I recently came to realize just how many core memories from my upbringing center around my Judaism. I remember beaming on the bimah as I became a Bar Mitzvah, speaking at religious school graduation, being awarded a college scholarship from my temple, and traveling to Washington D.C. with hundreds of young congregants to advocate for climate action and LGBTQ+ rights. I remember my three weeks in Israel with my Jewish youth group and my first kiss being on a kibbutz. I remember meeting my now husband on the steps of our Jewish fraternity house and being married by our respective hometown rabbis.
If you can’t tell by the readout of my Jewish résumé, my ‘Jewishness’ has always been integral to my identity, and our people’s connection to “the promised land” was a part of my education from as early as I can remember. Israel was a place I recalled with affection where my faith and heritage was not unusual but the celebrated majority.
Following the horrifying October 7th attacks in which 1200 Israelis were murdered and 240 were kidnapped by Hamas, a conflict that I once saw as too intractable for my voice to matter was becoming more difficult to stay silent about with every passing day of escalating violence.
During the past two months, Israel’s retaliatory siege on Gaza has claimed the lives of nearly 15,000 Palestinians, including 57 journalists and 6,000 children, all with the backing of $130 billion of military aid from the U.S. since Israel’s founding. Experts told the New York Times that the pace of death during Israel’s campaign is unprecedented for this century, outpacing “even the deadliest moments of the U.S.-led attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.” And that the number of women and children killed in Gaza is approaching the number of total civilians killed in Afghanistan during nearly 20 years of war.
The idea that such extreme violence is a viable route to peace for anyone, including the Jewish people, feels harder to believe as we witness the magnitude of grief and suffering caused by the ongoing Israeli retaliation. Scholars and diplomats alike have sounded the alarm that the destruction of Gaza and decimation of its people by Israel’s far-right government is antithetical to securing peace and far more likely to fan the flames of extremism and antisemitism for generations to come. After our own two-decade war in Afghanistan to root out the Taliban who played host to terror groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban are back in control and stronger than ever. If history is any indication, Israel’s violence may win them the battle in Gaza, but lose them the war.
Even some loved ones of those Israelis killed on October 7th have renounced Israel’s campaign. Days after Israeli Maoz Inon’s parents were killed by Hamas on October 7th, he wrote a plea for peace titled “Hamas killed my parents, but Israel’s war is not the answer.” He explained, “Revenge is not going to bring my parents back to life. It is not going to bring back other Israelis and Palestinians killed either. It is going to do the opposite… It is going to bring more death.”
At the recent California Democratic Convention, I sat next to Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, Chair of the Progressive Caucus of the state party, who tearfully shared that some of her friends had lost dozens of family members in Gaza. We joined Jews and allies in a peaceful protest, shouting “Ceasefire now!” while Senate candidates who had not called for a permanent ceasefire spoke. I left the convention thankful to the Jews and allies who stood up in protest of business as usual, despite the risk of alienation and condemnation from family, friends and even fellow delegates and electeds.
Jewish people in the U.S. are no strangers to human rights advocacy and often risked their own freedom and safety to engage in protest and civil disobedience. In 1964, seventeen rabbis were arrested with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, and only a few days later, Jewish civil rights activists Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner along with James Chaney were murdered by the Mississippi KKK. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King and dozens more rabbis participated in the 1965 March on Selma, and both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Many Jews understand deeply that our safety cannot and will never come from the oppression of others and that our struggle is tied to the collective struggle of all peoples. So it should come as no surprise that Jewish-led organizations including If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, Jewish publications like Jewish Currents, Israeli citizens, and 200 rabbis have been on the frontlines condemning the indiscriminate violence committed by Israel against the Palestinian people and calling for both a permanent ceasefire and a commitment from the international community to broker peace.
Their activism appears to be making waves. As I write this, at least 49 members of Congress have called for a permanent ceasefire, a position supported by 68% of the American public and three quarters of Democrats. Los Angeles Councilmembers Eunisses Hernandez, Hugo Soto-Martinez, and Nithya Raman have joined them. Israel is facing increasing pressure to extend the temporary cease-fire that has resulted in the release of several dozen Israeli and Palestinian hostages and prisoners, and Biden now faces pressure from Democratic lawmakers to place conditions on U.S. aid to Israel.
“It has become axiomatic that to be a Jew is to care about the world around us. To be a Reform Jew is to hear the voice of the prophets in our head; to be engaged in the ongoing work of tikkun olam; to strive to improve the world in which we live.”
—Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, former Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism.
I once believed that my Jewish identity complicated my feelings on this conflict, but I know now that it clarifies them. Judaism teaches that all people are created B’tselem Elohim, or in the image of God. I am thankful for the advocates brave enough to stand up and say not in our name– no more atrocities in the name of the Jewish people who have suffered from atrocities ourselves. Our pain is not to be weaponized. We have seen firsthand the devastating effects that hatred can have on a people, and we will not allow the cycle of violence to continue.
As daunting as it may seem, we, as Jews, must speak up against extremism, violence, injustice, and oppression, wherever it occurs. We are the ones we have been waiting for to stand up for the peace and freedom we seek for all people. Let it be known that we raised our voices for our ancestors, our descendants, and all of humanity to say: never again.