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From grief to rage, American Jews are struggling with how to feel about the conflict in Israel

(JTA) – Not knowing what else to do this week, Julia Starikovsky posted some pictures of herself in Israel on social media.

Like other American Jews, Starikovsky, a 25-year-old psychology doctoral student at Northwestern University, was shocked and horrified by the devastation wrought by Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel. She is planning to get married in Israel next fall, and has close friends who moved to Israel. Yet she still thought to herself, “What does this have to do with me?”

It was only when she saw a prompt on Instagram that called for young Jews to share photos of themselves in Israel for “solidarity” that Starikovsky felt she had permission to make it, in some small way, about her. She shared photos of herself with her friends and fiance in Israel, hoping to provide a more human face to the ongoing tragedy. 

She didn’t know at the time that the prompt had been a coordinated effort by Birthright Israel to promote pro-Israel sentiment on social media amid concerns about criticism stemming from Israel’s military response in Gaza. One Israel-based Birthright marketing executive, Noa Bauer, described the social media push to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as a publicity campaign that Israel would need “in the coming days and weeks when there’s probably going to be more casualties.” 

Bauer added, referring to Birthright’s American alumni, “I think that they owe us as Jews, and as human beings, to give their thoughts.”

Yet Starikovsky, a Birthright alum, didn’t see her support as transactional. She’s also trying to hold space in her heart for other forms of grief. “You can support Israel; you can also support Palestinian children. The two are not exclusive of one another,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve been hesitant in posting about Israel, but I’m also making sure that I recognize the other innocent civilian lives that are lost in this whole entire war.”

Within a deeply polarized discourse about Israel among American Jews, Starikovsky joins many in the relatively quiet middle: seared by grief, worried about what comes next, and not quite sure how to reconcile the two. 

Prominent Jewish voices occupied the headlines this week calling, on one side, for Gaza to be flattened into a “parking lot” (Rep. Max Miller, the Jewish Republican from Ohio) and, and on the other side, for a total ceasefire (the left-wing groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which staged several mass protests, including at the U.S. Capitol). But between those poles lie many more people in Starikovsky’s shoes, just trying to make sense of a moment that seems to defy it — and potentially more difficult moments on the horizon.

“It’s terrible that Israelis are being killed. It’s also terrible that civilian Palestinians are being killed,” said Lisa Young, a self-described “Conservadox” Jew who spoke to JTA at a Chabad-Lubavitch pro-Israel event in New York City. Young said she has friends who used to live in Gush Katif, Israeli settlements in Gaza that were evacuated, along with all of Israel’s troops, in 2005.

“Unfortunately, Israel has to defend itself,” she said. “It’s a small country. They only want peace. They don’t want to attack and kill innocent lives. But they don’t have a choice but to respond to what’s happening amongst their people.”

An Instagram post made by Julia Starikovsky, an alum of Birthright Israel, in response to a Birthright prompt to share photos of herself in Israel in “solidarity,” Oct. 12, 2023. (Courtesy of Julia Starikovsky)

The wrestling took center stage last Shabbat as congregations across the country were packed with Jews bucking social media rumors of a “day of jihad” and seeking spiritual guidance for the long road ahead. Rabbis are expected to continue addressing the crisis this weekend from their pulpits.

Some liberal rabbis spoke of the need for a looming, difficult, but necessary, war to safeguard the Jewish state, or ceded their sermon times to Israelis who made similar points.

“From my experience there are no winners at war. All sides are losers,” said Israeli-American Josh Berkovitz, a former Israeli soldier and pro-Israel activist, in a speech to Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, the largest Reform congregation in the country. “But this time, this war is about the very existence of the Jewish homeland, Israel. We have to win. There is no alternative.” 

Others pressed their congregants to understand Israel’s motivations for military action while also maintaining empathy for the human toll. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York City’s Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation, called Israel’s campaign against Hamas “a just and moral war — one we didn’t choose, but now can’t avoid.” She also urged her congregation to “not equate Hamas with the Palestinian people” and to “mourn the death of all innocent lives.”

Some have gone further. “Killing thousands of Palestinian civilians will not bring back the Israeli civilians who are so bitterly and excruciatingly mourned,” Congregation Beth Elohim’s Rabbi Rachel Timoner said during her sermon in Brooklyn last week.

As some American Jews cite feelings of personal connection to the Hamas attacks as justification for supporting Israel’s actions, others who have direct connections to them are calling for the opposite. Cliel Shdaimah’s grandmother Ditzah Heyman, the widow of a Holocaust survivor, was seen in a video being taken hostage by the terror group. Yet Shdaimah’s family has been advocating against further Israeli military action in the media.

