Broken Hearts, Not Broken Spirits – Interview with Chemi Goldin, Brother of Hadar Goldin Hy”d
By Sara Lehmann
The tragic story of Hadar Goldin, Hy”d, is one that, as of yet, has no ending. And the lack of closure for the family of the slain Israeli soldier only serves to intensify the pain and anguish of his loss.
On August 1, 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, 23-year-old Hadar, a Lieutenant in the IDF’s elite Givati Brigade, was shot and killed by Hamas terrorists, a mere two hours after Hamas agreed to a U.N.-mandated ceasefire, brokered by the U.S. The terrorists ambushed Hadar and two other soldiers, killing him and dragging his body into a tunnel to kidnap him.
Eight years later, Hamas still holds on to his body and that of Oron Shaul, Hy”d, another soldier killed in the same operation. Just two weeks ago, Hamas held a major rally in Gaza to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its establishment. In a macabre show of bravado, a speaker brandished an assault rifle he claimed belonged to Hadar and warned that the window of opportunity for returning his captive body would soon close.
During all these long years, Hadar’s parents, Simcha and Leah, have not been silent. They have led a crusade to have their son’s remains returned for a Jewish burial, and the names and faces of Hadar and Oron have become immortalized worldwide.
The Goldins have concentrated their efforts on the Israeli government and on the U.N. and U.S., who they claim should be held responsible for the return of their son’s body because they brokered the ceasefire that Hamas violated. They also feel that the U.N. is obligated to assist under U.N. Resolution 2474, which calls on member states to assist in repatriating prisoners of war and the remains of civilians and soldiers. Most importantly, the Goldins insist that any efforts at rebuilding Gaza should be conditioned on recovering the soldiers’ bodies.
Hadar’s parents are assisted in their struggle by their other children, including Hadar’s older brother Chemi (Menachem). Chemi, a lawyer who lives in Yerushalayim with his wife and two children, has been intimately involved in his brother’s case. In an incredibly emotional interview in Yerushalayim, he shared with me the heartbreaking saga of his gifted brother’s demise and the imprint it leaves on a personal, national, and international level.
Can you talk about how the tragedy of Hadar’s death and the circumstances surrounding his body has affected you as a brother?
It changed my life. First of all, losing a brother is not an easy thing. But on top of losing a brother, the struggle to bring him to kever Yisrael has changed me as a person. It changed the direction of my profession. Before Hadar died, I worked as a lawyer in an office representing insurance companies. After Hadar died, I gradually switched my focus to work with an NGO and then with the government on behalf of families with disabled children. So, it changed the course of my career and the course of my life.
Your mother and father are at the forefront of the struggle, especially your mother, whose name has become a household name. Has this mission transformed their lives?
I wish for everyone to have a father and mother who do everything for their children, even after they depart from life. The family dynamics have certainly changed, and their attention has been diverted from the everyday. At their age of retirement, my parents should have been busy with many other pursuits, even in relation to my brother. Since their son died for his country, they should have been focused on how to perpetuate his memory. Instead, they are consumed with the most basic aspect of the Jewish people — providing for a Jewish burial.
Your parents have spent much time and effort pressuring the U.N. and the U.S., since they were the ones who brokered the ceasefire that Hamas violated when they killed Hadar. Have they succeeded?
I think my parents have been extremely successful internationally. They met the head of the U.N. and became good friends with Irwin Cotler (Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada). And they were instrumental in bringing about the U.N. decision stipulating that any agreement made between Israel and Hamas should first of all deal with bringing back captives. They succeeded in bringing a lot of international understanding to the idea that returning captives from a war is a basic human right.
Although your parents succeeded in gaining international recognition, they succeeded only to a certain point, since Hadar’s body was still not returned.
The problem today is political. The decision makers in Israel haven’t demanded the return of the bodies when they have dealt with Hamas over the years. This should have been the basis of any agreement. I’ll put it this way — the success of bringing Hadar back should not be my family’s. It should belong to those who sent the soldiers to war. First of all, that’s the Israeli government. It’s their success or their failure.
