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Gaza conflict hits home for Buffalo’s Jewish, Palestinian communities

Trips to Israel are being canceled.

Rallies and memorials to honor the dead are being organized instead.

All the while, Buffalo’s Jewish and Palestinian communities stay tuned in for any bit of news related to the latest fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“It’s all we talk about,” said Rabbi Perry Netter of Temple Beth Tzedek in Amherst. “We are all consumed.”

“Obviously, there are a lot of people who have immediate family there and they are all very concerned,” said Dr. Khalid Qazi, a leader in the local Muslim community. “A lot of innocent lives are being lost.”

As the casualties mount, the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, is hitting home here in Western New York for those on both sides of the aisle.

Anger. Frustration. A sense of helplessness.

“This has been a very traumatic thing within the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Congregation Shir Shalom in Amherst. “For Jews in Buffalo, and the United States, we feel deeply connected to Israel and when there’s that sense of sadness and loss we don’t know what to do.”

For starters, the two-dozen members of Shir Shalom who were supposed to be touring Israel recently canceled the trip because of the violence.

Tensions ignited in June when three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking in the West Bank were kidnapped and later found dead. Israel began air strikes against rockets launched from Gaza. A few days later, a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and killed in apparent retaliation. Fighting quickly escalated. As of early Sunday, 1,770 Gazans and 67 Israelis had died. .

“It’s something a lot of our members are thinking about all the time,” Lazarus-Klein said of the violence. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘What can we do?’”

A memorial service in honor of the three Israeli teenagers was held July 18 at the Jewish Community Center on North Forest Road in Amherst.

On July 23, a community rally was held at Temple Beth Tzedek on Getzville Road, where there was an invocation, singing of hymns and eyewitness accounts from people who recently returned from Israel.

And last week, the conflict was on the lips of those at the interfaith dinner in Niagara Falls organized by members of the Muslim community.

“Most of the people are hoping and praying it’s near the end for both sides,” said Faizan Haq, founder of WNY Muslims, a nonprofit connecting the local Muslim community. “They are Siamese twins and one cannot survive by killing the other. It is most unfortunate these lessons are never learned.”

The recent conflict has reignited the age-old debate over solutions to the fighting and its causes. Agreement on both are elusive.

One side blames Hamas.

The other side blames Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, as well as the United States for not putting more pressure on Israel to stop the strikes.

Both sides blame the media for promoting what they say is propaganda.

“The U.S. has not played a very constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian issue for several years and therefore has lost quite a bit of credibility,” Qazi said. “We cannot always talk about Israeli security and not talk about Palestinian political rights. Unless both are addressed to the same level there’s not going to be peace in the Middle East.”

It’s difficult to start a local dialogue on such an emotionally charged issue, because feelings run so deep on both sides, said the Rev. G. Stanford Bratton, executive director of the Network for Religious Communities.

In 2000, for example, when strife erupted in Jerusalem, local Muslims, Christians and Jews issued a public statement denouncing the violence and calling for conversation. But, Bratton said, the statement took three days to craft, and even then, there were some who had difficulty with it.

“When people care about something that puts us on different sides of the fence, it makes it very difficult for dialogue. There’s so much emotion,” Lazarus-Klein said. “I wish we could have a cooperative effort, and it’s possible we will, but I think we’re too far apart right now and everybody is just adapting.”

“We have two absolute conflicting narratives about what this conflict is about, and there’s no way to be balanced about this,” Netter said.

If there is any common ground, it’s the desire for a long-term solution that finally puts an end to the violence.

“This is awful for everybody. Nobody rejoices,” Netter said. “There’s a sense that we’ve seen this video before, which gives a sense of despair that there just is no solution.”

“We cannot have people on both sides cheering people getting killed. That is a decay of our culture, and that is very dangerous. We have to value human life,” Haq said.

“In the private conversations that I have, these are the common grounds that many people agree,” Haq said. “It doesn’t matter how passionately they believe one way or the other.”