Holy Land, Holy Life

By Kayla Blau

On October 10th, 2023, I rediscover a keffiyeh — a traditional Palestinian scarf — while unpacking boxes in my new apartment in Seattle. Khadijah*, the mother of my childhood friend Leila, gave it to me during my last trip to their home in Jerusalem. Between headlines bombarding me from my phone, I recall the taste of maqluba, decadent lamb mixed with cardamom-kissed rice, which Leila’s mother has fed me for decades: first, in the perceived safety of the US, and then over a decade later, on a gold-lined tablecloth in the Muslim Quarter of East Jerusalem.

Leila and I had clicked on the first day of kindergarten in a suburb of Seattle, marveling over mancala beads. Our friendship continued to blossom through basketball practices and school dances until ICE agents showed up on her doorstep one day in high school, forcing her family to relocate to their ancestral homeland. The black and white keffiyeh still smells faintly of cloves and jasmine. Wrapped in my memories of the Holy Land, I pray Leila’s home will be spared from the latest waves of bombing. In every image of a wounded Palestinian child, I see the faces of Leila’s two young children staring back at me.

My new apartment is quiet, but the footage from Gaza is deafening. It is as if my phone is screaming at me — videos of mothers wailing for their children while bombs fire behind them, images of bloodied children, human limbs under rubble, promises of “severe retaliation” from Israel’s right-wing government officials. With each scroll, the images become more haunting.

Did you see the footage? A message from one of my Orthodox Jewish friends pops up on Instagram. She is referring to videos of Israeli Jews kidnapped by Hamas. Yes. I’ve seen them.

I’ve also seen footage of Israeli settlers kidnapping a teenager on his way to a mosque in East Jerusalem1 before burning him alive, bombs splaying a preschool’s alphabet magnets into plastic shards, Palestinian hospitals leveled in seconds.2 I’ve seen footage of peace treaty promises broken by Israeli settlers in 1967,3 2000, and 2014, and of defenseless siblings throwing rocks at Israeli Defense Force (IDF) guns, keffiyehs hiding everything but their eyes. I’ve heard Israel’s so-called reasoning — a sacred book, an imaginary deed, a false claim that my ancestors and descendants have a right to kill. But I’ve also seen the spirit of survival in Leila’s children: proof that her ancestors and descendants have a right to live.

In late 2019, the IDF started a ground assault in the West Bank while Khadijah’s niece went into labor. She rushed to the hospital, two Israeli checkpoints in her path. Israeli-operated checkpoints are similar to metal cages, meant to control and repress freedom of movement for Palestinians. An IDF soldier questioned her extensively as her contractions became shorter and shorter. He realized she was in labor, smirked to his buddies, and forbade her from leaving. Her baby died there inside her, as she lay surrounded by the checkpoint’s metal bars. This didn’t make American news.


In 1907, Zionist leader Chaim Weissman visited Palestine for the first time to stake out the land for a Jewish state, claiming “The British told us that there are some hundred thousand Kushim [a Hebrew term for a dark-skinned person] and for those there is no value.”4

Ten years later, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, promising a “national home for Jews” on Palestinian land.5 This wasn’t an act of benevolence by then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour — he was no fan of the Jewish people.6 In fact, he previously passed the Aliens Act of 1905, primarily aimed at restricting Jewish immigration to Great Britain. As Jews fled violent anti-semitism across Europe, Balfour reasoned supporting a Jewish nation would keep Jews out of Great Britain, and would give Britain geopolitical control of Palestine as a strategic stronghold during World War I.7 It was a win-win for the vocal white supremacist anti-semite.8

The idea of “Zionism” — the term for Jewish nationalism — only emerged in the late 1800s.9 Many Jews were against it, arguing that nationalism leads to violence and bigotry, and that Jews should instead fight for the safety of Jewish people across the diaspora10. Even Albert Einstein “acknowledged the Arab peoples living in Palestine as ‘kinfolk,’ and feared that any attempt to create a Jewish state on Arab land would lead to decades of hostility.”11 Judaism, as a religion, has roots dating back over three thousand years. Before British colonization, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in relative peace in the Ottoman-controlled region, and Muslims and Christian Arabs made up 94 percent of the population. Part of Zionism’s argument justifies colonization in Palestine by stating Jews have a two-thousand-year-old connection to the Holy Land, ignoring the connections Muslims and Christians also have there. David Ben-Gurion, who later served as Israel’s Prime Minister, told former US Secretary of War Patrick Hurley about Zionists’ plans in 1943. Hurley then extended a warning to President Roosevelt, summarizing Zionist goals as “expanding a sovereign Jewish state, eventually transferring the Arab population from Palestine to Iraq, and establishing Jewish leadership for the entire Middle East in the fields of economic development and control.” The blueprint for Zionist imperialism was never a secret.

