Four-year-old Abigail Mor Idan, the youngest U.S. citizen who was kidnapped and held by Hamas, returned home during a pause in fighting in November. But the whereabouts and well-being of 129 hostages are still unknown. Abigail’s great-aunt, Liz Hirsh Naftali, joins us to recount her family’s harrowing story – including the murder of Abigail’s parents – and her relentless effort to bring the remaining captives home to their loved ones.

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*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC. 

Episode Lineup: 

  • (0:40) Shay Avshalom Zavdi
  • (1:32) Liz Hirsh Naftali

Show Notes:

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Transcript of Interview with Liz Hirsh Naftali:

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

One hundred twenty-nine hostages taken from Israel by Hamas during the October 7 attack are still unaccounted for. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the effort to root out Hamas from Gaza will continue until every hostage returns home. 

With us to discuss how her family is carrying both tremendous loss and tremendous gratitude for the return of one of their youngest family members, is Liz Hirsh Naftali. Naftali’s great niece 4-year-old Abigail Mor Idan returned to her siblings on November 26. Hamas terrorists killed Abigail’s parents. 

Liz, who lives in New York, joins us from Israel where she has been spending time with her family and advocating for the release of the remaining hostages. Liz, welcome to People of the Pod. 

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

Hi, thank you for having me.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Your family members were living on a kibbutz a half mile from Gaza. How did you hear about their fate?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

First, I have two nieces with families that lived on the kibbutz, and my sister in law and her husband. My sister Mara has lived on this kibbutz Kfar Aza for over 50 years. And they raised four children and two of the children stayed, my two nieces. So on October 7, I happened to arrive on October 6 to Israel because my daughter lives in Tel Aviv. And I was coming to spend a week with her. And I was in my hotel early on the seventh when the sirens started, and we ran to the stairwell for shelter. And after like the second or third time very early in the morning, around 9, I started to hear there was something happening at the Gaza-Israel border. And so I called my sister in law who didn't answer and then I called another sister that lived on this kibbutz. And then I called another sister in law in Tel Aviv. 

And she said, the first thing she said was that my niece and her husband and their baby Abigail had been killed by Hamas terrorists. That was what I first learned. And basically, that's the news we had all day. And it came from the 6 and the 10 year old sister and brother, who were in the house when Hamas terrorists came in and murdered my niece. Then they went outside, and they’re with their father and he was holding Abigail, their three year old, and they went to run for safety. 

And Hamas terrorists shot and killed her husband, my nephew. The six and 10 year old thought that their little sister and the father both were killed. So they went back to their house, they locked themselves in a closet for 14 hours. And really, the news that we got that day was from a six and a 10 year old, who basically were locked in until they were rescued by soldiers and then brought to other family members that were on this same kibbutz. And so our news that day was incredibly terrible, which was that my niece, her husband, and their three year old, were all dead.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So how did you hear about what happened to Abigail, what actually happened to Abigail?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

A few days later, we learned that actually, Abigail, as you refer to in the intro, had crawled out from underneath her father's body. She was covered in his blood. And she went to a neighbor that she knew.

Most of the kibbutz at this time was locked down. Everybody was in their safety rooms, but they let in Abigail, they heard her voice. And they took her with their three children. And what happened is the husband decided to go out to try to defend the kibbutz. The mother and her three children and Abigail stayed hidden in the safe room, and he was injured, so he did not come back. 

So what we learned a few days later was that an eyewitness on the kibbutz had actually seen this mother and her three children, Abigail, being marched off of the kibbutz by Hamas terrorists. So that was the last we learned. That was the only way we learned that Abigail survived. And we then for 50 days did not have any news about where Abigail or this woman and her three children were located.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

What can you tell us about Abigail? We're talking about her in the abstract. But what can you tell us about that adorable little girl? 

