When things seem hopeless in Middle East, an Alaska memory provides glimmer

Jews in Israel and Palestinians in Gaza are embroiled in the deadliest fighting in decades, prompted by an organized assault by Hamas soldiers who murdered innocent Israelis on Oct. 7 and also took hostages. Israel has followed the Hamas raid with deadly retaliatory attacks on Gaza — military targets but also more innocent civilians caught in the war.

I am losing hope for any sort of lasting peace in the Middle East, even though I was always told it was possible and always wanted that to be true.

I am Jewish — culturally, not religiously. My family did not keep kosher, did not attend synagogue on a regular basis, and the only time anyone spoke Yiddish at home was when my father and grandmother wanted to keep secrets from us children. You could pretty much guess the topic by whether they were laughing or yelling. If they were yelling, you left the room.

I attended Sunday school for years, learning about Jewish culture, history, folk songs and dances, and, yes, the wars. I remember standing outside a store in 1967, listening on the radio for news of the war between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

I remember as a kid stuffing dimes into slots on paperboard cards. We were told the money we collected was to plant trees in the Sinai Desert, but my friends and I always suspected the money was going to buy more tanks and shells.

It’s hard to grow up and not think about the history of hatred against Jews — a friend’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, her tattoo visible whenever she rolled up her sleeves to bake cookies for us.

I thought a lot about Israel’s fight to exist and how religious discrimination was prevalent in America. I always wanted a good-paying summer job as a caddy at golf courses just a few miles west of where I grew up, but everyone knew the clubs did not admit Jews and did not hire Jewish caddies.

Yet I also knew that animosity toward Palestinians was just as wrong. I understood that they wanted their own country too, where they could live safely and raise families.

It has seemed so hopeless over the years, even more so these past weeks.

But I remember an event five years ago, when I was chief of staff for a freshman Alaska state legislator, John Agnaqłuk Lincoln, an Inupiaq from Kotzebue. It was our first week in the office at his start of work in 2018, and the representative, knowing I am Jewish, asked whether I would mind if a spiritual elder blessed the office.

I welcomed the opportunity to learn, though on that day there was something familiar about the elder’s clothing. After the prayers were over, I approached the elder and told him I recognized what he was wearing — a rabbi’s shawl. I figured there had to be a story behind it, since I was not aware of any Inupiat rabbis.

He smiled, happy to share his story. Turns out he had attended an ecumenical gathering some years ago and admired the shawl worn by a rabbi participating in the event. The rabbi responded to the compliment by giving the shawl to the elder, who had worn it ever since.

If more people were like that rabbi and spiritual elder, maybe this month would not be so sad.

Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal service in oil and gas, taxes and fiscal policy work. He lives in Anchorage and is publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel weekly newspaper. This article originally appeared online at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.