A Kidnapped Israeli Activist and Two Sons Grappling with a War in Her Name
12:20 JST, November 8, 2023
TEL AVIV – Yonatan Zeigen looked down at his phone. There was a missed call from the Israel Defense Forces’ hostage liaison unit. Then came a flurry of news alerts: Hamas was preparing to release two female hostages in Gaza for “humanitarian reasons.”
It had been 16 days since his mother, Vivian Silver, a 74-year-old Canadian Israeli peace activist, had vanished from her duplex in Kibbutz Beeri. Militants slaughtered many of her neighbors, set fire to their homes and kidnapped those they didn’t kill. The Israeli government believed Vivian was among the 242 people Hamas had dragged back to Gaza.
Now, finally, there appeared to be movement on her case. The military liaison officer texted Yonatan: “I’m sure you’ve heard the news.”
Yonatan dialed her number and swallowed hard.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
There was no confirmation about which hostages would be released, the officer said. But Yonatan sensed promise.
For 2 1/2 weeks, Yonatan, 35, had forced himself to consider the unimaginable: his mother’s body identified in the ashes of her home; a video confirming that she had been executed by her captors; or his mother being killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza.
Suddenly, he imagined the other way things could end: his mother walking through his apartment door.
It seemed fitting that she would be among the first released. She had spent her entire adult life denouncing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, lobbying for diplomatic solutions to the conflict, ferrying children from Gaza to Israeli hospitals. If her captors searched her name on the internet, they would see that they had taken one of the country’s leading progressive activists.
That, too, crossed Yonatan’s mind as he stared at his phone, waiting for information. His brother, Chen, 36, sat next to him, scanning the messages in a WhatsApp group for families of hostages. As always, it was a frenzy of speculation and debate. Some families believed Gaza should be leveled in revenge; some worried that an Israeli siege would endanger the lives of their loved ones.
Then the brothers received a news alert from an Israeli newspaper with the names of the two hostages who had been released. Vivian wasn’t one of them.
Yonatan jerked away from his phone, then looked at the names again. One of them, Yocheved Lifshitz, was his high school photography teacher.
“I’m happy she was released, but . . .” he trailed off.
Every day, he and Chen did the things they were told might hasten their mother’s release. They met Israeli and Canadian politicians. In interviews, they tried to choose details that would nip at the conscience of her captors. They went to marches with the families of other hostages.
“The mission phase,” Yonatan called it.
Tomorrow would be another day in what felt increasingly like a hopeless campaign. They would repeat the same stories to journalists about their mother – that she grew up in Winnipeg and moved to Israel in 1974 to start a new kibbutz and devote her life to regional peace initiatives. That she had fought against the blockade of Gaza. That she baked decorative cakes for her grandchildren’s birthdays.
They would hold posters with her face under the word “KIDNAPPED” and reread their last text messages with her, looking for clues they had missed the first or the 15th time. They would attend funerals of those killed at the kibbutz. They would ask survivors if they had seen Vivian on the morning of the attack.
They would try to ignore the social media posts from hawkish Israelis who suggested that their mother deserved to be killed for her activism, and the other posts from around the world that seemed to legitimize the Hamas attack as a form of resistance. They would try to forget that her release depended largely on an Israeli government that they – and she – despised.
They would channel their mother, who had believed in a diplomatic solution when no one else did. Maybe she would have some idea of how to end this.
Two days later, Yonatan and Chen were walking across central Tel Aviv holding posters of their mother. In the photo, Vivian is smiling, her gray hair swept across her forehead, looking just to the left of the camera. “Bring her home now,” the poster said.
A group of a few hundred demonstrators and family members had gathered to pressure the Israeli government to push harder for the release of the hostages.
“Right now!” the group chanted in Hebrew and English. Yonatan and Chen listened but did not say the words. Aside from wanting the hostages to be released, the crowd didn’t agree on anything.
