This week in the Jewish calendar, we read parashat B’reishit, the first chapter of the Torah. Merle Feld, a poet and member of our local synagogue, the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), writes in her poem “B’reishit”: “Each year we sit expectantly / waiting to hear how it all began. / We strain and stretch ourselves, / not to imagine darkness, chaos –– darkness and chaos are states / with which we are well acquainted. / No, we begin / by trying to conjure first light.”
As the two of us listened to Merle read her poem in synagogue on Saturday morning, we found ourselves entering Shabbat in total darkness. This week has been weighed down by endless and sickening grief, for Israelis massacred and captured in Hamas’ brutal attack, for Palestinians murdered and displaced at the hands of the Israeli government. We know that many, while affected by these events in different ways, feel similarly.
All week, we have found solace in the words of thinkers far more equipped than we to parse through the history, emotions, and politics that these events demand we consider. What more can we say that has not been said? How can we possibly say it all? More urgently, we feel uncomfortable pausing to reflect as we feel called to action against the Israeli government’s continuous and devastating assault on people in Gaza and the United States’ unconditional support for it.
In this article, we will share our reflections, rooted in our experiences in Amherst’s community, on the grief and galvanization that we felt and witnessed this week. More specifically, we want to share our experience as Jewish students who are holding our community’s immense mourning, who feel morally called to action against the slaughter in Gaza, and who are angered by the lack of criticism of Israel’s response from some national Jewish leadership.
We speak as two Jewish students, but we cannot, and do not, speak for all Jewish students. We write this article not to offer a specific political argument, nor to offer answers that we do not have. In writing this, we have felt nervous — not because we fear for our safety, but because we do not want to hurt people in our communities; we hope you know that we come from a place of care and pain.
Last Wednesday evening, we helped convene a discussion space for Jewish students.
With varied experiences and opinions, we joined in shared grief. Afterwards, many Jewish students met with Rabbi Benjamin Weiner from JCA. During these sessions, we heard from students here who have lost loved ones in Israel, whose loved ones are currently being held hostage, and who are constantly checking the news and checking in with family and friends there. They have found out life-changing news while sitting in Val, while walking to class, while trying, maddeningly, to do schoolwork. Just one death bears so much weight, radiates through communities. It is so difficult to wrap our minds around thousands.
We feel this fear, too — one of us has loved ones in both Israel and Gaza. And even for those of us who have been lucky enough not to know anyone personally who was lost or kidnapped in Hamas’ brutal attack, we feel the despair of the Jewish community around the world. The Jewish population is small, and we are processing loss of life the proportions of which we have not seen in generations. We and many of our loved ones fear for the lives of hostages and are praying for their safe return. Many Jewish responses are understandably rooted in fear and collective trauma. And palpable in many of our discussions with other Jewish students at Amherst were senses of fear, grief, and anger on behalf of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
We are certainly not the only ones who are mourning and angry. And we find it unconscionable that Amherst’s administration and our country’s government have not spoken to community members with loved ones in Gaza and the West Bank as directly as they have to Jewish and Israeli students. Indeed, President Elliott’s email statement said nothing of Palestinian suffering, nor did it offer support to those with loved ones there.
Equally present in our minds this week was our rightful fear that, after the Oct. 7 attack, the State of Israel’s intentionally indiscriminate response would lead to even more tragedy for the Palestinian people, who have long suffered under Israeli blockades and occupation. We know that cycles of violence are what brought us here and that Israel’s oppressive approach won’t magically begin to protect Israelis and the global Jewish community. It won’t work to secure peace. And it certainly will not liberate Palestinians, who are deserving of safety, freedom, and futures.
We are outraged that Israeli politicians and other prominent leaders are taking advantage of the grief that Israelis and diaspora Jews feel and weaponizing it to call for the total destruction of Gaza, a region where the median age is 18 — using genocidal rhetoric and tactics; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fascist government’s siege on Gaza; the deprivation of water, food, and internet connection to the region; the deceptive and hollow “warning” for Gazans to evacuate; the endless barrage of rockets striking densely populated areas and exit routes each minute; the blockage of humanitarian aid. As the Israeli government prepares for a ruinous expected ground invasion, the U.S. and other global powers continue to supply weapons and money to the Israeli Defense Force with empty provisions and formless reference to “restraint.”
On Sunday, Oct. 15, the Palestinian health organization announced that 47 families have been completely removed from the Gazan civil registry, every single generation.
