A Quaker In Conflict, Outer and Inner: Damned if He Speaks, Damned If He Doesn’t. Meanwhile, There’s Work To Do.

New York Times — December 31, 2023

Can He Condemn the Killings Without Causing More Pain?

Chris George has lived in Israel and Gaza, where he was once held hostage. As his employees ask him to speak out on the latest war, he is torn.

He had spent his entire career attending to the horrors of terrorism and war, and now Chris George, 70, believed it was his responsibility to act again. He sat at his desk inside Connecticut’s largest refugee resettlement agency, trying to write a public statement about the violence in Israel and Gaza that had resurfaced traumas among his staff, and in his own personal history.

“We believe that all human life is precious and should be protected,” he wrote in mid-October. He read over the sentence, and it sounded obvious and weak. He set the draft aside for a few days and then tried again.

“We condemn, in the strongest terms, the killing of all innocent civilians,” he wrote, but that phrasing seemed almost clinical — so remote and impersonal compared with how he felt.

He had spent several months in the 1970s living and volunteering on Kibbutz Nirim, where dozens of Hamas terrorists broke through the wall on Oct. 7 to kidnap and murder civilians. He had also lived for many years as an American expatriate and a Quaker in Gaza, learning Arabic and working on behalf of oppressed Palestinian children, and now thousands were being killed by Israel’s bombings.

And then there were the Israeli hostages still being held captive at the center of the conflict. George understood at least a little about what that was like, too. He was the first American ever kidnapped in Gaza, in 1989, when three Palestinian refugees abducted him and demanded that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his life. The extremists held George at gunpoint in a safe house for 29 hours before eventually releasing him unharmed, and then instead of retreating into fear or hatred, George returned to America and devoted his career to helping refugees start new lives and heal from conflict.

“One violation of human rights does not justify another,” he wrote, in another attempt at a statement on behalf of his nonprofit, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven, Conn. “It doesn’t matter whether we call it a cease-fire or a humanitarian pause. Let’s not quibble over terminology. The killing must stop.”

Even at the risk of inviting controversy, he felt compelled to speak up on behalf of the people and places he loved. He sent a draft of the statement to his board of directors, but some of them thought it might be interpreted as too political and potentially divisive. A few blocks away, students at Yale University were disrupting the campus by holding concurrent demonstrations in support of either Jews or Palestinians. The head of the local Service Employees International Union had been forced to resign after publicly voicing support for “our comrades” in Gaza. Dozens of companies and nonprofits across the state were being torn apart by internal divisions over a conflict on the other side of the world, and George wanted to protect his nonprofit, IRIS.

He had led the organization as it grew from eight employees in the late 1990s to more than 150. Together they helped to house, clothe, feed, educate, protect and support more than 800 refugees who arrived each year in Connecticut. That work required an annual budget of $14 million, a third of which came from private donors with their own opinions and connections to the conflict in the Middle East.

Old newspaper clippings about Chris George’s 1989 kidnapping in Gaza.
George was the first American kidnapped in Gaza, in 1989.

Under George’s leadership, IRIS has experienced significant growth.
“Crafting a statement that satisfies everyone and does not create problems for IRIS will be impossible,” George eventually wrote to some of his colleagues.

He shelved his drafts of statements on his computer in late November and tried to focus on the problems of the upcoming month: a family of eight arriving in New Haven after fleeing starvation and sexual assault in South Sudan; a Christian couple from Afghanistan escaping Taliban rule; triplets from Syria arriving after a decade of war. But whenever he returned to his office, George went back on his phone to check the location of the latest bombings and send messages to his former colleagues in Gaza.

“My dear friend, are you OK?” he wrote, several times each day, and then he waited.

On his desk, there was a piece of shrapnel the size of a football that he had found in the Middle East, and a soldier’s helmet riddled with 14 bullet holes. There was a photo of him with his late wife, holding a sign demanding an end to war crimes outside a United Nations convention in the 1980s. Now he was nearing his retirement from IRIS, and sometimes he wondered whether his silence on behalf of the organization came from a place of pragmatic caution or cowardice. “Is it actually defensible to sit here and say nothing while innocent people die?” he wondered.

On the last day of November, an email arrived on his work computer. It was a statement of its own, written to George and the board of directors by 41 IRIS employees in response to a war that now threatened to create one more divide.

“IRIS’ response thus far to this conflict has been unacceptable. We have been silenced,” they wrote.

Omar Yacoub walked through the IRIS office one morning on his way to help teach English to 11 refugee children who had just arrived in the United States. Yacoub, 34, had been hired in September as IRIS’s after-school education coordinator. It was his first job after immigrating to the United States, and he loved it. But, in the last few weeks, he had become increasingly confused about the organization that hired him.