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

All these hostages are people. And I'm glad you said that because they are loved ones. And they are special people. And they have big characters, but we sometimes just put them down to how many numbers there are, or a picture on a screen. And so I'm wanting to say that it's very important that we actually talk about their characters because they could be our child, our grandmother, our sister, our father, our brother, or our son. 

Abigail turned four in captivity two days before she was released. She is this beautiful little girl who has lots of energy, big brown eyes, loves to play, loves to play with her big siblings. She is really smart. She is funny. She's just delightful. 

And so, you know, when we talk about the thought that she was for 50 days a hostage. It's just inconceivable that any child would be a hostage, let alone a three year old for 50 days who just became an orphan. I mean, the thought of that is just something that I still grapple with. I can't understand how it happened, how people can do that, or what the experience is like for this child.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

What have you learned about those 50 days about Abigail's time in captivity? I mean, has she been able to share anything about her experience, or have others who were with her?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

You know, one of the things that we're very thoughtful of is, first, she is four years old. Second, there are still hostages. People are really very careful because one, they're asked not to speak a lot about the experience so that we don't get in the way of the future and hopefully very soon hostage release. But what I can tell you, which is, you know, common is that these hostages and Abigail herself are not fed properly. A three year old should be eating more than a piece of bread and some crackers and water. And that's what most hostages have come back and said they were eating. 

And the one thing that we held hope was that Abigail would stay with this mother and her three children. The youngest of this woman's three children was Abigail's classmate in nursery school, they knew each other. And you've just really wanted to believe that this mother was holding and hugging Abigail, and she was, and that was one of the things that we did learn afterwards. 

Other than that, we learned that they had moved around. And that they had been kept together because we've heard stories where hostage kids were separated from other kids and just terrible things. But in Abigail's case, she was with this mother and her three children. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Has there been a birthday party for Abigail since she returned? 

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

Yes, she had a birthday, I think every day for Abigail since she returned has been a birthday. I mean, think about a family that lost a mother, a father. And Smadar and her husband Ro'ee, were part of a big family, both in their personal families, but part of this big kibbutz family. And the two children lost their parents, the six and 10 year old, they also then found out their sister was alive, and they left her and they were in this closet. And I think that for them, that every day was just waiting for their sister to join them. And that just that moment where they were all together, was the greatest celebration, celebrating that these three children had each other and have each other. 

And you know, one of the things people have asked is like, how was that reunion, and I wasn't at the hospital. But what I have heard, and which I think is just beautiful, is that when Abigail saw her brother and sister and her cousins come in, she lit up. You know, this was a child that was in the dark for 50 days, didn't have family. And when she saw them, just the light came back in. And they're very close. So when you ask about a birthday, I think every day is a celebration, and every day is appreciated. And in their case you know, every day is Abigail's birthday for this family.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

That's beautiful. You also mentioned that you were in Israel, on October 7, you had just arrived in Israel to see your daughter. How long did you stay? And how is your daughter? Did she get called up to fight because I know that she served in the IDF at one point. 

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

I arrived on October 6 in the evening, I went to Jerusalem with a friend, had dinner, went to shul, went back to my hotel in Tel Aviv. And I was supposed to have breakfast with my daughter, she had been away for the holiday with her boyfriend and his family. And I was really excited, I was gonna have breakfast with her and spend the week with her. In the end, I basically stayed in the hotel, we all were locked in where we were, and what I learned throughout the day from family, friends, and people, were like you need to get out of here. You'll be more helpful for us back in America. 

And so I basically got on a flight that Sunday, the next day on the eighth, and I came back to the States. And then I hit the ground running, one to tell the story of what happened on the seventh to our family, and what happened to this kibbutz, and what happened to Israel.

So I started trying to do as much sharing of what happened because it was so atrocious. And little by little as we learned that there were hostages, and Abigail was a hostage. Then I started to do the advocacy work. 

