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  • Over the last few weeks, I have become gravely disturbed by the response I'm seeing from many family members, friends, and others in our community to the escalation of violence in Israel and Gaza. My Jewish friends vastly outnumber my Arab friends, to be fair, and I come from a conservative Jewish background. Regardless, I feel the need to speak out since so many people seem to be reacting in such polarizing fashion. I hope my family and friends don’t read this as a personal attack. Please read this as my impassioned plea for tolerance, understanding, and self-reflection.

    First, it is important to recognize and accept that both Hamas and Israel are at fault. That may seem obvious, but the failure to accept any blame on the Israeli side, or brush it aside, is one of the main reasons I’m writing. There is Israeli and Palestinian blood on many hands, on both sides of the Green Line and the Gaza borders, inside and outside Israel, in the United Nations, the United States, and elsewhere. Mostly, there is Ishmael's blood on Isaac's hands, and Isaac's blood on Ishmael's hands. How we as American Jews (or Jewish Americans, if you prefer) can so emotionally declare that we "stand with Israel" without recognizing what that truly means, or how our government can so succinctly state that it supports Israel's right to self-defense, is beyond me.

    Of course I support Israel. Of course I support Israel's right to self-defense. I am well aware of the nonstop rocket barrage coming from Gaza. But I can't condone what Israel is doing in response, what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians, or the support for Israel's actions against civilians.

    Mohammed Abu Khdeir wasn't launching rockets, he was murdered by racist fanatics. So was Omar Masharawi, an 11-month old baby boy killed in 2012 by an off-target Hamas rocket. Ahed Atef Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, four young boys playing on the beach killed by Israeli airstrikes this month, weren't launching rockets. The attempt to explain away their deaths, and those of the unspeakable count of children and women (and other civilians) killed by Israel this month, is unacceptable. Accepting their deaths as a cost we are willing to pay ignores their humanity and diminishes our own. This most recent escalation of Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people, and the response I'm seeing -- again, within my admittedly Jewish circle -- is the latest example of the Israeli and Jewish dehumanization of the Palestinian people.

    When we say we stand with Israel, what does that mean? Does that mean we accept the murder of children and women as the price for our security? Does that mean we support the occupation of Palestinian land and a perpetual refugee crisis? Does that mean we accept a culture of racism that, explicitly and implicitly, devalues non-Jewish life? Does that mean we assume all Palestinians are complicit with Hamas, and are therefore acceptable targets? I stand with Israel because I want a homeland for my people to continue to exist and because I believe in the idea of Israel as an ancestral right. I don’t accept murder, racism, segregation, and occupation as acceptable costs to maintain that homeland.

    It’s natural to get defensive about Israel. I get it. Our people have endured thousands of years of persecution and as recently as 70 years ago we were being, quite literally, exterminated. We needed a safe place to go, and we wanted to go home. I am not disputing that Israel is our ancestral homeland. But we were gone a long time. Yes, we were expelled. But there were other people living there when we decided to come back. The Palestinians were living there.

    The Palestinians have a story too. Their narrative means as much to them as ours does to us. We commemorate the Holocaust. Do you think about how the Palestinians commemorate the Nakba? Can you accept that our return from exile was only possible by sending another people out to their own diaspora? Can you try to understand what that must feel like? Can you think about what it means that we tell them they can’t come home and live freely because it’s OUR HOME now? Can you imagine the horror of living in an open-air prison and war zone, and being treated as if you deserve that life? Can you try to understand their position and accept their story and their humanity?

    The occupation of Gaza by Israel (and of course, the West Bank, but we'll set that aside for the moment to focus on Gaza) is a fact. Accept it, learn about it, and think about it. No, the occupation is not only Israel's fault. It is the fault of the surrounding sister nations who attacked Israel and then refused to accept Palestinian refugees over the years. It is also the fault of the Arab League, which is a largely worthless organization of feckless figureheads who would just as soon use the Palestinian people as a shield as they would denounce Israel's right to exist. But Israel is maintaining the blockade on Gaza. Israel is maintaining the closure of the Gaza crossings.

    The occupation does not give Hamas and other extreme Islamist groups the right to indiscriminately launch rockets into Israel. But doesn’t it give the Palestinian people the right to fight back against Israel in some way? Doesn’t it give you pause to think about what would make people resort to this kind of violence? How would we, how would anybody, respond to the intense restrictions on basic human needs, to the constant demolition of homes, crops, and water sources? Are Palestinians not people deserving of the same basic human rights that we claim for ourselves?

    The Israeli response to the rocket fire is, by international sovereignty standards, business as usual. You cannot launch ordinance into another country's territory and not expect some kind of retaliation. Ask Turkey and Syria. Obviously, one of the reasons the rockets are flying into Israel is because of the occupation. Again, I don't condone Hamas' use of violence to pretend to achieve Palestinian statehood, which is not Hamas' core goal -- that is to destroy Israel. What the Palestinian people should be doing, in my own ideal world, is uniting peacefully in protest of their own government (they elected Hamas), like their brothers and sisters in Egypt. Instead, because they feel helpless after generations of their people have been abandoned by their sister nations, the international community, and the Israeli government, they support whoever appears to be helping them the most. Like in Lebanon with Hezbollah, Hamas is not only a military organization, but also sometimes provides basic services on the ground to Palestinians.

    I don’t pretend to know how Palestinians feel or how many of them support or don’t support Hamas. But I won’t accept that they’re all the same, and I won’t allow that their deaths are an acceptable price to pay for our lives. I won’t accept the narrative that theirs is a “culture of death” and therefore they aren’t worthy of life. We can share – we MUST share – the land. We both have a right to it. Our narrative says God promised the land to both of us. We took it from them, and there is no way we can continue to exist the way we are now and have peace. We have to do more. We have to try harder. We have to be better than this.

    We have made our victimization such an essential component of our identity, and self-defense such a foundational justification for the right to maintain our state, yet we think little of those we victimize, those against whom we commit offense, in the process. To those who would argue that Israel behaves as any modern nation-state would, I say that, unfair as it may seem, Israel is held to a higher standard than other countries because it is a Jewish state. We have made this so. We have asked, directly and indirectly, to be held to a higher standard. Our ancestor Abraham was the pioneer for that standard! So I agree that Israel is often put in an impossible and at times unfair situation. But we need to recognize that Israel has done so much to perpetuate that situation. We need to be able to criticize Israel’s mistakes if we are to maintain our tradition as a people who question our own authority. How can we simply say we support Israel and attack anyone who criticizes it? Moses criticized God!

    There is of course, the menace of increasing anti-Semitism across the world, alarmingly in Western Europe, but here at home as well. This is in combination with a rising tide of opposition to Israel. However, not all criticisms of Israel are anti-Semitic. We can't simply dismiss criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism and hide behind the disgusting hatred of others to justify Israel’s response of fighting fire with fire. We must distinguish between a hatred of Jews based in racist ideologies, and a rejection of the racist ideologies and practices disseminated from within the heart of Israel.

    The solution is clear. We have to stop fighting, cease firing, and end the killing. If Israel, Hamas, the UN, US, Egypt, Fatah, Germany, France, the UK, and other actors can combine on a workable cease-fire agreement, it will be just the beginning. End the occupation of Gaza. Freeze the settlements in the West Bank. Let the Palestinian people live their lives and control their own destiny. Free Palestine, and save Israel. As-salaam alaikum. Shalom. Peace.
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