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Rita Feder ’24: A call for empathy and understanding from my Jewish community

On Oct. 7, Hamas-led militants killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped over 240 hostages (many of them children). The horrific casualties of Israel-Palestine did not start, nor did they end on that day. Since Oct. 7, Israel's military has exponentially increased the death toll: over 11,000 Palestinians, including thousands of children, have been killed in Gaza. Even as you, rightfully or not, fume at my audacity to write these sentences next to each other (all are furious at anyone who dares to ‘equate’), I hope that you’ll continue to read my essay.

The victims of the violence overseas are not just numbers to me; they are family, friends, teachers and partners in the fight for justice and liberation in Israel-Palestine. My cousins are Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Convinced they’re in a kill-or-be-killed scenario, their lives are on the line. They are my family whom I love beyond words. In Gaza, homes, buildings and hospitals are crashing and burning, burying people and hope under horrifying rubble. After news of a blast, my Palestinian friends await news of who from their families survived. In uniform, my 22-year-old best friend is full of fear and rage as her boyfriend remains in captivity; she is convinced that there is no choice but to fight. I fear for her every night as I lay in bed, failing to sleep. My friends from Masafer-Yatta (West Bank, Palestine) are being forced from their homes and shot at while fleeing armed settlers, unchecked by Israeli soldiers. They are friends who’ve grown up knowing no security or safety. I cry not knowing if their houses remain standing, their fields unburnt, their families alive. After Oct. 7, my aunt went to three funerals in one day; my uncle traveled towards the massacre site of Kibbutz Be’eri to help identify the dead and missing; my cousin went to the Dead Sea to help hundreds of newly orphaned and traumatized children. In Gaza, there are too many dead to count and I can’t imagine there’s enough time for a proper funeral before another hundred are dead.

For a long time, I didn’t understand how these realities could all stand as simultaneously true. Within the false binary of Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist antisemites, there is no room for me or the broader progressive Jewish community. On this campus particularly, there is no room for the nearly 90 other members of BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now. Equating critiques and condemnations of Israeli military campaigns with antisemitism creates a narrative that cannot possibly include us. Our leftist Jewish existence complicates the narrative too much, so we’re asked to disappear, cast aside as self-hating Jews. I stopped calling myself a Zionist last year — not as a political statement, but because it became clear that every person using the label, whether as an identity marker or as an epithet, was working with a different definition. Labeling myself with a single word, I realized, was an impossible starting point for dialogue. What a shame that would be, as dialogue is how I ended up realizing how shallow my understanding was, and how much I had yet to learn.

I grew up having Passover seder with my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins in Israel. I’ve always loved that Israeli bus drivers say Shabbat Shalom and that even the lively streets of Tel Aviv are empty on Yom Kippur. I spent my gap year in Jerusalem, and I was educated in a New York Jewish day school where I learned how to “defend Israel on college campuses.” When learning about and experiencing the state of Israel, the concept of having a safe haven for all Jews made perfect sense to me — my ancestors have been chased out of every land they’ve dared to settle. Yet, protecting Israel’s manifestation as a nation-state to the exclusion of Palestinian rights, safety and security never sat well. I don’t think it should sit well.

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Perhaps this will get me ostracized by my friends and family, but I want to spend this essay attempting to understand why we’re all so uncomfortable and unable to humanize each other. I used to respond viscerally to chants like “from the river to the sea.” I never questioned why, but I assumed that the chant called for the complete and violent destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of every Israeli in it. I believed, then, that anyone who said those words was calling for my family to be killed. Recently, for the first time, I asked what it meant. In 2021, the Palestinian-American writer Yousef Munayyer noted that “the claim that the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ carries a genocidal intent relies not on the historical record, but rather on racism and Islamophobia.” He further notes how the intentions and implications of the chant have been completely manipulated. From the river to the sea, he says, calls for “a state in which Palestinians can live in their homeland as free and equal citizens, neither dominated by others nor dominating them. When we call for a free Palestine from the river to the sea, it is precisely the existing system of domination that we seek to end.” How do I reconcile Jewish discomfort with the words and the Palestinian need for them? No answer seems evident, and people continue yelling past each other. My family in Israel deserves to live there in peace and security, and so do Palestinians — in Gaza, the West Bank and anywhere within the 1967 Green Line (Israel proper). Regardless of what fringe extremists might claim, they are the meaning of from the river to the sea. And they, too, must be free. 

 I don’t recognize a Jewish “safe haven” whose existence necessitates human rights violations. A Jewish ‘democracy’ necessitates a Jewish majority, a project that requires demographic engineering that comes at the expense of, in Israeli politician Ayelet Shaked’s own words, human rights. I don’t respect a government whose ministers call for a military onslaught with words that indicate genocidal intent. I refuse to defer to generals who, when referring to plans for collective punishment in Palestine, say “human animals must be treated as such…there will be no electricity and no water. There will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”  I don’t recognize a Jewish community that doesn’t hold its leaders and community members accountable, even in our darkest moments.

We can’t continue casting people aside because of what we assume they think. I have told friends in SJP why their statement after Oct. 7 made me uncomfortable. I learned about their process and heard their fear and pain, and I think they heard me and mine too. In these honest conversations, I found more similarities than differences between me and my Palestinian peers calling and crying for liberation. Why, then, should we be pitted against each other? The pain, fear, and commitment to safety and justice are core to both our identities. Why must I choose between our survival and theirs? I refuse this premise. I refuse to surrender to an imperial narrative that cannot recognize a simple truth: Jewish and Israeli safety is impossible if it excludes Palestinians. Our liberation and security are far from mutually exclusive; they are inextricably intertwined.