And my daughter, she did serve in the IDF. But her division and her area was not called in for miluim, for reserves. But what she did do was come and be with this family and be there for them during this really hard, hard time. You know, during which they buried my niece and her husband, so she was there for shiva, she was there to support them. A lot of her friends' husbands were called to miluim. So they came and stayed with my daughter. She helped them with their children. She just really put her heart out there, she and her boyfriend to really give support to each community and especially to our family that was in such a state of limbo and grieving and tragedy. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

You know, as you were talking, I was thinking I guess everyone has been called up to fight in some way. Everyone has. You don’t have to be serving in the IDF.

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

If you look at what happened in Israel, one of the things that we see is that people came and they volunteered, people came and made sure that soldiers had what they needed, whether it was equipment or food in the beginning, because the country wasn't ready for that. They made sure that these families that were all of a sudden taken from being in their safe rooms for 30 hours, they needed to be taken somewhere, they had no clothes, they had no food, they had nothing. 

And you could just see the Israeli people rising to make this work. And these organizations that already were in existence, turning into aid and humanitarian organizations. And that is what is beautiful about Israel. And that is what is beautiful about these people: that in the darkness and in the greatest tragedy, many, many people really turned around and said, How can I help? What can I do to make people's lives better, and that is what is still happening. And I'm still seeing it here. And that's who the Israeli people are. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Let's talk about your fight, Liz, your advocacy to bring the hostages home. It’s reached across both aisles politically, you've been meeting with people both in as you said, Washington, DC, New York, Israel. Who have you been speaking with? And what kind of reception are you getting?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

So when I learned that Abigail was a hostage, I got a picture of her. And I saw this picture and I put it on my mantel and I put it everywhere so I’d see it when I was in my apartment. And my daughter who was in Israel, she said, how can you look at that picture and just not be so sad. And I said, Oh, I'm sad. But when I look at that beautiful little girl, I am inspired to do everything I can to make sure that she comes home.

And basically put everything else aside that I could and just made it my focus, which was to, one bring back Abigail. But what I shortly learned was, there were about 250 other families whose loved ones were all their children, Abigail's age and younger. And as I've said, people's children, their sons, their daughters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, mothers, fathers. And what I started to learn was that these people were coming from Israel to New York or coming to DC. And many of them were survivors themselves, and they were coming to tell their stories. 

So one of the roles that I could play was to give them that love and support because I was in America, and I was already doing this work. And what you realize was you became this big family, you became a family that you never expected. And so what I continue to do is work with my family to make sure that their loved ones come back. 

The advocacy work took on a few different levels. At first, there was a few interviews, but most of the work was basically going to Capitol Hill and talking with elected leaders, both sides of the aisle. We worked with groups that were evangelicals, we worked with Jewish groups, we worked with AJC, we worked with, as I said, Christian groups, we worked with anybody that was willing to help us set up meetings that were part of their network. 

There was not one person on either side [of the aisle] that was partisan. Everybody understood then and understands now that getting back these hostages, these people, is our number one priority and that we are all committed to it. But what I will tell you is that early on, I went to this meeting, and it was a group of Republican senator women. And when they heard our stories, you could just feel their hearts were broken. These are mothers. These are women. And leaders. 

And Susan Collins, Senator Collins, she listened to my story of Abigail and she took Abigail's picture, she put it in her purse. And about a week later she was in Israel meeting with leaders. And my daughter, Noa, who was in Israel went to this meeting with my brother in law, because they were already from the Israeli side advocating for Abigail. And Noa, my daughter started to explain to her about Abigail and she said, I have Abigail's picture and she pulled it out from her purse. 

And then they did a press conference when they were leaving Israel and Senator Collins picked out Abigail's picture to show people what a child is like who has been kidnapped, and is a hostage of Hamas terrorists in Gaza. And one of the things that I learned from Senator Collins throughout this was that, that image, just like it was for me, that like marching like we're going to get this little girl and all 250 hostages, Senator Collins used this photo, and it was inspiring her. And I just love that story.