Secondly, it’s the international community that brokered the ceasefire. I think that the international community partially succeeded but we still need the help of the U.S. and the U.N. to pressure Hamas in Gaza. They were successful in declaring that any arrangement or agreement pertaining to Gaza’s rehabilitation should start with bringing back the missing soldiers. The Israeli government wasn’t successful in actually implementing it.
Your mother has used the word “betrayed” when discussing Israel’s role in not bringing back the bodies. Do you feel that way too?
Let’s use the word “disappointed.” Betrayal is a strong word to use. I’m disappointed with the Israeli government for betraying the most basic Jewish value, which is bringing someone to kever Yisrael. That’s the whole aspect of the tzavaah (IDF). There is an agreement between Israel and Israel’s mothers and fathers, who send their sons out to protect everyone, to bring them back either alive, wounded or to the grave. In this respect, I am very disappointed with the Israeli government for continuing to deal with Gaza, rehabilitate Gaza and negotiate with Gaza without first bringing back my brother.
What message do you think this sends to those mothers and fathers in Israel?
I think that it’s a known fact that less and less people in Israel actually go to the army, and not because of religious reasons, but because the whole idea of people fighting for people has been, especially in my brother’s case, abandoned by the government. It affects Israel, the security of Israel, and the basic values of being a Zionist and a Jew, which are the basic values that I grew up with and which I want to teach my children.
That’s a very big accusation.
It’s been eight long years. I think that my parents accomplished things for this country that even politicians or diplomats couldn’t have accomplished, insofar as the rights of Israel, the Jewish nation, and Jews. They’ve done so much. My parents dealt with every single obstacle that we were warned of in bringing Hadar back home.
Now, it’s not about accusations. It’s about telling the truth. Telling the truth to people in Israel and around the world. And telling it to those in Israel who can [do something]— and we truly believe they can — and that’s the government. And U.S. officials. We have to tell them that we know the truth and know that it’s not about what they didn’t succeed in doing but all the things they do, apart from bringing Hadar home.
I believe that when people know the truth, and when it comes from people who have gone through so many obstacles, it’s not an accusation. It’s not about blaming people. It’s about knowing how important this is and about how much people in Israel and around the world can actually affect the future.
After eight years, do you think that the public might be tiring of this issue? Is it fading?
After the first and second year, there was not a day that I woke up in the morning and said to myself that I don’t think anyone actually remembers who Hadar is and the fact that they need to bring him home. But what I discovered every day is something special about the people of Israel. Even people I meet on the street.
When there were rocket attacks in the south, I would call people on behalf of the NGO I work for to see what help they needed. Each time, a friend in Netivot would remind me that the reason they were alive was because of my brother and would ask when he will be brought home. You see, it’s not a story of my family. It’s a story of all the families of Israel. We care for each other. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh. When the government doesn’t bring Hadar home, that friend of mine in the south is saying, “Who is going to protect us?”
Does it fade? I don’t think it fades. I think there are a lot of people who would like it to fade. But with the previous history of Israel, the issue of missing soldiers has never faded. I grew up with the prayer every Shabbat to bring home the missing soldiers. I knew their names and the names of their mothers and fathers. That’s how strong the areivut is here in Israel.
So yes, every morning I wake up and wonder who remembers our story, but then I remember that people see as it as their story too. A mother in the south is also going to send her son to the army one day and needs to know that someone is protecting him. One day it’s going to be her neighbor’s son and one day it’s going to be her son. That’s the issue.
Do you or your family ever feel like giving up?
Look, I’m third generation from the Holocaust. My grandparents came here, raised their children here, joined the army, and used to say “Never again.” There will never again be a situation where Jews are not brought to kever Yisrael. I remember asking my grandmother about her giving up, and she said, “As Jews, we don’t have the privilege of giving up.” And maybe my family and I are not the sort to give up. I honestly believe that we don’t have the privilege of giving up.
Do you think that the Shalit prisoner swap might have negatively influenced the Israeli public on this matter, even though he was a live prisoner, since some of the exchanged terrorists went on to commit more crimes? Do you advocate for any swap or only for conditioning rehabilitating Gaza on returning the bodies?
