Activism & Civil Rights International Affairs

One Jewish Woman’s Fight for Palestine

For Jennifer Loewenstein, April 19, 2002 was a “waking nightmare”. She stood silent at the edge of the camp, in disbelief—and horror.

Listening to the sound of wailing, she watched as medical workers lay out the bodies of the dead. The corpses, wrapped in white, were loaded onto the back of a pick-up truck.

“I will never forget this time,” Loewenstein recalls.  “I stayed in the camp for two days, picking through the ruins and debris of people’s former lives—watching children and families look for their belongings—anything they could salvage from the wreckage.”

Loewenstein was in Jenin.

She had spent much of the previous two years working as an editor and freelance journalist at the Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza. During that time, she traveled frequently to the Rafah refugee camp to visit friends. It was in that way that she came to know Rafah so well and later started the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project in December of 2002.

But Loewenstein’s decision to take on the plight of the Palestinian people was not an easy one. She has since been shunned by her community and accused of being a “terrorist sympathizer” and “self-hating Jew”—a term she considers as ludicrous as calling her a “self-hating human” for opposing human rights abuse.

Despite this opposition, Loewenstein continues her struggle to expose an injustice she wasn’t always aware of herself.

“I never really knew much about the plight of the Palestinians until I was much older,” says Loewenstein. “I didn’t begin to question all the information I’d gotten on Israel and on Arabs until I got to college (at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem).”

Loewenstein grew up in a secular Jewish family, but was instilled early on with a concern for Israel. She still remembers the day when her favorite dress was sent to her cousin overseas. She was only six, but gave up the dress because her family in Israel needed it.

Although her parents were not “avid Zionists”, their loyalty to Israel was strong. But even stronger than their loyalty to either Israel or Judaism was her family’s loyalty to peace.

“One year at Christmas/Hanukah time we refused to celebrate either holiday,” remembers Loewenstein. “Instead we made a ‘Peace Tree’ and celebrated our hope for peace.”

Her mother’s concern for peace was complemented by her struggle for civil rights. Because it has devastated her mother so much, Loewenstein never forgets the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

It was this early awareness of civil rights that Loewenstein carried into adulthood and would bring with her to Jerusalem. In 1981, she traveled to Israel for a semester-long study abroad program. During her stay she was exposed to a world she never knew existed.

One day during a tour of Gaza Strip instead of listening to the tour guide, Loewenstein sat at the back of the bus and looked out the window. She discovered “thousands of people living in tents and shacks.” Loewenstein was appalled.

“It was the first time I had ever seen this kind of poverty and the first time I understood the meaning of ‘occupation’ in a concrete way,” says Loewenstein. “I saw a woman with about three children carrying a jug of water on her head and a soldier watching her and the others around her with his gun slung over his shoulder.”

It was at that moment that she first realized “something was terribly wrong.”  But nothing she saw that day would prepare her for what she experienced in April of 2002.

Loewenstein was among the first internationals—and only a handful of Americans—to enter the destroyed Jenin refugee camp the day after the Israeli incursion.

“When I got into the camp area I could not believe my eyes. It had been devastated. Thirteen thousand people had lost their homes,” describes Loewenstein. “The camp was destroyed beyond recognition—flattened into a heap of rubble and dust. The smell of death was everywhere.”

What was most traumatic for her was the discovery that many of the dead were unarmed civilians. “Not all the dead were fighters,” says Loewenstein. “Some were old men, women and children.”

The horrors that Loewenstein experienced in Jenin made her struggle all the more urgent—a struggle she fights, not as a Jewish woman, but as a human being.

About the author

Yasmin Mogahed

Yasmin Mogahed

Yasmin Mogahed received her B.S. Degree in Psychology and her Masters in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After completing her graduate work, she taught Islamic Studies and served as the Sisters’ Youth Director for the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. She also worked as a writing instructor for Cardinal Stritch University, and a staff columnist for the Islam section of InFocus News. Currently she’s an independent media consultant and a writer for the Huffington Post, where she focuses most of her work on spiritual and personal development. Her written works, including a book chapter on the portrayal of Islam post-911, have appeared in print and online publications worldwide.

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  • Thank you for posting this story. We need to hear more stories like this one.
    I am a member of “Jewish Voice for Peace” and have been supporting them for few years now. They have done a remarkable work. There are other Jewish organizations and individuals out there who have the courage to stand for what’s right despite the risks and the pressure they feel from their community/families & friends.
    I hope this will inspire fellow Muslims.
    We need to show them our support.

