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  • Writer's pictureNeil Parekh

Thoughts on Israel / Palestine

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

I haven’t said anything about Israel Palestine over the past week because I didn’t know what to say. I struggled to find the right words to reflect the deep pain I’ve seen on both sides and my lived experience being close to both the Jewish community and having lived in Cairo.

  • Last week’s brutal attack by Hamas against Israel must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

  • There is no defense for what they did. Many American Jews are living in fear due to the rise of antisemitism.

  • The Palestinian people have suffered generational trauma over the past 75 years.

  • Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, live in what has been described as an open-air prison.

  • Israel has the right to defend itself — and its very right to exist — against terrorists but the Israeli military response and the imminent displacement of one million people in Gaza will be a humanitarian disaster.

  • Hamas does not represent all Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu does not represent all Jews (or Israelis).

There are no winners here. I feel for both my Jewish friends and Arab/Muslim friends who have been suffering this week in particular and for whole peoples who have suffered for generations.

All of these thoughts can be held at the same time. If you stop reading here, that’s ok. This is what I need you to know.

There is so much more, however, that I’ve been thinking, reading and talking to colleagues about over the past week. What follows are posts and anecdotes that really hit home for me. These are mostly from friends and colleagues. For the most part you won’t find links to news articles or official statements. This is personal for me and for the people I reference.

For a few days, I just didn’t know what to say. I was reluctant to say the wrong thing. It took several conversations with a close friend at work (thank you Jenny) to figure out what I wanted to say. Taking the time to have long conversations, to understand nuances and to listen to the pain being felt by others is critical at this time. This is just one of the items she shared on social media, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends – Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Maya Hemachandra, a former colleague from United Way of Snohomish County, really moved me when she wrote on LinkedIn, “I have been struggling with what to say about the terrible, heartbreaking violence in Israel. But silence in the face of fear does not make us stronger nor safer. I thank both Rabbi Sharon Brous and Saira Rao for their words of courage and comfort. And to my friends who are suffering, who feel targeted and attacked for your faith I say “I see you. My heart is with you.” Click through for Saira and Rabbi Brous’ words as well, “My heart bleeds for the innocent Israelis. My heart bleeds for the innocent Palestinians.”

When I was in college, at Wesleyan University, I lived in the Bayit (the Jewish house) on campus for two years and went to services for three years. Many of my closest friends went on to rabbinical school. I was accepted as a member of the community. From 2003 to 2005, Pam and I lived in Cairo while she was working on her Ph.D. We learned a lot about Islam.

I’ll spare you the “many of my closest friends are Jewish; many of my closest friends are Arab.” That’s not important. What it does do, however, is fill my social media feeds with a range of perspectives.

One view that I have not seen — and one I would not condone — is support for Hamas.

It troubles me to know that friends like Jon Bernstein (my best friend from high school) and Talal Hattar (a close friend from our time in Seattle, someone I respect very much) are both feeling pain. Jon shared a blog post by David Telisman, “The Avalanche of Jewish Hate Makes it Impossible to Grieve.” Talal describes Israel’s policy as ethnic cleansing but also puts Hamas’ brutal attack in the context of a desperate last gasp. It shows they believe they have nothing left to lose.

Another friend has relatives in Ashkelon. Our neighbors here in Springfield are Palestinians who grew up in Lebanon (their parents were displaced in the Nakba).

Things hit closer to home when we found out that someone who received their Ph.D. from the University of Washington a few years after Pam — Hayim Katsman; may his memory be a blessing — was among those killed last week. We have mutual friends; Pam’s advisor was his teacher. Yoav Duman, an Israeli friend from the University of Washington who was a good friend of Hayim’s, believes that Netanyahu has blood on his hands.

There have been several comparisons between the Simchat Torah Attacks and the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. (Mostly comparing the number of people who were killed in Israel as a percentage of the population. Imagine 30,000 people being killed on 9/11. That’s a rough comparison.)

I think there’s another parallel as well. On 9/11, I was a New Yorker in Seattle. Close friends and family back home were reeling for weeks and months after the attacks. I had a planned day off on the day of the attacks. I still remember that the next day was a quiet day. Everyone was still processing. But on Thursday, I remember getting a phone call from a colleague about an upcoming meeting. We had to plan the agenda. I thought to myself, “I can’t think about work yet. It’s too early.” That person didn’t have ties to NYC like I did.

I think it’s the same today. I can be empathetic to the suffering around me, but I can’t understand what it’s like for Jews to live in fear. On a similar note, I also can’t imagine the generational trauma experienced by Palestinians. I just can’t.

Friday night, I joined services at Temple Shalom of Medford in Boston (via Zoom). I had attended a Bat Mitzvah for my friend’s daughter there in August. Jason was my roommate in college at the Bayit. The parsha this week is from Genesis. It told the story of Cain and Abel. The Rabbi, in her D’var Torah talked about how G-d loves us. He has seen how violent we can be and loves us anyway.

I’ll close with three statements that do their best to strike a balanced, nuanced approach. When I first read them, I thought they were very good.

Esther Perel

(Several friends of mine have shared this piece over the past week)

Ann Kirschner, President of Hunter College

(Note that her first public statement led with a condemnation of Hamas’ attack on Israel)

Statement from Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt

(Here's a link to the statement. I am a member of the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria, Virginia)

These three statements on their own, however, are not strong enough. Our friends on both sides need more.

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