The night before, the Israeli government had escalated its war in Gaza, which had already killed thousands of Palestinians. Many of the hostage families supported the offensive – the airstrikes and the siege and the ground troops that were starting to move in. Some circulated the same statement: “There will be no cease-fire until everyone is returned.”
The brothers were sure their mother would oppose all of it. Her politics had been unwavering. She had worked to arrange a solidarity bike ride on both sides of the Gaza border fence. Her friends from Gaza called her on Jewish holidays. Even after her sons had given up on the prospect of peace, she persevered.
“I would tell her, ‘Israel is dead. It’s hopeless,’ and she would say, ‘Peace could come tomorrow,'” Yonatan said.
He tried to imagine the role she might be playing in captivity, reasoning with her abductors.
But now it was Chen and Yonatan who would need to square their mother’s moral crusade with a strategy to secure her release, and to satisfy a desire for justice after the Oct. 7 massacre. Even the two of them disagreed on the right approach.
Rail-thin and with a bushy beard, Yonatan is a social worker who tends to Tel Aviv’s homeless. He believed in a cease-fire, and that a diplomatic solution could be reached with Hamas. For years, he had condemned the Israeli government for what he saw as its inhumane policy toward Gaza.
Clean-cut and with red hair, Chen is a doctoral student in prehistoric archaeology at the University of Connecticut who frantically boarded a flight back to Israel after Oct. 7. He was more certain that Israel needed to respond militarily in Gaza, that Hamas couldn’t be trusted to negotiate.
And Vivian – what would she say?
“It’s impossible not to wonder,” Chen said.
She was a “peacenik,” part of a shrinking group of secular Israeli leftists who believed in communal living and a road map for peace. They had been appalled by Israel’s rightward shift and the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Like Vivian, some chose to live near Gaza, to be closer to their life’s work; on Oct, 7, they were among the first to be killed.
The brothers knew the attack might have changed their mother’s politics.
One of Vivian’s strongest allies on the kibbutz was a woman whose husband was murdered in front of her. She had forsaken the peace movement and called for revenge.
The families of other hostages, too, seemed driven by a desire for retribution, or a belief that military pressure could lead to the hostages’ release. Yonatan and Chen were still deciding what kind of activists they would be.
For years, Vivian had dragged them to protests, on trips to Gaza and the West Bank, sending them passive-aggressive text messages when they declined to attend: “Oh, you’re too busy?”
For Vivian, it made no sense to have convictions you weren’t willing to defend. She protested the civilian casualties caused by Israel’s military offensives. She fought for a more active leadership role for women on the kibbutz and, more recently, against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the Supreme Court.
Her sons had gradually shed their activism. They got jobs. They had children. They got distracted.
“We became bourgeois,” Yonatan said.
As he walked down Eliezer Kaplan Street, a man fell into his arms and began crying. It was Yoav, a former counselor from the kibbutz, who had worked with Yonatan at a youth center there.
“Now every day I’m learning about which kids were killed and which were kidnapped,” Yoav said.
“Is there is any news about your mom?” he asked.
Yonatan shook his head and kept moving.
He passed the Kirya, a military installation in downtown Tel Aviv that people had plastered with the faces of the missing.
There was Vivian’s face, again, and others from the kibbutz: a high school classmate, a neighbor, a friend’s child. Some of their bodies, he knew, had since been identified.
Of Beeri’s 1,000 residents, about 30 had been kidnapped and at least 80 had been killed – in their homes, theirs cars and their front yards. Some had been tortured and raped. A baby had been shot in the head.
“She’s dead,” Yonatan said, pointing to the photo of one woman.
“He’s dead,” he pointed to another photo.
“They’re dead,” he pointed to a family.
The morning of Oct. 7, Vivian ran to her safe room and called Yonatan. She heard rockets and gunshots outside her house, she said. In a Beeri WhatsApp group, people reported injuries. It wasn’t entirely clear what was happening, but Vivian told her son that the kibbutz appeared to be under attack.
