A few weeks ago, I was invited to a pro-Palestinian rally. A big part of me wanted to attend. I am a Jew who cares deeply about Israel, but in the wake of the horrifying violence in Gaza, I wanted to take to the streets. I was outraged over the destruction and terrible loss of life in Gaza and uncomfortable remaining complacent.
Yet, out of concern that the event would have placed all of the blame on Israel while excusing Hamas and glossing over the moral complexities, I resisted my temptation to attend.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t incredibly torn. On the one hand, I was profoundly saddened by the deaths of Palestinian civilians and the destruction of their homes. But on the other, I had Israeli friends risking their lives on the front lines in Gaza. One friend stationed in Gaza was unable to speak with his parents for over a week. My heart ached for him, his family and for all Israelis. As much as I wanted to express my concern over the destruction in Gaza, I knew that I would feel uncomfortable in a setting where Israel could be vilified and moral complexities could be given short shrift.
That being said, I also find myself isolated among Jewish progressives in the pro-Israel camp, where I see my Jewish friends hardening their hearts to Palestinian civilians. Though they express concern over the destruction of the environment, they remain complacent when it comes to the destruction of Gazan homes and neighborhoods. I cannot help but wonder why this conflict is turning so many of my friends into walking contradictions.
As a Jew, I have always taken pride in my religion’s moral foundations. Concepts of tikkun olam (healing the world) and tzedek (justice) keep me proud of and connected to my Judaism. In 2007, I traveled to Israel to become a bat mitzvah in Jerusalem. There, in a city my ancestors only dreamed of visiting, I affirmed my responsibility to uphold Jewish principles rooted in social justice.
I’ve lived my life keeping in mind the Jewish values I embraced in Jerusalem. In 2011, I attended Seeds of Peace, a camp which brings together teens from conflict regions in order to humanize the other side. There, I watched as Israelis and Palestinians became friendly with—or, at the very least, not faceless enemies to—each other. I left camp that summer more hopeful for the future and believing that peace was achievable. My friends on both sides of the conflict did too.
Only three years later, I look at the region with a heavy heart and more than a small bit of despair. Though the recent ceasefire agreement seems to have stopped the rocket fire from Gaza, it came at a terrible cost for both sides. There’s no guarantee that things have changed enough to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, or Israelis along the southern border, or to prevent another escalation in the coming months.
The situation as it currently stands proves yet again that the status quo is not only unsustainable but also unacceptable. Never has the need for two states for two peoples been more apparent. Being trapped in a cycle of hatred and violence is no way to live.
This summer, I interned at J Street: a home for people who, like me, want to see a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. But now I am returning to my college campus, an environment where the Israel-Palestine discussion is hugely polarized and devoid of nuance. Many students label themselves “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” and close their eyes to the other’s humanity and right to self-determination. For those of us who see the subtleties, picking sides is not so simple.
This fall will bring major challenges on campus. When it comes to this conflict, I often feel alone among my peers who ignore complexities and delegitimize the other’s right to exist. So last semester, I joined with other students to found a much-needed J Street U chapter in order to challenge the polarization and inject nuance into campus dialogue. But after this summer of turmoil, it will be difficult to find students like me: still willing to see the humanity in both Israelis and Palestinians.
I know that our challenges will be formidable but, even in the face of fear and isolation, I for one refuse to look away.
Samantha Kohl is a sophomore at Vassar College who interned in the communications department at J Street during the summer.