“I cannot and will not stand with violence, let alone when it is done in my family’s and other’s name,” Shdaimah told JTA via email. In addition, she said, her family is concerned that a lack of intelligence around the hostages’ location and condition means their health and safety could be jeopardized by Israel’s military incursion. (Hamas released two American hostages late Friday.)

Shdaimah urged American Jews “to not allow their love for Jews or Israel be poisoned by terror, not let Islamophobia or anti-Palestinian sentiments mar their compassion for human beings.”

Other progressive American Jews feel horrified simultaneously by the Hamas massacre, responses from the left blaming Israel for the crisis and Israel’s campaign in Gaza. Naomi Levison, 27, a social worker in Colorado who is active with a progressive Jewish collective called Denver Doikayt, is also still close with what she describes as the “very Zionist” community in Atlanta where she grew up and attended Jewish day school and summer camp. Her social media feed, she estimates, is 80% from her Atlanta and Young Judaea Israel gap-year communities, and she’s distressed by what she sees there.

“It’s been really devastating, and I feel a lot of complex emotions,” she told JTA. “I have a lot of loved ones in Israel. I lived in Israel. So I’m grieving what happened last Saturday.” 

Yet pushes from Jews, and Jewish organizations like Birthright, to keep supporting Israel as a means of managing such grief are falling flat for her. “It feels as though our grief is being weaponized,” she said. “I’m also, at the same time, horrified how Israel is — I want to say ‘retaliating,’ I guess — and how a lot of my Jewish community is defending these actions and this violence.” 

She specifically cited Israel’s decision early on to cut off food, electricity, fuel and water to Gaza, which she said is “clearly targeting civilians.” 

“I feel really isolated from within the Jewish community,” she said. “And isolated from people who aren’t in the Jewish community who don’t understand the grief we’re feeling.”

Lily Lester contributed to this report.

The post From grief to rage, American Jews are struggling with how to feel about the conflict in Israel appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Penn president resigns amid criticism of her testimony on campus antisemitism

(JTA) — The president of the University of Pennsylvania announced her resignation on Saturday after facing growing backlash for declining to say outright that calling for the genocide of Jews violated the school’s code of conduct.

“I write to share that President Liz Magill has voluntarily tendered her resignation as President of the University of Pennsylvania,” Scott Bok, the chair of the school’s board of trustees, said in a statement. Bok subsequently said he would also be resigning.

Magill’s resignation is the most significant fallout so far from a congressional hearing on Tuesday in which she and the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were all asked whether calls for genocide of Jews would constitute harassment or bullying. All three responded that the answer depended on “context.”

Video of the exchange went viral and was highlighted by Jewish and pro-Israel activists as an illustration of how universities have failed to take campus antisemitism seriously in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing war against the terror group in Gaza.

“I hope this signals a new start for @Penn & a wake-up call for all college presidents,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Campus administrators must protect their Jewish students with the same passion they bring to protecting all students. They can’t hide behind language coached by their attorneys & look the other way when it comes to antisemitism.”

In the wake of the hearing, Magill in particular faced mounting criticism from Penn’s stakeholders. The board of the school’s Wharton School called for new leadership for the school and a donor threatened to pull a $100 million donation unless Magill stepped down. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is a non-voting member of the board of the private university, said Magill “failed” to create a safe atmosphere for students and urged the board to review her leadership.

In her own brief statement Saturday, Magill did not mention the reason for her stepping down, and said, “It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution.” Bok said in his statement that Magill was “not the slightest bit antisemitic” but had faltered in the hearing because she had given “a legalistic answer to a moral question, and that made for a dreadful 30-second sound bite.”

Both Magill and Harvard President Claudine Gay walked back their comments to Congress in statements the day after the hearing, and Gay issued a subsequent apology in an interview with the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, saying, “When words amplify distress and pain, I don’t know how you could feel anything but regret.”

MIT’s board, meanwhile, is backing its president, Sally Kornbluth, who is Jewish. “I write now to let you know that I and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation entirely support President Kornbluth,” MIT Corporation chair Mark Gorenberg wrote in an open letter on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who asked the questions about genocide, celebrated Magill’s resignation and called for Gay and Kornbluth to follow suit.

“One down. Two to go,” Stefanik wrote on X. “This is only the very beginning of addressing the pervasive rot of antisemitism that has destroyed the most “prestigious” higher education institutions in America.”

At least one other elite university has taken the opportunity to signal that its approach to antisemitism is different. “In the context of the national discourse, Stanford unequivocally condemns calls for the genocide of Jews or other peoples,” Stanford University wrote in a social media post on Friday. “That statement would clearly violate Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, the code of conduct for all students at the university.”

The post Penn president resigns amid criticism of her testimony on campus antisemitism appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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University of Pennsylvania President Resigns Amid Massive Backlash Over Tepid Response to Campus Antisemitism

University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill testifies during a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on holding campus leaders accountable and confronting antisemitism, at the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, on Dec. 5, 2023. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill resigned from her position on Saturday, ending a 17-month tenure marked by controversy over what critics described as an insufficient response to surging antisemitism on campus.

