By Andrew Adler
On a recent Friday morning, Keren Benabou, Yuval Friedman and Becky Admony – each of whom grew up in Israel before immigrating to the U.S. — sat down at the Trager Family JCC to share what it means for the nation they cherish to be at war. Each brought different life experiences to the table: Benabou and Friedman served in the Israel Defense Forces, while Admony – whose family had settled on the West Bank as Orthodox Jews – became an ICU nurse. All three now live in Louisville. They were interviewed by Community Managing Editor Andrew Adler on Nov. 10, 2023 – the 35th day of war between Israel and Hamas following the atrocities of October 7. What follows below are extended excerpts from that 90-minute session, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a bit about your backgrounds
Keren Benabou: I grew up in Ashdod, a beautiful city on the Mediterranean. I like to tell people it’s right between Gaza and Tel Aviv, so missiles are not something we’re foreign to, unfortunately. My entire family is in Israel, other than my husband and our girls who are here. My family came from Morocco to Israel in the ‘60s, so all of our culture, hospitality, everything, is related to Arab countries.
Becky Admony: I’m from Memphis – my parents made Aliyah when I was four years old, moving to Jerusalem in 1983. And then, after a year, they decided to move to the West Bank. So in 1984 we moved to (the settlement of) Shilo. Back then, there was peace – we used to even go shopping with Palestinians. I remember that as a child. And then stuff got rough. I moved to the United States in 2006 after I married my husband, and we’ve been here ever since. I have four sisters, and they all have a lot of kids – my grandparents have 34 grandkids. So we’re a very big family.
Yuval Friedman: I was born in Afula in the northern part of Israel. I actually grew up most of my younger life abroad. My father was a diplomat, so we spent four years in South Africa, then back to Israel, and then five years in Argentina and back to Israel, where I did high school and afterwards joined the IDF. So I think I have a perspective that a lot of Israelis don’t, because I already felt what it’s like growing up as a Jewish Israeli abroad. Antisemitism in Argentina and South Africa was prevalent. But we grew up with it as sort of, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, this is how things are. They’re idiots. We live; we’re strong; we’re okay.’ And being from Israel was different from being an American Jew. When you’re from Israel, if you encounter antisemitism (elsewhere) you’re used to growing up in a country full of Jews — you’re very proud and strong, so you don’t really care too much when you notice anti-Israel sentiments, because you know that Israel’s got your back at the end of the day. You’re going back to Israel, and everything’s okay. The crazy part is that my family back home, right now under a war, is more worried about me being here in the states as a Jewish person. (My mother) was worried sick about me here in Louisville, when they’re getting rockets shot at them.
We’re seeing an increasing number of pro-Palestinian protests and demonstrations against Israel’s actions in Gaza, including several on the University of Louisville campus. What’s your take on these?
Benabou: Let us be clear, and I think I can speak for the three of us, and for many Israelis and many, many Jews. We are pro-Palestinian. We are pro-life, pro-human rights. But these people are not pro-Palestinian — they are anti-Israel and actually anti-Jews. That’s what people in America and in the entire world needs to understand.
No parent wants their children to go off to war
Friedman: There’s a saying, “When you grow up, hopefully we’ll have peace and you won’t have to go into the military.”
When did you first learn of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks?
Friedman: My mom was flying to Greece that same morning for a birthday trip with her three best friends. So I figured I’d shoot her a text tell her to have a good trip. But then when I got my phone, I noticed on the extended family chat that everyone is blasting messages checking if my mom’s cousins are okay. They’re checking up on them every five minutes: ‘Are you guys okay? Is the army there? Are the police there?’ Then I read through all the WhatsApp messages with my extended family, and I realized they were under attack by terrorists, and that this has been going on for a few hours.
So I text my other cousins who live an hour north of Tel Aviv and say, ‘What’s going on?’ And they just said, ‘We have no idea. This is insane – we’re all in shock – there are terrorists everywhere in the cities around Gaza’ And as the day went on we realized how big a deal this was.
My mom’s cousin lives (not far from the Israel-Gaza border), and her husband was out of town. Luckily, she and her two kids were able to close themselves in their safe room. But as things were getting worse and worse, she would text us and say ‘We’re still okay. We can hear shooting’ Then it turned into, ‘They’re right outside our house’ and then, ‘I think they’re inside. We can’t talk anymore; we’ll update you later.’ And then silence for a few hours. That was the worst part because we didn’t know if they were alive or not. Luckily the terrorists didn’t get to them – but at least 50 of their friends who lived next to them were murdered, and a few more were taken into Gaza and are still hostages. My cousin’s husband, who’s a kibbutz member, was responsible for organizing all the funerals for the kibbutz. They had about 50 funerals in a week, just going from one to another.
