Healing by Standing Together: Online forum features leaders of group promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on Jan. 30.

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on Jan. 30. AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

By MADDIE FABIAN

For the Recorder

Published: 01-30-2024 5:13 PM

The hearts of Jewish and Palestinian Americans in western Massachusetts are aching.

Over the last nearly four months, hundreds of community members have united at protests in the form of rallies, sit-ins, and letter signings for a permanent cease-fire, Palestinian freedom and justice for families of hostages.

But as the death toll in Gaza rises and Hamas continues to hold Israeli hostages, increasingly polarized dialogues often pit one side against the other.

Black, red, green and white “Free Palestine” flags wave at one protest, while blue and white Israeli flags fly at another — each focusing on one group’s pain and suffering. Social media is rife with hashtags such as #freePalestine and #standwithIsrael, but those messages are rarely seen in conjunction.

In the midst of all the heartache and division, a prominent Israeli grassroots organization called Standing Together is offering a vision of “peace, equality and social justice” by mobilizing Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and by spreading their message across the globe.

They brought that message to western Massachusetts on Sunday, when Standing Together representatives spoke to a group of more than 200 Jewish community members at an online forum.

“We’re not preoccupied with trying to fight or even to mediate between the two sides,” said Nadav Shofet, a Jewish Israeli and one of two Standing Together organizers who spoke at the forum.

The event was sponsored by a coalition of Jewish institutions in western Massachusetts, including Congregation B’nai Israel, Beit Ahavah, Jewish Community of Amherst, Temple Israel in Greenfield, the local Jewish Day School and Lander-Grinspoon Academy.

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Tamar Fields, chair of the Task Force for Israel Democracy at Congregation B’nai Israel, said in her introduction to the forum that the goal of the event was to build resilience, solidarity and “intra-community dialogue,” beginning with the broad spectrum of the area’s Jewish community, including different generations, political perspectives and Jewish affiliations.

“Like so many of you since Oct. 7, my heart has broken over and over,” Fields said. “And as I continue to hear about the atrocities that have been committed and continue to happen in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, my heart continues to break. Learning about the work of Standing Together gives me hope.

“In the midst of the most recent horrific violence and ongoing suffering, they are doing the enormously brave, empathetic and powerful work of asking people to resist the urge to choose one side and dehumanize the other,” Fields continued.

Standing Together’s roots

Standing Together was founded in 2015, after the 2014 Gaza war that was then the deadliest war in Gaza, followed by a wave of violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“Benjamin Netanyahu back then had a very famous saying,” said Sally Abed, a Palestinian Israeli and prominent activist voice for Standing Together in Israel. “He said … ‘We will forever live on the sword.’”

The message that language sends, said Abed, is that “the security of Israel and Israelis necessarily means the subjugation of Palestinians. It necessarily means military control because there is no partner, and we will forever live on the sword.”

Eight years later, that rhetoric continues to hold more starkly than ever after last year’s election of an extreme right-wing government in Israel.

“This reality that we are in where we are stuck as a society in this endless cycle with no alternative — no one is giving the Israeli public an alternative; no one is telling them it can be different,” Abed said.

That alternative is what Standing Together aims to provide.

“Our focus is on the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and equality between Jews and Arabs inside of Israel. These are our core tenets,” said Shofet.

Since the war began, the group has worked to de-escalate inter-communal violence, set up mutual aid for families, create solidarity rallies and organize spaces for people to safely grieve.

“In this war, we are firmly saying that the only way out of the war is a cease-fire agreement, immediately to return the hostages, and to end the killing of innocent lives in Gaza and the endless amounts of suffering in Gaza,” Shofet said. “But also the way forward is to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, and this is in the interest of everybody who lives here.”

Achieving peace involves a host of other issues, said Abed, including systemic discrimination, incarceration and police violence.

“We understand that these things are interconnected, and they can only be co-led by Palestinians and Jews in Israel. It can only be a joint struggle; there is no other way,” Abed said. “Right now what we’re trying to do is really escalate the message of solidarity and partnership to a much more political, courageous, let’s say brave message of peace. This is a historic conjunction where we need a political movement, a leadership that can give the Israeli public an alternative.”

Shofet noted, “We know there are millions of Jews living in this land, and they’re not going anywhere. And there are also millions of Palestinians living in this land and not going anywhere.”

Shofet and Abed said Americans have a role to play in the global discourse around the conflict.

“It’s a collective effort,” said Abed. “I think as a Jewish community … you can definitely promote the idea that Jewish safety is necessarily linked with Palestinian freedom.”

The final portion of the event included breakout discussion groups in which attendees organized around creating a local Friends of Standing Together chapter, discussed further local programming, and shared thoughts and reactions to the presentation.