Escalating violence in Israel and Gaza has rattled New York City, home to the world’s largest Jewish population outside of Israel and to enclaves of Palestinians spread across the city from Astoria to Bay Ridge. Amid a series of vigils and a few protests, the conflict has residents with close ties to the region glued to the news and desperate for updates on their loved ones in harm’s way.
“I’m still kind of trying to figure out if there’s something to do,” said 57-year-old Mikhal Dekel, a Manhattan-based distinguished professor at CUNY, who is originally from Israel and whose elderly relative, Alex Dancyg, was taken captive by Hamas fighters from his home on Kibbutz Nir Oz in Southern Israel.
“Hopefully, he’s still alive,” she said. “He’s very mentally strong, he’s physically very weak. He can barely walk. I just don’t see how he could survive in extreme conditions.”
Palestinian-American Maryam, 29, who asked that her last name not be used due to fears of retaliation, said she’d been out in the streets with a Palestinian flag in recent days and been harassed.
“This old man was like, ‘you’re a piece of shit, you’re a terrorist, you sympathize with killing children,’” she said. “I’ve been mentally and emotionally consumed by this. I’ve been called a terrorist sympathizer whenever I just say Palestinians have the right to exist.”
Maryam, who grew up in the United States, came back from her first visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank to see her family five weeks ago. They described being constantly surveilled, she said, adding that she’d had only sporadic contact with them since the weekend.
“They can’t talk about what’s going on. They can’t talk about how they truly feel. They are scared. They are rooting for me silently when I go and I protest,” she said. “This is why I love America.”
‘Mourning Right Now’
The death toll continues to climb as Israeli Defense Forces pummeled Gaza with air strikes, in retaliation after Hamas’ surprise attack on Israeli communities near the Gaza border over the weekend, where hundreds of civilians were murdered and captured, including at least 260 concert-goers at a music festival in the desert. It was the deadliest attack on Israeli soil in decades, and drew comparisons to 9/11.
On Monday, Israel announced a “total blockade” cutting off power to Gaza as well as shipments of food, water, fuel and medicines from entering the territory. Humanitarian groups have pleaded with authorities to allow them safe corridors to deliver aid amid an assault in which Israel’s defense minister, who called Palestinaians “animals” after the terror attack in southern Israel, said “I have removed every restriction — we will eliminate anyone who fights us, and use every measure at our disposal.”
By Wednesday afternoon officials said 1,200 Isrealis were killed in the attacks, including at least 22 U.S. citizens, with countless more injured and taken hostage. Gazan officials, in turn, have reported 1,100 deaths caused by Israeli airstrikes, with thousands more wounded, while Israel has asserted that many of those people were members of Hamas.
“So many of us are mourning right now. I’m devastated,” said Matan Arad-Neiman, a 25-year-old Israeli-American and organizer with IfNotNow NYC, behind a vigil on Wednesday evening in Washington Square Park. He said he lost a member of his extended family over the weekend.
“I’m also horrified by the way that Israeli political leaders and leaders here in the US. too have weaponized our grief to justify indiscriminate bombing on Gaza,” he said. “We need deescalation right now. More bloodshed won’t bring back our loved ones.”
With many commercial flights to and from Israel grounded, hundreds of Israeli families visiting Crown Heights were stranded in Brooklyn according to the Chabad group Anash.org, which was seeking volunteers willing to house them.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Neiderman with the United Jewish Organizations said he was coordinating with American families currently stuck in Israel.
“I am totally overwhelmed with the situation and trying to get people in the community back home who are stranded,” he said in an email.
Dekel, the CUNY professor, said she was wrestling with whether to go back to Israel to try to care for her elderly parents in Haifa, and with what Israel should be doing now.
“What is the right thing to do and is there a right thing to do?” she wondered. “I feel very hopeless.”