“We are trying to survive,” journalist Wajeh Abu Zarefeh said to NPR this week, “We are human, we are part of this world. We are part of this civilization. Don't forget us.”
We don’t have the answer. But we know this is not it.
People forced to leave their homes for fear of violence, entire families wiped out as if they never existed, the grind of dehumanizing language justifying it all. Jews know this story well. We should know this story well. We must know this story well. We know it from our own history, marked by waves of displacement, persecution, and extermination. And we know it from the liturgical tradition that we have aimed to live by for centuries upon centuries.
We have felt betrayed as we have watched some American Jewish leaders and institutions who taught us these values of justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world) simply accept Israel’s plan as the only imaginable course of action. We are sickened to see so many refuse to acknowledge or mourn Palestinian victims — people who lost futures too, whose deaths sent shockwaves around their communities. We are devastated to see such a lack of political and moral imagination.
We understand the pain that so many in the Jewish community are feeling. Many just want time to focus on grieving for their loved ones, to hold in earnest their justified fear provoked by last week’s attack. We too are in pain. We understand the urge to try to view these different horrors that we are seeing as separate from one another; it might be easier that way. But that is not the reality.
To hold our grief and turn towards action is a challenge. The challenge is not to set aside our mourning as we turn toward the struggle of another people, but rather to mourn all lives lost and channel it into action because Israeli and Palestinian futures are intertwined. To say with all our breath that we cannot stand by while this violence is committed in the names of those we grieve. If the killing of some civilians is unjustifiable, all of it is unjustifiable. Our futures are bound up in one anothers’. They cannot be separated.
As the Jewish poet Aleah Black wrote this week: “Our grief is not the weapon. Our grief is the wound and our grief is the needle which sews the wound and our grief is the silk which threads the needle which sews the wound and our grief is the hand which holds the silk which threads the needle which sews the wound.”
And we are seeing how grief can be channeled toward moral leadership. Many Jewish leaders in our hometown of Brooklyn and around the country have made clear that they do not stand for what is happening in Gaza. On Monday, in Washington, D.C., hundreds of Jews and allies gathered outside the White House to demand that President Biden stop his unconditional support of Israel’s strategy. These are communities we are proud to be part of.
We see the weight of millennia of brokenness and oppression swelling into fear and trauma, into a swarm of violence in a cumulative crash.
In times like these, the future that we hope for, one of Palestinian liberation, one of Jewish safety, feels far away.
Much of our campus discourse surrounding this issue has taken place on social media, including anonymously on Fizz. These sites amplify nascent Islamophobia and antisemitism that has expectedly surfaced and caused understandable concern for people’s safety. So much of our conversation has been pushed onto these platforms partially because of the social, political, and economic consequences that may befall people if they express their beliefs in open letters or in school newspaper op-eds. These career consequences disproportionately suppress the speech of our Muslim peers and those who write in support of Palestinians.
This week, we have sat in rooms and spoken with people who have posted things that we feel are politically misguided and misinformed. As we have listened to and talked with them about their fear, anger, and sadness, we cannot mock them or dismiss them. While there are certainly some who fail to grasp this weight and share flippant statements as if to score political brownie points, most of us are speaking in earnest and with good intention.
We know that many of us in the Jewish community are taught to fear that all people speaking in support of Palestinian liberation have some ulterior motive against us. We urge everyone in our community to understand that that is not necessarily true.
As we’ve stated, we disagree with the channeling of grief for Israelis into support for the Israeli government. And, when we see some of our peers post blanket support for the State of Israel, we know it is often coming from a place of fear and grief over lost loved ones, not any personal desire to destroy the Palestinian people.
We stand as a community, facing machines of death and oppression. We are rooted in this place, Amherst, and look out toward the world, each with our own stories and hopes for the future. How can our grief move us forward? How might it help us see more clearly, see differently, see anew?
In closing her poem, which tracks all seven days of the creation of the world at the beginning of Genesis, Merle Feld writes:
“just as it’s time to reach
into the box at the back of the cupboard
to pull out two candles and find the matches
miraculously comes the human
who can strike the match and sanctify
all the work that God has done, eons ago,
and every moment since,
battling tohu va-vohu, the chaos
that threatens to once again engulf it all
shaken and humbled,
we reach for the match
and the blessing,
full of gratitude
for this holy world.”
Many people have offered thoughts and support as we wrote this piece, and we thank them for their care.