June 7, 2024
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June 7, 2024
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Son of Former Rutgers Visiting Scholar Among Those Abducted by Hamas

Sagui Dekel-Chen is an American citizen kidnapped from Nir Oz Kibbutz by Hamas terrorists.

“We are now refugees in our own country,” said Jonathan Dekel-Chen, his voice weary from the trauma of the last several days.

Dekel-Chen was speaking by phone from a hotel in Eilat, where he and family members are now staying after their homes at Nir Oz kibbutz were burned and looted in a vicious rampage by Hamas terrorists. His son Sagui was kidnapped to Gaza. Of its 400 residents, only 160 remained after the carnage.

“Of the 160 survivors some are wounded and all are traumatized,” said Dekel-Chen. “There was a very significant loss of life of people of all ages. A couple of dozen were verified taken captive because survivors saw them taken away and loaded into trucks. Most were tracked and geolocated by their phones in Gaza.”

Although Sagui was not among those seen being taken away, his was also not among the bodies of the many of those murdered who were found on the kibbutz.

Dekel-Chen, a Connecticut native, is hopeful the United States can use its diplomatic contacts with countries with which Israel has no ties to intercede in getting the American hostages released. On Oct. 15, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed the American government was reaching out through such diplomatic channels.

Dekel-Chen said he had been contacted by the State Department and U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. He was invited to the meeting Secretary of State Antony Blinken had in Israel last week with family members of the American hostages, but had no way to travel there because all the family’s vehicles had been destroyed. President Joe Biden also announced several days after The Jewish Link interview that he had spoken to the families of American hostages via video.

Dekel-Chen is the Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet and East European Jewry at the Hebrew University, where he also holds an appointment in the Department of Jewish History.

He had previously been a visiting scholar at Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life about two years ago. In addition to teaching, Dekel-Chen developed a permanent online exhibition for the center, “Jewish Agriculturism in the Garden State.” Now his own kibbutz, which he described as “located in Israel’s bread basket,” lies in ruins with its crops destroyed.

“We have no personal property left; it was all taken by the terrorists and looters from Gaza,” he noted. “We were among the most devastated of all the kibbutzim—unfortunately utterly devastated. The majority of our income is from agriculture. We were making the desert bloom.”

Dekel-Chen said the depravity witnessed at Nir Oz put on stark display for the democratic world to see the “pure evil” of Hamas.

“Hamas came and indiscriminately butchered and took peaceful, innocent civilians from little babies to elderly people who couldn’t even walk,” he said. “My 8-month-old neighbor was kidnapped with her older brother and mother. We feel certain the father was executed. My 88-year-old neighbor who lived 70 yards from my house and could barely walk was driven out of the kibbutz.”

A photo of the kidnapped woman, Yaffa Adar, being driven off in a buggy, similar to a golf cart used for transportation on the kibbutz, has been widely seen online and in print. Dekel-Chen said she was one of the kibbutz’s founders and is on heart medication.

Another Israeli-American, his wife and their small children were left to die in their burning house by the Hamas terrorists.

His own son fought off the attackers, while his daughter-in-law Avital, who is seven months pregnant, huddled in the safe room with the couple’s two daughters, ages 3 and 6, for nine hours with no food, water or air conditioning, which went off along with the electricity.

“She is living in Hell,” said Dekel-Chen. “She lived through terror. She heard her husband doing battle with the terrorists outside her safe room and she heard grenades explode outside her home. She was in darkness in a small, sealed room [that was] filling with smoke. She and her little girls are traumatized. They heard their
father being taken. All the survivors experienced similar things.”

Fortunately Dekel-Chen’s daughter, who also lived on the kibbutz along with her son, also survived. The two are with the rest of her family in Eilat.

As he looks to an uncertain future of rebuilding their lives, Dekel-Chen said the survivors’ needs will be enormous. “We have nothing,” he explained. “I had to go out and beg for toothpaste our first morning here.”

Dekel-Chen urged those collecting donations, including Jewish federations, to make sure it is given to organizations and agencies that will use it directly to help those in need.

Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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