Needham leaders react to Israeli-Hamas War

October 18, 2023
• In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack in Israel and subsequent violence in the region, local leaders and community organizations are sharing their perspectives on the ensuing conflict.

Hamas, a recognized extremist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip in Palestine, invaded Israel Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people and injuring 2,800 others, according to Israeli officials. Israel has since responded, killing more than 3,000 Palestinians and injuring 12,500 more, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Many of the deceased on both sides are innocent civilians and children. Hamas continues to hold people hostage, and American citizens are believed to be among them.

U.S. Rep. Jake Auchincloss has been vocal in his support of Israel and its intentions to seek justice against Hamas. Auchincloss quickly took to X, formerly Twitter, the day of the invasion to condemn the attack and call for congressional action.

“I fully support Israel’s right to respond and its obligation to its own citizens to defend the Jewish state through military force,” Auchincloss wrote. “I encourage the Biden administration to maintain close & constant engagement with Israeli leaders to ensure the United States is supporting all efforts to achieve a ceasefire.”

Amid the current search for a speaker of the House — after Rep. Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the position — the House effectively cannot operate, meaning any timely, large-scale, governmental efforts to vote on military spending or pass policy cannot happen.

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday the U.S. will supply $100 million “for humanitarian assistance in both Gaza and the West Bank.” That funding does not need congressional approval, as it comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department’s discretionary funds.

Because of the stand-still, Auchincloss directed Republicans to “grow up & govern; or come up short for our ally.”

“Israel is at war,” Auchincloss wrote on X Oct. 8. “The United States must support it. The president is acting, but Congress will need to step up, too.”

Auchincloss clarified his position with an additional statement Oct. 9, wherein he criticized “calls for de-escalation.” He drew a comparison to the 9/11 attacks, writing that “Israel did not ask America to de-escalate on September 12, 2001.”

Auchincloss, a U.S. Marine veteran, joined 145 other lawmakers in a letter dated Oct. 10 to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in requesting additional resources be allocated to bring Americans back from Israel. The government is now chartering flights to return U.S. citizens and immediate family members, beginning last Friday.

He restated his strong sentiments in an email to constituents.

“The barbarity of the October 7th attacks must not ever be used as justification for violence or discrimination against Muslims or Palestinian-Americans,” he wrote. “I join with other Jewish officials and organizations in rejecting and condemning such actions.”

At the Massachusetts State House, members of the Senate signed a bipartisan resolution Oct. 9 that defends Israel’s “inalienable right to defend themselves against acts of terrorism,” stands in support of Israel and acknowledges “the recent, sharp rise in antisemitism.”

One of the signers, state Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, attended a gathering at the Boston Common last week alongside other state and federal lawmakers.

“Hamas has committed atrocious, barbaric war crimes and acts of terror,” Rausch wrote on X later that day. “Today and every day, I stand with #Israel and her people. And I pray that some day there will be a generation of Jewish people who will not personally know such horrific antisemitism.”

State Rep. Denise Garlick, D-Needham, echoed the general sentiment of U.S. leaders with a statement posted to her website last Wednesday.

“I abhor the acts of terrorism by Hamas on the people of Israel. I stand with President Biden in our country’s support of Israel’s right to defend itself,” Garlick wrote. “My thoughts, words and actions also include the people of our country, Commonwealth and District who are grieving and may also be traumatized in these perilous times.”

Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley started the board’s Oct. 10 meeting with a message about the ongoing violence overseas.

“I do note that in that environment that I believe firmly, and I don’t speak for the board, that both Israel and Palestinians have the right to live peacefully, but none of us can condone acts of terror on civilians,” Cooley said. “That is horrific to watch and to learn about, and I hope that they find some resolution to that soon.”

The Needham Diversity Initiative, a nonprofit that organizes programming and events intended to connect and uplift the community, plans to hold its annual Needham Diversity Summit Nov. 5. This year’s theme is centered around belonging.

On the Israel-Gaza conflict, board member and treasurer Ramin Abrishamian shared the group’s statement.

“As a result of the savage terrorist attacks in Israel and the unfolding tragic war there and in Gaza, many of our neighbors in Needham are experiencing tremendous sadness, grief, concern for the safety of their loved ones in the region and even for themselves here in Needham,” NDI stated. “Needham Diversity Initiative is working with its affiliate, Needham Resilience Network and other like-minded groups to create safe spaces for Needhamites of all persuasion to come together to explore avenues of action that we can all take to promote a peaceful and embracing community in which all feel they belong.”

With school in session, older students have expressed horror and fear of the “depravity and immorality of the murders and terror,” Needham Public Schools Superintendent Dan Gutekanst wrote in his newsletter Saturday. Social studies classrooms welcomed conversation, Gutekanst wrote, and students particularly touched by the events met with counselors and administrators.

During an advisory period, Needham High School’s Jewish Student Union held a moment of silence and “shared a somber message of solidarity with Israel,” Gutekanst stated.

A previous newsletter Gutekanst sent to district families Oct. 9 drew backlash on social media, as some locals felt he did not devote proper attention to the Hamas attack and its impact. In that message, he cited the violence in Israel, the recent earthquake in Afghanistan and ongoing war in Ukraine as tragedies for which students may need support.

In his longer message last weekend, Gutekanst stressed the district’s commitment to ensuring students’ safety and education, “despite the horrors of the terrorist attacks in Israel, the unknown fate of innocent Jewish families and hostages, or the plight of the Palestinian civilians swept up in the war.”

“In the days ahead, we will continue to provide an excellent educational program for our students, and we will support those students who may continue to struggle,” Gutekanst wrote Saturday. “I am deeply committed to ensuring our schools remain safe places for our students, and we will continue to be crystal clear that all students are entitled to learn and grow in a school environment that is free of racism, bias, antisemitism, and Islamophobia.”

A central tenet of NPS’ mission is to instill students with cultural understanding and empathy, with educators discussing current events and teaching students “how to recognize acts of hate and bigotry,” School Committee Chair Andrea Longo Carter said at the board’s meeting Tuesday night.

Hate is not welcome in Needham, she stressed, and the schools will and should remain a safe space “free of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

“As adults in this community, and particularly as a School Committee charged with overseeing public education, we must model the skills, behaviors and portrait competencies we ask of our students,” Longo Carter said. “We have a duty to ensure all of our students have a safe, respectful and welcoming environment in which to learn and grow.”

Alongside the humanitarian assistance Biden announced, other grassroots campaigns have begun, as well as targeted initiatives by charitable institutions. The American Red Cross is providing aid by helping U.S. citizens that are evacuating the area, as well as their dependents living in Gaza and Israel. Those interested in supporting those impacted on both sides of the conflict can find donation information on the Red Cross website.

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