Seven years seem like a day. Gush Katif remains in our memories and hearts, but for those expelled it touches their pockets and is on their tables as well.
As Jews around the world gather this month to mourn the destruction of the Temple and our historical dispersion as a people, we are bound also to remember the bitterest Jewish tragedy of the last decade – a modern-day willfully imposed exodus which continues to plague us until this very day.
Seven years ago, I was forced out of my home together with 8,600 fellow residents of Gush Katif – the "disengagement."
The evictors were not a foreign army or some anti-Semitic despot, but our own democratically elected Israeli government, led by many of the very same individuals who had earlier encouraged us to take up residence in that tiny strip of land along the sparkling blue Mediterranean coast.
Although this act was fiercely debated within Israeli society, today there is a widespread feeling across the Israeli political spectrum that disengagement from Gaza was a complete and utter failure of leadership and strategic thinking.
The most obvious proof of its failure is that once peaceful townships of Jewish families are today launching pads of terror for thousands of missiles, rockets and mortars raining down on Israeli communities.
While this was undoubtedly a national failure and all Israelis and friends should mourn this tragedy, the most affected victims of the expulsion remain those who lost their homes and livelihoods in Gush Katif. Disengagement is pretty much forgotten, yet far too many of those expelled remain in a state of crisis.
Families who had been living in large and comfortable homes were forced into makeshift trailers in under-developed parks, sometimes detached from basic infrastructure and commercial centers. Many parents who had dedicated their lives to professions in agriculture and literally turned Gaza sand dunes into bountiful gardens were left homeless and jobless, dependent on charity and assistance from family just to feed their children.
Some people may harbor the unspoken thought: "So much time has passed, why hasn't everyone resolved their issues and moved on?" Believe me, this is easier said than done. An employment network אישא I help lead called JobKatif has successfully employed over 2,000 people by launching an excess of 230 new small businesses defined by the unique Israeli attributes of entrepreneurship and tenacity in the face of challenge. This is an amazing feat and a story largely untold.
Despite our work, seven years on, over 800 of these Israeli pioneers, people who heeded their government’s call to move to the Gaza Strip, remain jobless. In the greater picture, this is a relatively small number. But each of these individuals who lost so much desperately wants to work. We are committed to taking every last expelled family member off the unemployment rolls. We accomplish this through re-training and systematically matching job opportunities geared to the person’s capabilities.
I have put my heart into this effort in large part as a personal quest to remedy an injustice that I and my family ourselves endured. Prior to the expulsion my life was defined by love for the land and State of Israel - both of which I retain despite what I have witnessed in recent years. I rose in the ranks of the IDF to the position of lieutenant colonel as a career officer. When I realized that the disengagement was on the horizon, I retired from the military and dedicated every waking hour first to preventing this ill-advised decree from being realized and subsequently, in helping to heal the human damage done by it.
I will never forget the moment when I turned away from my home for the last time - the home where my wife and I had forged a family. That beautiful home, previously filled with children and love, was razed. I shudder to even guess at what lies in its place now.
Within a year of that harrowing day, I and my family had moved no fewer than five separate times. Throughout that difficult period, I worked tirelessly to help my fellow residents of Gush Katif reclaim their dignity by finding employment. I take great pride in what we have accomplished so far.
Yet if we truly claim that the Israeli people and the Jewish people around the world have truly spared no effort to support the Gush Katif evacuees, we must close this bitter chapter in our history by finding a solution for every last person forced out of his or her home.
This effort will not be easy, yet the finish line is clearly in sight. To illustrate just how challenging the solution is: One fellow resident, who was shot in the shoulder by terrorists just months before the disengagement, remains handicapped and without work. Once a proud owner of a multi-acre farm producing lettuce and organic vegetables, today he feels largely broken and unable to support his family and face the world. I remain confident that he will again return to gainful employment.
Yes, this is an ambitious vision but at this time of year when we mourn our nation’s losses – both ancient and modern - we honestly have no alternative but to remove the blemish of errors committed and reclaim the lives of the Israelis who most directly paid the price of the Disengagement.
Zuri Genish is a Lieutenant Colonol (ret.) in the IDF and volunteers as a life coach at Job Katif. He and his family lived in Alei Sinai until the disengagement in August 2005. Joined by his daughter Moran, the writer will be visiting the New York and Toronto areas to discuss his program and vision in an attempt to realize its completion. For more details please visit www.jobkatif.org