Bay Ridge: Palestinian New Yorkers feel both targeted and ignored
At a rally on Friday and over the week, they shared fears about family members across the world and about life here.
Mahmoud Kasem, 36, owner of Al Aqsa, a Palestinian restaurant in Bay Ridge, said he was trying his best to go through the motions, coming into the restaurant from his home in Bayside, Queens and chatting up customers.
“But inside it’s boiling, it’s like a volcano,” he said, speaking outside the restaurant on a Thursday afternoon.
Kasem’s mother, who lives with him in Queens, was in Gaza visiting their relatives and returned to the West Bank just days before the Hamas attack triggered Israel’s offensive. His cousins’ home has since been leveled to the ground in an airstrike, though the family survived, he said, since they happened to be out of the neighborhood searching for food.
“They just want to live in peace,” Kasem said, saying that his family lost more than a dozen members to Israeli attacks in 2006. “The last thing they think about is killing.”
Adding to Kasem’s anguish was the feeling that New York City, where he’s lived since the late 1990s, had turned its back on him.
“We have Palestinians in New York City. We are Americans like you guys, we pay our taxes, we live here, right? We try not to break any laws,” he said.
“You stand with Israel. You stand with whoever you wanna stand with. It doesn’t matter to me. But at the end of the day, those people are human beings too.”
Along with about 700,000 Muslims, New York has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world at about 1.1 million.
New York’s Palestinian community is much smaller, centered around enclaves in Bay Ridge and Astoria with an estimated 7,000 members, according to census data, though that’s likely an undercount given that many identify themselves only as Arab.
Prominent politicians and community leaders here have lined up for vigils, rallies, and protests declaring their support for Israel after the Hamas attack claimed the lives of 1,300 Israelis, with hundreds more taken hostage. But as Israel’s subsequent strikes on Gaza have killed more than 2,300 Palestinians including more than 700 children, according to authorities there by Sunday, New Yorkers with Palestinian roots have felt both ignored and targeted.
On Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul was asked what she would say to Palestinian New Yorkers who might have lost or be fearing for loved ones. Her stance was one of unwavering support for Israel.
“I call on law-abiding Palestinians to reject Hamas. They should not necessarily be confused. Hamas is a terrorist organization,” she said. “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
‘Lonely Here in America’
The conflict thousands of miles away has erupted in flashpoints across New York City. Police said men waving Israeli flags assaulted three men who’d been chanting “Free Palestine” in Bay Ridge on Wednesday. Hours later, a man attacked another man waving a Palestinian flag in Williamsburg. Video posted Thursday showed a different group of men chanting loudly outside an apartment building with a Palestinian flag in the window until the resident took it down.
Protests siding with both Israelis and Palestinians erupted on college campuses across the city. At one such demonstration Thursday next to the campus of Brooklyn College, held by students in support of Palestinians, a City Council member who supports Israel came to register her objections with what appeared to be a gun. She later turned herself into police and was charged with criminal weapons possession.
Tensions kept rising over the week ahead of a planned Palestinian demonstration by Times Square on Friday and following a call by a former leader of Hamas for “a day of Jihad” and then Israel’s order Thursday night for Gazans to evacuate their homes within 24 hours.
The NYPD ramped up security at mosques and synagogues, while some Jewish synagogues had only remote prayers for the sabbath and parents fretted about whether to send their kids to yeshivas.
But demonstrations in support of Palestinians Friday were carried out peacefully, with hundreds of demonstrators gathering in Midtown and marching east on 42nd Street to the Israeli Consulate on Second Avenue.
Protesters wearing traditional keffiyeh headscarves and waving Palestinian flags chanted, “Free Free Palestine” calling for an end to Israel’s siege of Gaza and control over territory there and in the West Bank.
Attendees spanned generations, some New Yorkers with no personal connection to the region, as well as many of Palestinian descent living around the metro area.
Nisreen Mahmoud, 24, who lives in Yonkers, said she’d felt crestfallen by her local leaders over the past few days.
“It just kind of makes me feel very lonely here in America,” she said. “We live here. But we’re not being protected.”
She’d just ended a phone call with her cousins and uncles and aunts in Jenin in the West Bank who told her they have no power or water, and they’ve been told to stay at home and prepare for three months of lockdown.
‘We Are Still New Yorkers’
New Yorkers with Palestinian roots shared similar stories and concerns with THE CITY over the week.
“He’s with one group against another group,” said Zein Rimawi of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, of Mayor Eric Adams. He spoke with THE CITY inside An-Noor Social Center in Bay Ridge, which he founded. “You are the mayor, you represent everybody.”
Over the course of the past week, Adams spoke at a “New York Stands with Israel” vigil and rally, convened with Jewish education leaders, and delivered remarks at a shabbat dinner, according to his public schedule. A week into the conflict, the mayor had made no similar overtures to Palestinian New Yorkers, at least not publically.
Rimawi said family members are living in the West Bank, holed up inside their homes, unable to leave fearing retaliation from Israeli soldiers at countless checkpoints.
Listening to New York’s political leaders, Rimawi said he felt a double standard in which Israeli lives were valued more than those of Palestinians.
“We are still New Yorkers. We live here.”
Rimawi recalled that Adams had courted the community center and met with him and other local leaders while running for mayor but, he said, they ended up supporting Dianne Morales largely because of her stance on Palestine.
While Hamas’ attack on Sunday has been called “Israel’s 9/11,” Rimawi didn’t want to compare the last week to the days after September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush set a tone matched by many public officials, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, as he stressed that “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country” and counseled that “in our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”
But Lamis Deek, a Palestinian lawyer who worked with Muslim and Arab New Yorkers accused of terrorist activity after the Sept. 11 attacks, noted on Friday that public figures have skipped right past such statements this time.
“We have not seen that. What we have seen is the opposite,” she said. “What we are seeing from government representatives — local, state, and federal — is a call for further violence using these terms and euphemisms and equating us with terrorists when we are simply on the street working to protect and enforce and manifest our constitutionally protected rights.”
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