During wartime, is there space to deliver a message of unity in Israel?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
I'm Ari Shapiro in a city in central Israel called Lod. That's the Hebrew name. The Arabic name is Lid. This is a mixed community. Arabs and Jews live side by side, sometimes even in the same building. It's a place where there were violent clashes during the last Gaza conflict in 2021. And now, with the unprecedented scale of this war, there's a lot of fear that violence could break out again.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
SHAPIRO: A group called Standing Together, which has a message of equality and peace, is coming here to donate food at a community center. But they've called off some of their earlier gatherings this week because the message of unity is not one everybody wants to hear in a time of war.
HANADI ESSA BASEL: (Through interpreter) Hanadi Essa Basel - I'm the manager of the community center here in Lod. I am a mother of three children.
SHAPIRO: The woman in charge here is surprised when we tell her that this community center is about to become the backdrop for a statement about cooperation and that we're American radio journalists here to cover it.
How do you feel about the idea of them arriving?
BASEL: (Through interpreter) Since we experienced the events of 2021, there is a stigma on this town that it is a place that is explosive, and some people who come here are basically coming to see more of that - of these violent acts.
SHAPIRO: Pretty soon, the organizers from the group Standing Together arrive. Their plan is to deliver donations of groceries. The collection center is indoors, so it shouldn't attract too much attention if there are troublemakers around. But they've also brought a pile of posters. If they're feeling brave, maybe they'll put them up in town. Just the day before, Standing Together activists in Jerusalem tried to put up stickers with a message of unity, and it didn't go well.
RULA DAOOD: The police just came, and they arrested two of our activists.
SHAPIRO: Rula Daood is one of the group's national co-directors. She's a Palestinian citizen of Israel who lived here in Lod for six years, including during the violence of 2021, when buildings and vehicles were torched, windows smashed.
DAOOD: You would see, like, people just, like, in the streets with guns and wanting to have some kind of - any clash.
SHAPIRO: Isn't this a moment where people are even more tense...
DAOOD: Yes. Today?
SHAPIRO: ...And more suspicious of each other?
DAOOD: They are. They are.
SHAPIRO: And yet you're here.
DAOOD: Yeah. Well, I have my community. I believe in a joint - and partnership between Arabs and Jews.
SHAPIRO: It's a tough time to deliver that message.
NADAV SHOFET: This is the time that Democracies are tested - exactly in times like this.
SHAPIRO: Nadav Shofet is Jewish, and he's another organizer of today's event.
SHOFET: It's an incredibly, incredibly tough time. First of all, people are very, very scared. There's also this feeling of having to hunt down people who say anything that sympathizes with people in Gaza or strives towards peace.
SHAPIRO: It's not just a vague feeling. There are examples all across Israel. In the city of Haifa this week, police broke up a rally in support of Gaza. The police chief, Kobi Shabtai, delivered this message on the police TikTok channel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KOBI SHABTAI: (Speaking Hebrew).
SHAPIRO: He says, "this is a time of zero tolerance. Anyone who wants to sympathize with Gaza is welcome to get on a bus and go there."
Israel's Minister of Education just passed a new regulation that universities say will encourage students to snitch on each other for social media posts. And when the left-wing journalist Israel Frey recited the Jewish mourner's prayer for dead civilians in Gaza, he says hundreds of right-wing activists attacked his home and threatened his wife and children.
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ISRAEL FREY: (Speaking Hebrew).
SHAPIRO: He posted this video on social media, saying he was in hiding, fearing for his life.
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FREY: (Speaking Hebrew).
SHAPIRO: "They went after me because I talked about the need for empathy and prayer for Gaza's children," he says.
Back at the community center in the city of Lod, the volunteers are getting busy.
There are young women wearing headscarves and modest clothes and then also a guy in a T-shirt and shorts. There's a young woman with a deep V-neck and open-toed sandals, and they're speaking a mix of Hebrew and Arabic. Just the sound and the visual shows you that this is a very mixed group.
Not everyone volunteering at the center is with the group Standing Together. Maya Abu Khaled is an educator - a Palestinian citizen of Israel who has spent all her life surrounded by Jewish Israelis.
MAYA ABU KHALED: I speak Hebrew as a mother tongue. All my friends are Jews. All my students now are there, in the army, (crying) and I'm afraid even to ask about them.
SHAPIRO: I'm sorry. And so the danger that they're in is pain that you feel, too.
ABU KHALED: Yeah. And this morning I had a meeting - a Zoom meeting with one of my teacher students. She lost two friends in this Nova party, and (crying) I could feel her hatred.
SHAPIRO: Her hatred.
ABU KHALED: Upon me.
SHAPIRO: On you.
ABU KHALED: Yeah.
SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, you are also afraid for the safety...
ABU KHALED: Of myself, of my children, of my - of course.
ABU KHALED: And I mean, it's not my fault. Why should I take all this, you know, attacks? (Crying) Why should I be attacked?
SHAPIRO: Let me get you a tissue.
ABU KHALED: (Crying) I don't judge her. I don't judge her. I really don't judge her, and I really understand her.
ABU KHALED: And I was super professional and super, you know, compassionate.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ABU KHALED: But still, when I finished the Zoom, I was - I just collapsed, you know? I just fell apart.
SHAPIRO: And so right now, Maya Abu Khaled is not looking for a joint partnership. She doesn't believe it's even possible to stand together in this moment.
ABU KHALED: I think that the solution is that each population should be responsible for his own. No need now for, you know, let's do things together and all this, you know, rainbow things and, you know, unicorns and so on. It won't help. We should be realistic.
SHAPIRO: A Jewish volunteer, Smadar Tzimmerman, has more hope. She's retired and used to work in Lod as an art therapist, including in Arab schools.
SMADAR TZIMMERMAN: My husband - he doesn't like me to come here.
SHAPIRO: What is his view?
TZIMMERMAN: Well, his view is - he doesn't say, OK, let's kill them all. But he says he is angry, and he says there's no one to talk to. There's no one to do peace with, and you're a naive woman.
SHAPIRO: In Israel right now, do you think there are more people who feel the way you do, or are there more people who feel the way your husband does?
TZIMMERMAN: My husband, definitely.
SHAPIRO: That must be difficult for you.
TZIMMERMAN: Yes. I - well, you know, when I go to a funeral, where everyone is grieving and says, let's kill them, I will not speak my mind, you know? I just came to comfort them in their sorrow. I do have friends in several organizations that are peace or corporate life in Israel. When you talk to them, you get filled with hope. And I don't know when peace will come, but I do hope that peace will come. And it's not such a difficult thing to do if you are willing to do it.
SHAPIRO: The event organizer, Rula Daood, makes a difficult decision. She tells us word got out that Standing Together is in town, and she says far-right Israeli activists are itching for a fight.
DAOOD: They got the message that Standing Together is going to be here, and they are kind of waiting for us to go outside to make some problems.
SHAPIRO: So she's decided not to put up posters today. It's just too risky. She pulls out the pile to show me.
(SOUNDBITE OF POSTERS SHUFFLING)
SHAPIRO: They're bright purple. In Hebrew and Arabic, they say, we'll get through this together. The slogan may not sound controversial. But right now, it's a message that many people in Israel are not ready to hear.
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ASMA KHALID, HOST:
That's our co-host, Ari Shapiro, reporting from Israel. Ari's stories have been produced by Connor Donevan and Megan Lim and edited by Courtney Dorning.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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