Right now, there is actually a living Jew in Gaza with mental disabilities. But that is another discussion. However, in the last eight years, there has been rehabilitation of Gaza. There have been suitcases of money brought to the heads of Hamas by Israel. There is a gas line and electricity and power brought to Gaza. There have been prisoners that were released to Gaza. So, if you were to ask me this question eight years ago, that might have been an issue. But now we’re at a point where such a deal has been mostly done. The question now is: Where is my brother?
Your family organized a march in the south this past summer to block off access from Gaza to people who received permission from then-Defense Minister Gantz to enter Israel with work permits. Did it help?
Yes, I think it very much did. First of all, you’re talking about my mother and my father, and they’re not young, walking with around 2,500 people in the August heat for many miles. I can say for sure that it had a big effect on our politicians and leadership. Of course it works. It’s living proof that once people say they know the truth and want action, it helps.
Israeli politicians have all supported the notion of Hamas returning Hadar in theory. What do you think is holding them back — is it fear of world opinion if they refuse to rehabilitate Gaza?
I think that people are very scared. I think they’re scared mostly of themselves, to be honest. But you get to a point where you need to make decisions and take responsibility. We’ve been in touch with all the politicians. We had so many commitments. It’s so easy to commit. Those who dealt with the ceasefire made a very bad decision that cost my brother his life. They need to understand that it’s their job to bring him back.
Do you have hope that the new right-wing coalition will be more forthcoming with help?
Yes. And I urge anyone who has connections with those politicians to stress the importance of this issue. After everything I’ve been through and the people I met, I do think that people can deliver. I’m disappointed with what [until now] they’re doing, but I’m not disappointed with them. If there’s something I’ve learned from my brother Hadar, it’s that you should not be afraid of yourself. I tell this to all the politicians — you can do great things. Do it. Make the decision. Take responsibility.
Is there anything that Jews in the Diaspora can do to help?
There are two answers to that. First of all, I think that the American government is very influential in Israel, in the world, and also with their dealings in Gaza. I think that Jews in the U.S. and around the world should address their politicians and tell them that this is a Jewish matter. We spoke of the Holocaust. Never again should a Jew not be brought to kever Yisrael. Jews should say that, as a supporter of Jews and Israel, and of civil rights, the American government should support something as basic as this.
Secondly, regarding the new right-wing government in Israel, we are dealing with people who are representing very Jewish parties. If they represent Jewish values, this is one of the basic things they should do. When Diaspora Jews meet these Israeli lawmakers in the U.S., where they need community support, they should politely tell them this is a basic Jewish concept and they should not make excuses. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh.
Also, there is a lot of financial business with Gaza all around the world. If anyone knows of or deals with those issues, they should point out that there are prisoners in Gaza and that that’s not a way to do business.
Can you talk about Hadar, who he was and what kind of memories he left you with?
That’s a difficult question emotionally. He was my little brother. He was also a twin. It was always Tzur and Hadar, the twins. (Tzur just got married.) They had a beautiful relationship. In that partnership, Hadar was the painter, the poet, the writer. I think he was a person that never understood the concept of evil in this world. If he knew a soldier had issues at home or dealt with poverty, he did everything to make it better. He enlisted his whole unit once just to buy a soldier a fridge. He could never see something bad happen and not fight in any way to fix it.
Whenever there was an occasion or celebration or something bad that happened in the family, it was always Hadar. If we would say that we don’t have time for something or can’t make something happen, Hadar would say, “Of course, we will.” For me, Hadar was all about his heart, his creativity. His paintings were exhibited in the U.N. and other places around the world.
What about his writings?
We published his “parshanut” on Mesillat Yesharim. It became a bestseller in Israel. During his army service and before, while at pre-army mechinah (yeshivah), he learned Mesillat Yesharim. In the margins of the sefer, he used to write his comments, stories, and other stuff in tiny little writing.
After he was kidnapped, we took everything and printed it out for ourselves. Then someone said, “It’s a book.” It took my father about four years to bring it to print. It became a bestseller. I think more children in Israel who become bar mitzvah read Hadar’s parshanut on Mesillat Yesharim than read Mesillat Yesharim itself.
Hadar didn’t waste one minute in his life. That’s Hadar for me as his brother. It’s been a very short 23 years but very beautiful.
If there is one message you can leave readers with, what would it be?
That it’s not up to the family. It’s up to the Jewish nation to bring Hadar home.
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