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Israel-Palestine, A Conversation (Part I)

A note from the Editor

The Hamas attack on October 7th and the Israeli response have been sources of  outrage and   despair.  We at Interwoven Congregations considered issuing a statement, but then decided instead to use our Quarterly publication  to probe the issues more deeply.  To do so, we reached out to two people, Rev. Sari Ateek of St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church, a Palestinian native, and Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. We had interviewed Rabbi Abbi for an earlier Quarterly issue on Anti-Bigotry.  And I knew Rev. Sari from my time in Bethesda, MD and had a deep appreciation for his ministry. What I didn’t realize is that Sari and Abbi also knew each other.  So we sat down (over Zoom) on Feb. 6th for a very personal, challenging, painful but also inspiring conversation about what they felt, what they thought, what they hope, and what role they think people of faith should play today   regarding Israel-Palestine.

We are going to post the Quarterly issue in 5 parts, one each day this week. If you wish, you can read the whole issue all at once here. Thank you for  reading with an open heart.

Peace, salaam, shalom,      -  Rev. Pat Jackson

PART 1: How did you FEEL?

Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations:  Rev. Sari Ateek and Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky, thank you for joining us for this conversation today (February 6th) about the recent events in Israel - Palestine.  Sari, if I could start with you, how did you feel on October 7th and in the aftermath?

Rev. Sari Ateek, St. John’s Norwood Episcopal Church:  Thank you, this is a beautiful [conversation] space. I was really sad when I heard the news of October 7th.   I was shocked, actually, at the magnitude of it.  There's never been in my lifetime any situation where Israelis were killed in those numbers. It is not uncommon for Palestinians to be killed in those numbers, but for Israelis to be killed in those numbers was truly a shocking thing.  I was sad and I was also disturbed by my own lack of surprise that there would be such a reaction from Hamas to the state of oppression in  Gaza.  My theory about humans is that the human spirit has to thrive. It has to live.  And so there's never a situation where people are going to be okay living in confinement like that. So there's a lack of      surprise that there would be some spillover from Gaza.  Part of the sadness for me is that the cycle of violence continues.  So the reaction to the events that came afterwards is also not a surprise.  We see this everywhere: “You attack us, we will make you pay.” I just wish humans weren't so  predictable.   So no surprise with Israel’s response.

Pat: Abbi, how about for you? How did you feel?

Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington:  It  happened on the end of the holiday of Sukkot, on these two holy days, Sh'mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the end of the   Torah reading cycle for the whole year.  There's a lot of joy and celebration.  You wouldn't typically use electronics so I try to stay off my phones.  I        remember waking up that Saturday morning [of October 7th] and my phone was just buzzing.  I saw that it was a group chat that I'm in with Jews and Catholics.  We had spent a week together in an emerging leadership program.  A Catholic priest in a Hebrew-speaking church in Jerusalem was messaging, “We’re okay, I can't believe this is happening.”  And I thought, “What happened to Father Benny?”   And then I start looking through the feed and I'm like, “Oh my God.”  I just couldn't believe it. I'm sitting in bed and I tap my husband,  “David, something's happened.” And I just start scrolling through -- 600 Israelis, 700 Israelis. And the number just kept going up.  We didn't want to say anything to our two kids;  they’re 12 and 8.  We went to synagogue that morning, and people were finding out.  And everyone was saying, “Are you okay?  Is this person okay? Is that person okay?”  And then finally, we get to the part in the Torah service where you say a prayer for the State of Israel and a prayer for this country.  Our rabbi broke the news from the bima.  I remember saying the prayer for Israel.  The rabbi recited the prayer for the soldiers, and our cantor sang a song for those who were captives.  We had heard that the nephew of someone in our congregation had been taken hostage.  I remember the cantor singing a beautiful song that I learned years ago.  I was singing it and just crying; and I'm not a crier in synagogue.  Afterwards, we were all saying “How are you?” “Well, you know.”  That became the greeting line for the next few weeks.

I remember this gut feeling upon seeing what happened -- Hamas had attacked these kibbutzim, there were rockets everywhere -- and my instinct was that the antisemitism is going to go sky high.  Islamophobia is going to go sky high.  This is going to be  really bad for our kids.

Then in the days to come, I remember just holding my breath.  Is there going to be a ground invasion? When is it going to happen?  This is going to be bad.  Two of my colleagues in the JCRC office have sons who are currently in the  IDF (Israel Defense Forces).  They were among the first to go into Gaza.  I remember this terrible feeling of “I can't believe we're doing this, and I hope their sons come home.  There's no way this is going to be good for anyone at all.”  I hate that this is where we are.

Pat:  Sari, I wonder if you might say a word about your own background and how you connect with this situation.  How did you interact with your   congregation following these events initially?

Sari:  It was a weird space for me.  Abbi, you're in a community full of Jewish people, right?  So everyone is feeling that impact in a very personal way. For me, I'm the only Palestinian around Americans in my church.  So all of the focus of the situation in Gaza is put on me, like “What's happening over there?”  So I actually retreated emotionally. I did not want to be around anyone. I didn't want to be the poster child for what's happening there.   I couldn’t take care of people's

feelings while I   myself was grieving.  I just couldn't be there for people in that way.  I think October was probably the hardest month for me.  I cried like I've never cried before.  I wasn’t just crying for the tremendous loss of life in Gaza;  I was crying because now I can’t even imagine there ever being peace in my lifetime.  I wasn't planning on saying anything about it from the pulpit [on    Oct. 15th].  I kept putting off writing the sermon, and then I realized that I couldn't preach on anything that was going to feel even remotely        authentic  unless I spoke about what was actually going on for me.  And so I decided to just let the congregation in on how I was  processing where God is in the midst of this. That was it.  I don't have   answers, just  “Here's how I'm processing it.”

I centered my sermon around a prayer that I've had in my Bible for a really long time. It's an anonymous prayer that is simply attributed with “based on the prayer of a Palestinian Christian.”  I've had it in my Bible since I was a kid, and it reads: “Pray not for Palestinian or Jew, for Arab or Israeli, but rather pray for ourselves that we might not divide them in our prayers, but keep them together in our hearts.”  The congregation found the sermon meaningful - particularly the ending  where I said that when    people say to me, “I'm pro-Palestinian,” I always respond by saying, “Please don't be.”  I know you’re trying to tell me that you are in solidarity with my people, but the last thing we need is for people to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli.  That's where the problem is -- saying I am for one group of people.  We have to be pro-justice. We have to be pro-humanity.  Abbi, you have eyes and ears and you're looking at me, and your soul is so beautiful.  There's nothing that's different between you and me. We're human beings with a desire for our people to thrive.  We all have the right to nationhood and to self-determination.  It doesn't have to be zero sum. And so I don't believe in saying, “I am blindly supportive of this group or that.” I think if we could elevate ourselves and speak out about injustice when injustice happens, then we're going to be much better contributors to the human family.

I eventually emerged out of that depression.  As a Palestinian who was born and raised in Israel-Palestine, I developed amazing skills for compartmentalization.  So it wasn't even a conscious thing.  My nervous system just made a switch in the beginning of November.  Maybe it's not healthy, but I just compartmentalized it.  But it is still emotionally very difficult for me.



 Part II resumes tomorrow: What did you THINK? How did we get here with Israel-Palestine?

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