When Palestinians began protesting colonization in 1917, leaders of the strike were imprisoned, exiled, and killed.12 Murders don’t justify murders, but violent occupation does justify resistance; land grabs necessitate questions. When the screams of the martyred and massacred are ignored, extremists emerge. Put another way, John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”


My grandfather was the right hue of refugee. He fled the Holocaust from Vienna in 1938, and though he experienced his fair share of financial struggles, it wasn’t more than a decade before he was folded into white middle-class US citizenship. As I reflect on his trajectory to assimilation, a message comes in from Leila on WhatsApp, asking me where her family can flee. I search frantically for an answer, landing on a United Nations Resettlement website that proves useless — when searched, “Palestine” yields No Results Found. Erased from maps and effectively scrubbed from the global lexicon. The United Nations Resettlement landing page for Israel does not list the word “Palestinian” even once. Over seven million Palestinians have been forcibly removed from their homelands by the Israeli government and scattered across the globe. The news callously refers to them as “terrorists,” when they bother to mention them at all. But who are the real terrorists, and who are the refugees?


I was an uninformed twenty-two-year-old when my feet first touched ground in the Holy Land as a participant in Taglit-Birthright: an Israeli government–funded program that grants young Jews a free ten-day trip to Israel. Raised only culturally Jewish, I was not steeped in calls for a passionate allegiance to the state of Israel like some of my peers. My family rarely attended synagogue, and the most we talked about Israel was ceremoniously ending our Passover seder by chanting L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim, meaning “next year in Jerusalem” in Hebrew.

As a kid, I’d known Jerusalem only as the faraway place mentioned in the Torah — not some bustling historic site for Muslims, Christians, and Jews that Zionists intended to capture through violence and land theft. My understanding of Jews’ connection to Jerusalem was one of spiritual Zionism, not political Zionism. Unlike many other young American Jews, I did not attend any Jewish Day School, which often weaved Zionist messaging into teachings of Judaism by urging their pupils to protect the state of Israel at all costs, necessitating the state’s existence with fears of Jewish safety. I did, however, receive extensive history lessons about the Holocaust, and the general refrain at seders emphasized the persecution of Jews throughout history, along with the dangers of anti-semitism. I was told horror stories of the concentration camps my ancestors were murdered in, creating a cloud of paranoia that consistently hovered over my Jewish identity. And while I wasn’t indoctrinated enough to buy into Zionism fully, it would still take years of unlearning Zionist messaging to understand how disparate the settler colonial project of Israel is from the teachings of Judaism, which values life and social justice. Most synagogues — and public schools, like mine — completely erased Palestinians from Israel’s history. For these reasons, I remained blissfully unaware of Palestinian history and the realities of military occupation for years.

When I was in my early twenties, my cousins and brother had attended Birthright before me, and had spoken highly of the free trip, so I decided to attend with a plan to visit Leila and her family afterward in East Jerusalem. During the ten-day program, I was whisked from Holocaust memorial to Zionist monument along with a group of other Birthright participants. Our tour guides often spoke like fast-talking real estate agents, relaying a clear message at every opportune moment: “You belong here, they don’t belong here, you belong here…” And we were even handed maps which seemed to only affirm this one-sided vision: blank spaces where Gaza and the West Bank should have been.

One night, my Birthright cohort was corralled into a giant sports arena in Tel Aviv for a “Mega Event.”13 Over five thousand young Jews from around the world were handed blue and white noise makers and cocktails upon entering the rave-like arena.

“This is the one night on the trip you’re allowed to drink alcohol, so bottoms up!” My tour guide beamed, strobe lights flashing across her face.

A hype man took the mic, reminding us that we were the “chosen people” before leading a chant that translates to “long live Israel.” He then invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to the stage, who urged us to “make aliyah,” meaning “rise” or “return” to Israel.

“The Holocaust killed one-third of our ancestors, and we need you to help us repopulate the world with Jews,” Netanyahu began, before encouraging all of us in the crowd to go home and “spread the truth” about Israel — namely, that this was our rightful land, and that despite what ignorant critics preached, Arabs had full rights in this country just like anyone else. “Then come back to Israel, make your family here, and help protect our sacred state from the Jewish-hating terrorists. We need you,” he urged.

