The Israel-Hamas War Is Making Americans Question Their Relationships

The Israel-Hamas War Is Making Americans Question Their Relationships

After Hamas killed around 1,400 people and took at least 200 hostage on Oct. 7, Marina, who spent much of her childhood in Israel but now lives in the U.S., heard from friends and family all over the world, expressing sorrow and concern for her relatives. But even as she posted videos and photos on social media, where she is not usually active, she did not hear from one of her dearest friends, with whom she usually communicated daily. The women had met through their husbands, who were best friends. They’d gone to each other’s weddings and taken holidays together. They had children roughly the same age and a decade of great memories. When Marina lost a family member, both members of the couple empathized in a way even some relatives did not. 

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Her friend is from a majority Muslim country, but that seemed to make the relationship richer. “These are educated, kind, beautiful people that we were so proud to be friends with,” says Marina. “This is why we’re in America because we are friends with everybody, every culture.” And yet for four days, she says, there was silence. (TIME is identifying several people in this story, including Marina, by first name only so they can speak freely about friends and family.)

Read More: How the Activist Left Turned on Israel

Eventually, the friend sent her a brief note saying that she was hurt by Marina’s posts, that they suggested all Muslims were terrorists. Marina was flabbergasted. “Nothing [I’m posting] is about Muslims and nothing is about the Arab culture,” she says. “I only talked about Hamas.” Things deteriorated from there. As Marina tells it, her friend said that she could not support the Israeli government’s actions, and Marina said this was not about politics–babies had been killed and her relatives’ lives were in danger. Eventually, her friend posted a story on her social media that Marina felt minimized the terror wrought by Hamas. “I just had a breakdown at work. I started crying,” says Marina. “This is a girl who I think is the most amazing, wonderful, has such social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and for her to put something that evil—it broke me, it completely destroyed me.” 

In the U.S., far from the frontlines of the war that has shaken the world in recent weeks, people are discovering an uncomfortable truth about friends and family members they thought they knew well: they feel very differently about the situation in Israel and Gaza. Having weathered the ruptures and family strife caused by differences of opinion over the Trump Administration, mask and vaccine mandates, and debates over gender, race, and the environment, relationships are being strained by a new 1,000-year-old sticking point: who’s the bad guy in the Middle East? 

To many, this dispute is more alarming than the political brawls that came before, because the people who are now arguing with them were supposed to be allies. “It feels more incomprehensible than disagreeing with somebody that you have 50 things you already disagree on,” says William Doherty, professor in the department of family social science and director of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota. “So it’s ‘How could you? I thought you shared my values. How could you be so wrong on something so important?’” Having already painfully sorted themselves into teams, Americans, especially those on the left, are discovering that the bonds that hold their team together are not as sturdy as they believed.

Read More: Where to Seek Help if the Israel-Hamas War Is Impacting Your Mental Health

Some people point to the hundreds who were killed or taken hostage in the massacre and decry the lack of outrage. Others focus on the thousands of reported deaths in Gaza, the communications blackout, and the limited aid entering the country even as the people have nowhere to go. They too decry the lack of outrage. Claims of misinformation and disinformation are frequent, as well as accusations of betrayal and complicity.

Michally and her mother had tried to talk about Gaza even before the current conflict. “There was some shelling going on between Hamas and Israel and my mom and I got in a huge fight, like screaming at each other,” says Michally, who calls her upbringing “culturally Jewish.” Her mother’s family fled Europe for Israel on the first ship they could get on in 1948, but Michally was born and raised in the U.S. In her view, Israel is doing to others what the Nazis did to her family during the war: expelling them from their homes and corralling them into fortified areas. “I love her and that will never change,” she says of her mother. “But I don’t respect her opinion on this one. I think it’s coming more from trauma than it is from stepping back and looking at the situation.”

She used to feel she could tell her mother anything. After Oct. 7, that changed. They tried to talk about it. “It was so obvious, the road it was going to go down, that I just backed up, she backed up, and we realized it’s better just not to open the door,” says Michally. That reticence has bled into other areas of her life; she’s keeping some recent health issues from her mother. “I don’t like seeing my family in those lights,” she says. “I don’t like thinking that they’re being inhumane.”

