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Omaha Magazine

A World Away at Home

Dec 21, 2023 01:42PM ● By Julius Fredrick
a world away at home january february 2024

Design by Joey Winton.

*Note: Interviews for this story took place between October 24 and November 11 and reflect information available at the time.

A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.” (Genesis 2:10)

The roaring Tigris and murmuring Euphrates flare from the Taurus Mountains, carving distant yet parallel paths before reuniting at the Persian Gulf; along the banks of the north-flowing Nile, sacred ibis wade through the branches of a fanning delta.

Silt-rich arteries flowed into placental basins, nourishing a new mode of life. Approximately 10,000 years ago, twin “cradles of civilization” swayed with agricultural breakthrough, fixed settlement, material culture, and over the proceeding millennia, expansionist ambition: Mesopotamia (“Land Between Two Rivers”) and Egypt (“Black Land,” for its dark, fertile soil).

By the lifeblood of these rivers, the successive dynasties of ancient Egypt and empires of Mesopotamia vied for influence over the contemporary Middle East. At the grinding edges of these regional powers, another culture broke from the craggy hills and gorges straddling the River Jordan and eastern Mediterranean shoreline. A nexus of trade connecting North Africa, West Asia, and Anatolia, its peoples benefited materially and technologically from their powerful neighbors—and invariably, suffered under their armies for control of said trade. The kingdoms and city-states of historical Canaan (“The Subjugated,” in ancient Egyptian) and their Levantine descendants were fated to be conquered; doomed, time and again, by their own geography.

Yet, their legacy casts a sheen on history more luminous than any Pharaoh’s sarcophagus or Babylonian crown. From this anvil of empires, the Semitic languages, survived today by modern Hebrew and Arabic, among others, were forged. Hammered by endless conquest, the nascent Abrahamic tradition at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam not only endured, but radiated across the globe.

Fatefully, this resilience of language and tradition is only matched by the strife and bloodshed that attended their birth. After more than 4,000 years, territorial disputes continue to smolder; the “Promised Land” still burns.

On October 7, 2023, armed militants stormed the walls between Israel and the Gaza Strip as salvos of rocket fire thundered overhead. Under the command of Gaza’s de facto ruling party—the Sunni fundamentalist Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas—insurgents systematically targeted Israeli defenses in a surprise attack, overwhelming them.

Tragically, the true horrors of that day were yet to unfold. At frontier towns and kibbutzim in Southern Israel, rocket sirens blared. What began as confused murmurs among their residents steadily, then very suddenly, rose in pitch, until only screams and desperate pleas for life—cut short by bursts of gunfire—shattered the air. Acts of Bronze Age brutality, including abduction, mutilation, immolation, and reports of sexual assault, took place. In total, Hamas’ onslaught claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Israelis, including men, women, and children; an additional 240 were taken captive.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu issued a stark warning, invoking the rulers of antiquity in his diction: “We will take mighty vengeance for this black day. All the places where Hamas hides, operates from—we will turn them into cities of ruin.”

At time of writing, it’s been over 60 days since the October 7 terror attack on Israeli soil. As the rubble piles up, and the death toll climbs, it becomes clear: the Prime Minister’s words were no empty threat. According to Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has jettisoned at least 10,000 explosives over Gaza City alone; according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, more than 17,000 Palestinians, 4,600 of which are reported to be children, have perished.

 

Water, food, fuel, medicine, and telecommunication services have been substantially reduced or severed; dehydration, illness, and mass displacement plague the bomb-cratered remains of the Gaza Strip. Members of the United Nations Security Council, including Secretary General Antonio Guterres, have accused Israel of violating international law as chartered by the Geneva Conventions. Numerous humanitarian aid organizations have designated the fallout in Gaza a “humanitarian catastrophe,” calling for an immediate ceasefire.

 

Half a world a way, the denizens of another river-born community grapple with the carnage. On the western banks of the Missouri, the city of Omaha (“Against the Current,” in native Umoⁿhoⁿ) wade through the historical, political, religious, and ethical ambiguities surfaced by a distant war. Though reactions vary, a fundamentally human condition binds them, one that transcends both time and place: tears for what’s been lost, and compassion where they converge.

 

These are their stories.

 

 

Demonstration | Communication

 

At the intersection of 72nd and Dodge Streets, banners unfurl in the October breeze. Chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” carry across Omaha’s busiest intersection, met with intermittent honks from passing motorists. Far from any raided kibbutz or bombed-out hospital, dissenters stake their claim and exercise their right to protest—organized by Nebraskans for Peace (NFP), a statewide, progressive organization broadly focused on issues of social justice. Amid the outcry, a young woman outlines her case in no uncertain terms.

