A crowd of protesters hold a banner on the street
Protesters called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war outside of Mexican Heritage Plaza in East San Jose on Jan. 29, 2024, ahead of a visit to the plaza by Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in town to highlight the need for reproductive rights. File photo.

If this column were one of my many recent conversations about the war in Gaza, I would not need to start with the usual prefaces. But unlike those conversations, this column reaches people who are not close professional acquaintances in the local social justice community (mostly community leaders I met when I was San Jose’s independent police auditor) or Jewish leaders whom I know well.

Alas, here are the prefaces.

I am Jewish, have been to Israel three times and know people who were directly impacted by the Oct. 7, 2023 attacks. The attacks were brutal, cruelly targeting children and other civilians. Unforgivably, hundreds of Israelis remain hostages nearly six months later.

I’m also a civil rights attorney and advocate. I have studied international human rights and international humanitarian law. Many experts have denounced the excesses, cruelties and recklessness of the way Israel’s government has conducted the war in Gaza. I am horrified that tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, and I want it to stop.

Indeed, there are those of us in the Jewish community who feel torn between these seemingly competing sympathies. We desperately want to be able to hold our own pain as Jews experiencing yet another horrific act of violence and our pain at bearing witness to unthinkable suffering in Gaza. We can support the idea of a Jewish state while our values and humanism simultaneously compel us to condemn the government of a state for which we have deeply-felt aspirations. Many Jews consider themselves Zionists or “pro-Israel” and see the humanity of Palestinians, have called for a ceasefire and yearn for a two-state solution and an end to the decades-old occupation.

In many conversations with local leaders, we did not see eye-to-eye on everything. This issue is so complex, and there’s a huge spectrum of opinion even within the Jewish community. But because of the preexisting foundation of trust, those differences of opinion didn’t end the conversation. They propelled it forward, and we both learned something.

The same is true with my Jewish conversation partners. The ongoing oppression of Palestinians and the latest acute violence resonate because of the parallel experiences of other peoples, and because of the enormous gap in power between the two sides. I could share my concerns about Jewish leadership and institutions needing to engage on local justice issues and calls for reform with those who don’t agree on Israel or didn’t respond to Oct. 7. Just as I don’t write off my friends who didn’t reach out about Oct. 7, I don’t abandon those groups I care about and admire for their advocacy work.

Jews in Santa Clara County can protect their own sense of safety and belonging while being open to other views and willing to be challenged. While we protect ourselves, we should remember that not every criticism of Israel, or even of Zionism, is anti-Semitic or warrants outrage. Nor does every defense of Israel or of Zionism mean antipathy toward Palestinians. We could all stand to listen more, live in the gray, look for nuance, give each other some benefit of the doubt, even be uncomfortable.

Why does this matter? Because Jewish leaders and institutions have a long and rich history of contributing to civil rights and social justice movements that are led by communities of color. Interfaith efforts and religious-nonreligious partnerships in Silicon Valley have been prominent aspects of a tight-knit advocacy landscape on housing justice, police reform and other issues. This social justice community includes Muslim and Arab groups and leaders. We should not walk away from relationships that have been fruitful in serving common goals and supporting communities we all wish to uplift.

In the aftermath of Israel’s initial offensive in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, it was Jews and Palestinians who engaged with one another, who had deep empathy and a strong sense of historical context in this phase of the conflict. They could sit knee to knee, knowing they have different perspectives and see each other’s humanity and suffering.

We probably cannot convince one another. But we can listen and trust that we are being honest in our hurt.

That is what I hope can happen at the local level too. I’m hopeful that groups with disparate views can accept those differences and move forward on a foundation of empathy and respect built over years of finding common cause on a broad range of social justice issues.

San José Spotlight columnist Aaron B. Zisser is a civil rights attorney based in San Jose (www.zisserlaw.com). He previously served as San Jose’s Independent Police Auditor and the Director of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Coordinator at Santa Clara University, investigated or oversaw investigations of police conduct in San Francisco and Oakland, and consulted on police, jail, and prison oversight. Early in his career, he spent more than five years investigating and monitoring correctional, mental health, and educational agencies as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and worked at a nonprofit civil rights organization in Philadelphia. His opinions are his own. His columns appear every first Friday of the month. Contact Aaron at [email protected].

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