July 22, 2024

Jerusalem – On October 7, when Hamas attacked southern Israel, 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin was at a party.

The Israeli American was among 3,000 revellers, many of them dancing to thuds of techno beats in the early morning hours about 5.3km (3.3 miles) from Gaza when Hamas fighters tore through the fence that separated the enclave from southern Israel and descended on the electronic music festival from across the dusty fields surrounding Kibbutz Re’im.

Hersh, who was with his friend Aner Shapira, ran for cover in a bomb shelter as the fighters launched a hail of bullets across the festival grounds.

Hamas fighters began to lob grenades into the shelter. Witnesses later said Aner picked up several of the grenades, repeatedly throwing them out of the shelter until one eventually detonated and killed him.

When Hamas fighters entered the shelter and ordered those still alive out, Hersh was caught on film with the lower half of his left arm severed off and his bone exposed; he appeared remarkably composed, his face showing no sign of the pain he would have felt at that moment.

Trained in medical first aid, he appeared to have fashioned a makeshift tourniquet out of clothes to stem the bleeding.

He was last caught on film around midday on October 7, being bundled onto a pick-up truck by Hamas fighters. The Israeli police last registered a signal from his phone at 12:45pm (10:45 GMT) on October 7 by the border with Gaza.

The video, posted on the CNN website, has been widely circulated online, and his parents have confirmed that it was Hersh. The Israeli government has since officially recognised him as a hostage, one of about 240 held captive by Hamas. Hersh’s family and friends are making sure that he is not forgotten.

Hersh’s family have since appeared in various media outlets, calling for his release. His mother, Rachel Goldberg-Polin, has spoken at the United Nations, where she talked of the family’s pain and implored world leaders to take action to secure the release of those taken captive.

Hersh Goldberg-Polin mother
Rachel Goldberg-Polin, the mother of Hersh, holds his photos in their home in Jerusalem, October 17, 2023 [Ammar Awad/Reuters]

But away from the media spotlight, Hersh’s friends have started spreading their own tributes around his home city of Jerusalem.

Hersh’s lifelong passion is football, particularly Hapoel Jerusalem, a politically left-leaning football club rooted in socialist principles.

He is an integral part of the club’s supporters group, a dedicated band of fans who put aside years of lacklustre footballing achievements, instead rallying around the club’s values that stood in contrast to the city’s right-leaning political mainstream.

A longstanding fan of the club and the surrounding community, who preferred to go by the alias Dennis due to the politically sensitive situation in Israel, described Hersh as an “impressive youngster, a really bright kid” and a fervent antiracist. Or, as Dennis put it, a “leftie”.

Those values are reflected in his favourite football club. Hapoel Jerusalem is a bitter rival of Beitar Jerusalem, a football club which has never signed an Arab player and has a far-right contingent of fans that sings “Death to Arabs”.

What Beitar Jerusalem represents is everything Hersh stands against. Dennis shows a picture of Hersh’s childhood room to illustrate this point. The picture on the wall shows the distinct outline of his home city alongside the text “Jerusalem for everyone” in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

It is a message that has become synonymous with Hersh’s captivity, his friends converting the same picture into a banner they had spread across the city.

Dennis called Hersh an “integral part of the football club” where only hardcore fans had stuck with the team.

“Can you imagine in a 30,000[-seat] stadium, only 3,000-4,000 would be there every game,” Dennis explains, adding that Hersh would be there, jumping up and down in the stands and singing throughout.

‘Bring Hersh Home’

When it was not a match day, Hersh could be found enjoying a drink at the supporter’s favourite bar, an achingly hip venue covered in left-wing posters in central Jerusalem.

A banner is unfurled outside Hersh’s favourite bar in Jerusalem [Courtesy of Dennis]

He had even applied to work there to save up for his dream of travelling around India.

Now, his friends have graffitied murals around town, with a stencilled image of Hersh alongside the words “Bring Hersh Home”.

Dennis says he tries to take comfort in the fact that Hersh appeared calm in the last video footage taken of him and that he still had enough strength to haul himself onto the truck.

If he is released, Dennis said, he will know his friends will all be waiting to hug him in the stands of his boyhood club.

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