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‘It’s been hard to have these conversations’: Three local perspectives on Israel-Palestine

Demonstrators in New Orleans protest against aid to Israel.
Minh Ha
Verite News
Demonstrators in New Orleans protest against aid to Israel on Nov. 3, 2023.

This story was originally published by Verite News.

When Palestinian American lawyer Leila Abu-Orf learned about the clash between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel protesters late last month on Freret Street near the Tulane University campus, it brought her back to her time as an undergraduate student there.

“One of the things I said to my mom is, ‘I’m so glad I’m not a Tulane student right now,’” Abu-Orf said.

She remembered attending a protest on campus in 2009, when former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was invited to speak at the university. She said students shouted and threw plates of food at her and the other protesters. Speaking in favor of an end to Israeli occupation of Palestine’s West Bank and the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has kept the territory isolated since 2007, led to her being labeled antisemitic on Facebook and on campus at the time, she said.

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 people, and Israel’s military response, which has left more than 10,000 dead in Gaza, Abu-Orf has been focused on her family members. She has two uncles and an aunt who live in Gaza.

Abu-Orf lived in the West Bank between the ages of 5 and 7. She remembers being able to visit her grandparents in the Gaza Strip as a young child. Since then, she has not been able to return, due in part to the blockade. Both of her grandparents have since died.

“I harbor a lot of anger to the world for robbing me of those moments with my grandparents,” Abu-Orf said, “those moments that every child should have with the elders of their family.”

Abu-Orf said when Gaza is not in the midst of an active war, her father’s older brother and his wife live relatively well. They earned postgraduate degrees from British universities before returning to Gaza to care for Abu-Orf’s grandmother. They worked for the United Nations, earning decent salaries. But now, they and their neighbors are experiencing the same cut-offs from communication, electricity, food and water, and the same fear of death by intense bombing.

Abu-Orf said when she speaks to her father, who lives in New Jersey, he expresses guilt for being safe here in the United States while his family suffers.

“It’s the guilt of being able to sleep in a safe house and having food, knowing that your brother doesn’t and knowing that your tax dollars are funding that,” she said, referring to American support for Israel’s military.

Abu-Orf said her family members have told her that they are not leaving the Gaza Strip. On Thursday, when her family in the United States checked on family members in Gaza via WhatsApp, her uncle wrote that they were waiting for their fate.

“Waiting for our destiny with pride and dignity, leaving the whole world deep in shame and guilt,” the text message read.

Abu-Orf said she and her father know that even if they were in Gaza, there’s not much they could do to protect their family members or community, but at least there would be solidarity among everyone there. She said in the United States she often feels like Palestinians are “fighting for people to see us as people with dignity worthy of life.”

She’s grateful to be in New Orleans, where she feels solidarity in a city that is majority-Black and still bears the scars of European colonialism.

“If I’m wearing something that identifies me as Palestinian, I can tell when the person who looks at me doesn’t see any symbolic significance and I can tell when I’m being looked at with suspicion,” Abu-Orf said. “Time and time again Black people in this city never fail to convey solidarity and support.”

‘For me to be silent now would betray what I try to do all the time’

Next door to Tulane’s campus, at Loyola University, Professor Naomi Yavneh-Klos, who is Jewish, has been providing support and counseling for Jewish students at the Jesuit university, some of whom have become fearful about publicly expressing support for Israel, she said.

Yavneh-Klos, whose grandmother was born in the early 20th century in what is now Israel, said two Loyola students who attended the Freret Street protest last month were outed on Facebook for their participation on the pro-Israel side. One of them, she said, had a bottle of water poured on his face at the school gym by a fellow student.

“There’s a lot of acting-out that seems out of proportion,” Yavneh-Klos said. “There’s a terrible, tragic situation going on in the Middle East, but we’re not at war with each other here on campus.”

She said at school she is trying to challenge her students that she said have a “very binary,” overly simplistic understanding of the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We want them to care about the vulnerable and the underprivileged,” Yavneh-Klos said. “We also want them to be critical thinkers and understand the nuances.”

Yavneh-Klos said she “didn’t expect to feel so alone” in a largely progressive community that has focused its ire on Israel since the war erupted.

“The progressive community has turned its back largely on the Jewish community,” she said.

But she feels she has to speak up, despite any discomfort that it might cause.

“I teach interfaith studies and I teach about the Holocaust,” she said. “For me to be silent now would betray what I try to do all the time.”

Still, she said, she has felt the need to hold her opinions back on occasion, fearing how her neighbors, colleagues and students might react. She said her husband recently wanted to display a flag of Israel in front of their home. She vetoed the idea.

“I just felt like somebody could see it as a threatening presence and that makes me really sad and offended.”

She expressed concern over graffiti that appeared on a brick wall across from Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library in the past few weeks. It read “from the river to the sea” — the beginning of the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which the Anti-Defamation League has labeled an antisemitic slogan calling for the eradication of Israel.

“What does that mean? You need to destroy the Jewish state?” Yavneh-Klos said. “Are you saying Jewish people have no right to this land at all?”

‘It shouldn’t be a divisive issue’

For Ariel Moyal, a local organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, a national Jewish anti-Zionist group, “from the river to the sea” simply means liberation for Palestinians.

“Jewish people react to that from a place of fear and generational trauma around being displaced,” Moyal said. “It is so sad to me that the idea of Palestinian freedom to some Israelis — seeing it as antisemitic — is rejecting the reality of the current situation.”

Moyal’s father lives in Israel. She said that when she learned about the Oct. 7 attacks, she was initially worried for his safety, texting him to make sure he was OK. When she found out he was safe, her mind turned to the people of Gaza.

“My immediate reaction was sort of dread and already anticipating what the reaction from Israel would be.”

Ariel Moyal speaks during a March for Palestine at the state capitol in Baton Rouge. Credit: Photo provided by Ariel Moyal
Moyal said she avoids speaking with her father about this conflict, as she supports an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and he does not.

“It’s been hard to have these conversations in the past,” Moyal said.

She said there are some things they, and the broader community, should be able to agree on, such as the need for a ceasefire.

“I just think it shouldn’t be a divisive issue,” she said. “If we have any sense of morality everyone has to be demanding a ceasefire and learning to understand the root of the issue.”

She said it’s OK to feel grief over the roughly 1,400 people in Israel who died because of the insurgency on Oct. 7 and to be against what she refers to as a genocide of Palestinian people.

“It is hard to be honest about both feeling grief and fear — like, OK what does this mean to my family,” Moyal said, “and also being honest and saying the issue here really is the Israeli occupation and the violence that upholds it.”

Before joining Verite News, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick reported on people behind bars in immigration detention centers and prisons in the Gulf South as a senior reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She was also a 2021-2022 Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center. Her project for that fellowship on the experiences of Cameroonians detained in Louisiana and Mississippi was recognized as a finalist in the small radio category of the 2022 IRE Awards.

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