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Palestinians, Muslims say they feel ‘invisible,’ ‘unwelcome’ in Brookline amid Israel conflict

Photo by Zoe Zekos
November 9, 2023

As the war in Israel and Gaza continues to unfold, many Palestinian and Muslim residents of Brookline say they have experienced Islamophobia and feel isolated in a town with a substantial Jewish population.

The conflict in the Middle East, which was ignited by an attack on Israel by the terrorist group Hamas, has claimed thousands of lives on both sides of the border: more than 1,400 in Israel at the latest count, and more than 9,000 in Gaza, including 3,600 children, according to the Associated Press.

In interviews with Brookline.News and in recent comments before the town Select Board, Muslim and Palestinian residents described an atmosphere they say is unwelcoming and a discourse they say lacks compassion for the pain felt in their own families and communities. Many called for mutual understanding.

“For the first few days since October 7th, I was afraid, but also very grief-stricken and angry,” said Alaa Eldamaty, who is an Egyptian Muslim, in an interview. “I was grief-stricken knowing that my Jewish brothers and sisters are going through everything they’re going through, but I was also feeling a lot of grief for my own community and for Palestinians.

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“And as the days progressed, it sort of started to turn into shock that everyone was so one-sided with their words. You know, within the first two days, there were already more Palestinians dead than Israelis, but no one was even talking about it.”

A few days later, Eldamaty offered her perspective at a raucous, emotional School Committee meeting where Jews and Israelis criticized Superintendent Linus Guillory for an email sent to the community that they argued did not go far enough in condemning Hamas’s terrorist attack. As one of the few voices expressing a different point of view, she asked for recognition of the pain in her community as well.

Eldamaty says she and others have been pushing through their fear to try to be heard in a community and a conversation they feel is dominated by one-sided support for Israel.

“Join us in feeling our grief and fears”

Shortly after the initial attack, a group of Muslim families in Brookline sent a message to their friends and neighbors via email, in which they acknowledged the pain and grief in both Israel and Gaza. They expressed sympathy for Jews and Israelis in Brookline and also asked for “mutual understanding.”

“Over our many years living in Brookline, being in each other’s homes and lives, we have created deep and meaningful relationships with our Jewish friends. When we hear of attacks, killing, abductions, and abuses of Jewish people in Israel by Hamas or any other group, our hearts grieve with you and ache with your losses. Please know that we do not, in any way, support or condone violence against innocent people. The crimes committed over these last days are horrific and have no justification,” the group wrote.

“In our search for mutual understanding, we ask that you join us in feeling our grief and fears as well…At times, it seems like Palestinians are invisible – their stories untold, even the very words “Palestine” or “Palestinians” avoided. But real human beings living real lives of human suffering under occupation cannot be treated as invisible.”

“Unwelcome and scared”

Faiza Khan, who is Muslim, told the Select Board at its meeting this week that she feels “unwelcome and scared” in Brookline.

Some local Muslim families, she said, make it a point to never mention that they are Muslims.

Her children, she added, walk around the neighborhood and see lawn signs advocating for standing with Israel.

“Imagine what would happen if anyone of Palestinian or Muslim heritage flew a Palestinian flag, or had an “I stand with Palestine” sign in their yard. You can’t, right? We know the family would be subject to censure, cancellation or perhaps harm.”

In fact, Brookline police are investigating a report of vandalism at a home that was flying a Palestinian flag. The homeowner, who is not Palestinian or Muslim, told police on Oct. 10 that their porch was defaced with black paint and that someone had spray painted the word “Nazi” next to the flag, according to a police report.

“Can we not experience more than one thing at a time?”

Religious leaders in Brookline have also called for unity and solidarity.

An interfaith group of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Unitarian Universalist clergy members wrote a joint message to the community on Oct. 26.

“There are differences in the ways we and the members of our communities see and understand what is happening in the Middle East, and still, in all this difficulty, we stand together rejecting antisemitism, anti-Muslim hate and bigotry in all of its forms. We call upon all of us, leaders in our town, educators, members of our respective communities, and each and every Brookline resident, to stand together against hatred,” they wrote.

Hajar Delshad, a Palestinian-American who lives in Brookline, told the Select Board that she starts each day processing new grief as she watches the latest news from Gaza.

“But we aren’t allowed to express our sadness,” she said at this week’s meeting.

“Our sadness and grief don’t negate the very real pain and grief of our Israeli and Jewish friends and neighbors, who have every right to feel sadness, grief and worry. We grieve with them.

“Today I want to ask all of us in Brookline: Can we not experience more than one thing at a time? Do our experiences have to compete with one another?”

Hate against Muslims and Jews “ebbs and flows together” she said. “We owe it to ourselves and our community to work together to build the life that we want.”