There's not a person I have met in an organization, on the hill or anywhere that does not understand this is an issue about humans, and that humans need to be brought home to their loved ones.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

So speaking of the humanity of the hostage crisis, there have been a number of pro-Palestinian protests around the United States over Israel's response. Many unfortunately have veered into anti Israel sentiments and antisemitism. Some people have torn down the posters of the hostages that are in captivity. And this has become in many cases a political or partisan issue. How are you navigating that or coping with that handling of the situation?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

My role from the day one was to get Abigail back and quickly became to get back 250 hostages. So I would literally go and I would bring a poster and hand it out to political leaders, their staff, organizers, just to make sure they understood and they saw the faces of 250 people who had been kidnapped. 

In addition, Abigail obviously was on that and I had to hand them a picture of Abigail to really put a human face to it. And to this day, I really believe the one lane that I want to stay in until they are all back is this lane of bringing back the hostages. 

And as a result of that is, my telling Abigail’s story, my telling that niece and nephew were murdered by Hamas terrorists in front of their children. My story of the other people whose stories that I have heard and heard about the most grotesque catastrophe, terrorism, abuse, I mean, it's just, it doesn't end. 

So for me, the story is what's so important. And I hope that through that story, we continue to keep the truth out there so that no matter, and I know what you've described, but no matter what the untruths are, or the convenient truths that people have done, or the historical revisionism they've done from two months ago, that those stories do not control the narrative, but the real stories of what happened to my niece and her husband, what happened to Abigail, and what happened to so many–and I say this–innocent people who are in their houses, in their neighborhoods, on the seventh, when Hamas terrorists broke a ceasefire, and came in and just murdered and savaged and raped and pillaged. 

I mean, the worst atrocities that one can imagine in modern times that we could even understand. So the other stuff, it's noise, but the focus for me and for so many of us hostage families, is saying, we need to bring back our loved ones. And telling that story makes it really clear what happened. And nobody can change those facts. 

Even if they tear down a poster, even if they say something else. Nobody can take away what really happened on October 7 in Israel, to innocent people from 30 nations, Israelis, Americans and 28 other nations, children, as young as nine, up till women and men in their 80s were kidnapped. And that doesn't even talk about the 1400 who were brutally murdered. And we don't need to go there today, but brutally murdered infants. I could cry thinking about the other atrocities that took place that day, young people at a music festival that could have been my children out there dancing in the morning to music. 

But again, I go back to how we get back these hostages, and telling our stories, whether it's the Nova music survivors, or the families from the kibbutzes or my family story. Those are the truths and the truths are what will control the narrative. Because people have a right to their own opinion. They just don't have a right to their own facts.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Can you speak to the support that Abigail, her siblings and others are receiving now that they have been returned?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

There are so many people that are through professional areas going to be and have been working with survivors, both survivors of the atrocities, and those who were kidnapped and have returned. And so you see throughout the country, programs, doctors, places for people to go. And within their communities, there are social workers and specialists that are there to work with children and adults to give them what they need. 

But the thing that is hard to navigate is, there's not a rule book for this, this isn't something that happened before. And that we can say, this is what we need to do. But what I can say is that the concern and the understanding, and the need for therapy, and the need for support is there. And that is something that is going to be developing and that these survivors are going to need for we don't know how long.

How do you know what a three, four year old, internalized and how long it takes for that to come out. We hope and pray that Abigail has just a beautiful, normal life. And that this family, and this is the beautiful part, is that her family here, our family here is going to do everything to bring in the proper support, proper care, and the love. One of the things that we talk about is how important it is to have family to give you the love, the hugs and and just to be there for you. And Abigail has that.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Why are you in Israel now?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

I am in Israel to visit our family to just sit there and to look at this four year old and play memory game with hers watch her play with her siblings and just to take a moment to breathe and realize that while we worked really hard, so many of us for 50 days, and many of you out there who are listening and AJC worked really hard to make it possible that a child like Abigail could come back to her family. 