Then she stopped responding.
“What’s happening now?” Yonatan wrote.
She was giving a radio interview on Galei Zahal, a public broadcaster, to a host she had frequently sparred with about her activism. She took the call from her safe room.
“We have Vivian Silver on the line,” the host began.
It was difficult to make out her words over the rocket sirens, but she seemed to be prodding the host about the importance of a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, even as she was under attack.
For Vivian, any conversation could be turned into a platform to argue for peace, and here was another.
“But one side is insane,” the host said. “Look at how they are violently interrupting us on a holiday.”
Vivian was unhappy with that response.
“We can talk more about this if I survive,” she said.
After the interview, she called Yonatan.
“She said, ‘I am so pissed about that radio interview.'”
They texted as she sat in her safe room. She tried to put him at ease. After a pause, he wrote, “Say something.”
“Something,” she wrote. “I’m trying to keep my sense of humor.”
But then her texts became more desperate.
“Where is our army?” she wrote.
“Are there still shots?” Yonatan wrote at 10:17.
“Up until a minute ago. Now there is an eerie silence,” she responded.
“I still don’t know anything,” she wrote next. “I can’t make out if the yelling outside is in Arabic or Hebrew.”
At 10:38: “We might be witnessing a massacre.”
“I’m telling everyone how much I love you and how I’m blessed to have you in my life.”
At 10:41, she wrote: “They’re in the house now.”
At 10:52, Yonatan wrote: “Mom?”
At 10:54, she responded: “I’m here. I think they’ve moved on.”
“I am afraid to breathe,” she wrote.
“I have no words,” Yonatan wrote.
“I’m with you,” he wrote.
“I feel you,” she wrote.
“Are you safe now?” he wrote.
She didn’t respond.
Within a few hours, her phone had been geolocated in Gaza.
It was a Monday – Day 17 – when Yonatan left Tel Aviv for a meeting in Jerusalem with Eli Cohen, the country’s foreign minister, and Gal Hirsch, the head of its hostage rescue team.
It was meant to serve as an update for the hostage families. The government had said little about its efforts to secure the release of the 242. By its own count, Israel had dropped more than 6,000 bombs on Gaza since Oct. 7. No one had explained what precautions were being taken to avoid killing the hostages.
Yonatan, in a T-shirt and shorts, walked into the Foreign Ministry in downtown Jerusalem. Neatly dressed government officials had been assigned to greet and accompany every hostage family inside the meeting hall.
He saw other families from Beeri and sat down at their table.
There were Cohen and Hirsch, both men his mother had demonstrated against. They walked around the room as they spoke.
“This is our top priority,” Yonatan recalled Hirsch saying. Military pressure, he said, would give Israel leverage in a hostage negotiation.
“What about a cease-fire?” Yonatan asked.
“He was flabbergasted,” Yonatan recalled. “He said, ‘That’s a present for Hamas.'”
“So you’re doing everything to get the hostages out except for presents,” Yonatan responded.
Then Cohen addressed the group, speaking vaguely about the plan to free the hostages. He said he needed to be careful about what he shared so details didn’t leak to the press, Yonatan remembered.
Does anyone have questions, he asked after his remarks.
Yonatan raised his hand and took the microphone.
“When you talk about annihilating Hamas, it feels like a propaganda line because you didn’t do it in the past 15 years and you’re not going to do it now,” he said. “And if you do it, it’s going to kill the hostages.”
We will win the war, Cohen responded.
Not long after that exchange, the meeting ended. The families walked into the afternoon light.
There was something Yonatan hadn’t said, which was that he believed that a ground invasion was not just bad strategy – it was immoral. It was a line Vivian might have said. But Yonatan didn’t have her energy for arguing.
“When I talk to Israelis, it’s a moot point.”