It is a scary time to be a Jew — I know because I’m a Jew and I’m terrified. The online threats to the Jewish community at Cornell felt viscerally painful; images of mass Jewish death, Israeli or not, trigger a generational trauma that cannot be so simplistically and naively narrowed down to the left’s accusations of “white fragility.” Friends and families from our communities are still being held hostage in Gaza. Antisemitism is real, and I’m scared of the physical threats being made against the Jewish community. 

 I can only imagine how scary of a time it is to be Palestinian, to go to sleep unsure if your family is going to be alive by morning. My own fears about my friends and family in Israel never leave my body — the nausea has been incessant for over a month. The difference, though, is that I know my family has bomb shelters and Palestinian families don’t. I know that the Iron Dome is intercepting Hamas missiles, while Israeli warplanes continue to bury children under rubble in Palestine, unencumbered. While my family has access to healthcare and escape routes out of their country, such a privilege doesn’t extend far beyond the Green Line. Why do I have to choose for whom I have empathy? Can our hearts not be big enough to understand that both can exist? Can we not embody the Jewish concept that refutes a binary, claiming that “elu v'eilu divrei elokim chayim?” We have failed to embody these words.

My heart breaks anew every day because we have failed to embody these words. The rhetoric in many Jewish communities has turned ugly. I now fear that perhaps a call for internal interrogation and dialogue within my community is an empty plea. People have forgotten how to engage with opinions, words and phrases that make them uncomfortable; they have instead opted for public shaming. Doxxing is rampant, and even as I write this carefully worded op-ed, I fear that I am risking future job prospects or my place at Shabbat dinner tables. A community that claims to value the Jewish tradition of face-to-face conflict,machloket,” is busying itself with public shame instead of honest interrogation of differing opinions and experiences. To indict all who oppose the military operations of a nation-state as antisemitic is to rob me, a Jewish Israeli-American who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, of my own history. I will never claim to be a military strategist. I do know, though, that there is no legitimate explanation or moral justification for a military strategy that involves collective punishment; that cuts off water, fuel, and electricity to all 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, kills over 11,000 people and targets hospitals.

 The cycle of violence in Israel-Palestine is not new, and it shatters me time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, Hamas is a terrifying entity. The words of their original charter (it has since been changed) are hard to forget, and the horrors of Oct. 7 are still fresh in my mind. Yet, to see the rise of Hamas as separate from Israeli policy is naive. It is historically inaccurate to pretend that its existence is solely due to Iranian funding and the Islamophobic stereotype that all Palestinians want dead Jews — my Palestinian friends were the first to check in on me after Oct. 7. Hamas exists insofar as Israel has allowed it to, both financially and politically

Still, Hamas is not exempt from responsibility for their own war crimes on Oct. 7. As war crimes do not justify other war crimes, though, the clear imbalance of power compels leftist Jews to differentiate ourselves from the Jewish mainstream. It compels us to hold the Israeli state responsible for putting an end to the horrifying cycle of violence that has plagued its entire existence. The end of both the siege on Gaza and the greater military occupation is, we believe, the only hope left for peaceful and just coexistence. Our ability to live together in one land, without the ideologies of Ben-Gvir or Hamas and despite all the fear and trauma,  cannot be so impossible.  

I am a descendant of Holocaust survivors and refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe. My heritage is one that knows no home, no consistency and no citizenship that is not borrowed. I am a student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught, through deliberate thought and action, that the core of Jewish identity is its pursuit of “tikkun olam” and social justice. I am a student of my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel who, as the first chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, wrote that if the highest form of religious redemption were to come at the cost of even one innocent Palestinian life, “we must reject this ‘redemption’ with both hands.” 

I refuse to allow my generational trauma to be weaponized to justify the infliction of more violence. I won’t stand by while the Israeli government continues to make Palestinians the victims of Jewish victimhood. My history is not a tool. It is not a justification. It is not a warcry. My heritage is a continued broken scream on deaf ears. It is a prayer through tears that begs someone to embody and actualize the wisdom that we preach: “Nation shall (one day) not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war” (Yeshayahu 2:4). To value this message and not be yelling for a ceasefire and the release of hostages is, to me, devastating. We, evidently, cannot trust the Israeli government to prioritize returning the hostages home. Calling for a ceasefire is not a functional surrender to Hamas, but a recognition of the sanctity of life. 

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I am full of seeming internal contradictions and emotional turmoil. But I know some simple truths. I know that the horrifying and indiscriminate bombing in Gaza must end. That we must call for a ceasefire. That the hostages must be returned home. For now, that’s all that matters. Even if you disagree, that does not make me, or the people to whom I’m showing solidarity, antisemitic. 

To my Jewish community– the world is a scary place. Let us not lead with fear as motivation and justification for more death, pain and suffering; let us not continue casting aside those with whom we disagree. Let us lead with love. With compassion. With empathy. Knowing that both Jewish and Islamic liturgy teach that “whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” With calls and cries and screams for peace and coexistence. 


Rita Feder '24 can be reached at rita_feder@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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