(JTA) — Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel on Oct. 7 was thousands of miles away for Jewish teens in the United States — yet they have found themselves caught in a crossfire of opinions, misinformation and anger about the situation ever since.
JTA Teen Journalism Fellows interviewed their peers about what they have been hearing and feeling over the last three weeks. Our reporters discovered that many high schoolers were afraid to go on the record, saying they feared aggravating tensions or didn’t want to get “canceled” within their community. The ones that did agree to talk, however, say they are doing their best to stay strong and feel united, not divided.
Some of the teens interviewed expressed their concerns about antisemitism while others offered insight into what’s happening in their social media circles. From Jewish day school students in the West to public school kids in the South, here’s what American Jewish teens have to say about the war between Israel and Hamas.
Jacob Abowitz, 17, Parkway Central High School, St. Louis
I’m trying my best to show my pride at being Jewish. Just trying to wear my Star of David to school and in public and anywhere I go.
Nathan Arst, 17, Parkway Central High School, St. Louis
Being an American teen Jew, if there was one thing I wish adults would know about [us is that] sometimes it can be really hard. For me, I’m fortunate, being surrounded by a strong Jewish community at my school and at my temple, so my community is really supportive. But some of my friends go to schools with small Jewish populations and feel very isolated. People have to keep that in mind. Judaism — you can’t always see it from the outside, unless someone is wearing a form of identification like a necklace or a kippah. You can’t always see it and a lot of Jewish teens are going through a lot of different emotions right now.
Avi Askenazi, 14, Denver Academy of Torah, Denver
I’m hearing from adults that Israel is trying to do good things to help their citizens and destroy Hamas. [Teens] aren’t taking it as seriously as adults, they think it’s more of a joke than how serious it really is. Some of the jokes are that Hamas isn’t killing innocent people because no Israelis are innocent. It makes me sad that students make jokes about something so serious and sad.
Alissa Barnholtz, 17, Parkway Central High School, St. Louis
It’s hard to understand the complexity of the situation on social media. Saying it’s retaliation is kind of like justifying Hamas. Hamas is antisemitic. Their goal is to kill people and Jews. I deleted Instagram because it was a lot to see.
I haven’t personally experienced any antisemitism from this situation but I know people who have. It’s sad and it’s scary because I love being Jewish. I’m so happy to be Jewish, but right now I’m so scared to be Jewish. Right now, I’m lighting Shabbat candles with my family every Friday night which makes me feel better and makes me feel more connected to the community.
Davis Brown, 17, Parkway Central High School, St. Louis
For many adults, Zionism is a partisan issue. It falls along the lines of Republican or Democrats; depends whether you are pro-Israel or pro-Palestine and your thoughts on Zionism. With teens I don’t see that as much. That might be because we don’t vote the same way our parents do. Our ties to Zionism aren’t driven by political parties. It comes from a personal belief or friends that are Jewish, our background. It makes the conversation a little bit different.
Elsie Cohen, 17, Latin School of Chicago, Chicago
Most people around me are not discussing the war, which feels really lonely. I understand that it is a difficult topic to talk about, but it has to be discussed, and ignoring it makes my Jewish peers and me feel alone.
I have never felt bad about being outwardly Jewish in the past, especially considering I attended a Jewish school up until high school. However, in recent weeks, I have felt uncomfortable displaying my identity, and uncomfortable talking about the situation with those who are openly against my entire religion and people. I feel afraid to walk around wearing my Star of David necklace and I feel awkward being one of few Jewish people in my small school.
Holden Demain, 15, Denver Jewish Day School, Denver
I’m hearing a lot of fear from fellow Jewish teens. I think I’m also kind of feeling a little bit that some people are indifferent to what is going on and just generally don’t care very much. The people that care are scared and the people that don’t care, don’t. A lot of people are scared for family and friends that they might have in the region. There’s also fear of rising antisemitism in America, on college campuses. That definitely also plays a role.
There is this tendency to view [the attacks] as just happening to Israel and not to us, but people need to understand that Israel is just a manifestation of the Jewish people and I believe that an attack on Israel is an attack on the Jewish people. When people are indifferent to Israel, it makes me feel that they’re indifferent about being Jewish.
