Meet the diverse Pittsburghers calling for peace in Gaza | Pittsburgh City Paper

Meet the diverse Pittsburghers calling for peace in Gaza

click to enlarge Meet the diverse Pittsburghers calling for peace in Gaza
CP photo: Mars Johnson
June Wearden holds a sign that reads "Stand with Palestine! End the occupation now!" during a protest and funeral march Downtown on Dec. 2, 2023.

Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel stunned the world and remains a crisis for hostages still in the Gaza Strip. What followed — a full-scale bombing campaign and ground invasion of Gaza with high civilian casualties — has been no less alarming for many, including some Jewish Pittsburghers and area elected officials. As the war drags on, these locals have been steadfast in calling for a durable peace.

"You can't guarantee the safety of Jews [using] the dispossession of another people," Alexandra Weiner, an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and congregant at Tree of Life, tells Pittsburgh City Paper. She spent two years living in Israel and has friends with both Israeli and Palestinian passports. "It really pains me to see people attacking the movement for Palestinian lives and justice as antisemitic," Weiner says.

She and others have called for an immediate end to the conflict and a long-term plan for stability. With hostilities resuming last week after a weeklong truce, those calls are poised to grow more urgent. (Full disclosure: I made my own stance clear in an op-ed last month. Advocating for a ceasefire was one way I was able to connect with several sources in this story.)

Weiner sympathizes with the clear stand U.S. Rep. Summer Lee (PA-12) has taken since the war with Hamas began in earnest. Lee has faced a wave of opposition to her calls for peace, with local rabbis and cantors, including Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life, exhorting her to "exercise better leadership." Meanwhile, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has announced plans to spend $100 million to unseat Lee, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and other "Squad" members who have questioned Israel's policies.

click to enlarge Meet the diverse Pittsburghers calling for peace in Gaza
CP photo: Mars Johnson
Alexandra Weiner poses for a portrait outside of Thackeray Hall on Dec. 1, 2023.

Lee is frustrated by the flood of money but resolute in her position.

"I care about human rights everywhere," she tells City Paper. "Even for so many of our neighbors who aren't there on a ceasefire right now, I think that they are for human rights also. And I think that [we], through pain, through grief, are trying to find our way."

As Lee has found since her election to the House of Representatives, to speak out is also to invite a certain level of consternation. Particularly within the Jewish community, Palestine can be a thorny subject, testing as it does the deep, complicated relationship between America's Jewish community and Israel. The 2018 synagogue massacre and this year's trial of the perpetrator have added further layers to an already tense local environment.

Against the grain
Disagreements within Pittsburgh's Jewish community about how to resolve the situation in Gaza have spilled into the open in recent weeks. On Nov. 16, some 152 Jewish Pittsburghers published an open letter (some anonymously) calling for a ceasefire even as others advocate in favor of Hamas' total destruction, regardless of what that means for Gazan civilians.

Harry Hochheiser, one of that open letter's signatories, is a biomedical informatics professor at Pitt who's been involved with groups such as Bend the Arc Pittsburgh. He's long felt the tension between Jewish support for Israel and his own misgivings about that country's spasms of violence. Hochheiser is also a congregant at Dor Hadash, which, he emotionally recalls, shared a building with Tree of Life at the time of the 2018 massacre. He says the congregation avoids the topic of Israel during official events because of a "history of ugliness" around such discussions.

click to enlarge Meet the diverse Pittsburghers calling for peace in Gaza
CP photo: Mars Johnson
Harry Hochheiser, a biomedical research professor at the University of Pittsburgh, poses for a portrait in the Cathedral of Learning on Dec. 2, 2023.

"Over the past several years, there has been a much more conscious attempt on the part of many national organizations to really sort of link antisemitism and anti-Zionism," he says, which has made open discussions harder. "I think that's completely wrong and, frankly, dangerous to those of us who are here."

Lee has remained steadfast in her push for an end to the conflict — and for decoupling the conflict from antisemitism and Islamophobia. She's also keen to underscore the ways in which her calls for peace dovetail with Israeli and domestic Jewish dissatisfaction with Binyamin Netanyahu's government, which has grown more pronounced the longer Hamas holds captive the people it abducted on Oct. 7.

"Whether or not we agree on a ceasefire," she says, "we agree on [opposing] the policies of the Netanyahu government." Lee says she deplores the "dehumanization" of Palestinians and others the Israeli government and its allies have fostered and the ways it imperils community relations.

"The humanity of our neighbors is non-negotiable," she says.

Lee also says much of the opposition, including AIPAC's eye-popping spending, is mostly a cynical attempt to silence progressive women of color. When the House moved to censure Tlaib, Lee was one of the few Congresspeople to stand with her. "Rashida is such a loving, compassionate person," Lee says of Tlaib. "I think that a lot of people forget that she is a Palestinian American woman who is living through a trauma and a horror herself." The two appeared together with other lawmakers and rabbis affiliated with the activist group Jewish Voices for Peace.

Weiner and Hochheiser say the resolve Lee and others have shown has been heartening.

"I'm really thankful that Summer has been consistent in speaking out," Weiner tells CP. "And now there's this letter showing that there is a large community [in support of a ceasefire]."