Vivian had turned her attic into a guest room so that her sons and grandchildren could visit on weekends and holidays.
The kids would ride their bikes through the kibbutz and eat ice pops their grandmother had made for them. Yonatan’s partner, Maayan, jogged a loop that traced the Gaza border. Yonatan would point to Gaza and tell his children: “That’s the biggest open-air prison in the world.” He and Vivian would inevitably argue about the viability of a peace deal.
That was the plan on Oct. 7, Simchat Torah, a Jewish holiday. Yonatan, his partner and three children would make the hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.
The day before, Yonatan changed his mind.
“We thought, ‘Maybe this time, we’ll celebrate just us.'”
He told his mom that their plan had changed. She was furious. She had lived alone since her husband, Lewis, died in 2016. The weekend visits were important to her. She had already prepared the next day’s meal.
“We had a huge fight,” he said.
The next morning, after the attack began, she told him over the phone:
“Thank God you’re not here.”
Sitting on the couch in the living room one morning, Yonatan turned to Chen.
“Last night I had my first dream about Mom since the attack.”
Yonatan’s three children were at school and the two of them were alone in the apartment, which suddenly felt quiet.
“She was released and we had to tell her what happened in the kibbutz,” he said. “We had to tell her that all of her friends were dead.”
It was Day 26 when Yonatan decided to return to Kibbutz Beeri.
A family friend drove him there, through the new military checkpoints that had sprung up across southern Israel. The entrance to Beeri had been turned into a military base. Outgoing artillery boomed every few minutes.
Yonatan got permission from security officials and drove to his mother’s house. The streets were lined with debris: a truck riddled with bullets, charred washing machines and bicycles, the carcass of a neighbor’s dog.
Vivian’s house came into view. It was scorched black. As Yonatan walked inside, glass and wood cracked under his feet. He tried to articulate why he’d come.
“To feel something,” he said.
He continued inside, past the charred piano, across the living room carpet that had been turned to ash. He scanned the ground. He was looking, he said, for “traces of life.”
Israeli investigators had spent the past few weeks searching homes for DNA evidence that would help determine if the kibbutz’s victims had been killed or wounded before their bodies were taken to Gaza.
But Yonatan didn’t trust the authorities. It made him wonder whether he might find something – proof of Vivian’s death or her survival – that others had missed.
What he found instead: reading glasses with shattered lenses, an exploded microwave, a contorted candleholder.
He walked into the safe room where his mother had texted him from. It had been incinerated. When Yonatan bent down to pick up small objects, they fell apart in his hand. There was no trace of life there.
He walked outside the house and down the sidewalk that connected the subdivision. It still smelled of rotting flesh. Streaks of blood stained front porches, where the bodies of Vivian’s neighbors had been dragged outside.
As he returned to his mother’s home, he saw a group of people walking out the front door. It was a military tour. A soldier was escorting a group of Israeli academics who had come to document the ruin.
Yonatan introduced himself to the soldier. He explained that the house belonged to his mother.
“Is she alive?” the soldier asked.
“I don’t know,” Yonatan said.
“What do you think needs to be done about the hostages?”
And maybe it was because of where they stood, a few feet from his mother’s bedroom. Or because he was tired of trying to veil his opinions. This time, he made the moral argument.
“A cease-fire to save them,” Yonatan replied.
“Because the fighting puts them at risk?” the soldier asked.
“Yes, and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
“You don’t think it’s right to kill the terrorists?”
“I think first we need to focus on the kidnapped people, and then make a major shift, and that will not come from war but from peace.”
The soldier grew visibly angry.
“And you think peace is possible with them?” the soldier asked. “Even after what happened here?”
“Yes,” Yonatan responded.
“With these animals?”
Artillery boomed in the background. Yonatan held onto the pile of half-destroyed items he had collected from his mother’s home. Finally, the soldier decided he’d had enough.
“I hope you find your mother soon,” he said.
Yonatan walked away, alone.
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