Bissan Absharar is an IT professional, a wife and the mother of four children. Up until recently, she felt safe letting her three oldest children make the five-minute walk to school on their own. These days, Absharar, whose roots are in Palestine but who was born and raised in Jerusalem, walks alongside her children each day. The sobering story about the six-year-old Chicago Palestinian boy who was stabbed to death by his landlord, an anecdotal story about a Bay Area mother wearing a hijab being spat on as she walked her child to school and her daily worries about her family in the West Bank and her husband’s family in Gaza have kept her on edge.
“My kids are proud of their Palestinian heritage and talk about it at school,” Absharar says, as she stands beside her husband and her children in a sea of people gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland on Sunday. “I can’t help worrying that they may be unsafe because they’re Palestinian. Some of my friends have talked about feeling like they may have to remove their hijabs for their safety.”
As a Palestinian American, Absharar says she is saddened by what is being left out of the mainstream news reports and by President Joe Biden’s lack of compassion for Palestinian people as he continuously pledges unwavering, “rock solid” support for Israel.
“President Biden is not representing us,” Absharar says. “He’s dehumanizing Palestians, Muslims and anyone who stands with Palestine. He’s saying it’s OK for us to be killed because Israel is defending itself. This has been going on for 80 years and we’re still not allowed to defend ourselves. This is very hypocritical. [As of Sunday] 1,500 kids have been killed. How many more people have to die before [the U.S.] asks for a ceasefire? Even if you stand with Israel, even if you condemn Hamas, you can ask for a ceasefire. Right now, more people are dying. It has to stop.”
Absharar says it’s painful to watch the news these days. “Growing up [as a Palestinian in the region] and being a Muslim as well, we were taught that even if you’re at war, you’re not allowed to kill an elderly or a child or destroy a place of worship or hurt a woman,” she says. “What they are showing in the news is not a representation. There are no reporters whatsoever on the ground in Gaza. All we see from there comes from Palestinian reporters who are using their phones to show us what is going on—putting their own lives at risk, or in some cases being killed.”
When Absharar is not walking her kids to or from school or working, she’s making her way to as many protests as possible, coordinating calls and praying for the survival of her family in the West Bank and her in-law’s family in Gaza. Absharar’s brother-in-law’s family evacuated his home and farm in Gaza, which she says has now been destroyed. They fled to a U.N. school which became a target, and they fled again in separate directions in their quest to stay alive. “For the bare minimum, my brother-in-law tries to call his family members to make sure they’re still alive,” she says.
Absharar says her loved ones in Palestine are relying on resourcefulness, but she worries that may not be enough. “They are working to share whatever they have, but a lot of the children are facing dangerous dehydration, as they’re using salt water that is only 70% purified because they lack the fuel to properly clean it,” she says. “They’re also bathing in seawater. They’re trying to get by with whatever they have, but it’s a very bad situation.”
The accounts Absharar is hearing from her in-laws on the ground in Gaza say that as thousands of women and children are crowded into schools, men are staying outside, in hopes of increasing the chances of their family members’ survival. Many of the kids are reportedly sleeping less than two hours a night and can often be seen covering their ears to soften the sounds of bombs. “This is very tough on kids,” Absharar says.
Ben Manski is a Jewish American who, like Absharar, moved to the United States from Jerusalem. Manski advocates for democracy, social justice and ecology in the United States and around the world, and describes himself as active in the struggle for Palestinian self-determination and freedom. “I’m concerned about the safety and rights of Palestinian people and also of Israeli Jews,” he says.
Manski says the most belligerent voices are the ones being amplified the most. “We’re hearing the voices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the voices of Hamas,” he says. “What we don’t hear as much are the voices of Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews who have been working together and struggling together for a just and peaceful outcome for this long conflict—an end to the occupation, an end to apartheid in Israel and, in the very immediate term, to a ceasefire so that children and so many innocent people in Gaza and in the West Bank are not murdered as a result of the blood-thirsty approach on the part of Israel and Hamas.”
Maski says it’s high time to make room for other voices to be heard. “From my perspective, we need to hear more from voices within Hadash—the only binational party that exists in that region, a party of both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews working not just in coalition but in the same organization,” he says. “It’s also a social movement and a democratic front for peace and equality.”
When or if it’s possible to get beyond this particularly challenging moment, Manski has hope that the younger generation can continue to make strides toward a future that is more peaceful and less oppressive for everyone in the region, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
“There’s always been a substantial portion of Jews within Israel and Palestine that were anti-Zionist and not on board with the project of a Jewish state,” he says. “Many Israelis—although not enough—have had to come to terms with the fact that a democratic and a Jewish state cannot coexist. Young Jewish people are starting to come to terms with the idea that you cannot have an ethnonational state and have that state be a democracy.”
Although Manski and Absharar are each among the thousands of people who showed up to voice opposition to the war at separate ends of the country and have never met—Manski at a rally organized by Jewish Voices for Peace in Washington, D.C., and Absharar at a United Muslims for Palestine rally in Oakland—their immediate message is the same: “Cease fire immediately.”
“There are millions of American Jews who stand with the people of Gaza and who are horrified both by the attacks on our cousins in South Israel, but who are also horrified at this moment and very worried about two million people in Gaza who are caught underneath this hail of weapons from Israel at this point,” Manski says. “‘Listen to us’ is what I would say to Biden … we need to cease fire immediately.”