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The Israel-Hamas war tests mission of two leaders of interfaith dialogue


The week of intense violence and the prospect of more to come is having a deep emotional impact on people who care about both Israelis and Palestinians. Aziza Hasan is the executive director of the interfaith group NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership For Change.

AZIZA HASAN: There's this enormous grief and pain and nausea and anger all in one, and the feelings of isolation make it so compounded.

DETROW: Like Hasan, Alyson Freedman is also dedicated to engaging in and facilitating connections and dialogue between Jews and Muslims. She's a member of the organization Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.

ALYSON FREEDMAN: The organization has been really important to me because we build relationships between Muslim and Jewish women and work to combat hate through those relationships.

DETROW: On Friday, I sat down with Freedman and Hasan to talk about their mission and the challenges they're facing in this moment.

HASAN: To be honest, like, the moment that we're in definitely feels very different. It's grotesque in so many different ways and horrific. And sometimes the most important way that we can show up for each other is literally just to check in on each other and to say, I'm here for you. How are your loved ones? - and not to focus on what the right words are but instead to literally be there as an act of radical listening so that we can actually figure out all of this together 'cause it's too much for any one of us to hold.

DETROW: What about you, Alyson? What's felt different about this past week?

FREEDMAN: I think this is so personal, what's been happening, for everyone in different ways, depending on your background, your history, your family. And so, as Aziza said, just checking in on people - and, you know, those personal connections is what's most important.

DETROW: And, Alyson, I'll start with you here. Can I ask what, if any, themes have emerged, any specific details or parts of the circumstances that you found yourself returning to as you try to sort through this in conversations?

FREEDMAN: I've heard this feeling of isolation from both Jews and Muslims. You know, it feels like no one is paying attention on a personal level and that other people are being supported, but they are not being supported. And I've heard that from everyone.

DETROW: Can I ask - I mean, in as much as you want to say on the radio, to just that basic question you're both talking about - Aziza, how is your family? How are your close friends handling this?

HASAN: You know, it's hard. It's, like, the - there are no words for the jitters, for the anxiety, for the concern. My family's spread out all over the world, like many Palestinian families. And as I check in with people, they're just hurting. They're hurting so deeply and wondering how it is that we can just call people numbers and then watch buildings fall down and not realize that there's human beings inside of them and that they're not stories of people who have names and faces and moms and dads and children who are dying. And I think of all the at least a million who were told to evacuate their homes in Gaza to go to southern Gaza. And, like, how are a million people going to move over 24 hours, and especially under these conditions? I don't know.

But I'm also checking in with friends who live inside of Israel Palestine who are Israeli, and they're going from funeral to funeral of their families, of their friends' children. And there are no words to describe the awful that we're feeling right now. And yet I know that even though I, at times, don't have any of the right words, it's actually just really important to step in and to do what our traditions tell us, is that when people are grieving, you go and you see them. You see them, you hold them, you bring them the things that you see that they need, and you just - you're there.

DETROW: Alyson, same question to you. Can - the level you feel comfortable sharing it - how your family is, how your friends are, and what are the specific hard conversations that you yourself are having about this?

FREEDMAN: It's been really difficult. I would say that there's so much polarization right now. It's so hard to talk about these issues. I support people that are in pain. I stand with people that are hurting. And I think it's very easy right now to say, I stand with Israel or I stand with Palestine and to not necessarily think about how complex these issues are and how you can stand with all people that are in danger, that are being killed, that are not - don't have the right, you know, to self-determination, don't have, you know, education, and, you know, the right, you know, schools. I mean, there are so many things that are wrong right now. And so I've been having a lot of conversations where I have just been telling people to take a breath and kind of trying to re-humanize both Israelis and Palestinians.

DETROW: There are a lot of people right now in Israel, in Gaza, all over the world who do not want to think about conversation, let alone reconciliation right now. There is a lot of anger and a lot of just entrenched feelings and entrenched rage. And I'm wondering, you both work with groups that are all about trying to have hard conversations, interreligious dialogues, relationships. What's the case for that right now? Like, have you found yourself just having to make a case for that basic thing and why it matters, why it's valuable, why it is worth trying to forge and create in moments of pain and violence and tension? Aziza, do you want to go first?

HASAN: I think right now it's not necessarily about dialogue. It's about being there for people that you know and being there in grief. And so, like, what we've been seeing is that even with the people who need space and who just need to be supported right now, there are also other spaces that we're still continuing to convene. And we're seeing that people are more eager to come to the table because people understand the importance of radically seeing each other, and they're hungry for spaces that create the possibility of being able to step forward in this really hard time.

DETROW: Alyson, anything you want to add?

FREEDMAN: You know, as I said, I have, you know, been involved already in interfaith dialogue about what's been happening this week, and it was incredibly powerful and really beautiful to share, you know, moments of grief and anger and connection together. But there certainly were people in that group that weren't ready to do that, and that's OK. You have to have space for that as well, for how different people are going to process what's going on.

DETROW: That's Alyson Freedman, a member of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. And we also spoke with Aziza Hasan, the executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership For Change. Thanks so much to both of you for making the time to speak with us and taking the time to speak with us.

HASAN: Thank you for making this space.

FREEDMAN: Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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