“The reason I’m here today is because I view Palestine as one of the places on earth where the most horrific things are happening,” said 26-year-old Maria Hill, a university student and member of NFP’s Nebraskans for Palestinian Rights Task Force. “Oftentimes, when people think about tragic times in history, they think, ‘I would’ve acted differently, I would’ve been one of the people who went against this.’ And now, when people are going against this, they’re facing backlash […] to consider myself a progressive and a person who believes in human rights, supporting Palestine is one of the most basic things I can do.”

Hill’s stance is shared in classrooms across the nation, where a simple thought experiment is issued across a spectrum of moral quandaries: “What would you have done?” Her next assertion, however, is a bit thornier.

“I think that Palestine is doing what it needs to survive. They are refusing to be cleansed from this earth,” she continued, “and if that requires resistance—if that requires doing the same things Israel has done, which is violence—then Palestine will speak the same language that Israel understands.”

The ‘eye for an eye’ polemic notwithstanding, Hills’ stance sums up a Hegelian pull-string that’s come to animate progressive thought in academia, pockets of Western media, and in ever-growing numbers, the outlook of youth toward statecraft: power dynamics framed by the dichotomy of the “exploiter” and “exploited.” In the context of this conflict, terms like “colonizer,” and “apartheid state” are common parlance among those who view Israel as an imperialist, occupying power, harkening all the way back to the displacement of Palestinian Arabs and the declaration of the Jewish State in 1948.

Granted, Israel’s ongoing joint-blockade of Gaza with Egypt in response to Hamas’ narrow election victory in 2006, the partitioning of the occupied West Bank into the fragmentary ‘Palestinian Archipelago,’ and the destruction of critical infrastructure during Israeli offensives and counteroffensives have drawn scrutiny prior to today’s hostilities. While prone to oversimplification and often dismissive of Israel’s existential concerns, progressive critique finds easy purchase among these scenes of unilateral strength, informed or otherwise.

Such sociopolitical leanings, along with the democratization of content via social media, are two of the largest wedges dividing generational views of the war.

“When I was high school, we were taught that this was a complicated issue. We were taught that it’s difficult to learn about, and the people that should be talking about this are those who are deeply educated on it,” Hill recalled. “But now that information is accessible, people are able to see the things that are happening in Palestine; people are able to see the bombings, they’re able to see firsthand accounts, they’re able to see children dead rather than a news outlet saying children are dead […] people are able to learn about it in a way that isn’t gate-kept.

“We’re able to access the knowledge required to know that Palestine should be free.”

____

Overlooking a campus of rolling greenery, walking paths, and a placid lake, the Tri-Faith Center invites a sense of calm and practitioners of all three Abrahamic faiths to worship in harmony. At the crossroads of Temple Israel, Countryside Community Church, and the American Muslim Institute, Tri-Faith Executive Director Wendy Goldberg is well-versed in matters of ideological difference. It’s a language she encourages everyone to practice.

“It’s not surprising to me; we all get our information differently,” she said of the generational divide. “If you’re watching TikTok, you’re going to a have a different response than if you’re watching CNN or Fox, right? We curate our own feeds, we read with our own affinity groups…and what we’re trying to do is counter that and to help people understand that it’s hard to hate people up close. We want to make this personal; we want to make it local.

“We want to counter the media feed that is, ‘everything is on fire,’ and ‘everything is broken,’ and remind you that peaceful proximity is possible—that’s what we’re doing here.”

A fourth-generation Omaha native, Goldberg cofounded the Tri-Faith Initative in 2006 and was present at the signing of the nonprofit’s founding memorandum. She has served as its executive director since 2019.

“The Tri-Faith Initiative grew out a response to 9/11, where some members of Temple Israel, the reformed Jewish congregation in Omaha, showed up at a local mosque,” she said. “Not necessarily to pray or solve the issue of 9/11, but to stand with people who were people of faith and to honor that they had no part in the atrocities of 9/11—to stand in solidarity.”

From this place of compassion, potlucks and picnics brought Omaha’s Muslim and Jewish communities closer together. After a time, mutual appreciation would contour the pages of a land agreement and the thesis of a grand experiment: The Tri-Faith Initiative. Seventeen years and a Daily Show appearance later, the project has been lauded as an international model of success. Goldberg takes pride in this triumph, but acknowledges it hasn’t always been easy. Indeed, the events of October 7 and its aftermath have tested Omaha’s interfaith community like never before.

