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The Forgotten Five

Among the hostages still being held by Hamas in Gaza are five Americans. Why are so few people talking about them?
[additional-authors]
July 4, 2024
Top row: Omer Neutra, Edan Alexander. Bottom row: Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Keith Siegel, Sagui Dekel-Chen

Hersh Goldberg-Polin was 23 when he was kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music festival. Before he was taken, his dominant arm was blown off at the elbow by a grenade.  

In pictures, Hersh — who was born in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel with his family when he was seven — is always smiling and usually standing shirtless in nature. An adventurer. Someone of whom it is most certainly said that he lights up the room when he walks in. Someone who, despite being young, has done a great deal of living — someone who is unafraid of living. 

Omer Neutra, 22, grew up on Long Island. The son of Israeli parents, he was the captain of the basketball team at Solomon Schechter before making aliyah — immigrating to Israel under the law of return — and enlisting in the IDF. His friend Sarah Haiken-Dray described him to me as “goofy and kind,” the kind of person people naturally “gravitate toward.” 

He was serving as a tank commander near the Gaza border when he was taken hostage. 

Edan Alexander, 19, was born in Tel Aviv but grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey. Part of the Golani Brigade’s 51st Battalion, he was stationed near the Gaza Strip when he was kidnapped on Oct. 7. Looking at photos of Edan, with his big eyes and thin frame, he appears too young to be a soldier. But then you remember that soldiers are young. Kids really, or rather, teenagers — the kind most commonly spotted rifling through their parents’ refrigerators or heading out the door to meet up with their friends. 

Keith Siegel, 65, made aliyah from North Carolina 20 years ago. He loves Israel and the kibbutznik life. Alongside his wife Aviva, he was kidnapped from their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. While his wife was released in the first hostage deal, Keith remains in captivity.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen (C), father of Sagui Dekel-Chen, speaks to members of the media in front of the West Wing of the White House on April 9, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

Sagui Dekel-Chen, 35, was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz. His third daughter was born with him in captivity. Her name is Shachar, which means Dawn in Hebrew.

These are just five of the lives that were forever altered on the morning of Oct. 7. 

There is so much more that could be said about each one of them.

They have friends and family waiting for them to come home. 

They have been experiencing every moment of every day since Oct. 7 in bleak captivity, unsure of what the future holds, or if there even is a future.

And they are all American citizens. 

The June 27 debate between President Biden and former President Trump was a reminder to some viewers that Israel’s war against Hamas is not seen as the most important issue of the upcoming election in the U.S. 

For the past eight months, depending on your social circle and where you get your news, this may not have been at all clear. We have heard repeatedly that Biden’s reelection hangs in the balance due to shaky support from anti-Israel progressives and Muslim Americans. We have assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that his Middle East policy has been determined more by the needs of his campaign than the need to defeat Hamas. 

But in Atlanta, little of substance was said about any of it — about the war, about Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, about the surge of antisemitic events in the U.S., and about the hostages. 

“Among those held and thought to still be alive are five Americans,” said moderator Dana Bash, but when Biden and Trump responded, neither one mentioned the hostages, American or otherwise. Biden touted his failed ceasefire plan. Trump made the counterfactual claim that none of this would have happened had he been in office. And that was it.  

“Among those held and thought to still be alive are five Americans,” said moderator Dana Bash, but when Biden and Trump responded, neither one mentioned the hostages, American or otherwise. 

I first heard the name Rachel Goldberg-Polin in September. I was starting a year of study at Pardes — a pluralistic yeshiva in Jerusalem — and Rachel was a new staff member in charge of Student Support. She was introduced to us at an orientation event in the Beit Midrash. A month later, after I learned that her son Hersh had been mutilated and kidnapped by Hamas, I strained to remember that first impression of her. The memory was there but blurry. I hadn’t really been paying attention. Perhaps I had been looking at my phone.

Somewhere in the room she stood up and waved. “I’m Rachel Go-Po,” she said, encouraging us to call her by this cutesy nickname. She was cheerful, welcoming, a bit nerdy. This is generally the vibe of most Pardes staff, part of the institution’s charm. 

In the months that followed, I — along with the rest of Israel — became intimately acquainted with a different Rachel. She was thinner, wan, with eyes that were both forcefully penetrating and exhausted. Having quit her job at Pardes, she had become — overnight — a full-time activist. 

This remains one of the more bewildering things to consider about the hostage families. Unable to simply grieve, they had to instantly mobilize, becoming public figures. 

In November, Rachel attended the “March for Israel” rally in Washington, D.C. In December, she was in Geneva, speaking to the U.N.. In February, she met with the Pope. She has spoken with Netanyahu, with Biden, and was even named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2024 — an honor she surely never expected and which most certainly didn’t want. 

In Israel, one cannot escape the faces of the hostages. Their pictures are everywhere, on bulletin boards and bridges. Their names are spray painted on buildings. The yellow ribbon and the hostage dog-tag have become ubiquitous symbols of a society that refuses to simply accept that these people are gone now. These feelings of solidarity transcend Israel’s many political and social divides. Their posters can be found in secular Tel Aviv, ultra-Orthodox B’nai and everywhere in between.

And while arguments rage about what price Israel should pay for their return, there is no one who doesn’t care. 

One might ask why there isn’t similar concern among Americans: if not for all the hostages, then at least for the American ones. Why is this issue seen solely in relationship to one’s political feelings about Israel and Zionism? Why don’t Americans see that they have been attacked by Hamas as well?  