He wondered: If IRIS’s role was to support refugees, why wasn’t it speaking up on behalf of the 1.6 million registered Palestinian refugees living in Gaza, including many of his own family members? Why was it controversial for a humanitarian organization to call for a cease-fire?

“Is your family doing OK?” a co-worker asked Yacoub, as he grabbed a stack of textbooks for his students.

“No, of course they’re not OK,” he said. “They’re losing homes, losing electricity, losing limbs, losing lives, losing everything.”

His grief had been hardening into frustration ever since Oct. 9, when George first spoke about the Hamas terrorist attacks at a staff meeting. George condemned the barbaric raids on civilians and also expressed his horror at Israel’s early retaliations against Palestinians, but then he moved on to the next topic without allowing anyone else on his staff to comment. A few employees decided to begin the next several staff meetings by playing nationalist Palestinian songs for the entire group; other co-workers complained that those songs made them feel uncomfortable. One employee emailed an article to the rest of the staff about the Palestinian liberation movement; other co-workers replied that the article was anti-Semitic, and eventually George shut down the reply-all function on the email thread.

The work at IRIS proceeded as normal, whereas Yacoub woke up each morning to a new emergency on his phone. His mother’s relatives were still trapped in Gaza, where the family had lived under Israeli occupation for several generations. Yacoub’s family had told him stories about his 16-year-old cousin, who they said had been shot in the head and killed by Israeli soldiers in the late 1980s for throwing a stone, his brain preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in the family home. Yacoub was born two months later and named in honor of that cousin, but by then his parents had fled to Jordan as refugees and Yacoub had a Jordanian passport. Now he was safely in Connecticut with his twin 1-year-olds, while his cousins were in Gaza caring for their own children. They had no food. They couldn’t find fresh water. Their own names were written on their arms, in case they needed to be identified for an emergency surgery or for burial.

Yacoub attended a fund-raiser in New Haven with other IRIS colleagues that raised $7,000 for Palestinian refugees. He traveled to a protest on the National Mall in Washington. And then he joined 41 of his co-workers by writing and signing a letter to George and the IRIS board demanding the organization issue a statement condemning Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza and then leverage IRIS’s connections by writing advocacy letters to Connecticut’s congressional delegation. The 41 staff members used the kind of divisive language that IRIS had so far attempted to avoid: “occupation and brutalization of Palestinians”; “genocidal campaign in blatant violation of international humanitarian law”; “the United States is complicit”; “permanent cease-fire.”

“Our silence does not represent the morals of our clients and staff,” the 41 employees wrote. They warned that if IRIS failed to respond to their letter within a week, they would act in defiance of the organization by taking “collective action” of their own.

The group was still waiting for a response five days later when Yacoub stopped by George’s office to discuss his plans for an after-school tutoring program for refugee children. He’d chosen to work at IRIS in part because he admired George, who spoke Arabic and had hired a diverse staff with dozens of Muslims, Jews and more than 60 people who spoke English as a second language. A sign on the wall of George’s office read: “Keep the immigrants. Deport the racists.” He had spoken out publicly on behalf of separated immigrant families at the U.S. border. Yacoub couldn’t understand why George had chosen to be silent now, but he was just two months into his first job in the United States, and he didn’t yet feel comfortable confronting his boss directly.

“How are you holding up?” George asked him.

“As you would expect. Not so good,” Yacoub said.

George nodded and looked at him for a moment, noticing the Palestinian kaffiyeh scarf that Yacoub wore around his shoulders in the office, at home and on his motorcycle rides through the city.

“I worry for you when you’re wearing that,” George said. A New Haven school district had recently sent out a warning about escalating incidents of both antisemitism and Islamophobia. Three college students had just been shot in Vermont while they were speaking in Arabic and wearing kaffiyehs in a suspected hate crime.

“I hate that we have to think that way, but I don’t want you to be a target,” George said.

“I worry about it, too,” Yacoub said. He fingered the cloth and looked back at George. “It’s who I am,” he said. “Why should I have to take it off?”

The day before George’s deadline to answer the staff letter, he called a meeting with his senior directors to determine IRIS’s response. George had prepared for the meeting by reading other official statements about the conflict in Israel, including many issued by American companies with little connection to the Middle East. They sold jeans or salads or tractors or coffee or discount car insurance.

They were “saddened,” “enraged,” “unmoored,” “galled” and “genuinely horrified.” Some had donated money to Israel or to humanitarian aid organizations working in Gaza, and George was still trying to decide if the collective outcry was meaningful or mostly performative.

“Is it appropriate, fair, useful and strategically wise for us to engage publicly on this conflict?” George asked his colleagues.