“There is no question that the last few weeks have been the hardest in terms of putting tension on the threads that connect us,” she said. “And I’m pleased to report that we are withstanding the stress. It’s potentially stretching us to some limits, but what I’m learning is that public statements are hurtful and private conversations are hopeful. And I am witnessing Jews and Muslims, and in some contexts Christians as well, disagree and maintain deep, trusting friendships.”

Jewish identity is multifaceted and deeply personal, encompassing religion, ethnicity, heritage, and community. For Goldberg, her anguish as a Jewish woman is both embraced and distanced from her leadership position at Tri-Faith.

“The hardest part for me as an interfaith leader is walking between those narratives—separating myself from my religious identity and prioritizing peaceful coexistence,” Goldberg confessed. “It’s also the most beautiful part of my life, having the privilege to see the nuance and the complexity of what Jewish people are saying and want to hear balanced with what Palestinian people are saying and want to hear. It’s my goal to understand the breadth of that, to not take sides but to understand and help others understand why people are taking sides and how and why it impacts our life in Omaha, Nebraska.”

Goldberg flashed a weary smile, then shared an anecdote:

“I have a close friend in the mosque who is Muslim, and she was at one rally and I’m at another rally, and her mom wrote me a beautiful note about one of the messages that we (Tri-Faith) put out [about the conflict],” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I want my mom to meet your mom.’ So, last Saturday, the four of us went to lunch. So, you know, we’re in the middle of a war and we’re showing up for our own communities, but in between that? Oh, well, we went to lunch together. And our moms, who had never met before, said: ‘We have so much in common. We both raised peace builders.’”

Destructive acts are swift and thoughtless. Building peace, meanwhile, is an arduous, often thankless task. The raw materials—patience, humility, and most precious of all, empathy—demand a special temperance of mind and heart to reach. While Goldberg endorses a “path to peace and a two-state solution” as a potential fix to the broader conflict, she reiterates the value of interpersonal and communal discourse when and wherever generalizations foster hatred. She encourages people on all sides to dig deep.

“We don’t have the ability to lead in the Middle East, but we do have the ability to see and know each other in Omaha, Nebraska,” she said. “How do we invite people into a community of care? To open themselves to narratives other than their own? To get curious and courageous to change the paradigm?

“Could we change the paradigm of responding with violence to responding with love?”

 

Photo Provided.

Life | Taken

“That’s him, that’s Omer…from my youth group” said 22-year-old Mika Mizrahi, pointing to a portrait of a young man.

Above the portrait, red letters display his age and name in English and Hebrew: “Omer Wenkert (22).” His smiling eyes are among the hundreds gazing upon the reception hall of Omaha’s Jewish Community Center, silent faces, young and old.

Below, a clarion call: “BRING HIM HOME NOW!”

On October 7, Mizrahi was far from home. As part of a program facilitated by the Jewish Agency of Israel and the Jewish Federation of Omaha, she traveled from her village in the Golan Heights to Omaha, claiming her post as a community Schlicha, or emissary, this past September.

“It’s a really small place with nature all around, I can see the Keneret (Sea of Galilee) from my balcony. Horses and cows everywhere, and everyone has a dog or two,” Mizrahi said of her kibbutz, where her father owns and operates an ice cream parlor. “Everyone knows each other, if not by name then by face. We celebrate everything together.

“I really like Omaha. It’s a really big city…really loving and warm people,” she added, the metro her residence for two more years to come.

One of roughly 10,000 Israeli youth selected annually to participate, Mizrahi’s excitement would calcify into dread, despair, and heartache as bulletins and panicked messages from friends and family flooded her phone on the 7th. Though Israel’s Jewish community is the largest in the world at just over 7 million, the nation’s borders hardly exceed those of New Jersey in terms of square mileage. For Jews in Israel, and even for many abroad, degrees of separation are slim; when adjusted for population, the death toll of the 9/11 terror attacks would tally 40,000 losses relative to the United States.

“My neighbor was murdered, and his partner is dead. Someone I know from the youth movement is dead and so is another person from my past. And another person (Omer Wenkert) I know from the youth movement was kidnapped,” Mizrahi said, eyes wide and searching behind wireframe glasses.

“It’s hard…it’s hard no matter where you are. I’m here in the United States, but I don’t feel like I’m here. It’s already a month after and my emotions are a big rollercoaster—you’re breaking down and then you need to hold yourself together to continue, and even be strong, for the community and your family.”

To Mizrahi’s view, the scale and malice of the attack represents a revision of hostile intent toward Israelis by Palestinians inhabiting the Gaza Strip, spurred by religious hatred rather than nationalistic ambition.

