BAQA AL-GHARBIYA, Israel ((JEWISH REVIEW)) — On the morning of Oct. 7, Israeli human rights activist Ziv Stahl was visiting relatives in her childhood home of Kibbutz Kfar Aza.
As Hamas’ massacre on the Gaza border unfolded — with the terror group ultimately killing between 52 and 60 people from the small kibbutz community and kidnapping 17 — she waited in her family’s shelter alongside her niece’s partner, who had been wounded by Hamas gunfire earlier that morning. Until she was rescued from the secured room several long hours later, she feared for her own life and the fate of loved ones, some of whom — including her sister-in-law and childhood acquaintances — were killed that day.
About a week later, amid broad Israeli support for the escalating war, she wrote an essay calling for an end to “indiscriminate bombing in Gaza and the killing of civilians.”
“I have no idea how this will influence the rest of my life,” Stahl, the executive director of the legal rights organization Yesh Din, wrote in Haaretz. “If I will ever be able not to fear every small noise, not to imagine gunshots in the depths of the night. But one thing I feel more strongly than ever: we must stop this cycle of death. We must invest all of our power and energy in the end game, how to build a peaceful and secure future for all who live in this place.”
For Stahl and others in what is known as Israel’s “peace movement” or “shared society movement,” who have dedicated their lives to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and a diplomatic accord between the two peoples, Oct. 7 has caused immense pain and presented a formidable challenge.
A number of peace activists were killed or taken hostage from the kibbutz communities that bore the brunt of the attack, plunging the movement into mourning. Added onto that, they must now reimagine what a peaceful future can one day look like as Israelis’ sense of security was shattered and the country has entered a long war in Gaza with a mounting civilian death toll.
“We are here tonight to say the simplest and clearest message: we demand on standing together Jews and Arabs, also and especially during these difficult times” Alon-Lee Green, a founding director of the Standing Together movement for a shared society, said earlier this month before a mixed crowd of several hundred Jewish and Arab Israelis who gathered for a rally in the Arab-Israeli city of Baqa al-Gharbiya.
“We will choose a new path that is different and opposite the path our government has taken us down the last few years,” he said. “A path for Israeli-Palestinian peace and safety from north to south and for those on the other side in Gaza.”
The group is holding rallies to trumpet that vision in cities across Israel. Green and Sally Abed, Standing Together’s head of development, recently drew crowds of hundreds of people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere on a tour of U.S. cities.
But what the activists’ vision will lead to after the war ends, and what impact they will have, is still uncertain. A recent poll by Israeli Channel 12 found that 44% of respondents supported rebuilding Israeli settlements in Gaza, while 39% objected. A majority of respondents favored full Israeli control of the territory, reversing Israel’s 2005 withdrawal.
Imagining alternate visions for that “day after” in Israel is one of four new priorities the New Israel Fund, which supports a range of progressive nonprofits and causes, is funding in the wake of Oct. 7. The others are more immediate: offering direct relief to those impacted by the violence, protecting the civil rights of all Israelis and working toward a de-escalation of armed conflict. Alongside that, progressive groups including the NIF are in mourning, said Mickey Gitzin, the group’s Israeli director.
“So many of our own people, people that we knew, that we work with, are now either hostages in Gaza, or died during this time,” said Gitzin. He was referring to peace-activists like 74-year old Vivian Silver, who was declared dead last week when her remains were discovered more than a month after the attack, and 32-year old Hayim Katsman who was murdered in Holit, among others.
The NIF also has experience with something left-wing activists across Israel say they’re experiencing: active opposition from the government. The NIF has long drawn backlash from right-wing lawmakers for supporting groups that aid Palestinians, Arab Israelis, asylum seekers in Israel and other groups. In May, Ariel Kallner, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party in parliament, proposed an income tax rate of 65% on all non-governmental organizations, such as the NIF, that receive foreign funds — effectively killing their operations. The plan was dropped after it sparked sharp international reaction and fear that it would destroy Israeli civil society. A range of other legislators over the years have tried, and in some cases succeeded, to limit the activity of the NIF or its grantees.