Arabs have full rights in this country?

In exchange for dedicating our lives to promoting and defending our state’s interests, Netanyahu assured us that they would pay for our Hebrew classes, our flights to and from our promised land, and whatever employment arrangements would be necessary upon arrival. They’d even paired us with IDF soldiers to help ease us into the cause; the assumptive heteronormative pairings apparently had been made without regard for our true gender identities or sexual preferences. At Netanyahu’s closing words, the crowd erupted with applause. I looked around anxiously, hoping to find anyone else who shared my suspicions about the ulterior motives of this program. I’d found it odd and deeply uncomfortable that the Prime Minister of Israel had taken time out of his day to encourage young American Jews to fornicate. But as I scanned the crowd on either side of me, all I saw were admiring faces gazing up at Bibi. I frantically looked for an exit. An alarm had sounded somewhere within my body as memories of childhood playdates with Leila flooded my mind. Surely, they could not be the “terrorists” Netanyahu claimed were attacking us?

While I remained unaware of the details of colonization and apartheid in Israel, an uncomfortable dread had already begun reverberating throughout my body while listening to Netanyahu’s speech. The longer I stood in the crowd of young people boisterously cheering him on, the more skeptical I became of his words and the cult-like chants they elicited from the crowd. Many of us had been taught that Israel was our rightful homeland since birth, and some among us would even grow up to join the IDF in order to help “protect our land” from “violent Arabs.”

As IDF soldiers continued to pair off with participants with alcoholic beverages in hand, I threw my cocktail in the trash. Something about the gun-toting soldiers and the urging of a militarized leader to reproduce turned me off. Netanyahu’s motives continued to reveal themselves as I learned more about the importance of sustaining a Jewish demographic majority in Israel. Netanyahu needed us to “repopulate the world with Jews” because in Israel, Jewish babies grow up into IDF soldiers, thanks to a mandatory draft. Zionist indoctrination is critical for Israeli youth to buy into militarized occupation; if they refuse to serve in the military, they face jail time. At the end of our trip, we would be given dozens of pamphlets and brochures for “quick and easy ways to make aliyah” — to become an Israeli citizen — complete with Jewish dating site info and IDF application instructions.

As alienating as my Birthright experience turned out to be, I was at least grateful to make the acquaintance of a single fellow cohort member who shared my objections and criticism. After the Mega Event had finally ended and we all cleared out of the stadium, I collapsed into the seat next to her on the bus back to the kibbutz.

“I have a new trip slogan,” she smirked. “Taglit-Birthright: Because Jewish soldiers don’t make themselves.”


If I had been eager to branch off on my own at the beginning of my trip, the propaganda tour had only exacerbated my desire to depart from the Birthright group. I gratefully took advantage of the program’s option to postpone my flight home. I’m pretty sure visiting a Palestinian in East Jerusalem wasn’t what Birthright officials had in mind, but I was eager to see my childhood friend: I hadn’t seen her or her family in over five years. Memories of her going-away party swam in my mind as I boarded a train toward Shu’afat, East Jerusalem.

Three hours later, I finally arrived, and was greeted at the station by squeals from Leila and hugs from her younger brother.

“I can’t believe how grown up you are!” Khadijah beamed as she embraced me. Being in their family’s presence instantly calmed my nerves and grounded me.

“Oh, you two used to be so cute together in kindergarten — remember that? You sang ‘What a Wonderful World.’”

I smiled at the memory of Leila and I singing off-key at just five years old. The lyrics — written by a Jewish songwriter in the sixties — resurfaced at the mention of the memory:“I see friends shaking hands, saying, “How do you do?” They're really saying, “I love you.”

“You know I teach kindergarten here now?” Khadijah continued. “It’s so difficult to find work with our ID cards, and I don’t like to travel far.14 It seems every other week there’s a bombing on a bus, or another trigger-happy IDF soldier.”

I nodded solemnly.

“That separation wall,” she continued, “is one wall and two prisons. The Israelis live in fear, and we Palestinians live in fear — fear of the other. But I have hope. One day, peace will be brought upon this land once again. What do your people say? Shalom? Peace? One day…” Khadijah said, bowing her head in prayer. Inshallah, God Willing, I did the same.