Nate Friedman, 17, Riverwood International Charter School, Atlanta
From my Jewish friends, everyone’s really informed, and they all know about it, and everyone discusses how they’re disgusted by it. The main topic of discussion is just how there’s a lot of propaganda and how [other] people are really misinformed about what’s going on in Israel and the truth. We talk together, support each other and give each other a little pick-me-up to let each other know it’s going to be okay. It really makes me feel comforted, and it gives me hope.
“My non-Jewish friends have made jokes about it; they just don’t understand the significance and seriousness of the situation. When I hear jokes from non-Jewish people, actually, it really upsets me. If you don’t know about it, don’t joke about it, don’t say anything about it. You need to educate yourself before you speak up on a sensitive subject.
Deborah Haspel, 16, Yeshivat Kadimah High School, University City, Missouri
When talking about the whole situation in Israel with my peers, there has been a lot of frustration and sadness. Everyone is worried, really worried. We are making sure we are praying and donating to the IDF. It’s a very difficult situation. It puts a strain on everything. Making sure we are contributing and praying — it’s pretty much all we can do.
Rachel Katzke, 18, The Masters School, Ardsley, New York
I refuse to be ashamed of my Judaism. Once again this conflict is so complex and hard and depressing that, yes, there are some things I purely cannot defend, like videos of IDF soldiers putting cement in the water pipes in the West Bank, but there are other cases where people don’t know context and that I can defend.
I feel on social media the words “colonizers” and “open-air prisons” just egg people on. When there is an infographic about how we are ‘colonizers’ then everyone in the comments says “Free Palestine” it just feeds into the perspective that we are colonizers and that we have never lived in this land.
Lauren Elle Lavi, 15, Edmond Memorial High School, Edmond, Oklahoma
Even though I live so far from Israel, I still think it’s such a scary situation. Misinformation is being spread quickly through social media, and it spreads easier through teens versus adults. They don’t even realize what they’re saying is antisemitic. I think I was more open about being Jewish, prior to what’s going on in Israel. But now, I have more awareness of what other people think.
Kayla Minsk, 17, Atlanta Jewish Academy, Atlanta
I’ve been hearing from teens the pressure to perform what they’re supposed to be saying, what they’re supposed to be feeling. We get so caught up in what the ‘perfect’ reaction is, we watch the videos on social media, or we repost all of the flyers and the posters because we want others to know that we feel even if we don’t. I think that can take away from the real action that you can do. People aren’t being true about what they feel because of feeling judged, so the reaction is more performative rather than doing something like packing bags or writing letters to actually feel like they’re making an impact.
Celia Pincus, 17, Jones College Prep, Chicago
Teens are very active on social media concerning the situation in Israel. I would say there is a combination of pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and somewhere in between — really something from every viewpoint. The quantity of posts on social media is insane and, personally, I’m not someone who has ever posted anything political on social media. I feel overwhelmed. The news follows me everywhere and it’s not something I can forget about.
Just because I’m Jewish doesn’t mean I support all actions the Israeli government takes. And that makes me frustrated, it makes me sad, and it makes me angry. I don’t think that I feel less pride in being Jewish, or more afraid to show it. I’ve never been a person who has worn a Jewish star necklace or anything like that so I feel like I don’t have an identifier. I don’t think I’m concealing my identity, but I am definitely not broadcasting it to the world. And since I’ve never done that I don’t really feel any different, but it does feel like slightly more of a conscious choice.
Sam Pressman, 16, Sycamore High School, Cincinnati
I see a lot of things on Instagram, talking about how many Israelis got killed, and the situation happening. And it’s really making me feel like our world has gone horribly wrong. I was kind of in a crisis with all the events going on. I’ve always showed my Judaism. I’m not afraid to tell anyone and especially now you should have more pride in it being Jewish. Because if you try to hide it now, that gives Hamas what they want.
Ava Sherman, 17, Marquette High School, Chesterfield, Missouri
The main source of talk is about the false information and propaganda that is being posted on the internet and social media platforms that teens, who are always on social media, resort to. The best thing you can do is educate people on the correct facts. Be ready for somebody to ask you a question or come at you with an opposing view. The best thing you can do is defend yourself while also being neutral. There are no sides. It’s, “Do you want peace or do you support terrorism?”
