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Seattle-area residents worry, rally as fighting escalates in Israel, Gaza

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Demonstrators dance in a circle and wave Israeli flags during a rally in support of Israel, Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, in Bellevue, Wash.
Demonstrators dance in a circle and wave Israeli flags during a rally in support of Israel, Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, in Bellevue, Wash. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson) Photo Gallery

A world away, Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel has reverberated in the Seattle area, as many local Jewish and political leaders denounced Hamas militants, hundreds gathered in demonstrations and people with ties to Israel and the Palestinian territories anxiously waited for updates from the region.

The escalating fighting, which has killed at least 900 Israelis and 700 Palestinians, lays bare the complexity and horrific violent history of this divisive conflict, as videos of Hamas militants kidnapping and killing civilians depicted the deadliest single day in Israel’s 75-year history and its retaliation caused death and destruction in Gaza.

On Monday evening, hundreds gathered in downtown Bellevue: People with the American Jewish Committee passed out signs saying “Seattle Stands With Israel” and cars rolling through the intersection honked their horns in support.

It was the second day of demonstrations in the area; hundreds had gathered Sunday evening in downtown Kirkland, forcing police to separate opposing demonstrators toward different sides of the road.

In Bellevue, Moshe Vainer and his wife, Anat Vainer, who came from Redmond, called the situation “Israel’s 9/11.”

Immigrants from Israel, the couple said their family members in the country are safe, but some of their friends have been wounded and some of their friends’ children have been called up into the Israel Defense Forces. Being at the demonstration, they said, was at least a way to channel their pain into action. The couple said they wish there was more unequivocal support from Washington state and federal lawmakers.

“It’s unjustifiable whatever your political views are,” Moshe Vainer said. “Many Israelis support Palestinians as people, but … this is the killing of children.”

It was hard to go to work on Monday, they said, with Israelis’ suffering on their mind. “The entire weekend we were paralyzed,” Anat Vainer said.

A community vigil is also planned for Tuesday night at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle. The vigil is organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council and Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

Watching attacks, feeling strength

The Hamas attacks fell on Simchat Torah, a traditionally joyous celebration that marks the end of the annual cycle of public Torah readings. The attacks also coincided with the 50-year anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when military forces from Egypt and Syria caught Israel similarly off-guard.

Jewish Americans, like the American public overall, are not a monolith — and hold widely differing views about Israel. A 2021 Pew Research Study found that older Jews are more likely than younger adults to say that caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them, and most Jewish adults took the position that God “did not literally give” the land of Israel to the Jewish people or that they did not believe in God.

Regina Sassoon Friedland, American Jewish Committee Seattle’s regional director, said the attacks are not only on Israelis but also “the collective Jewish people.”

“This isn’t about combat between armies,” Friedland said. “This is about terrorists coming in and attacking civilians, house to house.”

Friedland said on Sunday that she had heard from AJC colleagues in Israel that they had been called to serve on reserve duty in Israel’s military, and a friend in Washington said his family here was greeted with armed guards in Kevlar vests while dropping his kids off at Hebrew school.

David Solovy, who was born and raised in Seattle, said he was never a very religious Jew but traveled to Israel after the COVID-19 pandemic to join the Israeli military. The 26-year-old has since returned to Seattle, but said on Sunday that he intends to return to service.

Watching reports from Israel, Solovy said, has been horrifying. But it’s also strengthened his Jewish community, he said.

“We all see ourselves as Jews,” Solovy said. “These are all our cousins over there. We’re all helpless and scared. [We’re] also scared of what’s coming towards us in the United States and in Seattle.”

One of Solovy’s distant cousins, who is also a soldier, died fighting Hamas over the weekend.

But not all Jews feel the same, noted Dr. Alice Rothchild, a member of the national, progressive group Jewish Voice for Peace and a retired OB-GYN living in Seattle. While many mainstream Jewish organizations stand with Israel, some Jews, particularly younger ones, are more critical of its government.

Rothschild has visited Palestinian territories many times, and written books and directed a film on what she has seen there.

Rothschild said Hamas’ killing and kidnapping of civilians is “unconscionable.”

At the same time, she said: “It is very clear to me that you cannot arrest children and demolish homes and bomb the areas to the Dark Ages every couple of years and think that no one’s going to resist.” If Israelis want to live in safety and security, she added, then Palestinians must do so, too.

Local lawmakers respond

Local lawmakers swiftly condemned the Hamas attacks over the weekend. Sen. Patty Murray posted on the social platform X that “Israel has the right to defend itself and the United States will ensure they have the support to do so,” on Sunday, after the White House announced it’s providing military assistance to Israel.