“People think this about the land, right? But the war is now about religion,” she said. “They (Hamas) changed it—they just want to murder as many Jews as they can, and even Arabs [that associate with Jews]. Before October 7, I was more optimistic. After October 7, I have little faith that peace can happen…not because we don’t want it, but when the other side just wants to kill you, you don’t have a chance with peace.

“When his mission is to kill you, how can you share the land? How can you have peace?”

Religion has played an understandably outsized and inflammatory role throughout Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the ascent of Hamas over the secular Fatah party in 2006 provided fresh kindling for archaic animus. Regardless, it should be noted that religious zealotry has manifested on both sides of the ‘Green Line’ and well before Hamas emerged as the dominant faction in Gaza.

Centered around the gradual implementation of a two-state solution, the signing of the U.S.-mediated Oslo Accord (I) in 1993 marked the greatest breakthrough toward stabilizing Israeli-Palestinian relations to date. Once sworn enemies, its signatories—Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat—were each awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.”

For average Palestinians and Israelis alike, peaceful coexistence seemed a genuine possibility; for others, it was never an option. Following the historic handshake over the South Lawn of the Whitehouse, Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups unleashed a campaign of suicide bombings and raids targeting Israeli civilians. In 1995, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a far-right, ultra-Orthodox Israeli extremist who opposed territorial concessions and acted “on the orders of God.” Peace talks floundered, and disagreement over Jerusalem and its holy sites stymied the final stages of the ‘Oslo Process,’ with Arafat notoriously forfeiting generous terms at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and again at the Taba Summit in 2001.

With promises of formal statehood dashed, the Second Intifada (Arabic for “Revolt”) erupted, Hamas’ muhajideen guerrilla influence more brazen and lethal than ever. The PLO’s reputation plummeted in the Palestinian Territories, and national security resumed top priority status in Israel. Tellingly, Hamas, a fanatical terrorist organization, and Netanyahu’s coalition governments—buoyed by increasingly maximalist, supremacist, and theocratic contingents—have largely defined Israeli-Palestinian relations since.

Whether the overtures of the ’90s and early 2000s were made in good faith by the parties involved—by Arafat, who seemed unwilling or incapable of trading his revolutionary ethos for that of a statesman when it mattered most, or by Israeli Prime Ministers, whose reticence to take a hard line on illegal settlements sewed distrust across the aisle—it represented the last time a majority of everyday Israelis and Palestinians actually believed in peace over empty platitudes or foreign pampering.

As for Mizrahi’s generation, Prime Minister Rabin’s declaration that “peace is not just a prayer” mere hours before his assassination isn’t a living memory, but a national myth—and sadly, a cautionary one at that.

“All my life when I lived in Israel, I heard about [pro-Palestine protests] but I’d never seen them. And this is my first, no, second time that I’ve really seen them with my own eyes. It’s really weird to for me to see it here…I was thinking Omaha was far from all this. I cannot tell people not to protest, but I can ask people to understand what they’re saying,” she urged. “People don’t understand, they don’t how many times we’ve said, ‘We want to do this, we want to have peace,’ over the years.”

Mizrahi stressed that few can relate to sharing territory with an organization who’s stated purpose is to destroy them. For context, Hamas’ founding covenant describes “so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences […] in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement,” and that “the Day of Judgement will not come until Moslems fight Jews and kill them.” She also implores people abroad to visualize the paralyzing reality of seeing loved ones suffer at the hands of masked, armed extremists, especially from afar.

 “I just want to be there and help everyone, and be there for my friends whose families were murdered and be at those funerals,” she said. “I want to tell [Omer] that we will not forget him even for a second, and he needs to stay strong, and we will get him back.

“And even the simple things, I just want a hug from my mom…and for her to tell me that everything is going to be okay.”

__

Dr. Rula Jabbour leaned forward in her chair, a silver cross shimmering at her throat. Her husband, Awad Qumsaya, idled a knowing glance before placing a gentle hand at her back; the bustle of the West Omaha cafe carried on.

“I’m turning into this intense, tough mother with my daughters. My daughter got a minus on her math last Friday. ‘Why would you get a minus? Look at Gaza, look at the kids—they are dying. They have nothing and you have everything,’” recalled Jabbour, describing the strain the crisis in Gaza has put on her family. “My daughter shouldn’t have to live by that comparison…but I’m not able to help it. I’m seeing the mothers who are hugging their kids while they are dead for hours in their arms. And I cannot help it to hug my daughter as if I’m never going to see her again, you know?”

