Arabic women set out a giant challah for an inter-faith Shabbat dinne

A giant challah was the centerpiece for an inter-faith Shabbat dinner at Palestinian restaurant Ayat in New York

Photo by Stephanie Keith

Any Light In the Dark

As Israeli atrocities persist - storming hospitals, forcing evacuations, patronizing a right-wing confab bent on expulsion of Palestinians, defying a Hague verdict denouncing their genocidal designs and targeted assassination in a hospital - critics do what they can to right the wrongs. A group of advocates has issued a War Criminals deck of cards to help "etch into collective memory" those responsible, and a Palestinian restaurant held a massive free Shabbat dinner to "break bread and barriers."

The latest and newest of Israel's brazen violations of international law came Tuesday, when a hit squad disguised as civilian women and medical staff, incongruous assault rifles drawn, raided Ibn Sina hospital in the occupied West Bank and "executed in cold blood" three Palestinian men they charged - without evidence or any arrest attempt - were planning an attack. Calling the targeted assassination "rule-of-law Western style," Yanis Varoufakis of the Democracy in Europe Movement decried the colonialist notion that, "You can kill anyone you like on a land that you are illegally occupying, brand him/her a terrorist, and then vilify as anti-Semites the ancestors of everyone who questions your right to kill anyone you like on a land that you are illegally occupying."

The commando action again defies the recent Hague ruling that Israel's assault on Gaza poses "a credible risk of genocide" to Palestinians; the verdict stopped short of mandating a ceasefire but outlined six measures Israel must take within the month to curb their atrocities. Many celebrated a historic moment holding Israel accountable for decades of abuse - "Its crimes against the Palestinian people were laid bare" - with the "delicious irony" that an apartheid regime was made to answer to a nation, "Mandela's Country," that had freed itself from another apartheid regime. Others argued it ignores "the imperative of now" and allows Israel to continue its slaughter - a bloody reality best exemplified by the far-right Israeli minister who retorted, “Hague-schmague.”

His disdain is mirrored in Israel's ongoing carnage. In violation of international law, the IDF continues to storm and shell besieged hospitals: At Al-Amal in Khan Younis, soldiers forced doctors, patients and the displaced to evacuate, and burned tents where people had sheltered; at al-Shifa, doctors struggle to operate on vast numbers of patients without enough oxygen, blood, medication, electricity or food. With Israel turning back aid trucks, far-right protesters blocking them, and western countries unconscionably, irrationally pausing vital aid after reports of alleged Hamas connections of 12 UNRWA employees, many Gazans are living on one serving of rice a day. Frantic hungry crowds greet too-few aid trucks, a bag of flour once costing 35 shekels ($9.56) is now 600 shekels ($164), and officials cite "a looming famine."

Still, a relentless Israel pushes on. Sunday, thousands of right-wingers, among them up to 20 Israeli ministers, attended a rabid "Conference for the Victory of Israel" in Jerusalem explicitly calling for the "transfer" of Palestinians out of Gaza and their replacement by Israeli settlers - if needed, using starvation as a weapon: "They will have to leave." Speakers, who included two Likud ministers, urged Netanyahu make “brave decisions," championed a petition to "renew" settlements and presented detailed plans for them, argued "voluntary (emigration) is at times a state you impose until (people) give their consent," and insisted Jews formerly in Gaza return as victors: "We are rising - we have a nation of lions." One observer: "Tell me again how this is not genocide and ethnic cleansing?"

In the face of these multiple, flagrant, widely condemned crimes against humanity - collective punishment, slaughtering civilians, targeting hospitals, forced displacement, mass starvation - a coalition of attorneys, activists, and human rights groups have produced a deck of War Criminals playing cards to publicly shame 54 individuals "committing a genocide, failing to prevent a genocide, being complicit in a genocide, or all three, in Palestine," people in power "bound together by their indiscriminate support for the systematic killing of Palestinian civilians when the world, resoundingly and repeatedly, begged them to stop." They include not just Netanyahu and other government officials, but deeply complicit Western leaders - see Biden and Blinken - who've inexplicably hewed to declaring "no red lines."

Under a U.S.-and-Israeli-missile-bedecked tagline "Committing Genocide Since 1948," and echoing both a Bush-era U.S. playbook on Iraq and an IDF effort, the project seeks to pressure and demand accountability of leaders "and their lackeys" by helping the public identify them. One organizer of the effort is Ashish Prashar, a former adviser to Tony Blair; the group also includes a former Hague prosecutor, with some proceeds going to the Adalah Justice Project. Organizers stress the need to pursue justice via every legal avenue; they also cite the many countries, unlike the U.S., that will allow progressive organizations to press human rights charges against Israeli or American officials. Of those on display, they urge, "Remember their faces, remember their crimes."

In Brooklyn, meanwhile, the owners of the Palestinian restaurant Ayat and over 1,300 anti-war Jews and Arabs chose to fight back with good will, grace and food - capaciously, 15 lambs, 700 pounds of chicken, 100 branzino, massive pans of rice, hummus, salad, mansaf, baba ganoush, flatbread and a six-foot Challah. Sporting keffiyehs, kippot, hijabs, Rabbis for Ceasefire tote bags, and seeking "any light in the dark (when) reality is kind of crushing," Ditmas Park residents stood for hours in snaking but buoyant lines after owners - Egyptian-American Abdul Elenani and his Palestinian wife Ayat Masoud, an attorney - invited neighbors to share a "heartfelt Shabbat dinner... that's not just about breaking bread, but barriers...It's an opportunity to share stories, embrace diverse perspectives, and celebrate our shared humanity."

The event followed a flood of vitriol aimed at this Ayat, Elenani's sixth in New York, since Oct. 7. People suddenly raged at his "Down With the Occupation" sign and (year-old) seafood menu titled "From the River to the Sea" offering shrimp kebab, salmon kebab, whole red snapper - which abruptly became "openly genocidal." Despite his insistence the phrase meant "equality and justice for the Palestinian people," he got death threats, bomb threats, online comments like, "20,000 (Gazan deaths) is not enough" and "Hopefully every corpse is shit on before being shoveled into the ground." In what became "a political war zone," the neighborhood's many progressive Jews and Arabs in turn were both grieving the war and offering him support that felt like "light at the end of the tunnel."

That kindness prompted the couple's thank you - they picked up the $40,000 tab - though three Kosher caterers turned them down before a pop-up agreed to help. The large, diverse crowd - "This is what solidarity looks like" - included dozens of volunteers from progressive Jewish groups. Scores of Arab Jews also held a 2nd-floor baqashot and led, in a tent outside, a Kabbalat Shabbat service; it ended in the Mourners' Kaddish and a call for "a free Palestine and a collective liberation for us all." In a fraught time, not all was light: Some people left, upset by talk of "genocide"; some online comments blasted Elenani for "feeding the oppressors." But most in the diverse crowd reveled in the collective hope there "might be healing here." "More of this is what we need," said one. "Being together."


 Abdul Elenani, owner of Palestinian restaurant Ayat, greets a Jewish neighbor Abdul Elenani, owner of Palestinian restaurant Ayat, greets a Jewish neighbor at his inter-faith Shabbat dinnerPhoto by Stephanie Keith

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