Gilsinan: Can you tell us about what happened to your family on Oct. 7?
Yehuda Beinin: My wife and I live up north, so we heard news that there’s something going on down south. We called Liat at like 6:25 in the morning, and obviously she was wrapped up in what was going on around her, and we didn’t have a long conversation. She said, ‘It’s crazy, I’ll call you back,’ or something to that effect. By 9:30 she hadn’t called back. So we called her again, and she didn’t have time to talk. She did not elaborate on what was going on. One of her friends actually recorded a conversation with her. You can hear the desperation in her voice as to the situation around her house. I’ve never heard speak like this. It was very, very desperate, very low tone of voice. She may very well have been trying to be quiet, not to make noise. And that was basically the last anybody heard from her.
[In] the aftermath, Aviv’s brother went over to the area with the army people and told us that the terrorists killed the three-legged dog. There were no signs of blood in the house or outside.
Tal Beinin: The house was burnt. And from what we gathered, they smoked out the houses so that people would get out, in order to kidnap them.
Yehuda Beinin: That fits in with the general story of what happened in Nir Oz. We need to talk about Netta, her middle son. We had a WhatsApp exchange earlier in the day, where he said that the terrorists came into his house. You have a 20-year-old kid who is in a safe room, the distance between him and the terrorist was two inches of an iron door. And he succeeded in staying alive by holding the handle closed on the door.
Tal Beinin: Nir Oz was attacked by 150 armed terrorists. They just swarmed kibbutz Nir Oz, killing and kidnaping people, and executing people, babies, dogs. They also went into the houses, ransacked the houses, stole things like my nephew’s computer. My other nephew that was also there saw them taking cars and riding the streets and just shooting at whatever they wanted. They also destroyed the kibbutz. Burning things, houses, equipment, stealing the cars, stealing the fuel, the tractors from the fields, because that’s how the kibbutz makes their money, from the fields. And then [they] went back to Gaza with over 200 people, killing [more than a thousand] in the way. Let’s not forget that for a second. And unfortunately, my sister and my brother-in-law were two of the people that were taken, and two of my nephews had to witness [the attack on the kibbutz]. My nephew, the only reason he survived was because he held the door so that they couldn’t come in and they noticed, ‘Oh, look, a computer, we’ll take that.’ Forget my nephew, basically.
Gilsinan: [Yehuda,] you’re an American and an Israeli. What drew you to life on a kibbutz?
Yehuda Beinin: My parents were members of a Jewish youth group called Hashomer Hatzair. They’re a very deeply socialist Zionist movement. My parents were members of this movement, my mother in Philadelphia, my father from the Bronx.
After World War II, my parents moved to Palestine. My father was a student and my mother worked in the oil refinery as a secretary. When the War of Independence broke out, my parents left the country. My mother was pregnant with my older brother. And my father had basically been traumatized by battle and World War II, and he couldn’t take the thought of fighting. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s, I grew up in a Zionist environment second to none. It was inescapable that I would end up moving to Israel in the framework of Hashomer Hatzair with a group from the movement. And we ended up in kibbutz Shomrat in the north. And I live there to this day, with our friends that I know, some of them from the age of 11. I have to ask what would have happened if I didn’t end up on a kibbutz in Israel? That would be the question.
Tal Beinin: It’s not a question, Abba. When people ask me why you guys moved to Israel, I was like, ‘You were Zionist and you went to build the country.’
Yehuda Beinin: I’m not going to argue. She’s my wife’s daughter.
Gilsinan: Tal, why did you go to the States?
Tal Beinin: To be honest, I did not enjoy living in Israel. I suffered a minor trauma living up north during the Second Lebanon War, where I was in charge of a lot of the youth and younger kids. And after that war, I was like, ‘Peace, I’m getting out.’ And I moved to Portland, but I decided to move back to Tel Aviv to get my education. And in those seven years rockets started to come in from the Gaza Strip.
Yehuda Beinin: Tal whips out her little blue book. [Holds up a U.S. passport.]
Tal Beinin: Put that away. It was just an option that I had. Our family are Holocaust survivors. And I was like, ‘I’m just going to leave before it gets worse.’
Gilsinan: And now you’ve both gone from simpler lives to being hostage negotiators on the world stage, while also dealing with this unimaginable situation for your own family. What has that been like, and what are you telling leaders that you think they need to hear?
Yehuda Beinin: The reason that we were in Washington is because the response of the Israeli government was so lame, beyond lame. Where my daughter is concerned, I’m not waiting around for them to do something. Other Americans very quickly took matters into their own hands and began to organize groups to go to Washington in order to lobby senators and congressmen. Also, the immediate response already on Sunday [the day after the attacks] was to contact the [U.S.] embassy. A friend of ours got me the number, because I was not capable of functioning in a rational way at that point, to report about the situation of my daughter and son-in-law. And they were unbelievably understanding and helpful.
And right away, within a day or two, I had already spoken to representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and from the State Department. And there was a case, a case number, a case manager, the whole works. On Nir Oz there were other Americans. So I learned [of] one of the groups that was organizing and I hooked up with them. They were providing airfare from Eilat [where Nir Oz residents had been evacuated] to Washington, D.C., airfare and train fares. It was a very well-organized, well-funded venture to get people on the ground, relatives of Americans who were kidnapped and to have them working the Hill. In the meantime, another group of Americans had organized an additional trip that was in conjunction with the American Jewish Congress. So I was in Washington the entire week, meeting with the leaders that were on their program. I also managed to arrange two private meetings with Sen. [Chris] Murphy from Connecticut and Sen. [Chris] Van Hollen of Maryland and also congressman [David] Trone from Maryland. And I passed on my personal message to them.