refugees in their own country. Eighty percent of the 330 members who survived were evacuated to Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in northern Israel, close to Haifa. Many among the members criticize the Israeli government for not protecting them and are conflicted about the future of the kibbutz and returning to Nahal Oz. Many express a wish to return, but not before they have assurance that it will be safe.
And finally. One surviving member shared:
“No one in the government cried about us. I want to return to the kibbutz on condition that the government will change. If not, I will leave the country.”
Moshe Dayan’s eulogy for Roi Rotberg 66 years ago is as poignant — and true — today as it was then. Dayan called upon Israel to search its soul and probe the national mindset. In contrast to many Israelis, Dayan showed an understanding of, and respect for, Arab hostility.
Still, to date, neither Dayan nor any other Israeli leader has been able to bring peace to Gaza.
For a recording of Dayan’s eulogy, see https://youtu.be/iIR96WCMrxY?si=7u81fzvtCqRzn6BQ