On Nov. 12, New Paltz United Methodist Church was lively with plenty of chatter. Each pew was packed full of people eager to listen and get started, but not for Sunday service.
From 2-4 p.m., the space was transformed into a non-polemic teach-in titled “Yearning for Justice & Peace in the Holy Land” that saw three panelists with diverse backgrounds share their experiences and knowledge of history regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine to educate the New Paltz community.
The speakers were Lori Wynters, a psychologist and Jewish chaplain who’s also a member of SUNY New Paltz’s faculty, Razan Sadeq-Keyes, a Jordinian-Palestinian artist, researcher and mother and Mark Hammel, a psychologist, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veteran and US-Israeli citizen.
The panelists, with their unique perspectives, spoke about their lives and memories relating to the war, Israel and Gaza, the Zionist movement, Western media coverage of the conflict and the IDF.
The first panelist to speak, Sadeq-Keyes, discussed her childhood and her first memories of Israelis. “My first exposure to Israelis was at the border. We were not treated well. It was very intimidating. Even at 12 years old, I was very aware of the power dynamic and that we should not do anything to rub them the wrong way,” she said.
Sadeq-Keys was born in Amman, Jordan to a Jordanian mother and Palestinian father. She recounted the harrowing journey of visiting her father’s birthplace, Beita, a small village in the occupied West Bank.
“The trip from Amman to Beita, that should have been four hours, took us the entire day. There were many checkpoints. In my exposure to Israel, the dominant feelings were fear, intimidation and resentment.”
Hammel was the next panelist to speak, and his upbringing was starkly different from Sadaq-Keys’. Hammel grew up in Philadelphia and described “two major factors” in his household: his father and grandfather.
His grandfather was a “lifelong hard-labor Zionist” and his father “was born and raised in Germany when Hitler came to power. As a teenager, his classmates who were not Jewish were all Hitler Youth and their pastimes were to beat up their former Jewish classmates, my father included.”
Hammel embraced the Zionist ideology, traveling to Israel and dropping out of college to enlist in the IDF. He recalled his time in Gaza with the IDF, explaining, “We were saying we were supposed to be the good guys in Gaza. I was the squad machine-gunner. So, whenever we would stop a Palestinian on the highways in Gaza, I was the one holding the Palestinian at gunpoint while the sergeant checked their papers. It only came back to me many years later that the rage the Palestinian felt as I held them at gunpoint thinking I was the good guy was the same rage my father felt.”
Wynters was the last panelist to speak, starting with, “It’s not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it, ever. I grew up singing those words since I was four years old.”
She discussed how as she grew up in the late ‘60s, Zionism was placed alongside the movements for Black liberation and feminism, and how she went to a Jewish summer camp where she learned that, “the state of Israel has to exist for us to feel safe in our bodies.”
It wasn’t until Wynters went to Israel and Palestine with several Jewish humanitarian organizations that she saw, “the story that I haven’t been told and learned from high school teachers in Israel that they’re not allowed to teach about the occupation. They’re not allowed to teach about the Nakba.”
After each panelist described their backgrounds and histories with Israel and Palestine, the panel’s moderator, Marjorie Leopold, asked, “Can you speak to the context of what life was like in Israel and/or Palestine before Oct. 7?”
Wynters was the first to respond. “The Palestinian farmers that I met told me settlers would come down daily and cut down their olive trees, fig trees, slash their tires, slash their water tanks, intimidate them, threaten them.”
She said the settlers would only halt their transgressions when they saw her or other members of humanitarian organizations. Having experience in trauma and resiliency. “Trauma is what happens to us. But even more so, it’s when we try to speak our truth and no one’s listening to us and we’re invisible, and that’s what’s happening, and has been happening,” said Wynters. “When I went to visit friends in Tel Aviv who are doing work with our Jewish coalition and dance companies, it’s not enough. Even they don’t know.”
Sadaq-Keys interjected, citing an attack on a village in the West Bank before Oct. 7. “In February of this year, the settlers went to Huwara, about a 15 minute drive from Beita and they rampaged through it. It was in CNN. That’s how horrible it was, and that’s mainstream American media. They went and they torched houses, over 100 houses with people inside, they quoted this word ‘pogrum.’ It’s a massacre, but they won’t call it a massacre.”
Another question Leopold asked the panel was, “What do you believe is standing in the way of achieving greater understanding of this situation?”
Hammel’s answer was immediate. “What’s standing in the way is Zionism. Zionism has its roots in promoting late 19th-early 20th century colonialism and nationalism, and it’s succeeded in achieving Zionist-integralism, the notion that you can’t feel safe or fully Jewish without a Jewish, Zionist, ethno-nationalist state.”
He stressed that until Jewish people free themselves from the idea that they can’t be fully Jewish without Zionism, there will never be complete understanding. He explained his position now, which he calls post-Zionism, that acknowledges that Israel is “a fact of life and will not be eradicated, but it can forgo its Zionism and ethno-nationalism.”
Wynters’ concluding answer to the question was perhaps the most chilling. She expressed that a major reason is “the lack of doing the research, learning the history and context.” She quoted a talk from Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-Canadian expert on trauma and stress. “Two great Zionist leaders, Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion, were both Eastern European Jews and they both said in almost similar terms in the 1930s, that when we talk about Arab terrorism, they’re not terrorists. They are people fighting for their own land, which we were threatening and did take away from them. In our situation, you’d probably do the same thing. But, they felt that the Jewish right to that land was more dominant, or the Jewish mean was more dire. So they were willing to do whatever they had to do.”
For information on future events, check out the Jewish Voice for Peace Hudson Valley website.