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War comes home to my small town

by MATT WITT
| March 6, 2024 2:00 AM

At the coffee shops in Talent, the little Oregon town where I live, the conversation is often about the high cost of housing or the way the weather has been dramatically changing.

But lately another topic has crept in—the escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine.

That might seem surprising since my town is more than 7,000 miles from Gaza, where in just a few months more than 29,000 people have been killed and nearly 2 million have been driven from their homes. But what is happening there reverberates here in its own way.

For one thing, much of the funding for Israel’s assault on Gaza comes from U.S. taxpayers. Since Israel was formed 75 years ago by displacing more than 700,000 Palestinians from their communities, the United States has provided the Israeli military with more than $225 billion in today’s dollars.

“A lot of us are questioning why our elected officials sign off on billions for military spending overseas with such ease,” said Rianna Koppel, a solar-energy worker who lives in our community of 6,000.

Koppel is a member of a local group of Jewish residents, affiliated with the national organization called Jewish Voice for Peace. They have organized a series of protests, film showings and Hanukkah events, all aimed at encouraging elected officials to support a change in U.S. policy.

They say their focus is on four goals: “bringing about an immediate and permanent ceasefire, freeing hostages and prisoners held by both Hamas and Israel, getting much needed humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, and ending U.S. military aid to Israel.”

Responding to those concerns, the mayor and city council of Talent sent a letter to our representative in Congress and our state’s two U.S. senators, urging them to support those same four goals.

Jason Clark, the town councilor who drafted the letter, said that he is “deeply saddened and horrified by the loss of all innocent life in this conflict and that it has been allowed to go on for this long.” 

He added, ”People all over the world want a negotiated solution that provides peace and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. More military aid just provokes more resistance and makes a negotiated solution harder to achieve.” One recipient of the letter from our town, Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, joined the call for a ceasefire.

Of course, this issue is highly controversial, and not everyone in the valley where I live agrees that it needs to be open for public discussion. In November, local rabbis organized what they said was a Rally Against Antisemitism. One of them, whose synagogue was fundraising to send military equipment to Israeli soldiers, equated criticism of Israeli government policies with antisemitism and urged residents to “call it out.” 

To be sure, antisemitism is present in many rural western communities like ours. A few days after Thanksgiving, law enforcement agencies in four towns within a few miles of my home reported that during the night, antisemitic material had been deposited outside hundreds of local residences. The material directed residents to a video that included laudatory clips of Adolf Hitler. 

But local critics of the Israeli assault on Gaza, supposedly to rid it of Hamas, say hateful antisemitic attacks like we have seen here recently make it even more important to speak out for a just peace in Palestine and Israel.

“Incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia are increasing, not just around here, but all over the world as a side effect of this war,” Koppel said.  “We need our elected officials to help find a better way.”

Matt Witt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a writer and photographer in Talent, Oregon.