While these arguments and the fissures they’re causing are similar in some ways to the ones America has seen before, there are some stark differences. Doherty, who co-founded Braver Angels, an organization that tries to encourage discussion between people of opposing political views, says these go beyond left and right. “This is close to home for a lot of people. This has to do with religion, ethnicity. It has to do with life and death, with atrocities,” he says. Unlike the largely policy-driven disagreements of the past decade or so, there are visual representations of this conflict, which inflame passions even more. “We are seeing on our social media and our TV corpses and houses demolished and interviews with the families of hostages and the families of the dead,” says Doherty. “The word existential is overused, but this feels more like that—the survival, the literal survival of groups of people.”

Read More: After Hamas, Then What? Israel’s Undefined Endgame in Gaza

Hailey, who’s studying Judaism with a mind to convert, is finding it difficult to find allies in her liberal queer community. She had been a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America but let her membership lapse because she found the organization too aggressive in its pro-Palestinian stance. One friend in particular, who has been sending her pro-Palestinian talking points, keeps inviting her to events that she usually enjoys, but she can no longer face them. When Hailey tried to talk to her mom on the phone about how reactions to the events in Gaza have revealed to her how antisemitic America is, her mother pushed back and Hailey hung up. Even her husband didn’t seem to feel the same way. “It just feels really lonely,” says Hailey.  

One of the reasons these conversations are straining relationships anew could be that it’s the first war of this scale in the social media age in which so many Americans disagree on the power dynamics. In the Russia-Ukraine war, for example, it’s clear which country is the more vulnerable. And in the light of national dialogue about being a good ally, they feel duty-bound to support the less-privileged publicly, even though online discussions are difficult to carry out with any nuance and often spiral quickly into name-calling. “It ties into the primary narrative that drives so much of the conversation in the United States right now,” says Doherty. “The issue of colonial oppression, the narrative of who’s an oppressor group and who’s a victim group.” Depending on the era being examined, each side can make the case that they are the victims, they are the people who were driven out of land that was originally theirs.

A lot of that discussion is in turn inflected by the lens through which people view history. As a Black feminist, Kiesha, a consultant from Washington State, believes that her demonstration of solidarity with the oppressed, who in her view are the Palestinians, is more important than any one relationship. She has had painful conversations with people she cares about and who have been supportive of her in the past. “I was like, ‘Oh, I know where this is going and this is actually going to hurt,’” she says of one such conversation. “This is a moment where your values are being stretched and being pushed to the edge. And personal loss is on the table for you. Are you going to stay with your values?’” 

Kiesha stuck to her position, despite the discomfort. “You have that pit in your stomach that says, I might be about to lose someone I care about. And it just hurts,” she says. “After that situation happened, I had a whole panic attack.” But she feels that if she chooses to make her friend feel better instead of standing by what she thinks is better for all humanity, “then I would become useless to that work.” She’s not sure of the fate of the friendship because of things that have been said. “We may not still have the relationship that we have now” in the future, she says. “And that’s like grieving something tentatively.”

For Elissa, a writer in Connecticut, the pain has arisen less from what people have said to her, and more from the silence. “More than anything else, I have just felt a profound amount of real visceral sadness not only over the events of Oct. 7—I have family in Israel—but also the events in response to Oct. 7. I was really struck by who I heard from and who I didn’t hear from.” 

One close friend never contacted Elissa—who says her position is pro-peace rather than one side of the other—to see if she and her family were OK but published several anti-Israeli posts online. The message Elissa has gotten from that combination of actions is the friend assumes that because Elissa’s Jewish, she’s stridently pro-Israel and “we can’t have a conversation about it. And ‘I do not care if you’re OK or not, because, you know, your people deserve this.’” 

 “It’s worse now than I’ve ever seen it,” says Doherty of the belief that even talking to someone with different beliefs is morally compromising. “We’ve confounded actions that would be morally compromising with conversation across differences. How do we have a democratic society if we can’t debate the most difficult things—if the very conversation and the very relationship is ethically, morally compromised?” 

Ironically, the first person to contact Elissa after the attacks was a friend who is married to a Palestinian and has a Palestinian son. “She said, ‘I’m just checking in to see if you’re OK. You know, sorry. This is horrible,’” Elissa says. They’ve kept in touch. “I know that she is pro-peace as well,” she says. “This is an issue of humanity. That’s what this is.” 

For her part, Marina thinks it’s unlikely she and her best friend will ever be the same. “I don’t know this woman who posted this anymore,” she says. Her husband contacted his old friend to see if he could smooth out the situation. No dice. The two couples are no longer talking. “Betrayal is like having your arms broken,” Marina says, referring to a quote attributed to Leonid Tolstoy. “You know, you can forgive, but you can never hug again.”

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