We can choose not to become polarised and inflammatory

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When it comes to Israel and Palestine and the way we talk about the conflict, we can do better. There are significant contributions that we as Australians can make to supporting grassroots efforts for dialogue and coexistence.

I am not a dispassionate observer of the conflict. I am deeply invested in achieving the best outcomes for Israelis and Palestinians. I have skin in the game. My husband and I met as young Jewish Australians living in Israel. I was on university exchange in Jerusalem and he was living on a kibbutz. Thanks to compulsory voting, we both had to make our way across the country to go vote at the Australian embassy for the 2010 election, and the rest, as they say, is history. We spent our first six months as a couple exploring Israel and Palestine. We wandered through Jerusalem, through the Palestinian cities of Jericho, Bethlehem and Ramallah. At university in Israel many of my classmates were Palestinians, and we had lively and frank conversations over endless cups of coffee.

Mourners grieve for peace activist Vivian Silver, 74, who was killed during the October 7 Hamas attack on kibbutz Be’eri, during a memorial service last month.Credit: Getty Images

The current war between Israel and Hamas has left me overwhelmed with grief and pain. People are grieving loss after loss and the suffering is immense. It can be tempting to become blinded by grief, or to become overtaken by rage.

I may not succeed at this every day, but I am attempting to channel this pain into a new direction. Through all the horror I have been heartened by some of the messages I have been receiving from those on the ground. There are people in Israel and Palestine who are galvanised to walk together in a path of peace.

An acquaintance in northern Israel shared how she and her Palestinian neighbours had spent the day painting banners in Hebrew and in Arabic to be hung over the highways that read “Good Neighbours Even In Hard Times”.

One of the victims of Hamas was Vivian Silver, who was murdered in her kibbutz home on October 7. Vivian was one of the founders of Women Wage Peace, a grassroots movement of Israeli and Palestinian women with more than 40,000 members. In her spare time she would volunteer to drive sick Gazans for treatment in Israeli hospitals. At her funeral Israeli and Palestinian women doubled-down on their commitment to peaceful coexistence. A friend of Silver’s in Gaza sent a letter to be read at her funeral. Among the thousands who attended her funeral were Palestinian citizens of Israel who are members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. “Hamas did not kill your dream,” they declared.

Canadian-Israeli peace activist Vivian Silver, left, helped Gaza residents get medical treatment in Israel.

A neighbourhood rabbi from my student days in Jerusalem travelled down to the Arab city of Rahat to support its mayor, Sheikh Jamal Aluvra. Volunteers from the largely Bedouin city were providing support and material aid to the internally displaced kibbutz residents whose villages had been destroyed.

I do not want to gloss over the real and deep divisions in these communities. There is grief, mistrust and appalling violence. However we can choose where we focus our attention and energies. Amid all the horror there are also glimmers of a way forward. People, who despite their unimaginable losses, are refusing to let go of their spirit.

This is where Australians come in. Communications about the war are becoming increasingly polarised and inflammatory. There is another path we can choose.

When the war started, my friends reached out to me. They checked in to see how I was holding up and they asked if there was anything they could do. Here is what I answered and here is what I think Australians can do right now.

Firstly, check in on your friends. Even without direct connections to the region, many people are deeply affected by the war and might be needing support and a listening ear.

Secondly, support multiculturalism and safety for all Australian communities. Tensions are running high and emotions are flaring. Know what Anti-semitism and Islamophobia look like and be rigorous in excluding it from Australian dialogue. Challenge hateful speech when you hear it. We cannot be complicit by permitting harmful language and the actions it encourages to go unchecked. Israelis and Jewish Australians, Palestinians and Muslim Australians are more than their political leadership. Pay attention and notice what it is that activists are advocating. Calling for the annihilation of either Palestine or Israel cannot be considered a peaceful or progressive approach. Demonising a person or group because of their religion or ethnicity is not a progressive stance. Our multicultural ethos is our strength, we can be proud of our diverse and inclusive culture. We must not let this foundational value be undermined by these challenging times.

Thirdly, support the organisations and people in Israel and Palestine that are doing the hard work of dialogue and coexistence. There are many, apart from Women Wage Peace, for example Standing Together and Bereaved Families for Peace. It is powerful and healing to channel our grief and concern into constructive action. Engage in media such as podcasts or social media for perspectives that are advocating for cooperation and peace. Find those voices and raise them up, share them with your friends and family.

Lastly, and this one is quite personal for me, keep people in the front of your thoughts. Stay humble. Leave aside ideology and rhetoric please. The war is horrific enough without increasing local tensions with inflammatory language. Nothing here is inevitable and it is regular people who have the power to contribute to peace, within Australia and in Israel/Palestine. We must actively choose to put our efforts, energies and attention on the people who are doing the grassroots work of dialogue. If people living through these horrors are able to recommit to their humanity and for peaceful coexistence, so can we.

Rabbanit Ellyse Borghi is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi living in Melbourne.

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