Noah Shurz, 17, Denver East High School, Denver
It feels like it’s very divided. Some people on Instagram are pro-free Palestine, but some are pro-Israel. There’s a lot more people in the center. Around me people are very supportive, but don’t talk about it outside of social media most of the time. I never truly knew what side people were on until this. Someone that I had a lot of respect for, that I thought was very smart, I lost a little bit of respect for them because it was very blanket pro-Palestine, out of nowhere.
Ayalah Spratt, 15, The Masters School, Hastings, New York
I’ve been hearing people in America diluting this down to such basic opinions when, in reality, this is such a complicated issue, especially from people who have no idea of what they are talking about. I’ve heard people make this into a pro-Israel versus pro-Palestine issue which at its core I don’t think it is — it’s not a political war, it’s terrorism, which is completely different. People are dying, people are being murdered and there is not a world in which that is OK.
I’ve been trying to stay off social media with all the things people are slapping onto their Instagram stories just like taglines, because it’s not really helpful. Even things that are promoting the things that I believe in, I think the whole process of just mindlessly posting on your story and feeling that you’ve done something like “Help Israel” I don’t think that does anything.
Andrew Wittenbaum, 17, Sycamore High School, Cincinnati
There have been multiple incidents at school. I believe someone drew a swastika on the stall in the bathroom. They haven’t found out who it is, but they’re trying their best so everybody can be safe in the school. I do feel like my school supports me as a Jewish person. Because I know that there have been many announcements with our principal and our dean of students, and our counselors that are offering so much help that we can go to if we ever need that. And I know that they’re trying their best.
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Israeli and Jewish activists take campaign for greater concern about Oct. 7 sex crimes to UN
(JTA) — Less than a week after the United Nations secretary general urged an investigation into reported sexual violence by Hamas, the Israeli U.N. mission held a conference on the allegations and pressed the international community to speak out more forcefully against them.
“We have come so far in believing survivors of sexual assault in so many situations. That’s why the silence on these war crimes is dangerous,” said former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, the event’s keynote speaker. “The world has to decide who to believe. Do we believe the Hamas spokesperson who said that rape is forbidden, therefore it couldn’t have possibly happened on October 7th? Or do we believe the women whose bodies tell us how they spent the last few minutes of their lives?”
A CNN op-ed by Sandberg, and an accompanying Instagram post, have been at the center of a growing protest by Israeli and Jewish women who charge that the U.N. and other international bodies have dismissed or downplayed reports of sexual violence during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The protest has spread via the hashtag #Me_Too_UNless_UR_a_Jew and found its real-life expression in Monday’s event, which drew 700 people to U.N. headquarters on Manhattan’s East Side.
Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan took aim in particular at U.N. Women — the organization’s arm for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment — which caught flak for posting and then deleting a statement condemning the Hamas attack.
“Sadly, the very international bodies that are supposedly the defenders of all women show that when it comes to Israelis, indifference is acceptable,” Erdan said in his opening remarks.
“U.N. Women ignored all of the proof and were blind to all the evidence, including video footage of testimonies of sexual crimes,” he said. “Instead of immediately supporting the victims, U.N. Women brazenly suggested that Hamas’ gender-based violence be investigated by a blatantly antisemitic U.N. body.”
The condemnation of the U.N. is the latest in a long line of complaints Israel has had about the body both before and during its ongoing war with Hamas. In late October, Erdan called on Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to resign after he said the Oct. 7 attack “did not happen in a vacuum.”
The United Nations General Assembly has yet to condemn Hamas and has called for a cessation of the conflict, which restarted last week after a seven-day pause in which Hamas released more than 100 hostages and Israel released hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners..
Last week, Guterres called for an investigation into sexual violence by Hamas. But speakers at Monday’s event pushed for more from world leaders. Sandberg called for “the entire U.N. to formally condemn, investigate, hold the terrorists accountable.” Erdan, to loud applause, called for an “investigation of U.N. Women’s indifference to the heinous crimes against Israeli women”
In the nearly two months since the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli law enforcement, search and rescue groups, and the country’s recently formed Civil Commission on October 7 Crimes by Hamas against Women and Children have collected evidence and testimony regarding Hamas’ sexual violence on Oct. 7. Over the weekend, The Sunday Times reported testimony from survivors of the Nova music festival recalling women being gang raped and beheaded.
Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which organized the event along with other women’s rights groups, drew a parallel between last week’s Torah portion, which includes the Biblical story of the rape of Dinah, and the experiences of the victims of Oct. 7. Katz noted that Dinah’s voice is notably missing from the Biblical narrative.
“For generations, survivors of sexual assaults have looked to Dina’s story because it speaks so powerfully to the secondary trauma of being unheard, ignored and reduced to mere objects for debate,” said Katz, who invited people to step out of the room if they felt the need, given the graphic nature of the event. “And we heard this with new significance this year, because Israeli women and girls were recently tortured, raped, and killed, forever silenced by Hamas.”
Several actors attended the event, including Tovah Feldshuh, Julianna Margulies, Emmy Rossum and Debra Messing, all of whom have spoken out against antisemitism or Hamas’ attack. (Margulies was also fresh off an apology after making disparaging comments about Black Americans who have not supported Jews after Oct. 7.)
The event also featured people who tended to victims of the event, including representatives from ZAKA, the Orthodox Israeli first-responder organization, and the Israeli police, who have been collecting and documenting evidence from victims of sexual violence and people who witnessed the violence. They recounted graphic stories, to which the crowd responded vocally with murmurs, gasps and tears. Some in the audience exchanged tissues, hugs and pats on the back for extra support.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democrat, also came and discussed seeing a compilation of footage of the attack that a group of senators recently viewed.
“I’ve seen much of the raw footage. It takes your breath away,” she said. “You can’t unsee it.”
Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the event, Sandberg said silence surrounding sexual violence is connected to a dearth of female representation on the world stage.
“You look in that hall at those flags — those are countries run by men, very few are run by women. I really wanted that to change in my lifetime. It’s not going to happen, not going to be close,” she said. “But that means the progress we fought for to get women’s women’s rights and protection of our bodies, protection of who we are, protection against systematic, sexualized violence — can’t be lost. And that is why anyone can speak out. And when they speak out, we have to all unite together as quickly as possible.”
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Canada’s Rally for the Jewish People brought thousands to Ottawa calling for the return of the hostages in Gaza—while delivering a loud rebuke to the recent waves of antisemitism
A detailed report from a spirited snowy scene on Monday afternoon.
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Despite bus driver boycott, thousands attend pro-Israel rally in Ottawa
MONTREAL (JTA) — Despite a foot of snow in Montreal and chartered buses that never showed up in Toronto, thousands of Canadian Jews assembled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday to voice solidarity with Israel and decry a rise in antisemitism.
Despite concerns over overall security in Canada’s capital city, which was tight, the rally’s speakers included several prominent Canadian politicians, Jewish leaders, college students who feel unsafe on campus and family members of Israelis taken hostage or killed by Hamas on Oct. 7.
Local Jewish leaders called the event, organized by Jewish federations across Canada and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, a historic gathering. But just weeks after a similar incident in Detroit before a massive pro-Israel rally in Washington, 17 of 70 chartered buses did not show up to pick up rally-goers in Toronto.
Organizers called the no-show bus company antisemitic.
“Despite charging in full in advance and confirming its participation, the [unidentified] company did not send a single bus and has declined all communications while refusing to provide any explanations,” said Adam Minsky, president and CEO of United Jewish Appeal Federations in Toronto.
“We are driven to the view that this shameful decision is intended to disrupt our peaceful rally out of hatred toward Jews,” he added. “What happened today is sickening and outrageous. We will respond aggressively with every legal and public affairs tool at our disposal.”
Israel’s ambassador to Canada Iddo Moed, Liberal Party member of parliament Anthony Housefather and deputy Conservative Party leader Melissa Lantsman all spoke on Monday.
“This is not 1943. I’m grateful that Israel exists and has an army to fight back against those who launched this pogrom,” said Housefather, who is Jewish and represents Montreal’s heavily Jewish Mount Royal district.
Raquel Look, whose son Alexandre was murdered at the music festival in southern Israel attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7, called on Canadian politicians to take more action against antisemitism. Hate crimes against Jews — including multiple incidents that have involved Molotov cocktails thrown at Montreal-area synagogues — have spiked across Canada.
“Our sorrow is deep and immeasurable but today we want to channel this immense pain into a call for action,” Look said. “Please let us honour his memory by standing up against the forces that seek to destroy Jewish and Canadians values we hold so dear.”
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