Even with the picture Khadijah had painted for me of two peoples living in fear of each other from opposite sides of the same wall, I had yet to fully grasp the realities of the Palestinian experience under occupation.

During the month I spent in East Jerusalem, I saw IDF soldiers clutching American-made guns at every corner. I heard multiple firsthand accounts of IDF soldiers imprisoning Palestinians without cause, and witnessed many of the severe restrictions imposed on Palestinian movement, political organization, and access to means of livelihood by the Israeli government. I broke bread with Leila’s cousins, whose house was recently demolished by Israeli soldiers because they didn’t have an Israeli government–issued building permit — despite the home being on Palestinian land that her cousins owned. I joined a tour of Hebron with Breaking the Silence, a group of former IDF soldiers who speak out about atrocities committed by soldiers in the West Bank, and witnessed Israeli settlers throwing trash on Palestinian homes. I met a Jewish Israeli of Arab descent who described the separate criminal legal systems for Palestinians and Israelis, and lamented about rampant racism and discrimination toward Jews of Arab descent in Israel.15 Even seemingly insidious instances stuck with me, like when I witnessed a Palestinian woman’s tatreez materials — a form of traditional Palestinian embroidery — destroyed by IDF soldiers at a checkpoint, or when an Israeli woman on a bus told me her grandparents “settled” in a home in Jaffa that still had the former (Palestinian) inhabitants’ furniture in it. Netanyahu’s mendacious words kept ringing in my head: Arabs have full rights in this country…

A few weeks into my stay in Shu’afat, Leila and I decided to take a weekend trip to Tel Aviv with her brother, Mo. Although Tel Aviv is about forty-four miles from East Jerusalem and should have been an hour’s drive, the numerous checkpoints turned it into a five-hour trek.

Famished, we found a trendy restaurant-lounge on the Mediterranean boardwalk. Leila and I flashed our IDs and blue US passports and walked in. But Mo held an Israeli-issued blue ID card, which should have granted him the ability to move freely in Tel Aviv.16 The waiter glanced from Mo’s ID to his expectant face — the face of a Palestinian man, whose identity this Israeli waiter was surely socialized to hate — and spat dismissively in Hebrew, barring him from the restaurant. Mo shrugged it off, apparently used to state-sanctioned discrimination.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m obviously just too sexy for that place,” he winked. But I saw the strain behind his eyes, exacerbated by years of fighting for his right to exist in his ancestors’ homeland.

We settled for a shawarma restaurant further away from the Mediterranean boardwalk, where Mo and Leila filled in the gaps of my ignorance.

“Look, let me explain what it’s really like. We have these cards with different colors on them that tell us where we can live, work, or go to school,” Leila said.

“And even though Mo has the blue card, Israelis hold all the power. Once, he was waiting at a checkpoint trying to get home from university, and the fucking Israelis took him to the interrogation room and beat him. He had a black eye for a week. And he never said shit to them! He’s lucky, though. Our cousin Ghassan is jailed and still doesn’t have a trial date. We don’t even know why he was locked up.” Her voice turned from fire to water, rage giving way to despair.

“Anyone who tries to fight back, they throw in jail,” Mo adds. “Anyone who wants a shred of respect, anyone who wants to protect their family’s land from Israeli settlers, they murder. I don’t even blame the extremists — most of their families were executed over the years by IDF soldiers. I mean, how would you feel? What would you do? We’ve been speaking out for decades, doing nonviolent protests, hosting peace talks between Arabs and Israelis. But suicide bombings make better headlines I guess, and then they can justify violence against us as ‘defense.’ Like they’re not suffocating us daily.”

My heart squeezed as I took in my childhood friends’ reality living in an apartheid state. How does oppressing others keep Jews safe, like I had been implicitly taught during Birthright? Why didn’t I learn about Israel’s illegal occupation in school, or from Jewish elders? My head pulsed with questions. The betrayal, confusion, and anger of witnessing my religion wielded as a tool of oppression and violence coursed through my veins. The Jewish values I connected to most as a child — tikkun olam (repairing the world), pikuach nefesh (sanctity of all human life), and tzedek (justice) — were devastatingly absent in the state of Israel. Since that summer day on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, my commitment to anti-Zionism would only intensify the more I learned about the Israeli occupation.


