When two acquaintances in Atlanta sat down to find common ground on the Israel-Hamas war, they found themselves in a painful conversation about race, power and whose suffering is recognized.
Samara Minkin was already feeling rattled when she saw a Facebook post from one of her children’s former teachers seven days after Hamas killed or kidnapped more than 1,600 people in Israel.
“The actual history of this situation is NOT COMPLICATED,” Sanidia Oliver, 37, wrote. “I will ALWAYS stand beside those with less power. Less wealth, less access and resources and choices. Regardless of the extreme acts of a few militants who were done watching their people slowly die.”
Ms. Minkin, an arts and culture consultant in Atlanta, bristled with frustration, dismayed at what she saw as another callous response to the most deadly day for Jews since the Holocaust.
But instead of continuing to scroll and stew, she did something unusual: She reached out. Although the two had rarely spoken in the nearly 10 years since Ms. Oliver taught Ms. Minkin’s twin daughters, Ms. Minkin asked Ms. Oliver if she would meet in person to talk.
“I just thought, we’re all in such echo chambers,” Ms. Minkin, 51, recalled. “Maybe she would be open to hearing from me. Maybe sitting down with people with whom we have a completely different approach and perspective is good for all of us.”
“Who knows what’s going to crack open our minds and our hearts?” she added.
Ms. Oliver was surprised to hear from Ms. Minkin, but she did not hesitate to say yes. She said she had written the post because she, too, was outraged about the images of violence coming out of Israel and Gaza. She was looking for answers.
The face-to-face conversation between the two women — one Black, the other white and Jewish — was the sort often held up as a solution to our polarized, digitized politics. But Ms. Minkin and Ms. Oliver found that connection was no guarantee of communion.
In nearly two hours together on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the women stumbled through a discussion of race, power, history and whose suffering gets acknowledged. Both liberal Democrats, they touched on many of the same disputes now roiling their party, college campuses and companies across the country.
Their version was quieter and more intimate — there were no tears, no television cameras — but just as painful.
A ‘Strong Affiliation With Marginalized People’
In 2020, Ms. Oliver opened the Morgan Oliver School, which she envisioned as a “holistic, anti-racist, and dual-language” school that would help address the inequities she saw in education.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times
The women agreed to meet at a school Ms. Oliver founded three years ago.
When the pandemic hit, Ms. Oliver grew frustrated watching wealthy, largely white, parents pay teachers for private learning “pods,” exacerbating inequities. In the fall of 2020, she opened a small “holistic, anti-racist and dual-language” school in a neighborhood that once served as the redlined demarcation for Black and white residents.
After a tour of the four-room school, the women sat in an office Ms. Oliver rents from a neighboring church. (Ms. Oliver, when asked about her religion, described herself as secular.) They sat facing each other in faux leather chairs, their knees nearly touching. A large piece of paper tacked to the wall outlined Ms. Oliver’s strategies and plans for the school. Framed photos of young Black girls engrossed in studies sat on the mantel.
Neither came with an organized set of questions, but each had goals. Ms. Minkin said she partly wanted Ms. Oliver to understand the justification of existence of the state of Israel and to recognize the role of antisemitism. Ms. Oliver was focused on U.S. support for the Israeli government’s policies and how her views on racism and oppression in the United States related to the Palestinians.
“I have a very strong affiliation with marginalized people — brown, displaced, refugees, Black,” Ms. Oliver recalled saying at the beginning of the conversation. “We usually hear the perspective of those in power, and our school is about amplifying the voices of the disempowered.”
Ms. Oliver then asked Ms. Minkin about “settler colonialism” and the Palestinians forced out of their homes after the creation of the state of Israel. She recalled expressing disbelief that the displacement “felt OK to Jewish people.”
“How could people accept that and how could that be a just thing?” she wondered.
Ms. Minkin thought that question was an oversimplification. Jews also have historical ties to the land, she said, describing the region as having “two indigenous people,” Arabs and Jews. She talked about decades of violent attacks against Jews in Israel.
“We have to acknowledge that the policies that have been applied this far have failed,” she recalled saying, expressing her hope for both groups to live in peace. “I hope that maybe at the end of this, there is some sort of large policy cracked open by the people who are supposed to be leading us.”
But why, Ms. Oliver asked, could Israelis simply not allow Palestinians to leave Gaza and the West Bank to live alongside them?
Ms. Minkin, thinking back to decades of collapsed peace talks, thought that idea was unlikely. “Do you really think they want to live peacefully in Israel?,” she remembered responding.
Amid all the suffering in Gaza, Ms. Oliver said, why wouldn’t they?
