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Scanlon sitdown

After signing cease-fire letter, Scanlon meets with local hostage family

Amichai and Corey Shdaimah, whose relative is being held by Hamas, said they were concerned by her support for a letter which called for a cease-fire but not the release of hostages

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., waits to speak with reporters after hearing from U.S. Attorney David Weiss in a transcribed interview before members of the House Judiciary Committee, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Washington.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), who joined a controversial letter last week calling for a cease-fire and condemning Israel’s military operation in Gaza, met on Monday with family members of Ditza Heiman, an 84-year-old grandmother believed to be held hostage by Hamas.

Scanlon had signed onto a letter led by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) calling for a cease-fire and accusing Israel of “grave violations against children.” The letter did not include a direct call for hostages to be released, or make their release a condition of a cease-fire. It also overlooked Hamas’ continued use of human shields and focused the brunt of its criticism on Israel.

The next day, Scanlon released an individual follow-up statement, which condemned the Hamas attack, called for the release of the hostages and the end of Hamas’ “operational control and its hateful ideology” and expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself and respond to the Oct. 7 attacks.

Amichai and Corey Shdaimah, who live in the Philadelphia suburbs in Scanlon’s district, are relatives of Heiman; Heiman is Amichai’s step-mother, but he said that she had functionally adopted him, his siblings and his family; his children see Heiman as their grandmother. They said they’ve heard no news about her condition since Oct. 7.

A mutual contact connected the Shdaimahs with Scanlon’s office for a sitdown that lasted nearly an hour.

Corey Shdaimah told Jewish Insider that she and her husband found the letter problematic because “omissions are also statements” and because “who she was signing the letter with is also a problem given their statements.”

She explained they saw the letter as a call for Israel to stand down unilaterally and as having “forgotten the hostages” because it did not specifically demand their release.

She said that Scanlon did not indicate she planned to retract her signature but “seemed attuned to those considerations.” She said Scanlon also characterized the letter as one of numerous steps she’s taking to respond to the crisis, including other condemnations of Hamas and its atrocities.

Corey said they urged the congresswoman to reach out to personally affected constituents and stakeholders in the future before signing on to other statements that might impact them directly. They also offered to be a sounding board and share their perspectives.

Corey said the congresswoman “seemed genuinely interested in understanding our perspective; she wanted to know if there’s anything that we thought she could do.” She said Scanlon also expressed concern about the Shdaimahs’ safety at home given rising antisemitism.

In addition to their concerns around the letter, the Shdaimahs asked Scanlon to reach out to the State Department to ensure that Heiman’s case is not being lost or forgotten and provide any updates she can. They also urged her to press the Red Cross to look into Heiman and the other hostages’ safety and to follow Sen. John Fetterman’s (D-PA) example in hanging hostage posters outside her congressional office.

Scanlon suggested she was open to at least hanging up posters of those hostages with personal ties to her district, like Heiman.

“My impression is that she was genuinely concerned. She thanked us many times for our time, and she was listening,” Corey said. “She asked us to be in touch if there was anything that she could do.”

The meeting was not the first time since Oct. 7 that the family had been in touch with Scanlon and her team; they had been in contact with an aide in her office previously and Amichai and their son had a conversation with Scanlon directly during a local rally in early October.

The Shdaimahs described the agreement to free 50 hostages from Gaza — the details of which were still emerging when they spoke to JI on Tuesday evening — as a positive step, and said that the hostages’ safe return should be the top priority in the conflict. They said they had not heard from the Israeli or the U.S. governments about whether Heiman would be among those released.

“Hopefully Ditza will be one of them, but if she’s not, it’s still good that they release [them],” Amichai said.

“We’re all pained for every single one of those who are there. So any lessening of any family’s pain is important,” Corey added. “It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, so we are avoiding spending too much time looking at the details. When it actually happens, then we’ll know it. But we’re afraid of raising our expectations because it’s quite emotional.”

Amichai described Heiman as “the center of a big family” — seven children and 20 grandchildren — and as a “very warm, welcoming person” who frequently hosted family in her home, and loved to feed and take care of them.

“She’s the person that remembered every single person’s secular and Hebrew birthday,” Corey added. “She knew… every child and grandchild’s favorite dessert, favorite food” — and she would make matzo ball soup every time they visited, no matter the time of year.

Heiman was a founder of Kibbutz Nir Oz in the 1950s. Amichai said she loved to take leadership roles in the community and take care of children. She worked for three decades as a social worker, until age 80.

The Schdaimahs said that Oct. 7 began as other days had, with Heiman sheltering in her safe room when rocket attacks began, but family members in Israel subsequently lost contact for hours — until someone answered her phone to say, “This is Hamas.”

Heiman’s family later heard from a neighbor that they had heard her calling for help and saw her surrounded by Hamas terrorists. Family members subsequently found snippets of footage from Hamas terrorists’ body cameras breaking down Heiman’s door, walking her past her house and putting her in a car. 

But they had no further updates on her status since then, and other hostages from the kibbutz who have been released have said they did not see her while in Hamas captivity.

They noted that Heiman is now 84 years old, has chronic health conditions and has limited mobility. “We’re obviously very, very concerned about her health. I can’t imagine her walking through tunnels… it’s all very dreadful to think about,” Corey said.

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