Israel is the largest recipient of cumulative US foreign assistance since World War II, racking up more than one hundred and sixty billion dollars of US aid.17 Bearing witness to repeated acts of violent settler colonialism over the years has cemented in me a desire to learn real history, beyond what Western media sells the global north. I’ve learned that the US provides more than 80 percent of Israel’s total military purchases,18 that stocks of US weapons manufacturers boom during wartime.19 And I’ve learned that federal “legislation mandates that the US government help Israel maintain force superiority — or its “qualitative military edge” — over other Middle Eastern nations,” underscoring the US’s allegiance to Israel as a military stronghold in the oil-rich region.20 Analysts say the total damage of explosives Israel has dropped on Gaza in October 2023 alone is equivalent to two nuclear bombs.21

Two nuclear bombs. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu beams unapologetically whenever he appears on television, claiming he was “inspired by the US, by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

I stop sleeping.

These days, when I can get through to Leila on WhatsApp, she tells me she’s running out of explanations for her three-year-old son. It is 2024 — seventy-six years after the Nakba and still, no Palestinian is safe. Leila writes: The wailing from the mosque won’t stop. Day and night, people are mourning their family members. Between that and the noise from the blasts, he’s constantly asking questions. What can I tell him?


A school textbook from 1938 reveals what Khadijah’s mother and other Palestinian elementary school children had been learning at the time. The book depicts Palestine as bordering Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and the Mediterranean Sea. Within ten years, all this would change.

British colonial rule attempted to force Palestinians off their land by fear and force throughout the early 1900s.22 They burned hundreds of olive trees, rounded men up and made them walk on burning coal, tortured prisoners, indiscriminately rationed food supplies, and demolished homes.23

In 1936, Palestinians staged a six-month-long revolt against Britain’s promise to “establish a Jewish national home” on Palestinian land. Protestors wore keffiyehs to avoid identification and arrest, and when British Mandate authorities banned them, all Palestinians started donning the scarf in solidarity to make it harder to identify the activists.

In response, British forces banned all Palestinians from owning weapons while handing out guns and equipping special Jewish forces to act as protective militia for Jewish settlements and their inhabitants, who encroached on Palestinian land.24 They raided Palestinian villages to kill anyone found harboring revolutionaries, not unlike the US “slave patrols” that were implemented to kill anyone harboring enslaved people or any person suspected of planning a revolt.


As Leila’s ancestors were being kicked out of their living room by British troops in 1938, my Ashkenazi Jewish grandfather was sneaking out of his. He was twenty-one then, and news of Hitler’s imminent arrival in Austria forced him to choose whether to leave his ailing grandmother and mother behind or to stay and die by their side. His family had lived in Vienna for generations; this branch of my family tree is indigenous to Austria. After he fled, his aunt sponsored his arrival to the United States, where he quickly joined the US military. Grandpa Kurt purchased a home in the suburbs made possible with the money he received through the GI Bill, which was often denied to soldiers of color. He settled his family in a quiet neighborhood, and eventually earned enough money for his sons to enroll in the universities of their choosing.

I share this nuanced history not to invalidate my grandfather’s suffering, nor the fact that many branches of my family tree were gassed to death by anti-Semitism. But so much of the Zionist appropriation of Jewish trauma and the memory of the Holocaust are misused to oppress Palestinians, who were nowhere near the gas chambers our ancestors perished in. Enacting genocide is not a trauma response, but trauma got us here; we were stripped of our dignity, belonging, agency, and safety, and then displaced another group of human beings and subjected them to the same fate. What place can misplaced vengeance possibly have in securing justice? How can Jews ever heal while children are slaughtered in our name?


The Israeli government spends millions on a “Brand Israel” campaign, spreading pro-Israel propaganda for the support of American Jews, and claiming that the Nakba never even happened in the first place.25 Allegedly, its Palestinian victims were the original perpetrators of aggression against the Jewish population, and the Zionist/Israeli forces were only responding in self-defense.26 But all these claims are, of course, false. The initial perpetrator was British-backed mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians. Brand Israel, I learn, is likely why none of my Jewish elders educated me about the Nakba, an Arab word that means “catastrophe.” My elders were almost certainly shielded from the truth of Jewish colonization. The racist propaganda campaign, along with hasbara, a Hebrew word that means "explaining,” describe the Israeli government’s efforts to sway public opinion abroad.27 The disinformation campaign has only surged in the last six months, peddling lies about “forty beheaded Israeli babies” and “terrorist control centers in hospitals.” Both have since been debunked.

This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle, Netanyahu tweets.


