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JPSA Light in the Darkness Event Is Spark of Hope for Israel

Some 200 people gathered at Congregation Anshei Israel at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 3, for Jewish Philanthropies of Southern Arizona’s “A Light in the Darkness” Israel solidarity event, which provided an update on the situation in Israel since the horrific Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks and the subsequent war.

Hava Leipzig Holzhauer, JPSA’s newly arrived president and CEO, spoke of the loss and devastation Jews and their allies around the world feel even if they didn’t personally know Israelis who were murdered or kidnapped by Hamas. Invoking the spirit of Hanukkah, she told those assembled that their presence was a light in the darkness, a symbol of hope and perseverance akin to placing a lit menorah in a window.

Tucson’s senior community shlicha (Israeli emissary) Yuval Malka told the audience that it was almost unbearable to be so far from home at this time. Yet she is convinced her role here, strengthening the bonds between Israel and the Diaspora, is more important than ever.

Keynote speaker Dan Elbaum of the Jewish Agency for Israel talked about the shock of the attack, which made Israeli cities such as Kfar Aza a byword for the massacre of Jews, like Kishinev or Babi Yar.

But it was University of Arizona freshman Lea Thomas who tugged most at the crowd’s heartstrings.

Her voice cracking, Thomas explained how unsettling it has been to witness the large pro-Palestinian rallies on campus since Oct. 7.

She said the UA student newspaper, the Daily Wildcat, had been reluctant to print her letter, “Your misinformation is endangering our lives.”

Her letter, published on Nov. 8, was in response to the paper’s failure to report fairly on the conflict, she said.

Thomas, who describes herself as an American Jewish Israeli student, told the crowd she stayed in her dorm room to avoid a campus walkout for Palestine advertised with flyers filled with untruths including that UA was “complicit in this genocide.” Two hours later, walking to class for an exam, she was shocked to find the protest still in full force, with people shouting that Israelis are terrorists.

“That would make me a terrorist. That would make the babies held in Gaza terrorists. But that would not make the rapists and murderers of Hamas terrorists,” she said.

Thomas believes a majority of those marching alongside Students for Justice in Palestine are either ignorant or oblivious. “They lose the line between criticizing Israel’s government and being flat-out antisemitic,” she said. “These people are just as much a part of the problem as the SJP group leaders, and that is scary.”

But Thomas clings to a quote from the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to avoid it.” For her, the task is peace, which she can pursue through education, whether that’s writing articles, speaking at events, or even wearing her Star of David necklace on campus.

The crowd supported Thomas with a standing ovation and Elbaum said it was an honor to follow her on the podium.

In the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks, Elbaum said, Israelis feel bitterly let down by the country’s military and intelligence services.

“This is a shattered and broken country. It is going to take a while for us to rebuild it. And they need us at this point, perhaps more than they ever have, perhaps more than any time since 1948,” he said.

Elbaum outlined some of JAFI’s main programs: a fund for victims of terror –  including, he noted, Arab Israelis; aliyah, helping Jews from all over immigrate to Israel; and the shlichim program that sends Israeli emissaries to communities around the world.

He recalled that during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in September, before the crisis, President Biden made a statement that passed largely unnoticed.

“President Biden said that without Israel, there is not a single Jew who is safe,” Elbaum said, adding that American Jews – the largest population of Jews outside Israel – understand from that remark, “Israel still needs us today.”

Despite some shrill critical voices, he said, the majority of Americans, both government officials and citizens, support Israel. He cited polls as well as the Nov. 14 rally in Washington, the largest pro-Israel rally in U.S. history, with non-Jews from diverse backgrounds as well as Jews in attendance.

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, Elbaum said he had always avoided comparing any event to the Shoah, but that aside from scale, the only difference he sees between Hamas’s actions on Oct. 7 and the Nazi slaughter of Jews is that Hamas didn’t try to hide their crimes.

“We must have sympathy for innocent Palestinians who are being killed during this crisis,” he stressed, but pointed out that Hamas embeds itself in civilian populations. “They measure victory based on two things: how many Jews they kill, and how many Palestinians are killed.”

Listing reasons he thinks Israel will win this war, Elbaum said other Arabs in the region also despise Hamas. And he quoted Golda Meir, prime minister during the Yorm Kippur War, who said, “Our secret weapon is we have no place else to go.”

In a Q&A session with incoming JPSA chair Jeff Artzi providing questions from the audience, Elbaum said you don’t need to be an expert on Israeli history to talk about Israel.

“Israel needs more character witnesses,” he said. It needs people who can say, “They are good people dealing with an unfathomable situation … and I know they are struggling for the right course of action.”

The afternoon ended with new JPSA board member Susan Jacobson making a pitch for contributions to JPSA’s Israel Relief Fund and its annual campaign. Contributions may be made here.