Elizabeth Zahdan held up a peace sign and waved a Palestinian flag towards cars on Henry Johnson Boulevard. In return, drivers honked their horns in solidarity.
She was just one of hundreds of community members that gathered in Townsend Park on Friday for a pro-Palestinian protest organized by the Muslim Peace Coalition. It was held the same day a cease-fire was announced between Israeli and Hamas militants following a spree of deadly bombings in Gaza that killed hundreds, including 66 Palestinian children. News reports say that the area is now reeling from a deepened humanitarian crisis as a result of infrastructure destruction.
Even before the recent atrocities, nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza were “mired in increasing poverty and unemployment, with limited access to adequate health, education, water and electricity” according to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
Zahdan, a teacher who lives in Schenectady, stood next to her daughter who was holding a “WE WILL RETURN” sign and spoke about a new hope she feels that the world is waking up to the abuses she has seen coming out of her home country for many years.
“It’s breaking my heart to see our ancestors’ homes being robbed,” she said. Her aunt is among those who were forced to shelter from recent bombings. She’s now worried that her father’s land will soon become occupied just as her grandparents’ home was.
“I can’t believe my tax money is supporting this,” Zahdan said, in reference to aid from the United States which includes providing $38 billion in weapons to Israel over a 10 year time span.
“I am so happy to see that people are standing up. They are coming from all different religions, all different backgrounds. Finally there is a hope,” she said.
Also in attendance were men from Neturei Karta, who quietly stood on the sidewalk holding signs with anti-Zionist messages. The organization, which was founded in Jerusalem in 1938 after a group of Orthodox Jewish people “refused to recognize the existence or authority of the so-called ‘State of Israel’”, has been appearing at similar pro-Palestine rallies across the country in recent weeks. They held similar signs in New York City, New Jersey, Virginia, Texas and London. Critics within their own faith have claimed that the group represents a small sect of fringe Jewish fundamentalists who are opposed to self-determination. Protesters at Townsend Park welcomed the group, eventually leading them in to join the circle of people.
As the crowd continued to grow and fill the park, Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui of the Al-Hidaya Center in Latham spoke about the need for peace across religions and the importance of prayer.
“Today we would like the whole world to know that we Muslims, our name is peace,” he said. “We are worshiping Allah whose name is peace and we are extending our hands to the lovers of peace.” The Imam then pointed to a man holding a sign in solidarity: “I see in front of me here ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’, and there are many Christians and non-Christians who are with us today over here and they are all for peace.”
Those Christians included Reverend Peter Cook, Executive Director of the New York State Council of Churches, who also addressed the crowd. As Rev. Cook spoke, an eerie scene played out in the background as emergency crews were arriving to a man who lay dying in the street from a gunshot wound unrelated to the protest.
“It is no longer acceptable for us to talk about the symptoms of violence and pathologically avoid discussing the root cause of that violence,” he said. “Human rights violations, land grabs, democracy for some but not all, and incarceration.”
Another protester held a sign that called on Congressman Paul Tonko (whose district includes the Capital Region) to support H.R.2590, a resolution introduced by Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum to “promote and protect the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation and to ensure that United States taxpayer funds are not used by the Government of Israel to support the military detention of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.”
New York Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman have already signed on as co-sponsors. A request for comment from Rep. Tonko’s office regarding H.R.2590 went unanswered.
Last year Rep. Tonko was one of 33 members of Congress that signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for the United States to restore all funding for humanitarian aid in Gaza and to urge the Israeli government to end the blockade against Palestinians.
Zahdan says she now feels more hopeful that a new wave of progressive politicians may finally start questioning America’s relationship with Israel — even if political pundits say H.R.2590 is unlikely to pass.
“People are not stupid anymore, they have an ability of digging in and searching and finding out what’s going on,” she said. “I believe with this young generation and with the United States’ new administration I believe there is a huge hope of changing.”
Holding her hand up towards the sun, Zahdan recounts an Arabic saying: “There is a sun over there, right? No matter how you cover it, the light is going to come through your fingers. It will never be hidden. Truth will come out.”
Patrick’s work has been published internationally, including on the front pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. After 10+ years in journalism and marketing, he is now pursuing a Masters of Public Administration and Policy. He founded Albany Proper in 2012.