(JTA) – Not knowing what else to do this week, Julia S. posted some pictures of herself in Israel on social media.
Like other American Jews, Julia, a 25-year-old psychology doctoral student at Northwestern University, was shocked and horrified by the devastation wrought by Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel. She is planning to get married in Israel next fall, and has close friends who moved to Israel. Yet she still thought to herself, “What does this have to do with me?”
It was only when she saw a prompt on Instagram that called for young Jews to share photos of themselves in Israel for “solidarity” that Julia, who asked that her last name not be used to avoid online harassment, felt she had permission to make it, in some small way, about her. She shared photos of herself with her friends and fiance in Israel, hoping to provide a more human face to the ongoing tragedy.
She didn’t know at the time that the prompt had been a coordinated effort by Birthright Israel to promote pro-Israel sentiment on social media amid concerns about criticism stemming from Israel’s military response in Gaza. One Israel-based Birthright marketing executive, Noa Bauer, described the social media push to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as a publicity campaign that Israel would need “in the coming days and weeks when there’s probably going to be more casualties.”
Bauer added, referring to Birthright’s American alumni, “I think that they owe us as Jews, and as human beings, to give their thoughts.”
Yet Julia, a Birthright alum, didn’t see her support as transactional. She’s also trying to hold space in her heart for other forms of grief. “You can support Israel; you can also support Palestinian children. The two are not exclusive of one another,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve been hesitant in posting about Israel, but I’m also making sure that I recognize the other innocent civilian lives that are lost in this whole entire war.”
Within a deeply polarized discourse about Israel among American Jews, Julia joins many in the relatively quiet middle: seared by grief, worried about what comes next, and not quite sure how to reconcile the two.
Prominent Jewish voices occupied the headlines this week calling, on one side, for Gaza to be flattened into a “parking lot” (Rep. Max Miller, the Jewish Republican from Ohio) and, and on the other side, for a total ceasefire (the left-wing groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which staged several mass protests, including at the U.S. Capitol). But between those poles lie many more people in Julia’s shoes, just trying to make sense of a moment that seems to defy it — and potentially more difficult moments on the horizon.
“It’s terrible that Israelis are being killed. It’s also terrible that civilian Palestinians are being killed,” said Lisa Young, a self-described “Conservadox” Jew who spoke to JTA at a Chabad-Lubavitch pro-Israel event in New York City. Young said she has friends who used to live in Gush Katif, Israeli settlements in Gaza that were evacuated, along with all of Israel’s troops, in 2005.
“Unfortunately, Israel has to defend itself,” she said. “It’s a small country. They only want peace. They don’t want to attack and kill innocent lives. But they don’t have a choice but to respond to what’s happening amongst their people.”
The wrestling took center stage last Shabbat as congregations across the country were packed with Jews bucking social media rumors of a “day of jihad” and seeking spiritual guidance for the long road ahead. Rabbis are expected to continue addressing the crisis this weekend from their pulpits.
Some liberal rabbis spoke of the need for a looming, difficult, but necessary, war to safeguard the Jewish state, or ceded their sermon times to Israelis who made similar points.
“From my experience there are no winners at war. All sides are losers,” said Israeli-American Josh Berkovitz, a former Israeli soldier and pro-Israel activist, in a speech to Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, the largest Reform congregation in the country. “But this time, this war is about the very existence of the Jewish homeland, Israel. We have to win. There is no alternative.”
Others pressed their congregants to understand Israel’s motivations for military action while also maintaining empathy for the human toll. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of New York City’s Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation, called Israel’s campaign against Hamas “a just and moral war — one we didn’t choose, but now can’t avoid.” She also urged her congregation to “not equate Hamas with the Palestinian people” and to “mourn the death of all innocent lives.”
Some have gone further. “Killing thousands of Palestinian civilians will not bring back the Israeli civilians who are so bitterly and excruciatingly mourned,” Congregation Beth Elohim’s Rabbi Rachel Timoner said during her sermon in Brooklyn last week.
As some American Jews cite feelings of personal connection to the Hamas attacks as justification for supporting Israel’s actions, others who have direct connections to them are calling for the opposite. Cliel Shdaimah’s grandmother Ditzah Heyman, the widow of a Holocaust survivor, was seen in a video being taken hostage by the terror group. Yet Shdaimah’s family has been advocating against further Israeli military action in the media.
“I cannot and will not stand with violence, let alone when it is done in my family’s and other’s name,” Shdaimah told JTA via email. In addition, she said, her family is concerned that a lack of intelligence around the hostages’ location and condition means their health and safety could be jeopardized by Israel’s military incursion. (Hamas released two American hostages late Friday.)
Shdaimah urged American Jews “to not allow their love for Jews or Israel be poisoned by terror, not let Islamophobia or anti-Palestinian sentiments mar their compassion for human beings.”
Other progressive American Jews feel horrified simultaneously by the Hamas massacre, responses from the left blaming Israel for the crisis and Israel’s campaign in Gaza. Naomi Levison, 27, a social worker in Colorado who is active with a progressive Jewish collective called Denver Doikayt, is also still close with what she describes as the “very Zionist” community in Atlanta where she grew up and attended Jewish day school and summer camp. Her social media feed, she estimates, is 80% from her Atlanta and Young Judaea Israel gap-year communities, and she’s distressed by what she sees there.
“It’s been really devastating, and I feel a lot of complex emotions,” she told JTA. “I have a lot of loved ones in Israel. I lived in Israel. So I’m grieving what happened last Saturday.”
Yet pushes from Jews, and Jewish organizations like Birthright, to keep supporting Israel as a means of managing such grief are falling flat for her. “It feels as though our grief is being weaponized,” she said. “I’m also, at the same time, horrified how Israel is — I want to say ‘retaliating,’ I guess — and how a lot of my Jewish community is defending these actions and this violence.”
She specifically cited Israel’s decision early on to cut off food, electricity, fuel and water to Gaza, which she said is “clearly targeting civilians.”
“I feel really isolated from within the Jewish community,” she said. “And isolated from people who aren’t in the Jewish community who don’t understand the grief we’re feeling.”
Lily Lester contributed to this report.