It is 1974, and Kurt’s son — my father — is submitting college applications from Tacoma, WA. Halfway across the world, Khadijah and her siblings are attending mass funerals of families and friends. My father’s synagogue preaches about Jewish safety and allegiance to Israel, but says nothing of the Palestinians already inhabiting the land. My father’s rabbi did not mention this — effectively erasing Palestinian existence from Jewish collective memory. From 1967 to 1987, the Israeli military arrested and detained more than half a million Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Khadijah’s auntie was one of one thousand, five hundred and sixty people whose homes were demolished by Israeli forces. There was no quiet neighborhood left for her to resettle in.


In 1948, the myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land” solidified the creation of Israel. But the land was, of course, not “without a people”; over seven hundred thousand Palestinians were displaced and dispossessed to found Israel. The determination of whose lives matter, whose lives “have value,” hinges upon what serves the violent agenda of settler colonialism.


Over the past seventy-five years, Israeli forces have bombed entire neighborhoods, leveling hospitals and mosques in the name of “defense” on land they occupy, all while flagrantly breaking international law. Zionists have now seized some 78 percent of historic Palestine and counting, and keffiyehs drape over hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples’ shoulders.28 The keffiyeh has meant “resistance” for as long as resistance has been required.

From October 2023 to March 2024, IDF soldiers have kidnapped over seven thousand Palestinians in the West Bank, most of whom were lured into capture with promises of work — the very same tactic used on Jews by Nazi Germany.29 Zionist settlers post plans for an Israeli coastal city in current-day Gaza, building a Holy Land for their children on the mass graves of other children.

How many keffiyehs will be buried beneath the rubble?


In the Seattle suburbs in the late 1990s, Leila’s brothers were called “terrorists” for wearing keffiyehs by our elementary school classmates. Those bullies are grown up now, some of them writing laws on foreign policy, others passing down the same hateful rhetoric to their own children. I imagine a group of white politicians scheming to implicate an enemy after the towers fell, rolling out Islamophobia with vigor. I know that the shaping of propaganda is more nuanced than the policies that come out of a room full of white men asserting their dominance, but I’m a writer and work best with images.

Here’s an image: an elderly man is grilling meat in his backyard when he gets news of his son’s death.

And another: a young freedom fighter drops out of school to protect his family.

Yet another: a toddler digs up grenade shrapnel in a sandbox.

Who did you imagine as you read those descriptions: an Israeli or a Palestinian?


Memories of three different clouds of smoke from October 31, 2023 are seared into my brain. In the first memory, my two-year-old niece runs through a smoke machine on Halloween alongside neighborhood kids donning fake blood and plastic swords. In the second, images of white phosphorus smoke rain down on Gaza’s neighborhoods, burning children’s flesh to the bone. In the third, an image posted by an Israeli settler of a missile absorbed by the Iron Dome — a US-funded Israeli air defense system with a three-million-dollar price tag — results in a tiny tuft of smoke against a clear blue sky.

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world...


The year is now 2024, and an active genocide is in progress. Violence strikes hardest in the night. We wake to news of more and more grave sites until websites fail to load in Gaza; the electricity and internet are regularly intercepted by the Israeli government to silence the screams of their victims. Since the IDF has murdered over one hundred Palestinian journalists to date in the last six months,30 denies entry to foreign journalists without IDF-approved talking points,31 and recently passed a law to ban Al Jazeera media from reporting in Israel,32 the burden falls on Gazans on the ground to share the carnage of their neighbors via social media, demanding the world intervene.

If a mother cries in a dead zone, does the world still hear her?

When an Arab mother screams over her dead children, who replies?

Do they ask first for her papers?

“We are living as refugees in our own homeland,” a Palestinian activist pleads to the masses in an online recording. “Do not ask me if Hamas has Israeli hostages while Israel has the whole country hostage. The West loaded IDF soldiers’ weapons with US taxes from your paychecks. The blood of babies starved to death is on your hands.”

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow. They'll learn much more than I'll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…


The silence hurts more than the bombs, Leila writes in another WhatsApp message. No one is coming for us. Kayla, tell me — who is coming for us?