"I think most of what Summer's said has been fantastic," Hochheiser says. "She's stumbled a bit, but I give her credit for taking the response that was not going to be an easy one to defend."

click to enlarge Meet the diverse Pittsburghers calling for peace in Gaza
CP photo: Mars Johnson
Protestors march down Grant Street during a funeral march for Palestine on Dec. 2, 2023.

A Holy Land for all
Calls for peace, and gratitude for Lee's stance, haven't just come from Jewish locals. Some Muslim Pittsburghers have been speaking out despite the risks. A few Christian churches have also joined calls for a ceasefire. Amera Khalil, a Syrian Orthodox Christian whose family has deep roots in Pittsburgh, says she is deeply distressed by the war, both because of the heavy civilian toll, and the ways it has exacerbated tensions in a land sacred to all practitioners of Abrahamic religions.

"Remember, this is the Holy Land for all of us," Khalil says. She is likewise frustrated by the conflation of opposition to Israel's government with antisemitism. "We're telling you to stop killing people because people want to have their dignity and their human rights. That's not being an antisemite; that's being a good person."

Pastor Chad Collins of Valley View Presbyterian Church in Garfield agrees. He notes that the demonym "Palestinian" includes Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze and others.

"The resistance is Palestinian, period, and their desire for freedom, equal rights, liberation is across the board" without regard to faith, he says.

Collins has been active both within his church and in the broader community, working nationally with Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), a Christian organization focused on creating peace in the Levant. He says the current bloodshed threatens to exceed the 1948 Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic, a term widely used to describe displacement of Palestinians of all faiths during the creation of Israel).

"About 15,000 people were killed in [1948]. And about not quite a million people were forced into refugee life. But today, after almost two months, this war has killed almost 20,000 or more, and there are some [Palestinians] that are missing still," he says. (The true death toll is debated, with some pro-Israeli factions disputing the Hamas-run Ministry of Health's tally, while at least one Israeli security source has corroborated the figure of 20,000.)

Lee is likewise concerned about the swift mounting of casualties. Despite the complicated situation, "protecting civilian life is not complex," she says.

Some of the loudest local calls for peace have come from student groups. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and similar groups at Carnegie Mellon University have staged several protests and walkouts since the war in Gaza began. The group protested last weekend and is organizing further demonstrations. Though SJP didn't immediately respond to CP's requests for comment, student leaders indicated they were organizing ahead of protests in and around Pittsburgh and a demonstration in Harrisburg on Dec. 10.

Political pressure
Collins says he hopes Democratic politicians, in particular, heed calls for a ceasefire. He says he finds cause for optimism in current protests and urges officials to treat them seriously. "You can't take our vote for granted anymore on this issue," he warns.

Some Democrats are already getting blowback from their constituents. Weiner calls Sen. John Fetterman's appearance at a pro-Israel rally that featured controversial pastor John Hagee "a huge disappointment."

Hochheiser likewise deplores the way Democratic politicians such as Fetterman have become strange bedfellows with religious extremists. "I'd like to be able to say, look, you know, we can criticize Israel as Jews from a Jewish perspective without making alliances with religious right folks who would … throw us under the bus," he says.

Whatever their positions vis-à-vis Israel, the war has taken a heavy psychological toll on many Pittsburghers. Khalil says she has struggled with poor mental health since Oct. 7. "My heart is broken," she says, noting that this tragedy comes on the heels of years of horror in her family's ancestral home of Syria.

However, she believes peace is possible within her lifetime. She says it's her "dream" to "be able to go to the Holy Land freely, without feeling any kind of racism or being oppressed because I'm an Arab and I'm a Christian."

Here in Allegheny County, local officials say they're sensitive to the war's implications for Jewish Pittsburghers, Muslim and Arab Pittsburghers, and others. County executive-elect Sara Innamorato is keenly aware of the ongoing threat antisemitism poses to the community and underscores the work she and her transition team are doing to make the county as inclusive as possible.

"I'm checking in with folks in the Muslim community to ensure that they have what they need to feel safe, healthy, secure, connected, and I'm checking in with the Jewish community to make sure that they have what they need to do the same," Innamorato tells CP. "Allegheny County is a place for all of us."

click to enlarge Meet the diverse Pittsburghers calling for peace in Gaza
CP photo: Mars Johnson
Protestors march down Grant Street during a funeral march for Palestine on Dec. 2, 2023.

Lee says she's working to do likewise, especially as antisemitic vandalism adds to locals' fears for their safety. "Our Jewish community is one community that has been harmed consistently," she says, "and they need to know that we are not here to bring more harm onto them." To that end, Lee and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey recently co-introduced legislation that would bar those convicted of hate crimes from obtaining firearms.

Eva Resnick-Day, another signatory of the Ceasefire Now open letter, told CP in an emailed statement: "My Jewish upbringing taught me that 'never again' should [include] any people be[ing] dehumanized and targeted for who they are." Day-Resnick said she was "proud that my Congresswoman Summer Lee has the moral character and clarity to speak up against the dehumanization and horrific mass murders of Palestinians and Israelis, and to condemn the dangerous and rampant Islamophobia and Antisemitism with rigor."

Lee says key to all of this is members of the "beloved community" listening to one another as all parties seek an end to the conflict.

"We want to keep Israelis and innocent Palestinians and innocent people, wherever they are, safe," Lee says. "We want to bring hostages home. We want them home safely. And we know, and I, personally, just believe, that a ceasefire is the best way to do that. Working towards a just and lasting peace is how we do that."

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
21 images

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson