‘Who do you mourn for when there is so much evil?’

British-Israeli October 7th Hamas attack survivor, whose sister-in-law was murdered, says his Irish mother ‘cried with shame’ over recent comments by Leo Varadkar

“When evil gets around, it turns the world upside down,” says David Barr, a British-Israeli teacher of Jewish philosophy.

His family’s life was turned upside on October 7th when Hamas stormed the kibbutz where he lived in southern Israel near the Gaza border. Soon afterwards, up the road in Sderot, Hamas gunmen murdered his wife’s sister, Naomi Shitrit, as she went on her morning run.

Naomi’s body was identified four days later. They had a quick funeral followed by shiva, the traditional week of mourning.

“But who do you mourn for when there is so much evil, so many people murdered? You’re thinking of your sister-in-law. My wife is thinking of her sister. But over here, it’s a whole family. Over there, it’s little children. And then you’re thinking about them. Why aren’t we thinking about our sister?”

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Barr quietens for a moment and looks at the ground, confusion written across his face. He holds up a photo of Naomi, a mother of three. “Can you believe she was 53?” The elegant blonde woman pictured in a white shirt looks younger. But now she will never age.

Barr’s family is a microcosm of the intertwined strands of Israel. He was born in Leeds to a mother from Dublin and a father, a Holocaust survivor, from Vienna. He moved to Israel as a young man in 1984, where he married an Israeli woman with Moroccan parents. “It’s a real gathering of the exiles.”

He lived on a kibbutz in Gaza in the late 1980s. Then he returned to the UK briefly, before coming back to Israel in 1991 to Kibbutz Alumim, a religious community 3km from the Gazan border. He has lived there with his wife since. Some of his adult children live nearby.

Alumim was, he says, a “perfect farming community”. It had about 500 residents, including tens of migrant workers from Thailand and Nepal. About 23 were slaughtered by Hamas in its attack, which killed a total 1,200 across southern Israel.

Alumim used to have Palestinian workers, but they had to stop hiring them years ago after a spate of stabbings against Israeli farmers. He fondly remembers a Gazan kibbutz worker, Ahmed. “There was never a better plumber than Ahmed.”

Then Ahmed’s son was drafted by Hamas into the military – against his will, Barr says – and Ahmed stopped working at Alumim.

“The rockets started 20 years ago,” he says.

Barr’s wife’s family previously lived on a Jewish settlement in Gaza, but left when Israel unilaterally withdrew from the strip in 2005. “They gave up their home for peace and got rockets in return,” says Barr.

He says they got used to the barrages and mini flare-ups from Gaza, sometimes lasting only half a day. “We became like robots. On and off. War today, no school. Oh look, it’s 12.30pm, the war’s over. On and off.”

Barr’s October 7th began at 6.30am, when shortly after getting up, rockets began to streak over from Gaza. He went to the bomb shelter with his wife, expecting it to end soon. It didn’t. Barr wouldn’t normally use a phone on Shabbat, but he switched his on to get information. “Anything to preserve the sanctity of life,” he says.

He got messages from the kibbutz telling them to stay in the shelter. His son called and told him to lock the door. Barr hadn’t locked the shelter door in 20 years.

“Then I turned on the TV and saw terrorists in Sderot. We do everything there – it’s only 11km away. To see terrorists there on the streets? I couldn’t believe it,” he says.

Then they thought of Naomi. They knew she was out running. They tried calling her at noon but got no answer.

Later that night, they would be told she was possibly killed.

Meanwhile, shooting raged around Alumim. Two large groups of Hamas gunmen attacked the kibbutz, but were held off by the community’s 12 armed defenders. An army helicopter was downed nearby but its soldiers escaped and joined the fight for Alumim. By 2am, the kibbutz was cleared of Hamas. Barr and his wife emerged after hiding after 20 hours.

What does Barr think of the huge pro-Palestinian protests in London against Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, where Hamas is still holding about 140 hostages seized on October 7th?

“They’re misguided. I mean, I understand demonstrations against war. But this isn’t a war of revenge. We’re going into Gaza to make sure this cannot happen again. We’re defending our borders – that’s the right of any country,” he says.

Some countries, including Spain and Ireland, are critical of Israel over the huge rate of civilian casualties in Gaza, where about 14,500 have died in the war so far since October 7th, according to the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry.

Barr’s 89-year old Irish mother, Hazel Broch, was born Helen Rubenstein in Dublin. She comes from a prominent Irish Jewish family – her father owned a well-known kosher butcher shop in the south inner city. Her niece in Dublin is married to Maurice Cohen, chair of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland.

Barr says his mother is “so proud” to be Irish. But she “cried with shame” this week when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed the release of Emily Hand, a nine-year-old Irish-Israeli girl kidnapped by Hamas, as a child who was “lost [and] has now been found]”.

Varadkar’s comment was criticised by the Israeli government for failing to mention the role of Hamas in her kidnapping, and sparked fury in the country where Ireland is seen as too critical of Israel. Varadkar said people knew what he really meant and that he has consistently criticised Hamas.

Barr sees Varadkar’s comments as symptomatic of anti-Israel feeling.

“We have no argument with the Palestinians. This war is not the Israel-Palestinian argument. Hamas is a monster organisation that has overtaken Gaza and brainwashed the population there,” he says.

Barr, his wife and many neighbours have lived as refugees in Netanya since October 7th. He says they will never return to Alumim until Hamas is gone forever.

“Nobody will go home if there is a feeling that tomorrow morning a drone is going to come in from Gaza. My wife won’t hang out her laundry if there is a risk of some flying terrorist. You cannot live like that,” he says.

He hopes that, one day, Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.

“I’d love that to happen. You always have to have hope, otherwise life becomes pointless.”