Maccabee Task Force trip changes minds and lives

Jan 29, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

On October 7, 20-year-old Yonatan Manor’s phone started to blow up with messages at 3:00 a.m.

“I knew immediately that this was bigger than anything we had seen in the past,” he says. “I was texting everyone I knew, asking my father if my family in Israel was safe, and sitting on my bed just crying.”

Manor was born in Jerusalem and raised by his parents in Denver. His grandparents and multiple aunts and uncles still live in Israel. Manor attended Denver Jewish Day School and graduated from East High School in 2021. He is now a junior at Boston University (BU) and a budding filmmaker. At the time of the Hamas attack in Israel, he was president of BU Students for Israel.

“At BU, we organized a solidarity vigil on the Wednesday after October 7, and we had more than 300 people—Jewish and non-Jewish—attend,” he says. “It was very powerful.”

But Manor felt that BU’s response to concerns about antisemitism on campus was “weak.” Not one to sit around and do nothing, he again took action.

“As soon as I heard there were trips going to Israel during winter break, I applied,” he says. “On campus, I was advocating and raising money, but I still felt useless. People in Israel were suffering, and I wanted to have a direct impact by being there on the ground.”

Yonatan Manor in Kfar Aza

Yonatan Manor in Kfar Aza

While his classmates might have spent their holidays skiing or sitting on the beach, Manor found himself in Israel with a group of two dozen Jewish and non-Jewish college students on a Maccabee Task Force trip. He walked through the site of the music festival massacre, stood in a burned kibbutz, and volunteered to help the families of hostages.

“This trip allowed students who face so much hostility on campus to see first-hand what happened in Israel on October 7,” he says. “You return to campus armed with knowledge to defend Israel and advocate for its right to exist.”

‘I have never seen anything like it’

On its website, the Maccabee Task Force explains its core mission: “To dispel dangerous misinformation about Israel that percolates throughout academia by building coalitions with powerful student communities.” The organization uses travel to “help Jewish and pro-Israel students fight back against the rising tide of antisemitism and anti-Zionism on America’s college campuses.”

Manor’s group left for Israel on December 31 and returned on January 9. The 24 students in the group came from colleges and universities across the country and ranged in age from freshmen to graduate students. One-third were non-Jewish.

They were based in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, and spent their days talking with expert sources, volunteering to support the hostage families, and visiting areas of Israel that had been destroyed by Hamas.

In his own words, Manor describes the experiences he will always remember:

We visited Sderot which is less than a mile from Gaza. There is a plot of land there where the main police station once stood that is now just a pile of rubble. The Hamas militants came into the town on the back of a pickup truck and took over the building. They killed some 30 people—police officers and civilians. The IDF fought back, but in the end, they had to destroy the building to kill the terrorists inside.

Apartment building in Ashkelon (city near Gaza Strip) that was directly hit by a Hamas rocket

An apartment building in Ashkelon (city near Gaza Strip) that was directly hit by a Hamas rocket

We also went to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz just a couple miles from the Gaza border. It was one of the main points of attack. Half the houses I saw were completely burnt and destroyed, houses just riddled with bullet holes. I found bullet casings on the ground. I have never seen anything like it.

There were signs showing who had been murdered at which homes. Hamas must have had intelligence. They knew what they were doing. It was so upsetting because this was a completely residential area, there were no soldiers there, the only defense force they had was a group of civilians.

Kfar Aza

Kfar Aza

From Kfar Aza, I could see Gaza first-hand. You could hear artillery firing. It was surreal to be there—not in an active war zone, but very close.

We also went to the site of the massacre of hundreds at the Supernova Music Festival. We got there close to sunset, the golden hour with the beautiful setting sun. There were signs marking where people had been murdered, hundreds of signs with the faces of victims, now a memorial to the dead.

‘Campus is a place where you should feel welcome’

In the weeks following October 7, Manor organized a fundraiser at BU that raised $12,000 to support Magen David Adom, Israel’s primary provider of emergency medical services. He also raised $2,000 to support the needs of the kibbutz at Nir Yitzhak which was attacked on October 7.

At the same time Manor was raising money to support humanitarian relief in Israel, he waited for the BU administration to make a statement condemning Hamas. The statement did come, but to Manor, it seemed to be too little, too late, particularly in light of other events on campus.

“To me, it looked like the BU administration was tolerating activities—including vandalism—by the Students for Justice in Palestine that violated the campus code of conduct,” Manor says. “Other universities have acted on those kinds of violations. BU did not.”

Maccabee Israel trip group

Maccabee Task Force volunteers at Hostage and Missing Families Forum.

Jewish student leaders met with BU’s top administrators. Talks continue. But Manor says that the atmosphere for Jewish students on campus is “intimidating.”

“Some students have taken steps to hide their Jewish identities, particularly on ride-sharing apps,” he says. “They are not wearing their Jewish jewelry. They are not speaking up in class when a professor says things that are antisemitic because they do not want to be academically punished for speaking against a professor. This is frustrating because the campus is a place where you should feel welcome.”

In light of the current environment on campuses across the country, Manor sees the mission of the Maccabees Task Force as more vital than ever—especially for those students on the trip who were not Jewish.

“After the trip, they were more passionate than ever about spreading the truth and supporting their Jewish friends and peers,” he says. “That was inspiring for the Jewish kids on the trips. A. lot of us feel very alone, but seeing non-Jewish students caring so much about Israel and what happened on October 7 and defending Israel when they return to campus makes us feel less alone.”