Last year, Jabbour earned her doctorate in international relations, strategic studies, and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She’s taught a range of related courses throughout Nebraska, including at UNO, Midland University, and Wesleyan University; she’s currently drafting two books on the “the lifecycle of insurgency” and the “role of the military in the Arab Spring.” While Jabbour’s academic credentials are impressive, she draws much of her insight from first-hand experience.

“Nobody loves war. My parents have been disposed of their country for 12 years now because of war, because they are Christian,” she said, her family forced to flee their home village, Kinsabba, Syria, after falling to ISIS occupation in 2012.

Meanwhile, Qumsaya traces his roots to Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank, where his sisters, nieces, and nephews still reside. Jabbour, at once displaced from and connected to the region’s tumult, juggles personal loss with scholarly detachment—no easy task, given the circumstances.

“We are the people of that region. We’ve had many civilizations occupy it. Anywhere from 1,000 years, 100 years, 80 years, all of these occupations went away,” Jabbour said. “The Romans, the Byzantines, the Islamic Caliphate all withered away. And after that, the Ottoman Empire remained for 400 years in the region and also dissolved. This is a point for all the great powers because it connects three continents. But always, the locals pay the price. The Ottoman Empire didn’t just rule an empty land, right? And you cannot just wipe the name of the Palestinians from history to establish the Israeli nation…and accordingly, that’s where this drama started.”

For Jabbour and Qumsaya, Hamas reflects the desperation, not the will, of Gaza’s oft-neglected populace—an evil not born of spiritual corruption, but harsh economic and political realities. In this regard, the PLO, the Israeli Government, and U.S. foreign policy have all played roles, well-intended or otherwise, in fanning Hamas’ influence.

By 2006, the Palestinian Authority (the administrative branch of the PLO, represented by the Fatah party in Gaza) had been ousted as diplomatically ineffectual, administratively inept, and most damning of all, financially corrupt, siphoning millions of dollars in taxes and foreign aid into private, off-shore accounts held by Arafat and his closest supporters before his death in 2004.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, outwardly wary of the PLO, declared: “there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement.” Sharon revealed his plan to unilaterally disengage from Gaza in 2003, fulfilled by the dismantling of 23 Jewish settlements and the withdrawal of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) two years later.

In hindsight, the timing couldn’t have been worse; Arafat’s successor, the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas, had yet to consolidate power and his exclusion from the terms of disengagement undermined his already precarious standing. Hamas leadership pounced on the opportunity, championing the idea that armed resistance, not peace talks, had secured an autonomous Gaza—“three years of resistance produced more than 10 years of negotiation,” read a popular slogan at the time.

Finally, despite the urging of both PLO and Israeli advisors to withdraw Hamas from the ballot, the Bush administration clung to a starry-eyed view of democracy and allowed its representatives to run. Far from the coalition that boycotted Palestine’s first general election in 1996, Hamas presented itself as a moderate, grassroots alternative to the bloated and ostensibly powerless PLO, constructing and running hospitals, schools, and other social welfare institutions leading up to the 2006 race. The makeover proved effective, and Hamas (running under the “Change and Reform” party) was duly elected—44.45% to Fatah’s 41.43%—as the parliamentary majority.

A violent chain reaction followed, and the Palestinian delegation erupted into bloody civil war—the Palestinian Authority eventually governing the West Bank, and Hamas the Gaza Strip—followed by an Israeli/Egyptian blockade that’s all but smothered the latter for 16 years and counting. Compounded by Hamas’ gross mismanagement of funds, poverty levels doubled from 40% in 2005 to 80% by 2023. Elections haven’t been held since.

“Yesterday, my father-in-law was asking me why the West Bank is not exploding [like the Gaza Strip]. I said, ‘Simply because the economic situation in the West Bank is much better than it is there.’ People there are not as interested in violence,” Qumsaya explained. “Even though it’s not a perfect life, they’re still living good to some extent. So, they are not willing to go into all-out war at this point. But who knows? If the Israeli government keeps strangling them further and further…”

Qumsaya posits that both Palestinian and Israeli civilians are not only failed by their governing bodies, but in many ways, manipulated by them for political and fiscal gain.

“Many of the Israelis are just regular citizens—they want to have a good life, they want to raise their kids. It’s the same thing on the Palestinian side. The idea that Palestinians love death is not true in any way or shape,” he continued.

“Unfortunately, we have warlords. Netanyahu is as hated by the Israelis as the Palestinians […] there were many riots in the streets against him because he’s trying to take power out of the judicial system, basically planning a way for another dictatorship in the region. Netanyahu seems to be like many, unfortunately these days, governments who are not acting for the benefit of the people, and it’s the same on the Hamas side.