I thought it was important to come and have that moment. And to be here with my niece and my sister in law and all those that have, you know, lost sleep, none of us ate, none of us slept. And we were, you know, so far apart. But together in terms of what we were trying to do, which is to get Abigail back and to get these hostages back. 

And one of the other things that I did, is that I also went to the kibbutz to see what it looked like to see what their homes look like. So that I understood, when I speak to folks, when they talk about the destruction that took place in these people's homes, and the grenades that were thrown, and the homes that were burned and the bullet holes and just the destruction and hate that took place on the seventh. 

It wasn't something that I wanted to do, which was to go see this kibbutz. I needed to do it because I thought that to go and actually see what happened on this kibbutz, in my nieces home, in front of their house in other people's homes, was something to be able to understand so when I speak with people like yourselves, or people who might have a different vision of what happened on the seventh, that I can say from my own personal experience, what I saw, and what I saw was just terrible, and just devastating. But that is what happened on October 7, and we can't change that. But we have to be able to tell those stories so people understand what happened.

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Was there a particular takeaway list from that tour and what you saw?

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

I just can't understand how people survived, endured what happened in their homes. You saw the safe rooms, you saw the bullet holes in the door where people were holding on from inside to keep themselves safe to keep their family safe. And you saw the bullet holes of Hamas terrorists that wanted to get into them. There were just so many bullets, so many, you could see remnants from the grenades, you could see the burned. And you just think to yourself, how could? How could society? How could life be like that? And you know that you can for a second separate from that it's your family that was murdered and your family that went through this. But just to look at this and think, How can humans behave like this? How could this happen? But it did. 

And the other is how these people survived, how they were just surviving that day. And, you know, a ten and a six year old survived in a closet, my other niece, and her husband with their three kids, they were locked in a safe room in their home. And they heard the terrorists. But at one point, early in the morning, they heard a woman's voice and they opened up their safe room and there was another kibbutz member, a woman carrying a baby and holding a hammer. And they let this woman into their safe room. And you think about, it still gives me the chills. 

And I saw their safe room and their safe room was there in their home. But they took a chance with an infant who could have cried, had no diapers, had no food. This mother, this woman, her husband had been killed. She had a hammer, which you just think to yourselves like, she was just this innocent woman. 

On this day of destruction and catastrophe and such darkness, such grotesque darkness, people were fighting for their lives, and people were doing beautiful things to try to help each other. How does that work? How does that balance work? And I guess that one of the hopes is we try to keep bringing the light to this terrible darkness. 

Manya Brachear Pashman:  

Liz, Abigail has been reunited with the rest of her surviving family. Thank God.

When the world sees those precious pictures of your great niece, what are they looking at? What do you hope they see, and what’s the message you want them to take away from this conversation? 

Liz Hirsh Naftali:

Abigail is four years old. She is our hope. She is our resilience. She is our resistance. She is our peace. She is what we are all trying to do, which is to make this world a better place for our children and our grandchildren. But I do ask anyone who is listening to this to understand that Abigail is back and she is free, but whatever anyone can do to help support the release of these other hostages is really what is our call right now. And there's many different things to do. But please keep that as our focus.

The political stuff, many of us want to be in charge and we want to fix but we know we can't. But what we can do is keep these stories alive and keep pressure on our leaders to make sure that nobody says okay, Abigail and the kids are home. But there are women and men and still a few little children that need to come home. So that is my ask, that is my call to action, if anything, that we all partake in. And that's really why I'm here is to really share our story and Abigail's story but to ask you all to keep helping. Thank you.

Manya Brachear Pashman:

AJC certainly shares your mission of bringing all of the hostages home. To learn more about how to help make that a reality, listeners can go to  Liz, thank you so much for joining us. 

If you missed last week’s episode, be sure to tune in for my conversation with AJC Director of Academic Affairs Dr. Sara Coodin, and AJC Director of Contemporary Jewish Life, Dr. Laura Shaw Frank about the fallout from a recent hearing on Capitol Hill about the current state of antisemitism on college campuses.