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Wisconsinites with ties to Israel, Palestine feel unease and frustration over rhetoric around war

A rabbi in Milwaukee says his community is seeing more anti-Semitic comments online. A Palestinian American in Stevens Point says she feels like people forget the human impact of the war.

Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel over destroyed buildings following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.
Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel over destroyed buildings following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Mohammed Dahman/AP Photo

Rabbi Josh Herman leads Hillel Milwaukee, an organization for Jewish college students. He and his staff have been working to support students who are grieving after Hamas militants killed hundreds of Israelis on Oct. 7, launching the ongoing armed conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Herman, who has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Israel, said it has also been a difficult time for him personally. While most of his family in Israel live in areas that have not been directly affected, Herman said his brother lives south of Tel Aviv and has had to stay at a relative’s house with his family because of the continued threat of bombing.

A headshot of Josh Herman
Rabbi Josh Herman is executive director of Hillel Milwaukee, an organization for Jewish college students. Courtesy of Josh Herman

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“They’re all huddled together in this tiny place and they can’t go anywhere or do anything because you need to be by a bomb shelter all the time,” he said. “My sister-in-law is a high school teacher and she lost two of her students who were killed on Oct. 7. So she’s been going to funerals and to shiva, which is the gathering following the funeral.”

Herman said his family is trying to shield their children from the reality of what’s going on, while worrying for other relatives who are being called up for military service.

He is one of many Wisconsinites with family and other loved ones in Israel and in Palestinian territories who are feeling the effects of a war taking place thousands of miles away.

Wisconsin organizations supporting Israel and those supporting Palestine have turned out in response to the conflict. Jewish Federation chapters in Milwaukee and Madison have launched emergency funds for people in Israel. Muslim organizations in Milwaukee and Madison, as well as other anti-war groups, have come together to form the Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine.

In Milwaukee, one man spoke at a gathering hosted by the Islamic Society of Milwaukee last Friday about losing his sister in the conflict. WISN-TV reported Muhammad Hamad said his 66-year-old sister, Faheemah Jameel Hamad, died during an airstrike in Gaza.

“The last five days seem very difficult. It’s like a nightmare. You want to wake and you want to disbelieve in what you hear,” said Hamad during the gathering.

‘Very drained and exhausted’

Stevens Point resident Sarah Manasreh said she has felt growing despair over the last week and a half. Manasreh is Palestinian American with family in the West Bank, where local protests have erupted in response to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, and where Palestinians appear to have been killed in reprisal attacks.

Sarah Manasreh kneels on a large map
Sarah Manasreh, a Palestinian American who lives in Stevens Point. Courtesy of Sarah Manasreh

For Manasreh, the continued news headlines and rhetoric on social media have been difficult and have left her feeling unsure about where she can feel safe.

“I have felt very drained and exhausted,” Manasreh said. “I think everybody has an opinion on this, everybody has a hot-button take. But I think we forget there’s a human aspect to it, that there are people all around us who are very personally affected by it.”

She said there are not many Arab Americans in her central Wisconsin community, so she hasn’t seen the protests and organizing that have taken place in cities like Milwaukee and Madison. But Manasreh said she has had friends and coworkers reach out to say that they’re thinking of her.

“Thankfully, I don’t think that any of those affirmations have anything to do with a political opinion,” she said. “They are looking at me as a person and they’re saying, ‘I see you.’”

But Manasreh has experienced negativity, too. She recently had someone subscribe her email address to a pro-Israel website. While she acknowledges that this was a relatively minor incident, she still found it disconcerting and felt targeted.

For Herman, he said it’s been distressing to see online comments in support of Palestine take on what he feels is an anti-Semitic tone. Herman said many students he works with have felt vulnerable on campus amid the rhetoric and have told him about unfollowing friends or classmates on social media because of their posts.

He said it’s been frustrating to see news coverage and online discussion move on from the Oct. 7 attack, which he called a “generation-defining tragic event.” He said many Jewish people are still in mourning and need support from the broader community.

“This is very, very personal for a lot of Jewish people. A lot of us have friends and family in Israel, and even those who don’t very much feel a strong connection,” he said.

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