“War makes them money.”

While Jabbour and Qumsaya’s relatives hail from the West Bank, they have ties to Gaza as well. Some, including the most innocent, have been severed.

“Yesterday, there was a woman who gave birth; she is the sister of my friend, she’s in the Gaza Strip,” Jabbour said. “She gave birth in the parking lot of a hospital to a baby…because there are no beds for her in the hospital. The doctor told her, ‘You are not bleeding, you can take the baby and go home.’ You cannot hold the doctor as responsible because he’s trying to save lives. So, she took her baby home, and her siblings were asleep. A rocket hit their house…and they woke up in the hospital, and the baby is dead. They weren’t able to see their newborn baby. You’re going to tell me this was Hamas?”

Qumsaya believes that Hamas “is an ideology,” and eliminating them will likely lead to “somebody even worse and more fundamental” taking their stead. He alludes to the “whack-a-mole” counterterrorism strategy, an analogy expressed by U.S. generals, senators, and most famously, President Barack Obama, to describe the seemingly endless cycle of neutralizing terroristic threats only for the power vacuum to be filled by equivalent, if not more radical, entities.

The strategy is often criticized for ignoring the underlying issues that breed extremist elements in the first place. In Israel, the policy has been described as “mowing the lawn.”

“Blood is the water that supplies the roots of fundamentalism,” Qumsaya noted.

Qumsaya recalls growing up in the West Bank, his childhood spanning the First Intifada which took place between 1987 and 1994—a comparatively less violent era, wherein acts of civil disobedience outpaced bullets and shrapnel.

“In 1987, the Palestinian Civil Intifada started against Israeli occupation, which then was very subtle. We didn’t want to pay taxes [or] to deal with the government when we didn’t have rights. And one of the things was, ‘We’re not going to buy anything Israeli made.’ Products and food and whatnot,” Qumsaya recalled.

“And for me, as a kid, I used to drink chocolate milk that was made by an Israeli company. It’s called ‘Awesome,’ which is owned by Nestlé. So, the most important thing for me [when the protest ended], I was 10 at the time, was that now I can buy chocolate milk again. I swear, that was a big issue for me. What I’m trying to say is, regular people have small dreams, and they just want to live and enjoy living. Nobody enjoys fighting for no reason, right?”

As for Jabbour, she prays for a peace shaped by opportunity, however distant or tenuous.

“My dream is to make life precious and that people will not choose death over it. And to make it precious means to open the borders, open the room, let the sun shine in,” she said. “And the people, once they try the precious life, the prosperous life, believe me, they will not choose death.”

 

Isaac | Ishmael

Behind a tapestry-draped folding table, headphones hugged the ears and taqiyah skullcap of Imam Muhammad Sackor. A repeating pattern of olive green, beige, and off-white threads shaped the mihrab niches beneath his shoeless feet, accented by arabesque vines winding toward Mecca. With a tap of the space bar, his presentation commenced.

“Islam and Injustice” read the opening slide, projected on the wall behind Sackor. A dozen or so attendees sat fixed from inside the Islamic Center of Omaha’s mosque; dozens more filled the lobby of a livestream hosted from his laptop.

“First, the concept of injustice, the cause of injustice in Islam,” Sackor began. “Anything that will cause other people harm, pain—innocent life—pain encroaching upon them, their rights. We have a lot of examples of injustice in human history. We have colonial expansion, we have slavery, we have maltreatment of animals, maltreatment of prisoners of war…inequality in education and social justice. All of these things fall under the concept of injustice from the standpoint of Islam.”

Throughout his lecture, Sackor tied modern sociological and philosophical concepts, such as collective punishment and utilitarianism, to Quranic scripture.

“God commands justice, doing good, and generosity towards relatives, and forbids what is shameful, blame-worthy, and oppressive,” he said, referencing chapter 16, verse 90 of the Quran. “The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon, said: ‘Do not make me to be a witness of injustice.’”

He also denounced the misappropriation of the Quran by so-called ‘jihadists’—a concept he describes as conquering oneself, not others—emphasizing that “the attack that happened in Israel […] the deliberate killing of innocent civilians has no place in Islam,” and that “the killing of innocent souls, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, is condemned by Islamic scholars both past and present.”

A sequence of interviews held with renowned Imams and Islamic intellectuals, each repudiating the auspices of extremism, underscored his message. While denouncing the actions of Hamas and all those who justify acts of violence on the basis of religion, the focus of the address soon turned to the proportionality of Israel’s response.