“How can we say something now when we didn’t say anything after the Hamas attacks that incited so much of this?” one staff member asked.

“It’s 41 people on our staff,” another argued. “We can’t ignore them.”

“Forty-one and counting,” George said. He had learned that the group was still in the process of showing the letter to some colleagues for the first time, and that at least 10 more had already decided to sign it.

“Some of them are losing their loved ones,” one staff member said. “They’re hurting.”

“Same with all of our Jewish colleagues,” another responded. “Just think about everything they’ve been through. What happened on Oct. 7 was one of the worst atrocities we’ve ever seen.”

“That’s what makes this so hard,” George said. “For a lot of us, everything about this particular conflict is scary and deeply personal.”

He had been thinking lately about the echoes of his own scariest moment in the Middle East, in June 1989, when a Palestinian named Muhammed Abu Nasser barged into the Gaza office of George’s nonprofit, Save the Children, with three handguns and a machete and told George to follow him outside. George had worked with Abu Nasser a few months earlier, when Save the Children had given him a grant of $1,000 to build a playground for Palestinian children. He only managed to build an initial wall before Israeli troops rejected the project and knocked the wall down. In the ensuing months, Abu Nasser had become angrier and more erratic, and now he was pushing George into the back of a car with the help of two accomplices, blindfolding him and driving him to a safe house in the desert.

George tried to dissuade his kidnappers by reminding them that he also worked on behalf of Palestinian children. He tried appealing to their sense of humanity by telling stories about his wife and two young daughters back home in Ramallah, but, instead of releasing him, Abu Nasser handed George a pen and forced him to write a hostage letter in English on behalf of his kidnappers to the Israeli government and the American Embassy. They demanded the release of all Hamas prisoners and other Palestinians. “If you don’t comply, we will be forced to kill Chris George,” the letter read.

George sat alongside his kidnappers for the next uncertain hours, thought about his family, and imagined some of the ways he might die. What if Abu Nasser became impatient and made good on his threat? What if the Israel Defense Forces found the safe house, and their rescue mission turned into a shootout? Abu Nasser turned on a radio and waited for news about the kidnapping. He expected to be heralded as a hero by militant Palestinian leaders, but even the most radical groups immediately condemned his actions as rash and unproductive, and Israel rejected all of his demands.

“Your operation is starting to go rotten,” George remembered saying to him after more than a day together, and, eventually, Abu Nasser agreed. He hailed a donkey cart and sent George back to Gaza, with a handwritten apology note to his wife.

What was almost as disorienting as the kidnapping itself was the reaction that followed. The Israel Defense Forces continued to blame the incident on organized Palestinian terrorist groups in an attempt to discredit them. When George insisted that the plot was the work of a single, deranged man, some Israeli media outlets falsely accused George of participating in his own kidnapping. The disinformation continued for several days, with both Israelis and Palestinians using George’s kidnapping to escalate their own conflict in the press. Israeli forces found and killed Abu Nasser eight days later, and international reporters called George to ask for a statement. He decided his best course of action was to say nothing.

“No matter how careful we are and what language we use, some people are not going to like it,” George told his staff now, in the conference room. “Our words could be taken out of context. They could be twisted and distorted. That distortion could go viral.”

“It would be an incredible act of hubris for IRIS to write a statement demanding a cease-fire,” one staffer said. “That’s so far outside our scope.”

“Why would we go all in on one global conflict out of the dozens and dozens that impact our clients?” another asked. “Are we going to start commenting on every disaster and injustice that happens around the world? Is that the best use of our time?”

“We are not going to come to some kumbaya statement,” another staff member said. “We are here to serve our clients. Come to work. Get it done. I wouldn’t touch this.”

“OK, so we are mostly in agreement,” George concluded. They’d been debating for more than an hour, and he flipped through his notes to summarize the meeting. “IRIS is not going to issue a statement. That’s not our role. But is there anything else we can do?”

He went back to his office and checked for news on the latest bombings in Israel. He looked at the map and texted one of his friends in Gaza. “Are you OK?”

“We are still alive.”

He started to write the draft of a letter to the original 41 staff members, explaining that IRIS had decided not to issue a statement, but that he wanted to meet with the group to discuss other possibilities like writing letters to Connecticut’s senators, or helping to educate New Haven about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He finished a draft, checked for bombings again, and saw that the Al-Nuseirat neighborhood had been hit overnight. He sent a message to check on one of his former colleagues at Save the Children, Ali Mansour, whose family lived nearby.

“Are you OK?”

“May Allah rest her soul in peace, I lost my little daughter and granddaughter in a terrible massacre against her house,” Mansour wrote. “Pray for us.”

