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Amid Israel-Hamas war, Jewish residents in Louisville share their perspectives

People look at recreations of famous Jewish artist Marc Chagall's sketches.
Stephanie Wolf
/
LPM
People look at recreations of famous Jewish artist Marc Chagall's sketches.

Members of Louisville’s Jewish community said they have felt distressed since the war between Israel and Hamas began. LPM News spoke to more than a dozen residents about their experiences.

The conflict is happening more than 6,200 miles away. But the gravity of the war in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank is deeply felt by people here, just as it is by other members of the Jewish diaspora across the world.

People are still processing the violence of Oct. 7. On that day, the Palestinian militant group Hamas attacked Israel, killed over 1,000 people and took more than 200 hostages.

For weeks afterward, college student Miriam Bird found it hard to focus in class. She spent a gap year in Israel and has friends there.

“I found myself checking social media a lot because I was always afraid that one of the people that I'm going to see that was killed would be someone that I knew,” she said.

Like Bird, a lot of local Jewish residents have friends and family in Israel. Many of them also grieve collectively.

“People have asked, ‘Do you have family there?’ Well, aren't we all family?” said Michelle Elisburg, who lives in Southern Indiana and did volunteer work in Israel last November. “I mean, really, the Jewish people are all one people.”

For Elisburg and so many other Jewish people, Israel is intrinsically tied to their identity and faith. And that’s true in the Ohio River Valley.

A 2022 Brandeis University study found 80% of Jewish adults in Louisville “feel some sense of emotional attachment to Israel,” and more than a third have gone there at least once.

Even though it’s far away, Elisburg said she feels connected to Israel.

“You know, the land — it’s in our text, it’s in our prayers,” she said.

Israel became a state in 1948, bringing great relief to many Jewish people across the world — just three years after the Holocaust. The new country fought a war to establish control of the land.

Israel’s creation caused a catastrophe, or Nakba, for Palestinians. At least 700,000 were permanently displaced.

University of Louisville professor Ranen Omer-Sherman is an American and Israeli citizen who served as a combat soldier in the Israel Defense Forces in the 1970s.

Omer-Sherman sees two traumatized societies that both deserve justice and a homeland.

“I think that when we lose our compassion, and we become indifferent to the suffering of the other side, we lose everything,” he said.

In a class he has taught since the 1990s, Omer-Sherman presents Palestinian and Israeli narratives of the other.

“Try to see that the other has a legitimate history,” he said. “It may be an oppositional history, but a history that needs to be recognized.”

When discussing the current war, Jewish Louisvillians speak of intergenerational trauma — trauma rooted in shared histories of death and survival during the Holocaust, pogroms and exile.

Omer-Sherman said Israel’s existence as a state is tied to a sense of safety for countless Jewish people.

Antisemitic violence has occurred throughout history and was top of mind for many of the people LPM News talked to for this story.

“There’s a way in which the connection to a Jewish homeland enables Jews to feel more confident and more at home in their own societies, even though, you know, that sounds like a paradox,” Omer-Sherman said.

After Hamas’s October attack, Israel launched a siege, bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza.

The Gaza health ministry says Israel’s military has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians. Over one-third of those were children.

Humanitarian organizations report most Gaza residents have been displaced and many are starving. Gaza is at risk of famine, and at least half of the buildings there are estimated to be damaged or destroyed.

There is tense debate — within the United Nations, on social media and across Louisville — about whether Israel’s continued bombings and military operations in Gaza are justified or genocidal.

Last month the United Nations’ International Court of Justice ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide in Gaza but did not call for a cease-fire.

The court's president, Joan Donoghue, announced the decision.

“The court considers that the civilian population in the Gaza Strip remains extremely vulnerable,” she read from the ruling.

The order also called for Hamas to release all remaining hostages.

The ICJ wields great influence but cannot enforce its decisions. Israel’s government said it’s already taking steps outlined in the order and continued its military offensive.

A ruling on whether Israel’s actions constitute a genocide, allegations Israeli leaders categorically deny, is probably years away.

A common thread among the Jewish residents who spoke to LPM News for this story is sympathy for the Palestinian civilians killed by Israel’s military.

But some of them say the onus to end the war should be on Hamas.

“Instead of calling for Israel to abide by a cease-fire, why doesn’t the world call for Hamas to release the hostages, lay down their weapons and face justice?” asked Leon Wahba, a Jewish Louisvillian who emigrated from Egypt decades ago when he was a child.

Multiple people said a majority of the local Jewish community is supportive of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. However, many also see flaws in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Ayala Golding of Louisville, whose parents survived the Holocaust, said she isn’t a fan of Netanyahu.

“But I do support Israel’s need for force against Hamas,” she said. “I mean, you can’t not engage. You can’t not respond.”

But some Jewish Louisvillians do oppose Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Siera Hanks helped organize a local letter for peace signed by more than 130 Jewish residents. The letter calls for Israel’s government to stop killing Palestinian civilians and work toward a lasting cease-fire.

Hanks said her solidarity with the Palestinian people is rooted in how she was raised.

“That's the most Jewish way for me to be, is in solidarity with people who are suffering and having their ways of life over-determined by another state,” she said.

Hanks said her perspective can cause tension in communal Jewish spaces. At times, she’s felt alone, but she knows other people see things the same way.

“And I really want to be adamant that we should be well-represented,” she said. “And we're relevant to the community here. We are a part of what it means to be Jewish in Louisville.”

Hanks said the current conflict has, and should, spark difficult conversations. She and other residents said dissent is a Jewish value.

“It's a blessing to continue to be in Jewish community in 2024,” Hanks said. “It's a blessing to be given the tools — through Talmudic reasoning and through textual study — to be able to speak back and forth within our tradition.”

People LPM News interviewed for this story said they’ve found solace and meaning in connecting with other Jewish people, regardless of how they view the war.

They’ve done that in many ways and places. At their synagogue, in prayer groups, through political organizing, during solidarity missions to Israel and in everyday conversations.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.