“Collective punishment, as we’ll see, occurs when a person is punished for an act that he or she did not commit…but they all will be punished for being associated with the criminals or perpetrators,” Sackor continued. “So, we have the case of Gaza now. More than 12,000 innocents have been killed. More than 1,500 families, the entire family has been wiped out—mom, dad, son, daughter, granddaughter, all of them. Entire family units. Collective punishment constitutes a war crime under the Hague Convention, article 50, and the Geneva Convention, articles 33 and 53.”

In light of these figures, Sackor called on the audience to submit letters to their representatives demanding an immediate ceasefire, the establishment of a humanitarian corridor into Gaza, and to hold both Israel and Hamas accountable for the “genocide and collective punishment going on in this part of the world.”

“People who love peace all around the world, regardless of faith—Muslims, Jews, Christians—we all have to come together and seek a solution,” he affirmed.

Beyond the staggering casualties abroad, Sackor highlighted the victims of Islamophobia in direct consequence of the war: the description of Muslims as “savage” and “barbaric” by media outlets and the reckless speech of public figures, stirring deadly animosity. A slide displaying the photo of Wadea al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Muslim boy fatally stabbed 26 times in a Chicago-area hate crime, rendered his appeal in heart-rending detail.

“We need the support of faith-based organizations to spread the word of peace and to stop hatred against Muslims in the United States. Likewise, we need the support of the media, because we’ve seen the misrepresentations […] because there a lot of times, when things happen like this, we are the target, and we are under threat by some groups of people that don’t even know a single thing about Muslims.”

The seminar ended with a Q&A, before Sackor retired to the office he’s occupied for six years as the Islamic Center of Omaha’s Imam. Numerous diplomas hang from its walls, and he’s looking forward to adding another upon completing his doctorate in educational leadership through Creighton University’s EdD program. As a scholar of Islam and human behavior, Sackor isn’t one to shy away from the intricate relationship between perception and practice.

“I think the media plays a role in the psychology of the Jewish community. I’m not speaking on their behalf, but this is my intuition on the dynamic. If you were to say to me that those people out there, ‘They’re here to kill all of you,’ that would leave me with little room to condemn what’s going wrong within my community […] ‘The Muslims are out there to get you.’ That creates paranoia,” Sackor said.

“Likewise, we Muslims, on the other hand, if we’ve been told by the media, ‘The Jews are here to destroy all the interests of Muslim communities,’ there’ll be no trust regardless of the day-to-day destructiveness displayed by our own people. We’ll always go back and say, ‘We prefer not to discuss this. Let us look at the external enemy.’ Right?”

Ultimately, Sackor believes such distrust, insularity, and most of all, calls to arms, must be set aside to address the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza; that appeals to creed, sovereignty, and historical grievance are smokescreens that obfuscate the virtue of common humanity—and ultimately, lasting peace.

“I would like people to be activists against human rights abuses and collective punishment. Wherever it is, we should stand against it,” he said. “We should be agents of change—to bring happiness and joy to people around the world. I believe that we can do it.

“We can do it.”

___

Theology, philosophy, psychology, modern and classic literature—all spines that support the book-laden office of Rabbi Benjamin Sharff, his steady hand a recent and readily embraced addition to the metro’s oldest Jewish congregation, Temple Israel. Arriving in Omaha just this past July, Sharff previously served congregations in Tucson, Arizona, Baltimore, Maryland, and most recently, Nyack, New York.

These years of experience, however invaluable in the weeks to come, couldn’t possibly have prepared Sharff for the impact of October 7.

“We first learned of the news at the very end of the festival, Sukkot. So, on October 7, we were observing the end of Shemini Atzeret, which is an additional festival tagged onto the end of Sukkot. And I knew, of the Jewish communities here in Omaha, we were probably the first to know because there are a number of communities that don’t use electronics on holidays and festivals,” Sharff said.

“So when I heard the news, I was immediately devastated like everyone else…not exactly sure what had transpired except that terrorists had infiltrated Israel, and at that point, slaughtered hundreds and kidnapped a few more—turns out it was over 1,000 Israelis, and not just Jews, slaughtered—and many more were kidnapped. We were absolutely devastated. And we knew that it was going to get ugly quickly and that Israel was going to be forced to respond.”

Sharff wasn’t surprised by the intensity of Israel’s counteroffensive, nor was he mollified by the grim but likely prospect of sustained escalation. In the preceding days, he did everything within his power to guide and comfort his congregation, bracing them for the dark and uncertain weeks to follow.

