A Perspective on Connection: Israel, Palestine, and Humanity

By: Schneur Schusterman  |  March 27, 2024

By Schneur Schusterman

I am very hesitant to write this article. I have some idea of how close the tragedy and horrors of October 7 have had on the main readership of this article. It asks the student body of YU to put themselves into the shoes of a Jew who felt disconnected from Judaism, one who felt a closer connection to the Palestinian people than the Jewish people for a short time. It is something that may make some uncomfortable. So, if you fall into that camp, it’s ok to skip this one.

I write to the curious and the unconvinced. I write this article to share a perspective that I hope will add some humanity and nuance to what seems like a wave of blatant antisemitism, and that my connection to Israel and Palestine is completely linked with my connection to humanity.

Growing up I had a small connection to Israel. Israelis would come to my family for the Shabbos meal, I said Tehillim for Israel in my middle and high school in times of trouble, and I knew that Israel played a large role in Jewish law. However, I’d had a very rocky connection to my Judaism, so the religious element of Israel didn’t appeal to me as a teenager. My main connection was just that there were Jewish people there. I felt similarly for the Jews of Ukraine as I did the Jews of Israel; a sense of detached sadness. Israel to me was a country which religious people had a strong connection to, one I just didn’t feel.

In 2020, while stuck in quarantine because of the pandemic, I spent hours every day on social media. While scrolling through a Jewish TikToker’s comments section, I got my first taste of the “Free Palestine” comments which any Jew who has been active online is aware of. So out of pure curiosity and boredom, I looked into why these people were commenting “Free Palestine” and ignoring the fact that the Jewish creator’s video had nothing to do with Israel. I discovered a confusion of people yelling about oppression and terrorism and huge and horrifying things about the history of two peoples in the Middle East which felt overwhelming. 

Because the pandemic isolated me from everyone, 14 year old me had completely stagnated religiously, socially, and emotionally. So with feelings of complete isolation and loneliness, I had been wanting to feel something besides the monotony of daily quarantined life. When I was finally able to discern the few facts I could from the politics, I found that thousands of people had been displaced from their homes, that Palestinian people suffer and are killed because of the conflicts between terrorists and the Israeli military. 

The basic empathetic part of me that objected to suffering, the part that switched on at any acknowledgement of any details of war, felt sad at the facts, and ignored the politics. I left quarantine having not advanced in any connection to Jews, Judaism or Israel. Rather, having gained the knowledge that Palestinian people are not a monolith, that they have suffered a great deal, and that terrorist organizations do not represent all of the inhabitants of Palestine.

In early 2022 I went to Israel with some family. We visited Hebron. There I noticed many soldiers outwardly holding guns. I neither disapproved of them nor felt any solidarity towards them. When I noticed a Palestinian mother walking near us with her two sons, I wondered how she must feel about the soldiers. The people around me spoke about Palestinians and Arabs as if they all hated Jews, but when I considered the possibility that she doesn’t hate Jews or Israelis and is just trying to raise her kids, I realized that having to walk past soldiers is a situation that is frankly just not good, and I don’t want them to experience that. This small experience was the seed which sprouted some frameworks and ideologies I used for some time.

In Fall 2022, my first semester at YU, I found myself in a very outwardly Zionist space. I finally had the opportunity to discuss the nuances of Zionism and Israel, but I was not at an intellectual or emotional place to do that yet. My ideas about Israel were black and white. The only “discourse” I really understood about Israel and Palestine were the extremes. 

Either, “everything Israel does to the countries and people around them is entirely justified and good” or “Israel is a state that oppresses the people around them in order to exist, and thus everything they do to continue to exist is bad.” A part that contributed to this extreme view was that I noticed that people in my life didn’t know much about Palestinian people. They made broad stereotypical and hurtful generalizations about them based on their knowledge of Hamas. This added to my disconnection from the Jews in my life.

