The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is dividing American society way beyond the Beltway.
The Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, in which around 1,400 Israelis were killed, and the Israeli reprisals that followed — which have reportedly killed more than 5,000 Palestinians — have roiled Hollywood, academia, the media and the arts, as well as the political world.
The debate is fierce and often bitter, with voices on both sides expressing personal hurt and bewilderment at the charges being thrown their way.
Above all, it’s a dispute where both sides feel unheard by the other.
Defenders of Israel say many of those expressing broadly pro-Palestinian views are minimizing, or even excusing, the horrific nature of the Hamas attack and turning a deaf ear to the depth of trauma in the Jewish diaspora.
They also contend that some of those critics are antisemites or Hamas sympathizers.
“There is a sense of deep distress and disappointment” among the Jewish community about some responses to the Hamas attack, said Joel Rubin, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
“In the wake of enduing a mass atrocity terrorist attack, the first reaction seemed to be, first, being quiet, and then overt victim-blaming — meaning, blaming Israel for those attacks,” added Rubin, who is also a candidate in the Democratic House primary for Maryland’s 6th District.
But pro-Palestinian voices argue that the suffering of people in Gaza, and the enormous death toll there, has not received the same media or political attention as the killings in Israel.
They also argue that it is vital to understand the broad context for the conflict — including the decades-long Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the deprivations of life in Gaza. Acknowledging such facts is in no way tantamount to excusing the Oct. 7 attack, they say.
“This idea that providing context is somehow providing sympathy for terrorism is a very frequently employed talking point by apologists for Israel’s apartheid government,” said Omar Baddar, a Palestinian American political analyst.
Baddar pointed out that, prior to Oct. 7, around 250 Palestinians had been killed this year, primarily in the West Bank, and he added “settlers were attacking Palestinians far more frequently, and the siege on Gaza was unlivable.”
He also noted that, back in 2018, when Gazans marched to the border fence with Israel to protest Israel’s blockade, the Israelis opened fired on them. At the time, CBS News reported that some of the protesters had tried to break through the fence, and that Israel had killed 38 protesters in less than a month.
The fundamental divides between the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian positions have caused rifts between major colleges and their donors; drawn major media outlets into heated controversy, most notably over an explosion at a Gaza hospital; and have even reverberated through Hollywood and the entertainment world.
In the political realm, some of the most fractious divisions are within the Democratic Party.
Most figures on the center-left, including President Biden, are emphatic supporters of Israel.
Younger, more progressive figures tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians — a trend best epitomized by members of “the Squad,” including Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The battles among Democrats can have an intensely personal edge, as seen in recent days between Omar and Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), a vigorous backer of Israel.
Last Friday, an anguished Omar asked rhetorically of Torres, “How many more killings is enough for you? Is it a thousand more? Two thousand more? Three thousand more? How many more Palestinians would make you happy if they die?”
On Tuesday, asked about those comments by CNN’s Dana Bash, Torres responded, “I obviously resent those comments. Every casualty’s a tragedy … But we have to keep in mind the causes of the war. Israel did not start the war. The war was imposed upon Israel by the barbaric terrorism of Hamas.”
Beyond Washington, a Palestine Solidarity Committee at Harvard sparked a firestorm that has yet to be extinguished when, soon after Hamas’s attack, it released a statement holding “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
Amid widespread outrage, Harvard’s president Claudine Gay on Monday said that she condemned antisemitism “in all its forms” and added “it has no place at Harvard.”
Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal reported that “elite universities” including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania were facing a “donor revolt” over allegations that they had not been forceful enough in rebutting antisemitism.
In Hollywood, more than 700 celebrities and executives signed a letter backing Israel in the week after Hamas’s attack.
Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Lee Curtis and Amy Schumer were among those who signed the letter demanding that Hamas’s “barbaric acts of terrorism” should be “called out by everyone.”
But the issue has proven problematic in Hollywood, too.
Sarah Silverman faced criticism for sharing a post on Instagram defending the cutting off of power and water to Gaza. Meanwhile, one of Hollywood’s top agents, Maha Dakhil, resigned from the internal board of leading agency CAA after a social media post that suggested Israel was guilty of “genocide.”
Celebrity activism always draws detractors who complain about the self-importance of those involved, but there are clearly downsides for those weighing in on an issue as contentious as the current conflict.
“It’s difficult to make an argument that these celebrities are being particularly calculating, because by taking a side on this they are ultimately taking a risk,” said Mark Harvey, an associate professor at the University of Saint Mary and the author of “Celebrity Influence,” a book about celebrity advocacy.
In activist circles, meanwhile, mutual frustration is plain as charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia are thrown back and forth, along with disputes as to which side in the conflict is the oppressor or the oppressed.
Rubin argued that, following the initial Hamas attack, “in the Jewish community there was a real sense of physical insecurity. The seeming approval of an attack as a consequence of the occupation, with the attacks being of such a vile nature, made people feel physically nervous.”
But Eva Borgwardt, the national spokesperson for If Not Now, a movement of American Jews opposed to Israel’s occupation, notably referred in the plural to “Jewish communities” that were “in a lot of pain right now.”
Her organization, she contended, is “ending the lie that Jewish or Israeli safety relies on Palestinian suffering. We are calling for a ceasefire, a release of the hostages, and to end the decades of occupation, apartheid and siege that have led to this horrific nightmare.”
The nightmare of conflict seems sure to continue for the moment — with American divisions around it growing ever deeper.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.