Quick: name the Israeli who’s being held captive by Hamas in Gaza. If you answered Gilad Shalit, sorry, but you’re wrong – Shalit was released years ago.
There are, however, other Israelis who are being held against their will by Hamas and no one seems to notice, much less care.
Avera Mengistu, for instance, has been held for over three years, and his story is unbelievably tragic.
Born in Ethiopia to a very large family, Mengistu made aliyah as a child. But from there, everything went downhill.
The Mengistus are very poor. His father didn’t work and his mother cleaned houses. They eventually got divorced. One of his beloved brothers served in the IDF’s elite Golani Brigade, before dying of anorexia.
Mengistu’s mental health then began to decline. He engaged in self-harm, disappeared for weeks on end and begged in the streets. Though he received treatment in psychiatric hospitals, nothing seemed to help.
Then, on Sept. 7, 2014, Mengistu had a mental breakdown. He asked his mother for money, but she had none. He grew angry and, a few hours later, scaled the border fence and vanished into Gaza. All that remained was a satchel he left on the Israeli side. Among its contents was a Tanakh.
It’s well known that Hamas held Shalit, and that it still holds the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul, two soldiers who were killed in action during Israel’s 2014 conflict with Hamas. But the terrorist organization has also tacitly acknowledged holding Mengistu. And yet, Mengistu, whose poor mental health kept him from military service and who is very much alive, is not so much an unknown soldier, as an unknown civilian.
An earlier news blackout has long since been lifted, though Mengistu’s story remains largely untold. The reasons for this include the strong emotional bond we have with soldiers who are left behind, the challenges that Mengistu’s parents have communicating (neither speaks Hebrew very well), the discrimination that Ethiopian-Israelis face and more.
But these are the very factors that should be propelling us to action, not dissuading us. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Red Cross are all working to free Mengistu.
Why aren’t we?
If ever there was an advocacy issue that can unite us all, surely it must be returning a mentally ill Ethiopian Jew from the clutches of Hamas to an impoverished, heartbroken mother who has already lost one son.
Avera Mengistu’s story should be told from the pulpits of our shuls. Our summer camps, schools and youth movements should get our kids campaigning for his release. Our advocacy organizations should marshal our communal resources.
Mengistu’s plight is a test of our central Jewish maxim: kol Yisra’el arevim ze la ze – all of Israel is responsible for one another. Let’s dedicate a worldwide Shabbat to him, discuss him at our seders and plaster his face everywhere.
And let’s not forget Hisham al-Sayed, an Israeli Bedouin whose case has shocking parallels. Al-Sayed comes from a very large family, is part of a disadvantaged community, suffers from severe mental illness, had disappeared for weeks on end, has been treated in psychiatric facilities and was discharged from the military because of his poor mental health. In 2015, al-Sayed wandered into Gaza. Though not Jewish, he is being held by Hamas, which knows that he volunteered for the IDF. There may even be other Israeli captives, including another mentally ill Bedouin named Jumaa Abu Ghanima.
Our community is rightly focused on retrieving the remains of fallen IDF soldiers, but when we do so to the exclusion of Hamas’ living captives, we surely cause unspeakable pain to their families.
We also fail to meet that core, noble standard, kol Yisra’el arevim ze la ze. Surely it must apply to the living, as well as to the dead; to Israelis, as well as to Jews; to civilians, as well as to soldiers; and to Avera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and anyone else who’s being held captive by our enemies.