Faith Commons

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Massacre. Abduction. Bloodbath. Torture. No one word adequately describes the depravity of  Hamas’ attack against Israel on October 7. All of them apply. And no one word adequately describes our response. Anger. Fear. Shock. Grief. Despair. Hate. 

Sadly, some of this hatred is being channeled into racism and incitement against Jews and Palestinians here in our own community. While the Jewish community has done a very good job of raising awareness about the nature and signs of antisemitism, we have not given much thought to the experience of Palestinian Americans in the aftermath of the attack. So, on Sunday morning, when I saw there was going to be an “All Out for Palestine: Aid Now! Act Now!” rally and march, I decided to go to see for myself what was on the minds and hearts of Palestinian Americans and supporters of a Palestinian state who live in Dallas. 

When I first arrived, I saw friends I have worked with on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, victims of police brutality, battered women and others. I also saw my colleague Imam Omar Suleiman, a Palestinian American with family in Tulkarem, Nablus, and Gaza. My friends and those they introduced me to warmly welcomed me and thanked me repeatedly for being there. They hugged me in sympathy and sorrow for the brutal actions of Hamas in Israel.

There were chants and there were signs. The majority of them were anti-Israel and anti-Occupation. None encouraged violence. There was NO hint of support for Hamas. It was the outcry of people whose voices have been ignored, suppressed, weaponized and targeted by their fellow citizens and their elected officials in Dallas, in Austin, and in Washington. At times I felt uncomfortable, but in no way did I feel threatened by hearing what they had to say or seeing the signs they carried. 

The crowds started swelling with hundreds and then thousands of people, young and old, parents and children, students and teachers. My partner in Faith Commons, Rev. Dr. George Mason, joined me. I did not see anyone I recognized from the Jewish community or from Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square, where I first started to work with Pastor Mason and Imam Suleiman to combat injustice, inequity, and divisiveness in Dallas and beyond. This was in sharp contrast to the Community-Wide Solidarity Gathering that the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas organized last Tuesday night. Dozens of clergy of all faiths attended that event to show their support for Israel and the Jewish community.

One of the first speakers on Sunday was a Richland College student named Noor who read texts she had received the night before from her family in Gaza. Their homes were destroyed. They were desperately trying to make their way out with no electricity, food or water. After she spoke, I went over to ask if she would be willing, at some point in the future, to meet my Jewish friends whose Israeli families were murdered or kidnapped. They too had received texts from loved ones pleading for help as their homes burned overhead. Noor took my card, thanked me for being there, and told me she was open to making connections that might lead to dialogue and empathy in place of the rhetoric of competitive suffering, distrust and division.  

George and I were scheduled to be in the Galilee at that very moment, meeting with Israelis and Palestinians who have dedicated their lives to bringing holiness into the Holy Land through building a shared society. Pastor Mason and I had crafted a tour to Israel and Palestine which we titled, “What Makes This Land Holy?” Our itinerary was shaped by a deep love for Israel and a desire to help others find their own authentic love of the land through meeting the people who live in it. One of the places we planned to stay was the guest house at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a cooperative village jointly founded by Israeli Jews and Arabs in the 1960s. We planned to visit the Open House in Ramle, which houses a multi-cultural, interreligious center for civil initiatives and public dialogue, and attend a performance by Polyphony, a program based in Nazareth that bridges the divide between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel through music and the performing arts. 

For George and me, attending the rally felt like our way of honoring the people we should have been visiting. They are persisting in their work–even under these horrific circumstances–out of a conviction that the only way to stop sacrificing their children to senseless terror and destruction is to find a way to live together with mutual respect and dignity. We both share their vision, and believe we can help them get a little closer right here in Dallas, by finding Palestinian and other partners to strengthen and protect our own shared society. 

On Yom Kippur, Reform Jews around the world read Parashat Nitzavim. On a day of repentance and atonement, we listen to verses from Torah that emphasize our human capacity and freedom to make moral choices.

“This day I call heaven and earth to witness regarding you: life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your children may live. By loving the Lord your God and listening to God’s voice, and by cleaving to God. This is the way to lengthen your days living on the land that was sworn to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

These verses pose the existential question facing the Jewish community today: How do we best lengthen our days living on the land, as a Jewish people? As a lover of Israel I defend the right of Jews to live in our homeland. And as a lover of Israel, I want Israel to live up to Judaism’s highest moral aspirations. I believe pursuing both those goals together is the best way to provide a safe and secure Israel for the Jewish people. 

I cannot convince myself that the heinous acts of Hamas absolve Israel of its obligation to refrain from sacrificing innocent life, no matter what the circumstances. I don’t believe that Jews will lengthen our days if we dehumanize others to try to protect ourselves. I cannot sit idly by while Palestinians who have been denied human and civil rights as well as self-determination are referred to interchangeably with Hamas, a terrorist organization, here in my city, and in schools my own children attended.

This is why I do everything in my power, as an American and a Jew, to oppose any efforts to undermine or delegitimize the civil or human rights of any who dwell in Israel, Gaza, or the West Bank: areas controlled and/or governed by the Israeli government. I know Palestinians are not Hamas, just as I am not Ben-Gvir or Smotrich.

The forces of evil only grow stronger when we allow baseless hatred to divide us. Every nation has the right to defend itself. Israel is no exception. But even at times of crisis, we can demand collective compassion and selective punishment in place of collective punishment and selective compassion. All life is sacred, and must be protected. 

The attack on Israel by Hamas militants tragically destroyed and continues to destroy thousands of lives. Our canceled tour was part of the collateral damage. But Hamas’s actions have not, and cannot, silence God’s call to choose life. To love God. To listen to God’s voice. To cleave to God. That is why George and I attended the “All Out for Palestine” rally in Dallas on Sunday. To give our Faith Commons itinerary new life by de-traumatizing and re-humanizing relationships right here in Dallas. Any land can be made holy when we see the sanctity of the other and reach out in kindness and compassion. 

Among the friends I ran into on Sunday was Dr. Hind Jarrah, a Palestinian American and co-founder of the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation. I found Dr. Jarrah as she marched with the crowd through downtown Dallas, relying on her walker for support. When we saw each other we fell into each other’s arms and burst into tears. “Thank you for being here, ” she said. “You know, Nancy, seeing you here gives me hope. Things have to get better. I know they will get better.”