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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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Flip through the digital edition of the Summer 2024 print magazine from The Canadian Jewish News

We’ve produced a collection of feature articles four times a year since 2022. A special edition of this magazine will appear in mid-September—with reflections on the Jewish year that was. And in December, look out for a reimagined publication with a name of its own. Get future copies delivered to your door as a thank-you […]

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Top US Official Calls Hamas Leader Sinwar a ‘Psychopath,’ ‘Messianic’ as Ceasefire Talks Swirl

Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends a meeting with people at a hall on the seashore in Gaza City. Photo: Yousef Masoud / SOPA Images/Sipa via Reuters Connect

A senior US official said that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is the Palestinian terrorist group’s ultimate decision maker and has little interest in reaching a ceasefire deal with Israel, in testimony before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, there’s one guy 10 stories below the ground: a psychopath, messianic in his own belief that he has established himself in history, and [he believes that] there’s a sunk cost of having lost thousands of fighters and carnage in Gaza,” said Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Sinwar, the top Hamas official in Gaza and the mastermind behind the terrorist group’s Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, has reportedly been hiding in Hamas’ extensive network of underground tunnels during Israel’s ongoing military campaign in the coastal enclave.

Leaf’s comments echo others made by Biden administration officials.

In April, a US official told reporters that Sinwar is single-handedly holding up any progress on a potential hostage deal.

The senior Biden administration official said that while Hamas’ political bureau has shown some willingness to compromise on the terrorist group’s most hardline positions, Sinwar’s maximalist demands continuously win out.

“Sinwar has made the decision he’d rather hold [the hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7] than secure a ceasefire, and that’s just the truth of the situation,” the official said.

Leaf, in her testimony on Tuesday, said that Qatar — where many top Hamas political officials are based — has been “squeezing” the group — though to little effect, according to a report from Axios.

“There’s a cadre of political officials of Hamas in Doha, and boy do they squeeze them, I can assure you they squeeze them,” Leaf said.

Israel has described Hamas’ response to the new US ceasefire proposal as total rejection. But efforts to secure an agreement are still continuing, according to mediators in Qatar and Egypt, backed by the United States.

The Axios report added that Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani met on Tuesday in Doha — Qatar’s capital — with senior Hamas officials in an attempt to reach a breakthrough in the talks about the hostage and ceasefire deal.

Egypt and Qatar — which along with the United States have been mediating between Hamas and Israel — said on June 11 that they had received a response from the Palestinian groups to the US plan, without giving further details.

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Blinken Confirms US Pausing Bomb Shipment to Israel After Netanyahu Calls for End to ‘Inconceivable’ Weapons Halt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hold a joint news conference in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday confirmed the US was still withholding a shipment of bombs to Israel, hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for Washington to remove restrictions on arms deliveries to the Jewish state and asserted that the top American diplomat had assured him the Biden administration was working to lift any halts on weapons.

The Biden administration is “continuing to review one shipment that President [Joe] Biden has talked about with regard to 2,000-pound bombs because of our concerns about their use in a densely populated area like Rafah. That remains under review,” Blinken said at a news conference at the US State Department.

However, he added, the administration is committed to making sure “that Israel has what it needs to effectively defend itself.”

Blinken’s remarks came after Netanyahu posted a video online earlier in the day in which he lamented that the US recently paused a weapons shipment to Israel and threatened to block more but said Blinken told him that Washington was seeking to end any halts on arms deliveries.

“When Secretary Blinken was recently here in Israel, we had a candid conversation. I said I deeply appreciated the support the US has given Israel from the beginning of the war,” Netanyahu said.

“But I also said something else. I said it’s inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunition to Israel,” he continued. “Israel, America’s closest ally, fighting for its life, fighting against Iran and our other common enemies.”

The Israeli premier then asserted that Blinken told him the issue would be addressed.

“Secretary Blinken assured me that the administration is working day and night to remove these bottlenecks,” Netanyahu said. “I certainly hope that’s the case. It should be the case. During World War II, Churchill told the US: ‘Give us the tools; we’ll do the job.’ And I say, ‘Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job much faster.’”

Following Netanyahu’s comments, both the White House and the US State Department refuted his apparent claim that Washington was withholding more than a single shipment of bombs.

“Everything else is moving as it normally would move, and again, with the perspective of making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against this multiplicity of challenges,” Blinken said.

The White House echoed Blinken’s comments, saying that only one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs had been withheld and nothing else.

“We genuinely do not know what he’s talking about,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “We just don’t.”

Jean-Pierre added that the US and Israel have been having discussions about the release of the shipment but that there was no update at this time.

“There are no other pauses, none,” Jean-Pierre said. “No other pauses or holds in place.”

On Monday, unconfirmed reports in both Israeli and German media said that during Netanyahu’s meeting with Blinken in Jerusalem last week, the Israeli premier urged the US to return the frequency of its arms shipments to the level immediately after Oct. 7, when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched the war in Gaza with its massacre across southern Israel. According to the reports, Blinken said that Washington would remove all restrictions on weapons transfers to Israel in the coming days.

Netanyahu also reportedly warned Blinken that the slowing of aid and the perception of America’s weakened support for Israel benefits Iran and its terrorist proxies across the Middle East, including Hamas, emboldening them to intensify attacks against Israel and potentially resulting in a broader regional war.

The Biden administration has been under intense pressure from Democrats, especially those on the progressive left, to condition if not outright withhold US military support for Israel. Critics of Israel have argued the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed too many civilians and led to a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian enclave. Israel has said Hamas is to blame for starting the war, stealing aid, and intentionally placing its operation centers inside or underneath civilian sites.

Hamas started the war with its surprise invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, when the terrorist group murdered 1,200 people and kidnapped over 250 others as hostages. Israel responded with its ongoing campaign aimed at freeing the hostages and destroying Hamas, which rules Gaza.

In recent months, the Biden administration has become increasingly critical of Israel’s operations both in public and private, pressuring Jerusalem to change its military strategy and seek a ceasefire.

The issue came to a head last month, when Biden announced that it would cease a bomb shipment to Israel and threatened to halt more weapons deliveries if the Israeli army launched an offensive in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza and Hamas’ last major military stronghold.

I made it clear that if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities — that deal with that problem,” Biden told CNN.

Israeli officials and experts have said operating in Rafah is essential to eliminating the last remaining Hamas battalions. Netanyahu said the Jewish state appreciates US support but “will stand alone” if necessary.

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