  • Al-Hamdullilah
    That’s beautiful now if we can get all of the muslims around the world to help our palestinian brothers and sisters, instead of all of this killing one another, and trying to rule with dictatorship, and live according to the sunnah and Qur’an, we would not have so many haters and misconceptions about islam.

  • If faith be likened to an raft carrying us through life,then compassion is the rudder that steers us. If we all can start forgetting about ethnics may we then remember we are all humans? Racial bias is as any greed, seeking domination and possession and in turn devours the soul wielding such poverty of spirit. Poverty comes is innumerable forms, therefor death by poverty has many trophy’s on display. This woman Jennifer Loewenstein has riches within and walks on an path before us, a path worthy to follow.

  • I sat here and I cried. Every time I hear about anyone raising up against all odds to help the Palestinians or anyone who’s ever been oppressed, it deeply touches me.
    These stories fuel my need to really follow my dreams despite what society dictates. I nearly lost my belief in humanity for a minute there, but stories like this, give me hope. It’s that candle burning so quietly in the dark.
    May Allah (swt) bless her abundantly for her work, and may we as Muslims learn from this beautiful woman and break some societal norms in favor of humanity.

  • I admire people who stand up for good principles, against the biases of their childhood. Let’s not kid ourselves, Muslims are the same as Jews or anyone on this. The only reason many of us care so much about Palestinians is because Baitul Maqdis is located where they live, and they are ‘proxy us’. I say this because we don’t seem to care nearly as much about similar injustices nearer to home. Here in SE Asia, our very neighbours are persecuting and selling Muslims to human traffickers but we don’t care about that nearly as much as we care about Palestine. Therefore my conclusion: it is the geography that matters to us more than the suffering of people.

    Suppose – as a thought exercise – the Israelis agree to compensate all refugees, agree on borders, retreat from all illegal settlements, etc etc so that people can either come home or be re-settled with compensation and closure BUT they get to keep east jerusalem. OR east jerusalem is zoned for Palestinians/annexed by Jordan never to be claimed by Israel again, BUT in exchange all the refugees will have no further claims, all illegal settlements stay, and all the rest of the occupation continues. and let’s say there is only one time you can make this choice, there’s only these two options, there is no trickery, and the result will hold for all time. (My dad taught me this thinking technique, as it helps you see your real priorities, by forcing a scenario that generates clear emotional responses so that you can compare if the emotional response matches your stated views. Basically it’s critical challenge targeted at yourself.) I really think a lot of Muslim palestinian supporters would hesitate on which option to support. So do we care most about a building (albeit sacred), or the people? which one is more sacred as per our religion?

    A example on the unseen influence of culture on your ethics: On radio today business commentators (at least one of whom is Muslim) spoke dismissively about the minimum wage potentially being extended to foreign workers – the new minimum wage is just barely a living wage. The comment mostly worried that it will increase business costs, and ended by saying condescendingly perhaps if business agrees we suppose the workers will be more (sigh) “compliant” or “happy”, as though it is just a perk that is great to have, rather than the serious issue of people being paid with dignity for their work, or that otherwise a loophole remains since employers will just hire desperate economic migrants for below minimum wage. I think making it seem like a ridiculous notion or unbearable business burden is like complaining that slavery can’t ever be abolished because it would collapse the economy. It’s just like when we complained so unseemingly when the countries of our foreign workers want to set minimum compensation for the workers they export to us as domestic maids, as though we had a right to domestic help from other countries at low wages and no days off. We sure laugh at the most horrific things. I’m not saying that a non-living wage is always unacceptable but i’m saying a society should not *aspire* to keep a segment of their or others’ populations in that wage bucket on purpose, and keep that wage bucket as far down as we can possibly get it to stay.

    So you know, it really is hard to break from social norms, because you don’t really see it in yourself.

  • TO KIRANA: the palestinians did not take indian land in 1948 you broke away from india in 1948 on the other hand palestinians had their land stripped way from them 5 million palestinians are displaced around the world.south east asia has millions of muslims living in it pakistan has a country with nukes give me a break you prescuted the bangali muslims massacered them and then you want us to sympathyze with you what have the palestinian done to euro jews really nothing!

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