It must be emotionally fraught living in the U.S. while Israel is grappling with such a terrible threat.
Admony: Of course I want to now live in Israel. But I can’t roll the dice back. I have four kids; it’s more complicated. Our money’s here. It’s not that easy just to pack up and go. Especially as my kids did not grow up in Israel, in this environment. But yes, I would want to be in Israel right now. I would (even) live in the Gaza Strip – because of how I grew up and who I am. (Recalling violent incidents while growing up on the West Bank) I have nightmares today. Those are the reasons I became an ICU nurse. I saw so much death as a child I wanted to investigate it, because nobody really took care of us, or talked to us. So I wanted to be as close to death as I could. Then I escaped, in some ways, from Israel. But even today I have nightmares of (terrorists) killing us and burning our house.
Israel has always lived in the shadow of terrorism. But not like this.
Benabou: Hamas is different. That’s why we keep saying that Hamas is ISIS. It’s not just a slogan, Hamas is backed by Iran, a horrible terror organization. It’s not like there’s no Hamas in the West Bank — there is, but not like in Gaza. I served in the West Bank, and Becky’s settlement was under my responsibility. But there are levels of terrorism, levels of attack – from throwing stones or firebombs, to shooting, to kidnapping, to what we see now. You’re coming to kill someone because of their religion, or because of their nationality.
We always knew Hamas was a terrible terror organization – and what it’s doing to Israel is what it’s doing to their own people in Gaza. They took a beautiful Gaza Strip that Israelis lived in and grew the best vegetables, the best herbs, the best flowers, everything. When we left in 2005, we brought all Israelis outside of Gaza for peace. We left the houses, the greenhouses, everything — and Hamas destroyed it. Then we realized even more that they don’t care about their own people. They don’t care about Palestinians. All they want is to eradicate Israel. They want to kill all the Jews, and then they’re going to come for the West.
Israel has set out to utterly obliterate Hamas. Is this a realistic goal, and if so, what will take its place in Gaza with its 2 million residents?
Friedman: That’s the biggest question, because Hamas isn’t just in Gaza – it’s supported and indoctrinated and funded by huge powers. So even if Hamas is physically eradicated from the Gaza Strip, they’re going to have pockets everywhere, and Iran and Qatar and all the other players are going to always have influence. So eradicating Hamas, or an Islamic Jihad group that’s going to support something like Hamas, is going to be impossible.
The other issue is that even if Hamas is completely eradicated in the Gaza Strip, it’s not just Hamas that hates Jews and Israel. They’ve been indoctrinating people in Gaza for decades, teaching antisemitism and hate for Israel and the glory of martyrdom, in elementary schools. And let’s not talk about the Egyptians, who’ve never opened their border to the Gazans. The point is even if Hamas and all the official Hamas activists are eradicated…you’re going to have a whole new generation of radicalized individuals. How long is it going to be before these people organize? That’s the question of the century.
Admony: I don’t think it will ever be like it was before – (Gazans) coming into Israel to work is going to be very problematic. I’m not sure if it’s ever going to happen again…The fact is that Israel was given to us by the U.N. So we live there now, and from now on we have to figure out how to get along and live peacefully with the Palestinians.
Benabou: We all wonder what the day after is going to look like in Gaza. But what choice do we have? Because this is not even 75 years of hate. This is thousands and thousands of years of hate. From the beginning of time, Jews have had to fight people who didn’t want us there. So now that we have a country that a lot of people don’t think we should have, it adds just one more to the fight for our right to exist.
I hope there is a bigger plan because we are just a single people living in this world wanting peace. I hope that the professionals out there who are making decisions about the attacks, and the goal of eliminating Hamas, also have a plan for how to help the Palestinians rebuild their lives. Whatever it looks like – whether it’s rebuilding their infrastructure, giving them support – I don’t know what it’s going to look like. But it has to be ‘You’re accepting our existence,’ first and foremost. And if you accept our existence because we accept yours and we want to help you, then we are all going to work together to build a better future for the Palestinians and the people in Gaza.