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‘Not in our name’: the Jewish New Yorkers speaking out against ‘dehumanisation’ of Palestinians
New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, a two million-strong community that has suffered anguish in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. Many Jewish New Yorkers back the Israeli government’s response to the attacks and have rallied in support of Israel. But others are unsettled by the military campaign in the Gaza Strip and the huge price paid by Palestinian civilians.
Issued on: 20/10/2023 – 18:27Modified: 20/10/2023 – 18:28
Around her neck, Jessica Murphy wears a delicate gold chain with a Hamsa hand pendant, a universal symbol of protection and strength. For Muslims it’s the Hand of Fatima, while Jews call it the Hand of Miriam, a talisman to ward off the evil eye and negative energy.
“I’ve been feeling a lot of sadness … I’ve been feeling pretty distraught,” she says.
Murphy knows all about trauma. A Jewish New Yorker, she became a victim of terrorism at age 5 when her father was killed in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“I think that allows me to empathise with the Israeli civilians who lost loved ones in the attacks last Saturday, while also empathising with Palestinians who lost family due to the retaliatory airstrikes,” she says.
The 27-year-old medical student is watching the current turmoil in the Middle East closely. While she is horrified by the violence wrought on Israelis at the hands of Hamas, she is also outraged by Israel’s heavy-handed response.
“I can’t say I’m surprised at how Israel’s retaliating, given the history of this long conflict and military occupation,” she says. “But I am really devastated, and I’m fearful of what’s to come.”
Murphy is concerned that a false dichotomy is being created, whereby “you either support terrorism or you support the state of Israel”, she says.
Read more‘I refuse to be associated with Hamas’: Gazans in Paris lament ban on pro-Palestinian protests
It was long after the 9/11 attacks, when Murphy came of age, that she learnt about the US response to the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history.
“I was obviously a child when 9/11 happened, and it’s only many years after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the torture and detention of many innocent people at Guantanamo Bay, that I learned about those horrors the US committed, ostensibly in the name of 9/11 victims like my dad,” she recalls.
Since then, Murphy has made a point of condemning retaliatory violence and holding the US government to a higher standard of morality and rule of law.
“I feel that Israel is making a similar mistake that the United States did,” she adds, stressing that war crimes, however horrific, do not entitle countries to commit crimes of their own.
“War crimes by one party do not justify war crimes by another,” she says. “Obviously 9/11 was a war crime. Obviously, the attacks by Hamas were a war crime. But that does not justify war crimes by the United States in Iraq or by Israel in Gaza.”
Murphy was part of a group of 1,000 or so protesters who gathered outside US Senator Chuck Schumer’s house on Friday, October 13, to encourage him and other politicians to stop funding the Israeli military.
“He (Schumer) is the most powerful Democratic senator in the country, and he has the power to call for a ceasefire and stop weapon sales to Israel, which is what we were asking him to do,” says Jewish peace activist Tal Frieden, who was also at the protest.
Frieden was arrested, along with other protesters, for blocking entry to the street where the senator resides. They chanted “Not in our name” throughout the protest.
He and Murphy are among a growing number of Jewish New Yorkers who have spoken out against what they say is the dehumanisation of the Palestinian people.
Frieden’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors. “They’re Hungarian Jews. My great-grandmother survived a work camp in Hungary, and my grandfather hid in the countryside in Hungary,” he says.
Growing up, he says, his family taught him that “never again was never again for anyone”.
Frieden views the Israeli bombing of Gaza as “genocide”. UN legal experts have said that Israeli actions in Gaza could amount to ethnic cleansing. Palestinian officials say more than 4,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people. A group of Israeli experts on international law issued a statement on Sunday assessing that the Hamas terror group committed multiple war crimes in its assault on Israel and that its actions likely amounted to genocide.
Frieden travelled to DC on Wednesday with an organisation called Jewish Voice for Peace to protest at the Capitol and call for a ceasefire. The group represents Jews in the US who are anti-Zionist, and who want to end US military aid to Israel. Hundreds of people attended the protest.
“We’re seeing over a million people being asked to leave their homes overnight, only for them to be bombed on their way to what they believe would be safety. We’re watching all of the electricity, water, aid [being] stopped going into Gaza by the Israeli military. And we’re watching all of these atrocities unfold,” he says. “And people across the country, across the world are asking, what can I do to stop this? And we’re watching as thousands of people are taking to the streets and saying, ‘not in our name’.”
Frieden thinks that the number of Jewish Americans joining the movement is increasing.
“The tides are changing, and we’re seeing more and more support for Palestinian liberation,” he says.
The staunchly pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League (ADL) says the anti-war activists belong to “far-left radical organisations” and do not represent the majority of the Jewish community.
Gaza civilians ‘want the same things as the rest of us: peace and safety’
As Jewish diners tuck into traditional Middle Eastern dishes like makhlouba and fattah at a newly opened branch of the Palestinian restaurant Ayat on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they are quick to express their concern for Palestinians caught in the crossfire. They say it is important to distinguish between Hamas and Palestinians as a whole.
“Hamas is a terrorist group but these people (civilians in Gaza) are just trying to live in 140 square miles, they have families, and they want the same things as the rest of us all want. Just peace and safety, food, shelter,” says Laurie Rohrich, a Jewish entrepreneur eating Palestinian mezze with her family. “You know, it just breaks my heart.”
The restaurant owners received a slew of one-star reviews and negative comments online right after the Hamas attacks on Israel. They say they traced most of them to Israeli accounts, to people who had never even dined at Ayat.
“And it just made me feel like this type of attitude doesn’t belong in New York,” says Abdul Elenani, the restaurant’s co-owner.
At another table, Bonnie Stein is embracing her daughter. She’s been telling stories of her travels to Israel with a Palestinian dance troupe, which she says faced discrimination at the border crossing.
“Dehumanisation of the Palestinians after 70-some years already is really the root of a lot of the anger,” she says, burying her face in her hands and crying. Behind her, a mural shows a Palestinian woman wearing a black and white keffiyeh. A tear drop is falling from one eye; the other side of her face is covered by a Palestinian flag and an image of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem – a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Growing up in the Midwest with a Jewish education, we had a very one-sided view of Israel. And I didn’t really find out, until I was in my twenties, the reality of the conflict and how the ‘Nakba’, what they (the Palestinians) called the disaster, the catastrophe, happened,” she says. “We learned that the Israelis and the Holocaust survivors went to an empty land and just made a home, which was not true.”
Some of Bonnie’s friends will not speak to her at the moment because she has friends in Palestine. They say they do not agree with her political views.
“It’s not so much a political view,” she says. “It’s humanity, a view of humanity.”
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