Things Left Unsaid
Ms. Minkin tried to steer the conversation away from political history. She is no apologist for the current right-wing government and has always supported a two-state solution, she said.
But she wanted Ms. Oliver to understand how it felt to be Jewish in this moment. After centuries of antisemitism, many Jews like her feel existentially worried, afraid that the world could turn on them in a moment. The way Ms. Oliver described the Hamas attack read to Ms. Minkin like a justification for the murder of Jews.
“It was a massacre, and it’s hurtful to see anyone dismissive of it,” Ms. Minkin recalled saying, noting the deep connections between American Jews and Israel. “We’re all related to Israel in some way, first degree, second degree. We are one people, and we’re in pain.”
Ms. Minkin did not mention her own experience in Israel. She lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for years in her 20s, as bus lines were bombed and cafes were attacked. She attended the rally where Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who led peace negotiations with Palestinians and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, was assassinated by an Israeli extremist. Israel, Ms. Minkin later thought, is a central part of her identity, a place that shaped her, a Jewish homeland she returns to frequently.
Both women left things unsaid.
Ms. Oliver did not speak about the personal history influencing her views. Her brother, Morgan, served for years in the Army in Afghanistan and struggled with post-traumatic stress before he died by suicide in 2017. She created the Morgan Oliver School to help honor him. The people who suffer most in wars, Ms. Oliver said later, are the poor and powerless — the soldiers who volunteer and the civilians who are considered collateral damage.
As she searched for ways to describe her own views, Ms. Minkin tried to emphasize her empathy for Palestinians. She noted that her sisters were both experts on the Middle East with close relationships with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ms. Oliver nodded, but privately she recoiled. The comment reminded her of hearing white people say that they have a Black friend. “That doesn’t mean you are oppressed in any way at all,” she thought.
Both women agreed that the conversation became most fraught when it veered into the complexities of race in America.
“Am I changed? Is she changed? Was there any point to this?” Ms. Minkin said she asked herself after the 90-minute conversation. Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times
Ms. Minkin noted that while an overwhelming majority of Jews in the United States are of European descent and “share in white privilege,” she doesn’t see herself that way. The current security of Jews in America could always change, she said, pointing to rising evidence of antisemitism in the United States.
“You see me as white,” she told Ms. Oliver. “In that scenario, your lens of the oppressed and the oppressor leaves only one space for me.But I see myself as Jewish in that scenario. It’s much more complicated.”
Ms. Oliver did not respond directly. She has learned not to be confrontational when discussing race, she said in an interview later. She is wary of being viewed as angry.
“I grew up poor, experienced a lot of racism. I know how to play the game,” she said. “If I shared my thoughts, she would have said, ‘This is too much for me.’”
Ms. Oliver was not swayed. Jews in Atlanta seemed secure and comfortable, she said. She thought about the way her former school took off for Christian and some Jewish holidays, but not for holidays of other religions.
“Inside my brain, I was thinking, Muslim people are by far discriminated against in a way that’s explicit,” she said. “I was also confused as to why she didn’t feel seen.”
‘Am I changed?’
After more than 90 minutes, Ms. Oliver needed to return to her work at the school. Ms. Minkin expressed her sadness about civilians dying and added that she hoped Israel would win the war.
“I felt let down at the point,” Ms. Oliver recalled. She didn’t understand what winning the war would mean, and was not eager to hear more. “I didn’t want to get this to a messy place.”
They parted with a hug, but both deeply deflated.
In the time since, both women have replayed the conversation in their mind again and again. Ms. Oliver said she had not changed the way she thinks about the conflict or teaches it to her students. She still views the Israeli government as the aggressor and the Palestinians as victims who had few options other than violence.
But she did not regret her time with Ms. Minkin.
“I think it’s a moral responsibility to have conversations with opposing values,” she said later. “I think that’s the only way in a world that is largely driven by greed. In order to make anything better, we just have to talk.”
Ms. Minkin has ruminated about how intractable the conflict seems, grasping for examples of humanity. She turned to an exchange one of her sisters had with Khalil Abu Yahia, a teacher and poet who lived in Gaza, who told her about his desire for friendships that “hold him, carry him, lift his heart” amid despair, and about his a love for the night sky because “stars have never been colonized.” Ms. Minkin was so moved that she shared the exchange with friends during a Saturday night prayer group. About a week later, her sister learned that the man had been killed.
“Am I changed? Is she changed? Was there any point to this?” Ms. Minkin said she asked herself. “I don’t know that her overall opinion has changed, and I don’t know that my overall opinion has changed. But maybe if we’re all softening at the hard edges, that’s enough?”
Her voice made clear it was a question, not a conclusion.