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'Pain is pain.' Can dialogue spark empathy amid Israel-Hamas war?

For Northeast Ohio’s 80,000 Jews and 25,000 Palestinians, the conflict between Israel and Hamas hits all too close to home. The war, which began with the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, has prompted anger, grief and trauma in both communities.

Experts say that long-term trauma can cause tremendous harm to physical and mental health wherever it happens and the impact can be far-reaching. The physical and mental effects of trauma can also make it more difficult to empathize with others and may contribute to the increasingly bitter debates cropping up seemingly everywhere in Northeast Ohio — from social media to college campuses to city council meetings.

The strong ties the Jewish and Palestinian communities have to that region make it feel as if war is happening here, said Professor Jennifer King, assistant director of Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Trauma and Adversity.

“Even though they're here and the threat is not a physical one per se, it is experienced by the body as though it is," she said. "We're all kind of extra vigilant, scanning for danger or holding our people close ... in this sort of prolonged fear state, which is really hard on the body."

This state of mind affects the immune and cardiovascular systems and also undermines our ability to control our emotions, King said.

"Our nervous system activates and mobilizes energy toward those deeper and more reactive parts of the brain. … it makes it really hard to take somebody else's perspective or show empathy or any of that," she said.

These raw emotions have been on display throughout the community. There have been vigils for Israeli victims and protests calling for divestiture from Israel. It's become very clear the two communities have vastly different perspectives on the war.

The Jewish community is facing overwhelming antisemitism, said Rami Feinstein, Jewish Akron’s community Shaliach or Israeli emissary. This includes protests where people have defended, justified and sometimes celebrated the murder of Jews.

"You're actually justifying Hamas when you were saying, 'free Palestine' in this context, after this barbaric, murderous attack, inhumane attack on children, elderly," Feinstein said.

At the same time, Palestinian American Faten Odeh, interim executive director of the Cleveland and Northern Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said false accusations and misinformation about the Palestinian community puts them at risk.

"That is allowing for Islamophobia to increase, anti-Palestinian incidents to increase," she said. "I'm overwhelmed. I'm so overwhelmed. I'm dealing with the sadness and despair in my heart."

While this environment makes it difficult for community members to see each other’s point of view, thoughtful dialogue between them can be a way forward, said Dr. Leslie Koblentz of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County.

"Communication is the basis to everything," she said. "I think you have to try to approach the conversation with this open mind as you can. You have to listen first, speak second. And that's hard."

That is precisely what one local group, the Rekindle Fellowship, is trying to accomplish. The group, founded by Charmaine Rice and Matt Fieldman, has been working since 2019 to bring the Black and Jewish communities together in this manner.

Recent discussions have included the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Fieldman said.

"I think it's really important to have friends and connections in each community," he said. "I think that leads to a level of empathy that we really need in our society right now."

The group first met in the days after the initial attack to discuss what had happened and followed with a session earlier this month.

Fieldman said such dialogue makes a difference.

"What I've found and what what our fellows have really shared is that pain is pain and trauma is trauma and death is death," he said. "We are all struggling with our own pain. And it's been really powerful how everyone's come together around the shared experience of pain and trauma. And that's been, you know, we can we can unite in that, in that feeling."

Jamil Sanders, a Rekindle member who also serves on the board of the Cleveland NAACP, agrees, adding hate is the common enemy.

"The same fear and hatred that you can generate for maybe a person that is of Palestinian descent … or the same thing you can generate for a Black person in a sense … or same thing you could do for anti-Semitism … it's all the same ingredients," he said.

Dialogue may just be a small step forward, but, for Rekindle, it is a step in the right direction, which is what they say truly matters.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.
Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.