Now, the wartime environment has created a “chilling effect” on free speech, said leading Israeli human rights attorney Michael Sfard. He said that is especially true for Arab Israelis, who have been investigated, imprisoned, suspended and fired for expressing various forms of solidarity with or compassion toward the people of Gaza. “Freedom of expression was never so battered as it is now,” Sfard said.
In addition, incitement toward Palestinians, including Israeli Arabs, appears to be on the rise. Last month, a crowd in Netanya chanted “death to Arabs” outside an Arab Israel student dormitory. Sfard said that the last month since the war started has seen a “tidal wave of incitement” towards Israeli Arabs.
A large number of Arab Israelis have been investigated, charged and detained for various forms of expression. As of last week, according to the Israel Police, there were 192 open investigations and 57 indictments of Arab Israelis for protest-related offenses — which Sfard says is more than the number of investigations for similar cases in the last five years combined. Meanwhile, according to the Times of Israel, as of Nov. 6 there have been zero indictments of Jews for violence toward Arabs — though several investigations of Jewish Israelis have been opened, and eight have been arrested for violent activities toward Arabs.
“The fear in the Palestinian community in Israel is to speak and express ourselves regarding the pain of others, and in general the fear to speak about the complexity of being an Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel at a time when there is a war in Gaza,” said Rula Daood, co-director of Standing Together, at the rally in Baqa al-Gharbiya. “It is a true fear, and on the Jewish side, there is an existential fear after the massacre of Oct. 7.”
Debates over Arab-Israeli discourse have even reached the country’s popular soccer league. This week, Maccabi Haifa signaled that it would release one of its star forwards, Dia Saba, after his wife published a post on Instagram in the days after Oct. 7 saying, “There are children in Gaza, and 800 children have already died in Gaza from our bombs. And even if they’re stuck between the murderousness of Hamas and our bombs in Israel, we must say that we need to do everything to prevent children from dying.” Both Saba and his wife apologized for the post.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, an American-born activist and founder of the Israeli human rights organization Torat Tzedek, views the increase in incitement and the crackdown on protest as the product of an Israeli “wartime hysteria” that is akin to the atmosphere in the United States after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“Israelis today are not really able to distinguish between Palestinian terrorists and terrorized Palestinians,” he said, comparing the situation to “Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor when Japanese Americans were put in camps. With all the anger and fear that Americans had, nobody was willing to stand up for Japanese Americans.”
Nowadays, Ascherman spends much of his time helping Palestinian olive farmers in the West Bank but says that “many activists are afraid” to volunteer because of a spike in West Bank violence since Oct. 7. There are others, he said, who “after the terrible slaughter of Israelis don’t want to be helping Palestinians right now.” He hopes either the U.S. or Israeli government makes an active effort to keep Israeli-Palestinian violence from spiraling even further in the West Bank.
“Of course, we’ve seen the statements by President Biden, by Jake Sullivan,” he said, referring to comments by the president and national security adviser condemning settler violence. “But in terms of results, there is not yet any change on the ground.”
Another Jewish-Arab organization, the Abraham Initiatives, has increasingly focused on its education and anti-racism programming as a way to continue building a shared society in Israel.
“We see racism is rising right now and we want to give our educators the tools to talk to and acknowledge students’ pain without minimizing at the same time the racism and intolerance,” explained Moran Maimoni, who is the group’s co-director of public affairs.
The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies — which has a mix of international, Jewish-Israeli, Arab-Israeli and Palestinian students — has ramped up a schedule of dialogue sessions between students and has relaxed its attendance policy. Deputy Director Eliza Mayo said students and staff on the school’s campus near Eilat are also “constantly checking in with each other.”
“I think the main thing is that we try to always remember that we have a shared belief in each other’s humanity,” she said.