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How American Jews are experiencing the Israel-Hamas war 6 months into the conflict

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A new report from the Pew Research Center looks at how American Jews are experiencing the Israel-Hamas war six months in. There's widespread agreement on some things, like near-universal condemnation of the October 7 Hamas attacks. But there are generational differences among American Jews and their feelings about Israel and its war in Gaza. In his role as senior rabbi at Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington, D.C., Aaron Potek has seen his community struggle with all of it, the hate coming from outside the Jewish community and the conflict within.

AARON POTEK: You know, it's painful to have people you love passionately disagree with you. This younger generation of Jews has grown up under a Bibi Netanyahu government in Israel. That's all they've known. They didn't know the existential threat that Israel faced, you know, maybe back in 1967. You know, there's a massive disconnect between the values that this current Israeli government represents and the opinions and the values that the people I serve hold.

This younger generation of Jews is just more integrated into the broader society. They have friends who are Palestinian. They have friends who are Muslim. They have friends who are supportive of the Palestinian cause more than potentially the previous generation. And so I think by nature of their relationships, they are being forced to grapple with and deal with a wider diversity of opinions than perhaps the previous generation had to.

FADEL: The Pew survey named anger, exhaustion, fear and mainly sadness among the emotions that Jewish Americans are feeling right now. As a rabbi, a counselor, a caretaker for your congregation, what are you hearing from your community members?

POTEK: Our folks are feeling all of those emotions and more. It's been a really lonely time for Jews. I imagine it's been a very lonely time for Palestinian Americans as well. And this spike in antisemitism has been really upsetting for a lot of American Jews. I think it's pain on top of pain, right? And then to sort of feel like we're alone in that - I think there is a sense that Jewish pain just matters less in this moment.

And it's complicated - right? - because Jewish pain is not the only pain in this moment. There's a lot of pain in this moment. But it does feel like there's certain segments of the population that can't seem to make any space for Jewish pain and Jewish suffering, and I think that just adds on top of the already present isolation and sadness.

FADEL: It feels that way?

POTEK: Yes.

FADEL: That's so sad.

POTEK: Yeah. A lot of people I talk to are saying, you know, I'm critical of what's happening in Israel. I care about Palestinians. I care about promoting peace and justice in that region. And yet I'm being vilified and demonized by former friends, former allies just because of my affiliation with Israel or my identity as a Jew.

FADEL: You expressed a little bit of, like, relief about the Pew survey.

POTEK: Yes.

FADEL: If you could say more about that.

POTEK: Yeah. I was grateful for the Pew study because I think there's a lot of folks on both extremes in the Jewish community that try to misrepresent the Jewish community, speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community, pretend that their view is representative of every single Jew. And for anyone who's met a Jewish person, you likely know that one of the defining features of us is that we disagree with each other and that there's a lot of diversity, a lot of disagreement, a lot of arguing. So it's nice to actually have a study that can just put some numbers to that reality.

FADEL: I mean, according to that Pew survey, 74% of American Jews say they have felt offended because of something they heard on the news or on social media about the war. Forty-seven percent of younger Jewish Americans have cut ties completely with someone because of something they said. I mean, have you had members in your community or people you know personally, who are just like, I don't even talk to this person anymore; I can't?

POTEK: Of course. Yeah. My honest reaction is that that feels low. And again, I say that with a lot of pain in my heart because, of course, there are some views that are just beyond the pale, and if I knew people who expressed them, I myself would cut ties with those folks. But I really think we need to, as best as we can, push ourselves to be able to hear views that make us uncomfortable, that challenge us because I think there's probably some truth in a lot of these different perspectives. But, you know, I think social media is really exacerbating this situation. I think people are sharing opinions on there that they would never dare say to people's face. What I've heard from folks and what I've felt myself is just very intense views that lack any sort of sophistication or nuance that are being just tweeted out.

FADEL: Later this month, many Jewish Americans will observe Passover, a holiday that celebrates freedom and rebirth. What's Passover going to be like this year?

POTEK: I think there's two very different aspects to Passover, and I really hope we focus on both. The first aspect is about our own suffering, about the ways that we were oppressed, have been oppressed, are continuing to be oppressed, and it's a celebration of ultimately our freedom from that oppression. It's a hope. It's a prayer that we will ultimately be fully free. But there's a second aspect of Passover, and that is that we were liberated from oppression in ancient Egypt so that we may create a society that is not oppressive, so that we may fight for the liberation of all people. And I think that's also a really important piece of Passover, is the acknowledgment that God set us free so that we may set others free.

FADEL: And my last question before we let you go is when you looked at that Pew survey, what struck you most?

POTEK: I think two things struck me most. The first was just, I think it was 83% of Jewish Americans feel sad. And that's just a massive number. And the idea that so many people in this community are sitting with that sadness - that makes me sad. You know, I'm getting teary even now just saying that out loud. Like, that is a vast majority of American Jews. And then the second piece is just the fear, the rising antisemitism. I think it was close to nine-tenths of American Jews have felt an increase in antisemitism in the wake of October 7.

And I think that there's a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of making this world a more just place. And I think that Jews overwhelmingly are allies and sympathetic to the cause of promoting justice and equality across the world. And I hope that we are invited to be a part of that ongoing conversation of how to make this world a better place.

FADEL: Rabbi Aaron Potek is the senior rabbi and executive director of Jewish life at Sixth & I Synagogue. Thank you so much for your time.

POTEK: Thank you, Leila.

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