“The metaphor people have used is: Israel’s 9/11. And there are a lot of similarities with that. Were there failures by the Israeli government? Of course. Was this violence instigated by the Palestinian people? No, it’s instigated by Hamas,” Sharff explained. “So, what I’ve been working with my congregation to understand is that there’s a specific group who have taken over the Gaza Strip, who have used all the resources they’ve received from the world and instead of using them to uplift their people […] they’ve taken all of that and used it to basically attack Israel.

“It’s devastating and heartbreaking in the sense that, how do you fight an ideology? Especially one that will use its own citizens and civilians as targets to further their own mission?”

Sharff acknowledges that Israel’s far-right government is “deeply problematic,” even traveling to Israel to join protests against the controversial judicial reforms proposed by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, which would’ve neutered Israel’s judicial review process. Still, whatever censures may be leveled at the Israeli government, or at one another, maintaining and defending the world’s sole Jewish state is a unifying cause for the majority of Jews worldwide.

“We’ve seen what happens when we’re at the mercy of other states,” Sharff noted, solemnly.

As a leader within and practitioner of Reform Judaism, Sharff is highly attuned to the pluralistic, at times contradictory, facets of maintaining a spiritual existence in the modern age. With beliefs and political discourse more polarized than ever, he wishes more were willing to tread the uncomfortable spaces between “right and wrong,” “us verses them,” or in Sharff’s words, “David and Goliath.”

“Up until the end of the Yom Kippur war, and really into the early ’80s, Israel was ‘David,’ because we in America love our metaphors. We always root for the underdogs, not the giant. So when Israel’s existence was in doubt, there was a lot of support” Sharff said.

“But now that Israel has somewhere between the seventh and tenth largest military in the world, they view Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as the suppressed people. There are these false narratives about Israel, they use words like “apartheid,” “colonialism,” and “genocide,” none of which are entirely accurate for what’s going on […] so you’re either for Israel or you’re for Palestine, and nuance and subtlety and gray don’t play out well in our political sphere or our news sphere.

“But we can believe that the Palestinians have an absolute right to sovereignty and self-determination just as Israel has a right to self-determination and self-protection—and the two should not be mutually exclusive. But we have people like Hamas and certain far-right people in Israel who believe the other doesn’t have a right to exist, and that’s become a tremendous source of conflict. And when you can’t live in the shades of gray, you believe one side is right and the other is wrong. In reality, it’s much more complicated than that.”

This broad-stroke vilification is not only damaging to open discussion and progress, but potentially dangerous for those who participate, willingly or otherwise. Since the outbreak of war, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 388% increase in antisemitic incidents in the US through October 23 as compared to same period last year. Eight days later, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray warned that antisemitism is reaching “historic levels” and cautioned increased vigilance for hate crimes against Jews.

While Sharff noted that antisemitism displays most egregiously in far-right circles, the recent harassment of Jewish students across American Universities and the lack of action by administrators reveals an “antisemitism on the intellectual left” that should also be guarded against.

“As Dr. [Deborah] Lipstadt [a historian and diplomat] has stated, antisemitism is the world’s oldest conspiracy theory. We Jews have been the scapegoat for many of society’s ills for the past 2,000 years, and at the same time we’re held to a higher standard than anyone else […] when we’re the victim, the worlds seems to love us. But when we stand up for ourselves, the world really finds that problematic,” Sharff said.

“People conflate Judaism and the State of Israel [as a governing body] and will act out in violent and threatening ways. Whenever there’s an issue in the Middle East, you will see a rise in antisemitic incidents, but also a rise in Islamophobia. I don’t want to leave out our Muslim brethren—they’ve also been targeted.

“Both are wrong.”

For now, Sharff recognizes that the path to peace has been eclipsed by the terrors of October 7 and the losses under the siege that followed. He offered the following eulogy for both Jews and Muslims that have suffered in their wake:

“So it was actually my emeritus Rabbi Azriel that pointed this out with the recent Torah portion, that the religious split is tied back to the story of Abraham’s two main sons, Isaac and Ishmael. And he said, ‘After Ishmael was sent away, they were never in a relationship together. But they came together to bury Abraham,’” Sharff recalled. “And you know what? This may be a time where we feel very distant from each other. But there is a history of us coming together, even in moments of great sorrow, and doing something powerful.

“Let us not forget that our ancestors came together to bury Abraham. And maybe one day soon, we can come together and bury our beloved dead and start to build a relationship again.”

____

“Surely those who believe and do good will have Gardens under which rivers flow. That is the greatest triumph.” (Surah Al-Buruj 85:11)


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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