One might ask why there isn’t similar concern among Americans: if not for all the hostages, then at least for the American ones. Why is this issue seen solely in relationship to one’s political feelings about Israel and Zionism? Why don’t Americans see that they have been attacked by Hamas as well? 

I began asking this question in January when three American servicemen were killed in Jordan in an Iranian-backed drone attack. In Israel, every soldier’s death is a tragedy and an outrage. Where was the outrage in America over these three individuals? Did anyone bother learning their names?

Throughout this war, Israelis have been accused of lacking sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. Last week, The New York Times ran a headline that read, “Blaming Hamas for Gazans’ Suffering, Many Israelis Feel Little Sympathy.”

More recently, New York Magazine ran an essay in which the author, Ayelet Waldman, claimed that for “the majority of Jewish Israelis, the only grief they can feel is their own, the only dead worth mourning are their own.”

This is, of course, an unfair accusation. First of all because it’s unfair to expect sympathy from Israelis when they are still reeling from Oct. 7. The hostages are not home. Israelis in the north are still displaced. The future is uncertain. If Israelis are more concerned right now with their own pain, their own trauma, and their own grief — that’s understandable.

It is also unfair because it is false. A great many Israelis do feel sympathy for the Palestinians. But while Israelis are accused of failing to feel solidarity with their enemies in wartime, we might ask Americans why they fail to feel solidarity with their own fellow Americans. 

Surely solidarity with one’s own people is the bare minimum — isn’t it? 

If we look at the stories of the American hostages, we will come across one word that unites them all — aliyah. Omer Neutra and Edan Alexander both made aliyah as young men — coming to Israel to serve in the IDF and make a new life. Keith Seigel made aliyah two decades ago when he was in his forties. Hersh Goldberg-Polin made aliyah with his family as a child and Sagui Dekel-Chen is the children of American citizens who made Aliyah.  

If we look at the stories of the American hostages, we will come across one word that unites them all — aliyah.

Everyone’s decision to make aliyah is different. Some come to escape antisemitism, others come because they have fallen in love with an Israeli, others still for religious or political reasons. I cannot speak to what motivated each of these Americans (or their parents) to make this choice, but I can speak from my own experience. 

What Americans often fall in love with when they come to Israel — the thing that makes them want to uproot their lives and move here — is the sense of being part of something bigger than one’s individual self. 

America can be an alienating and an isolating place. More people live alone than ever before. Fewer people have children than ever before. People live far from their families. People don’t trust their neighbors. They don’t trust their leaders. They despise those who vote differently from them.

Israel is arguably just as politically polarized as America, but that polarization is an overlay to something that is tangible and whole. Israeli society is divided, but there is a society to speak of. Even between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, there is, according to a recent study conducted by the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, an increasing sense of “shared destiny.”

Despite talk of a potential unilateral deal between the U.S. and Hamas for the five American hostages, as well as a push for a comprehensive deal between Israel and Hamas, progress seems to have stalled.

Rachel Goldberg addresses the press at the United Nations Headquarters on October 24, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

But Rachel Goldberg-Polin’s speeches, like those of Judaism’s great prophets, warn us not to be complacent. They are exhortations and indictments of a society that may be failing the moral test placed before it.  

Rachel Goldberg-Polin’s speeches, like those of Judaism’s great prophets, warn us not to be complacent. They are exhortations and indictments of a society that may be failing the moral test placed before it. 

“The price to bring home these people will be high,” she told an audience at Israel’s National Library, “but the price not to bring them home will be higher because we will never recover as a people. We will no longer be the nation who can claim to value life. And we will have to look our children and our grandchildren in the eye and say to them, ‘I love you, sweet dreams, but if someone comes and drags you from your bed in the middle of the night, we are not coming.’” 

To fail this test, she says, is to lose our very identity. “We will look in the mirror, and see a stranger blinking back at us.”

Hearing these words, I felt my pulse quicken and my throat run dry. Questions of victory, of deterrence, of defeating Hamas — all of that suddenly faded away. How could I have forgotten that there’s only one thing that matters?  

Hearing these words, I felt my pulse quicken and my throat run dry. Questions of victory, of deterrence, of defeating Hamas — all of that suddenly faded away. How could I have forgotten that there’s only one thing that matters? 

When a Hamas video of Hersh in captivity was released in April, we learned how like the mother was the son. His arm severed, his skin pale, he too spoke like a prophet — angry and eloquent. While it’s unclear to what extent Hamas influenced the content of his message, simply seeing him reminded us of a fundamental truth, which is this: As we continue to debate the war, the most important voices — those of the hostages — are missing from the debate.

The solidarity that Israelis feel for one another, the powerful felt sense that kol yisrael arevim ze l’ze — all Jews are responsible for one another — this is the reason why so many Americans have decided to leave America — a land of higher salaries and fewer wars — for this challenging, precarious strip of land in the Middle East. 

This solidarity is the Jewish nation’s great strength.

And this is precisely what’s at stake right now.

As Rachel Goldberg-Polin stated, there is a need to pay a high price to bring them home. We fear — rightfully — that paying too high a price will make us appear weak to our enemies. But if we don’t do everything we can to bring them home, solidarity will succumb to alienation.

Yael Alexander, mother of Edan Alexander, left, and Orna Neutra, mother of Omer Neutra, second from right, listen as Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 6, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

Such an Israel — a Jewish state where the bonds of responsibility between Jews have been severed — will not survive. Nor will it be a Jewish state. Rather, it will be a land where all the people are strangers, to one another and to themselves. 


Matthew Schultz is a Jewish Journal columnist and rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (Tupelo, 2020) and lives in Boston and Jerusalem.  

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