On the other side I heard arguments that Israel was systematically oppressing them with the goal of subjecting them. This was a claim that I didn’t want to engage with. However, because I heard that perspective from calm and intelligent people online, I considered it just enough to not dismiss it. By this time, I felt that my human connection to people suffering in conflict, Palestinian people, was more than my connection to the people in Israel. I slowly started to accept the less radical ideas. I had inwardly accepted that Israel was systematically oppressing all Palestinian people.

This conclusion stopped me from really trying to engage with Zionist ideas. I believed at some level that people who supported Israel also supported the oppression of Palestinians. “Why would I try to understand someone who thinks it’s ok to oppress another person?” I thought to myself. At this point I was nearly entirely disconnected from people, because everyone around me was Jewish. I viewed this entire conflict through my own ideology, an ideology I was emotionally connected to from one experience, and one I held onto because I had no other I felt I could fall onto.

However, I started to develop a stronger connection to people and Judaism. Thanks to therapy, joining a like-minded community, and meeting the most incredible people, I found myself more in the present moment. I started not to care if someone had an Israeli flag in their room. They were my friends, not political opponents. Over the summer my thoughts about Israel and Palestine radically slipped into the background of my life as I focused on my more immediate concerns like relationships and art.

On October 7, Israel became my immediate concern.

Everyone around me was affected. Everyone was worried about someone, including me. We had lost hundreds of our brothers and sisters that day, even if we didn’t know them personally. We saw an online wave of gut-wrenching stories and footage, and the worst antisemetism disguised as talk of Palestinian liberation. I realized that this was much bigger than I thought, and threw away any ideas of Ideology. I discovered through experiencing the intense unity of Jews supporting each other that I had a connection to them.

In January of this year I went on Birthright. It was there I realized that I can no longer make a distinction between Israel and people. There I heard first hand accounts of the antisemitism on college campuses I’d so far only heard about online. I heard first hand accounts from those directly affected by the attacks. I heard first hand accounts of soldiers who were active in Gaza days earlier. I directly asked soldiers what their attitude towards Palestinian people was, and they discussed it with me with an empathy and respect I’d never expected. They distinguished between Hamas and Palestinians in such a human way which I’d never heard from the people in my immediate life. We disagreed radically on certain things, but we were both coming from a place of mutual respect, understanding, and humanity.

At this point, I came to the realization that my connection to the people of Israel, my connection to the feelings and pain of Jews and my connection to Israel were one and the same. I also realized that my connection to humanity and my connection to the suffering of Palestinian people, however distant, is one and the same. I don’t want to deny my humanity.

My connection is constantly changing. I’ve had the opportunity to have nuanced and human discussions with real people who are actively affected by the war. However, most Americans do not have the background or opportunities which I do. The “discourse” about Israel and Palestine being discussed by millions of people who will never be personally affected by these countries has been so loud, but some of it may be coming from a truly human place. I know what it’s like to not have connection, and just grasp for any perspective or ideology that fits how I feel.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, I sometimes pass a certain house near the train. In the window is a sign with words written in green, red, and black letters. 

“Resistance is justified when people are occupied. Free Palestine”

It hurts to see that. It hurts because I’m not sure if the inhabitant is a member of the Palestinian diaspora who is mourning the loss of thousands of their brothers and sisters and doesn’t realize the hurt which their coping method causes us. I’m not sure if the inhabitant is a lonely Brooklynite, who has no clue that the words on the sign, given the context, imply approval of the brutal massacre conducted by terrorists on October 7. I’m also not sure if the inhabitant is a vitriolic antisemite who does approve of those horrible things. Given my experience, I can’t just conclude that they are an antisemite, and that fact gives me hope that others who say similar things aren’t hateful either, even when their words may seem otherwise. 

I hope that antisemitism isn’t as bad as it seems, even though sometimes I feel like I’m constantly proven wrong as I hear and experience more things in this city. I hope that our community can continue to see humanity in the other. I ask nothing of the reader except to acknowledge and fight the hate coming from this war, and to have a space to keep a little hope alongside the hurt.