I do not know who is coming, so I do not say. Instead, I do my best to reassure her of what I do know: that the world is watching, and solidarity movements are pulsing and igniting across the globe — in South Africa, San Francisco, Seoul, and elsewhere. I send photos of anti-Zionist Jews protesting in Seattle, the keffiyeh her mother gifted me wrapped around my shoulders as we continue demanding a ceasefire from our corrupt leaders. I tell her we are rallying for a global unlearning, a rewriting of whitewashed history — that we are begging for humanity not to look away. And when some among us inevitably do, as death tolls are recounted like scores of a soccer match, and “self-care” in the West becomes a euphemism for tuning out airstrikes in the Middle East, and there is nothing left to do but scream or be silent, our voices will ring out even louder in a chorus, pleading atonement for the blood-stained hands of humanity.


Back in my living room in Seattle, I wrap the keffiyeh around my shoulders, inhaling the faint smells of East Jerusalem while praying for the safety of Leila, Khadijah, Mo, and all Palestinians across the globe. I continue unpacking boxes, and rediscover a binder of photos and documents from my Jewish grandfather. I pick up a tattered newspaper article from 1939, a year after my grandfather fled bigotry and violence to seek asylum in the US. The caption reads: Kurt Blau, the other refugee, was born in Vienna, but resided in an emigrant camp in Switzerland for a year prior to coming to this country.

I then find a letter my grandfather wrote to his relatives while in the camp, lamenting about inhumane living conditions. We wake up hungry, and there are more than two hundred people sleeping on the floor of a single room. Nearly all are sick from the damp of the soil we sleep on…he writes. My mind begins to flood with recent images of malnourished Palestinians fleeing racist violence by foot, forced from one refugee camp to another. Images of starving children in Auschwitz blend into present-day images of starving children in Rafah. Making refugees of others will never keep Jews safe. Man-made famine, borders, guns, walls, and mass graves will only sever us from any chance at peace, from our ancient teachings of Judaism, from our humanity.


There is a prayer we recite during Yom Kippur called “ashamnu,” which translates to “we have been guilty.” We repent collectively, because when one Jew has done wrong, the whole community must take accountability. For every IDF soldier who pulled a trigger, there are

millions of Jewish bystanders remaining silent as our ancient religion is hijacked by a century-old nationalist agenda calling for the murder of innocent families. The history of Jewish suffering — of being discriminated against for our identity — cannot be used to justify dehumanizing and slaughtering another people for theirs. Growing up, I was taught the most Jewish thing you can do is to ask questions, to think critically and deeply, and to speak out against injustices.33 To that end, it is in honor of my Jewish heritage — not in spite of it — that I support Palestinian life.34

I imagine my grandfather reciting ashamnu during Yom Kippur in 1939, the year he sought asylum in the US. He was likely celebrating alone in army barracks in the Midwest, mourning his forced separation from his loved ones. What did he repent for? Did he imagine the future of his lineage, the safety of his descendents? This Yom Kippur, eighty-five years after my grandfather fled genocidal powers and seventy-six years after Palestinians were forcefully exiled from their homes, what will I repent for? I think of Leila’s son and my niece, both just three years old. I climb up our respective family trees over the past three generations, grieving the shared experiences of banishment, discrimination, and persecution. I know violence flourishes amidst silence, so I speak up, like Leila asked me to, and urge others to do the same. I dig underneath the clouds of anguish and despair, praying for a seed of solidarity and hope, for a righting of our collective wrongs, so that one day, a Muslim Palestinian and an Ashkenazi Jew can sing “What a Wonderful World” in the same kindergarten class, and mean it.