George stared at his phone and reread the message, trying to imagine what was happening at that moment in Al-Nuseirat. Israel Defense Forces believed some of the Hamas terrorists responsible for the Oct. 7 attacks were hiding among civilians in the residential neighborhood.

He did some research online and learned that the bombings had killed one of Hamas’s original founders, damaged a mosque and destroyed several concrete apartment buildings. He saw images of survivors searching through the rubble, wrapping victims in white sheets and finding leaflets allegedly dropped by Israeli planes. “To Hamas leaders,” the leaflets read, according to The Associated Press, and what came next was a partial quote from the Quran. “A life for a life, an eye for an eye and whoever started is to blame. If you punish, then punish with the like of that which you were afflicted.”

George recognized it as the same philosophy he had witnessed throughout his career: terror resulting in more terror, one conflict escalating into the next, persecution breeding hatred and war until more than 110 million people around the world had been displaced from their homes by violence and human rights violations, according to the latest data from the United Nations.

George wiped his eyes and replied to his friend’s message. Everything he wrote felt small and inadequate. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

He was still sitting in his office several hours later when he heard people beginning to clap and speak Pashto somewhere down the hall. He walked out to the IRIS lobby and saw a family of five that had just arrived from Afghanistan, where they had been threatened and persecuted by the Taliban for being Christian. The family had never been to the United States. They had never heard of Connecticut. They carried everything they owned in four duffel bags marked “fragile.”

IRIS employees emerged from every department to introduce themselves and to help. An interpreter translated on behalf of the family. A receptionist made coffee for the parents and hot chocolate for the children. A transportation team prepared to drive them to a hotel so they could recover from their flight. A case manager stocked their fridge with groceries and a hot meal from an Afghan restaurant. A housing team worked to furnish their new apartment. A legal team assembled to protect their rights. Yacoub and his education team prepared to tutor the children, because even if he remained unhappy with IRIS’s silence, he still believed in the righteousness of its work.

George handed out candy and granola bars and then greeted the family with the same statement he’d made thousands of times, and the one he believed in most.

“We welcome you,” he said. “I’m so sorry for what you’ve suffered. It’s our job to support you.”

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a writer at large for The Times. He travels the country to write in-depth stories about the impact of major national issues on individual lives. More about Eli Saslow

Todd Heisler is a Times photographer based in New York. He has been a photojournalist for more than 25 years.

3 thoughts on “A Quaker In Conflict, Outer and Inner: Damned if He Speaks, Damned If He Doesn’t. Meanwhile, There’s Work To Do.”

    1. It’s a NYTimes article. I’ve already reposted it to FB. whether others can open it depends on them.

  1. Thank you for continuing the conversation — from a Quaker perspective — on the moral and ethical duties of peace making under wartime conditions. Clearly, words matter. The sooner we can get our verbiage aligned with our peace mission, the better off we are. Finding words that make peace attractive when our neighbors find victory and triumph more attractive becomes quite a meaningful challenge. Those of us who hear and obey the call to love our neighbor do so because we see the sacred part of our neighbor as clearly as we see their humanity. We also see clearly that we can either love our neighbor or fear, perhaps hate, our neighbor. Quakers have sometimes chosen to love when love itself is deemed unreasonable and unpatriotic. Exactly when understandable but fearsome words abound — words like “defeat the enemy,” or “occupy the conquered lands,” or ” force them to submit,” or “break their will,” or “proclaim our victory,” or “our right to use violence” whether in resistance or in self-defense — just then is the time for peacemakers to engage in spiritual discipline before adding more words, spreading more fears, perhaps even escalating into acts of terror. Fear is still the most contagious human emotion. Fear needs understanding and wisdom if it is to be controlled. For peace to be made among warring g persons and nations, love must be transported and placed in front of those willing to accept love instead of fear. Not many seem to even see this paradigm let alone choose it as their first response to violence in the neighborhood, especially once our neighbors start to slaughter without restraint. At the heart of Judaism, Islam and Christianity is the Royal Commandment to love love God and neighbor. No excuses, just do it! Obedience is required if and when peace is to be established in the neighborhood. In the meantime, refugees, survivors, injured, traumatized, starving, terrified, mistreated, weary, discouraged, dispossessed, sick and exhausted people need to find some kindness — away from the battlefield that once was home. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Why should anybody be required to find words, whether excuses or condemnations, for turning neighborhoods into battlefields? Isn’t the destruction self-explanatory? Sometimes, words fail completely. The eyes see the truth. The heart understands the truth. The soul chooses love as the greater, the more noble, truth. Quakers choose to affirm and to serve love in the middle of chaos and also to permit others the freedom to condemn the violence on graphic display before the whole world. For some of us, love is easier and cheaper than hate and fear. Thanks again for continuing the conversation!

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