“There is no excuse for targeting and killing civilians,” Gov. Jay Inslee posted on the X platform. “We hope for the swift recovery of the injured, the safe release of those taken hostage, and a halt to this violence.”

“My heart goes out to the victims of these terrorist attacks and I am praying for civilians caught up in the fighting,” Sen. Maria Cantwell said in a news release. U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene posted that Congress must support efforts to restore “peace and security” in the Middle East.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal — who has previously been criticized for remarks that Israel is a “racist state” — condemned the attacks and wrote violence “is not the way we get to peace in the Middle East.”

Family stranded in Seattle

In her 20 years in Israel, Alison Stern Perez has learned to live with sirens and rockets in the only place she said she feels safe as a Jewish person.

But there’s no precedent for what is happening there now, she said Monday. All the men who haven’t been called to service in her family’s community have been conducting 24-hour watches. She’s watched videos on how to keep everyone secure in a safe room — though she noted those are built to withstand rockets, not kidnappings. A close friend’s mother was killed in the attacks.

She wants to be home, but for now, Perez, her husband and their five children are in the Seattle area, where Perez grew up and the family had been visiting. Their original United flight to Israel over the weekend was canceled; they rescheduled it for next week.

Perez and her husband had left during a conflict once before, when they had two small children and no safe room in their home. Life was going on normally in the U.S., she recalled, and nobody said or asked them anything. She and her husband felt they had made a mistake and vowed to stay in Israel. This month, the family was in Seattle to see her ill mother.

“I said ‘we will never do this again, we will never leave again,’ ” she said. “Being here now, without even having a choice, it’s just awful. It’s just awful.”

Over the weekend, Perez posted in a few Israeli and Jewish community Facebook groups, asking for leads on housing while they’re in Seattle. A woman whose friend saw Perez’s post offered a place to stay in her Bellevue home for the seven of them. The woman brought out food and went into her attic to get toys for the little kids.

“They’re strangers who felt like family,” she said. “It’s just incredible and heartwarming. For a family with five kids, that’s no small feat at all.”

Fear for Gaza

For some Palestinians, the kidnappings and killings have been provoked over decades of history, said Ayman Almasri, a Seattle resident and Palestinian immigrant. Almasri, who has lived in the United States for over two decades, joined demonstrators in Kirkland and donned a shirt saying “Falastini lives matter.” (Falastini means “Palestinian” in Arabic.)

“I am disappointed in the Biden administration sending more aid to help the Israeli army,” Almasri said. “Supplying the superpower that is occupying [Palestinians] with more weapons doesn’t do anyone any good.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the international nongovernmental organization, the Israeli government’s authority alongside limited Palestinian self-rule amounts to systematic Israeli oppression and an apartheid state.

Almasri said he hasn’t been able to get in contact with his family members, but is reassured that they may be safe because they live outside Gaza.

Zarefah Baroud, in contrast, has many family members living in Gaza. The Bothell resident, a Ph.D. student and digital media staffer for American Muslims for Palestine, said Israelis bombed the refugee camp her dad grew up in and shelled another camp where she has relatives. (Her grandparents moved to a refugee camp in Gaza after being forced out of a town near Tel Aviv the year Israel was created, she said.)

“I have family that’s missing,” Baroud said. “They’re either under the rubble or their phones are just turned off. We have no way of knowing.”

Israel has cut its supply of electricity, as well as food and water to Gaza, so many are conserving their use of phones.

Late Monday afternoon, she learned six relatives had died in another part of Gaza, five of them children.

“It’s been very emotional. There’s been a lot of crying,” Baroud said. Family members here, including her dad, a journalist for a publication serving the Palestinian diaspora, have been glued to their computer screens watching the news unfold.

Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Washington chapter, said he’s “horrified by violence that affects anybody” but he feels that Israel’s response to Hamas’ attack has been disproportionate.

“This is collective punishment now on 2.2 million people,” he said, pointing to residential buildings destroyed and civilians killed, including children.

He’d like to see elected officials talking more about Israel’s bombing of Palestinian territories, not just now but in years past. He said he has a Palestinian American brother-in-law who lost nine family members in a 2014 bombing of Gaza.

“There’s no balance,” Siddiqi said, portraying elected officials as voicing “unfettered backing” of Israel.

Siddiqi’s organization is part of many interfaith coalitions, including Jewish groups. “We all love each other in our shared humanity,” he said, but acknowledged Israel and its treatment of Palestinians “is always a contentious issue.”

It’s unknown whether the extreme events now unfolding will exacerbate that tension, but Siddiqi said, “I hope people can come together and call for an end to the violence.”