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

  1. Erlanger, Steven. “2 Israelis Sentenced in 2014 Murder of Palestinian Teenager.” The New York Times. 4 February 2016.
  2. Turfah, Mary. “Israel Has Created a Medical Apocalypse in Gaza.” The Nation. 20 February 2024. v
  3. Six-Day War. Encyclopedia Britannica. 13 February 2024.
  4. Masala, Nur. Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return, edited by Naseer Aruri [p.37]. 2001.
  5. “Balfour Declaration: Text of the Declaration.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2 November 1917.
  6. Khalidi, Rashid. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017. 2020.
  7. Khalidi, Rashid. British Policy towards Syria and Palestine, 1906–1914: St. Antony's Middle East monographs. Ithaca Press. 1980.
  8. Munayyer, Yousef. “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist — and an anti-Semite, too.” The Forward. 1 November 2017.
  9. Eichler, William. “Herzl’s Troubled Dream: The Origins of Zionism.” History Today. 6 June 2023.
  10. Greenstein, Tony. “Israel’s Holocaust trauma is a myth.” Electronic Intifada. 29 Mach. 2024.
  11. Falk, Dan. “One Hundred Years Ago, Einstein Was Given a Hero’s Welcome by America’s Jews.” Smithsonian Magazine. 2 April 2021.
  12. Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1943, The Near East and Africa, Volume IV. Brigadier General Patrick J. Hurley, Personal Representative of President Roosevelt. US Department of State, Office of the Historian.
  13. Damen, Rawan. Al Nakba: the History of Palestine Since 1799 — Palestine Remix. Al Jazeera. 2013.
  14. “The Power of a Birthright Mega Event.” E Jewish Philanthropy. June 2013.
  15. “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: a cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity.” Amnesty International. 1 February 2022.
  16. AbuZayyad, Ziad. “The Dual Legal System: Apartheid Regime or Two-State Solution.” Palestine/Israel Journal. 2016.
  17. Alsaafin, Linah. “The colour-coded Israeli ID system for Palestinians.” Al Jazeera. 18 November 2017.
  18. Masters, Jonathan and Merrow, Will. “US Aid to Israel in Four Charts.” Council on Foreign Relations.
  19. Knutson, Jacob. What to know about US aid to Israel. Axios.
  20. Sax, Sarah. “They’re Supposed to Be Socially Conscious Investors. Why Are They Funding the War on Gaza?” The Nation. 16 February 2024.
  21. Crowley, Michael, and Wong, Edward. “Gaza War Turns Spotlight on Long Pipeline of US Weapons to Israel.” The New York Times. 6 April 2024.
  22. “Israel hits Gaza Strip with the equivalent of two nuclear bombs.” Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. 2 November 2023.
  23. Timeline of Palestine's History. Palestine Remix. Al Jazeera. 2013.
  24. “The Nakba did not start or end in 1948.” Al Jazeera. 23 May 2017.
  25. “The Arab Revolt.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
  26. Deknatel, Frederick. “Denying the Nakba, 75 Years Later: A Democracy in Exile Roundtable.” DAWN. 15 May 2023.
  27. Rubin, Barnett. “False Messiahs.” The Boston Review. 4 January 2024.
  28. Sheizaf, Noam. “Hasbara: Why does the world fail to understand us?” +972 Magazine. 13 November 2011.
  29. Thrall, Nathan. “How 1948 Still Influences the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Time Magazine. 14 May 2018.
  30. Nashed, Matt. “More than 7,350 West Bank Palestinians arrested by Israel during Gaza war.” Al Jazeera. 22 March 2024.
  31. “Palestine: At least 102 journalists and media workers killed in Gaza.” International Federation of Journalists. 4 April 2024.
  32. Scott, Liam. “Media Weigh Ethics Over Access for Military Embeds to Gaza.” VOA News. 6 February 2024.
  33. Federman, Josef. “Israel Passes Law Paving the Way to Expel Al Jazeera.” Time Magazine. 2 April 2024.
  34. Schorsch, Ismar. “The Right to Question.” Jewish Theological Seminary. 15 January 2000.
  35. Maass, Peter. “I’m Jewish, and I’ve covered wars. I know war crimes when I see them.” The Washington Post. 9 April 2024.

Below is a list of additional sources you can consult to learn more about the ongoing occupation of Palestine by Israel. They were influential in my learning, so I’ve listed them here:

  • Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza  — Refaat Alareer 
  • I Saw Ramallah — Mourid Barghouti
  • On Palestine — Noam Chomsky
  • Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement — Angela Davis
  • Justice For Some — Noura Erakat
  • A Land With a People: Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism — Edited by Esther Farmer, Rosalind Pollack Petchesky and Sarah Sills
  • Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation — Edited by Mateo Hoke and Cate Malek
  • Rifqa — Mohammed El-Kurd
  • An hour of sunlight: one Palestinian’s journey from prisoner to peacemaker — Sami Al Jundi & Jen Marlowe
  • Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation — Carolyn L. Karcher
  • Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948—1978 — Geoffrey Levin
  • Israel/Palestine and the queer international — Sarah Schulman
  • This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature Anthology — Edited by Ahdaf Soueif & Omar Robert Hamilton
  • They Call Me Lioness — Ahed Tamimi and Dena Takruri
  • Overcoming Speechlessness — Alice Walker
Headshot of Kayla Blau

Kayla Blau (she/her) is a queer Jewish writer and facilitator based in Seattle, WA. Her poetry and prose can be found in Crosscut, The Stranger, Mondoweiss, and Real Change, among others.

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