Student Op-ed: Jews and Palestinians Deserve a Left that Values Their Full Humanity

Joseph Hillyard
on March 19, 2024

Recently, while walking between classes at New York University, I encountered a familiar symbol of our current moment:  a wall of hostage posters alongside images of Palestinian civilians, one placed on top of the other. Looking at the vandalized and torn faces of people, many of them children, suffering through the unimaginable, I felt sick. The competition for sympathy serves as a depressing reminder of our intense polarization. I had to travel elsewhere to find spaces that spoke to me. 

That afternoon, I arrived at a packed synagogue on the Upper East Side for an event with Combatants for Peace, a non-violent joint movement of Israelis and Palestinians committed to a just and equal future for all who call the land home. The speakers, an Israeli educator and a Palestinian organizer, were each inspiring in their own right. Both poignantly described their respective journeys, from being ignorant of one another’s history and experiences, to realizing this crisis requires a political solution based upon both peoples’ humanity. They also talked candidly about the complex grief that threatened to unravel the movement following October 7 and the power they found in trying to move forward together toward a future beyond cycles of violence. Within this space, we could hold both the horrors experienced by Israelis and Palestinians without being forced to choose whose humanity should be valued more. On my campus, in my community, in Congress, people seemed to make this choice every day.

Some of this polarization was, unfortunately, predictable. The Israeli and American far-right, which have spent years dismantling democracy, expanding settlements and attacking Palestinians, have proven glued to their ineffective, hawkish tactics. Even in wartime, Netanyahu continues to value power over all else, rebuffing efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza or placing priority on returning the hostages. Many Jewish legacy organizations, who tout their commitments to peace and justice at home, continue to refrain from criticizing the current Israeli government. The implication is that expressing support for the pain experienced by Israelis on October 7 and returning the hostages requires ignoring the terrible price being enacted on Palestinians in Gaza. Progressives have not been immune from such callousness. 

Like many left-leaning Jews, I have felt a sense of estrangement from many progressive spaces. I never anticipated ever feeling this way. I was raised in a multiracial Black-Jewish family where progressive politics were the norm. My maternal great-grandfather Joseph Yancey was the coach of the first racially integrated track and field team in New York City, and my father’s family history contains many secular Jews who went to Workers Circle meetings. As a child, I idolized the Roosevelts and read John Lewis’ autobiographical graphic novel series March about his activism during the Civil Rights Movement. I wholeheartedly believe in the right of Israel to exist, but am vehemently opposed to the occupation and support progressive forces in Israel/Palestine for co-existence and peace. It’s a position that makes me simultaneously “too progressive for the Zionists and too Zionist for the progressives.” 

One of the first messages I remember receiving after October 7 was an email from a social justice-oriented NYU club that shared links to an organization with a history of militant rhetoric appearing to justify the attacks as a form of “resistance.” This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. Instead of elevating the diverse chorus of Palestinians, Israelis and Americans for coexistence, these voices have been marginalized. In a cruel irony, the movement that taught me intersectionality has helped normalize the isolated recognition of only one group’s pain, not both. Our progressive values should demand that we see this conflict beyond picking a “side” and recognize the shared suffering of both peoples. Jews and Palestinians deserve a left that values their full humanity, not one that flattens them into simplistic narratives. 

The existence of on-the-ground movements like Combatants for Peace, The Parents Circle and Standing Together prove that this binary we have created for ourselves is false. As Sally Abed, co-director of Standing Together, recently stated: “I always say that Palestinian liberation necessitates Jewish safety, and vice versa. And I say it to both sides. You’re pro-Israel? You need to liberate Palestinians. You’re pro-Palestinian? You need to talk about Jewish safety.” Denying the horrors of October 7 and the plight of the hostages or the increasingly dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza doesn’t serve the interests of either people.  

Over the past five months, watching the horrific loss of life in Israel and Gaza, and the polarized reactions, tinged with overt antisemitism and Islamophobia, I admit to being cynical about seeing peace in my lifetime. But regardless of my cynicism, I continue to find inspiration in the individuals and groups who strive to see the dignity and nuances in the experiences of both peoples. May we one day see a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.