“It has been my privilege to serve as president of this remarkable institution,” Magill said in a statement. “It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn’s vital missions.”

Magill’s resignation followed growing calls from university leaders, donors, and students, as well as US lawmakers, for her to step down after refusing to say during a congressional hearing held on Tuesday that calling for the genocide of Jews would not constitute a violation of school rules.

“It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman,” Magill said, responding to US Rep. Elise Stefanik (D-NY), who posed the question. “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment, yes.”

“Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide?” Stefanik asked, visibly disturbed by Magill’s answer. “The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable Ms. Magill.”

The following day, Magill apologized.

“In that moment, I was focused on our university’s longstanding policies aligned with the US Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she said in a video posted on X/Twitter. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate.”

Appointed in July 2022, Magill, an alumnus of Yale University and the University of Virginia Law School, began her position at the school vowing to “shape Penn’s next great chapter.” By the time of Saturday’s announcement, however, two Jewish students had sued the school, alleging that it violated their civil rights by “selectively” enforcing rules that would punish those who harass and intimidate Jewish students, hiring radical anti-Zionist professors, and fostering a hostile learning environment.

Meanwhile, the US government began investigating accusations of antisemitism at the university, and a major donor threatened to rescind a $100 million gift if she remained in place.

Jewish students have said that antisemitism at Penn is an “institutional problem” that has been worsening for many years.

The problem became acute and first noticed by much of the public in September, when the school hosted an anti-Zionist festival that featured several speakers who called for violence against Israel and were accused of promoting antisemitic conspiracies. For weeks, the school would not condemn the event, and Magill recently apologized for not doing so — after it took place.

After Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7, anti-Zionist protests at the university at times descended into demagoguery and intimidation of Jewish students, as speakers berated pro-Israel counter-protesters.

For roughly seven hours on Oct. 17, the protesters walked back and forth across Penn’s grounds chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a slogan widely interpreted as a call for the destruction of Israel, which is located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The demonstrators also chanted “Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we caught you in genocide.”

However, according to court documents viewed by The Algemeiner concerning the recent lawsuit by two Jewish students, such incidents were hardly new.

In March, for example, the anti-Zionist group Penn Against the Occupation (POA) hosted Mohammed El-Kurd during its “Israeli Apartheid Week.” Currently a columnist for the left-wing magazine The Nation, the 25-year-old el-Kurd has trafficked in antisemitic tropes, demonized Zionism, and falsely accused Israelis of eating the organs of Palestinians. Over the past two years he has widely toured across American university campuses, heightening concerns about rising antisemitism and harassment against pro-Israel students.

On Oct. 7, as scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies in Israel circulated worldwide, POA members held an “Emergency Solidarity Rally” where one of its members congratulated Hamas on a “job well done.” According to the complaint, the student said, “When they woke up in the morning, and they found the field hands in the house, with a knife, ready to cut their f—king throats. I was late to the news but when I heard it, I smiled. I don’t want to hear that bulls—t, 250, 250, innocent Israelis are dead. F—k ’em. Again, I swear, I salute Hamas.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Yemen’s Houthis Warn They Will Target All Ships Headed to Israel

FILE PHOTO: Houthi military helicopter flies over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Photo: Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Yemen’s Houthi movement said on Saturday they would target all ships heading to Israel, regardless of their nationality, and warned all international shipping companies against dealing with Israeli ports.

The Iran-aligned group is escalating the risks of a regional conflict amid a brutal war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist Hamas.

The Houthis have attacked and seized several Israeli-linked ships in the Red Sea and its Bab al-Mandab strait, a sea lane through which much of the world’s oil is shipped, and fired ballistic missiles and armed drones at Israel.

Houthi officials say their actions are a show of support for the Palestinians.

Israel said attacks on ships was an “Iranian act of terrorism” with consequences for international maritime security.

A Houthi military spokesperson said all ships sailing to Israeli ports are banned from the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.

“If Gaza does not receive the food and medicine it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The threat has an immediate effect, the statement added.

The Houthis are one of several groups in the Iran-aligned “Axis of Resistance” which have been hitting Israeli and U.S. targets since Oct. 7 when Hamas militants attacked Israel.

In one of the latest incidents, three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters last week, prompting a U.S. Navy destroyer to intervene.

The Houthis, which rule much of Yemen and its Red Sea coast, also seized last month a British-owned cargo ship that had links with an Israeli company.

The United States and Britain have condemned the attacks on shipping, blaming Iran for its role in supporting the Houthis. Tehran says its allies make their decisions independently.

Saudi Arabia has asked the United States to show restraint in responding to the attacks.

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