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Peggy Walt

Olam hafuch

Olam hafuch, the world is upside down,” our rabbi said, referencing a recent speech by Netanyahu, who he doesn’t usually agree with. But at this moment, with (ex-Apartheid) South Africa calling genocide on Israel, itself the victim of genocidal Hamas, the rabbi reluctantly high-fived Bibi.

I remembered that Hebrew word hafuch from hanging out with my niece at an Aroma café in Israel, where she savoured the creamy dreamy upside-down drink with its layers of hot milk and coffee. Maybe Israelis invented it to reflect their upside-down lives.

After Shabbat, I walked downtown to a peaceful vigil, where several women read the names of Israeli hostages forcibly taken into Gaza, 100 days ago. Someone gave me a poster with the photo and name of Omri Miran, age 46. His smile radiated love towards his little daughter, perched on his hip in a sleeveless white dress. Behind them, a blue and green landscape showed eternal summer. Was he even still alive?

We gathered outside the old library, a memorial to soldiers killed in the Second World War, where a brooding statue of Winston Churchill stalks the grounds. The building is shuttered tight, its future uncertain.

Blue and white Israeli flags furled and fluttered beside Churchill’s chin in the January breeze, echoed by the sun bursting through fluffy clouds in a brilliant blue sky across the street from us, behind the law courts. Yellow balloons on sticks representing the hostages dotted the lawn, surrounding the 40 to 50 people who had showed up.

Organizers had hastily changed the location the day before, hoping to confuse a counter protest. Perhaps we could peacefully pay our respects to the murdered and missing children, families, and young women (who I fear so for), the men forced to grow Islamic beards, the elderly without their breathing machines and medications. Maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t find us.

Recent Israeli immigrants stood beside other community members, reading names, ages, communities, and testimonies from the released hostages. They were difficult to listen to, more difficult to read; one woman broke down sobbing, speaking the words of a mother released from captivity. We shuffled from foot to foot in the raw winter day, imagining people locked in tunnels and cages, violated, hungry.

Some participants had brought their kids. A little girl blinked long red eyelashes in her father’s arms; her curly red hair reminded me of the two Bibas “Gingies,” taken with their mother on October 7. The Bibas baby would have just turned one, if still alive.

Now the rumbling of a male voice competed for our attention in the distance, coming closer, getting louder, just muffled sounds ricocheting off the office buildings on Spring Garden Road. The reader leaned into the microphone: “Liri Albag, 18 years old. Tal Shalev, 54. David Shalev, 75. Daniela Gilboa, 19 years old. Kfir Bibas, nine months old.”

I flashbacked to a sunny day in Jaffa with my family, walking through the old streets after lunch, all of us licking our glida (ice cream) before it melted. A perfect day for a family reunion in Hebrew, English, and Polish. I walked backwards, juggling my cone, framing my loves in a photo, thankful.

Like at the vigil, the sound was like thunder approaching, and we were moving closer to its source.

“What’s going on?” I had asked nervously, jamming the rest of my cone into my mouth in case we had to make a hasty exit. I looked around for familiar faces in the crowd, remembering I wasn’t in Halifax.

The conversation abruptly switched to rapid Hebrew; I understood nothing. Finally, our friend Yair, his jaw tense, spat out, “It’s a protest.”

 “Of what?” I replied, but he just kept striding purposefully on, silent and with his chin high, moving us closer to whatever it was, like a riptide.

Suddenly the day didn’t feel warm anymore, my ice cream silly, superfluous. I saw police in riot gear for the first time, like on the news. I picked up the pace, feeling confused; they looked bored, their body language relaxed in contrast to the demands of the protesters. I’d never heard anything this loud, so angry. The protesters were mainly women, clad in black from head to toe, only their faces and hands exposed. They punched signs in Arabic above their hijabs, guttural-sounding syllables exploding through a megaphone that two passed back and forth while others ululated. Their voices shrill with a hatred I’d never experienced.

I looked wildly around for a place to cross the street, but Yair marched towards them, almost into them, as if saying, this is my sidewalk too.

As I scurried past the women, head down, my nephew caught up to me. “They don’t like that we’re building a parking lot on their cemetery,” he said. Wow, neither would I. I asked him to explain, but he just yelled something over his shoulder to his father in Hebrew. Back in Canada, I read about this complicated story, trying to gain more understanding.

At the vigil, the angry voices of the unseen protesters in words we couldn’t yet make out reminded me also of a chilling proclamation in 1930s Germany. People were standing on tiptoes, anxious to see what was coming our way. A guy bobbing on a flatbed truck with a giant sound system came into view, yelling into his mic, drowning out the Israeli woman’s voice speaking about the constant tension of captivity.

The protesters’ words sharpened into focus: “Intifada!” “From the River to the Sea!” “Down with Zionists!” “Apartheid!”

I tried not to look across the street where 20 to 30 people had gathered in winter boots and keffiyehs, hugging Omri Miran to my chest, photo side out. It was impossible to hear the captives’ names anymore, but we kept facing our speaker as we’d been asked not to engage. I did sneak a glance at a woman across the street, holding a sign that read “Jews Against Occupation” in front of her face. She wore a mask, hat, and dark glasses, maybe so no-one would recognize her. I fantasized about starting a hora in the middle of the street – would they drop their signs and join hands with us?

Posters of captured hostages at a vigil in Halifax, NS.

I hadn’t noticed police arriving, but now there they were, shoulder to shoulder in a row, facing us. Where was this stand-off heading? Was it time to leave? I moved to the back of the crowd and suddenly a guy I didn’t know was beside me and too close for comfort.

 “What’s all this,” he yelled into my right year.  Did he look Jewish, I wondered, moving away slightly, then feeling guilty. He seemed agitated. I explained, my voice straining over the duelling microphones: “We were just reading names, having a peaceful vigil. They seem to feel the need to overpower our voices.”

“Well, different education levels,” he replied. “Many new immigrants to Canada. You know.”

He continued: “Oh yeah, I know all about that. I’ve got cousins in Israel. Have you heard of Standing Together? They’re the only group I give money to,” he yelled, telling me they were a great bunch of Israelis and Palestinians, that their colour was purple, which he thought was really, really great. “Purple!” He looked so pleased.

I tried hard to hear, worrying now about rock throwers. My eyes darted behind, to the side, shouting back that many of the kibbutz victims of October 7 had been peaceniks.

“Oh yeah, Vivian Silver, I know about her, I know all that. Thank God my family didn’t move to Israel in 1968. I’ve been following this story for years.” He rolled his eyes, pulling his navy-blue tuque tighter around his ears, taking a step closer.

Time to move away. Our side started chanting “Bring Them Home!”  My ears were hurting, like I was at some sadistic rock concert. “From the river to the sea!” a woman was screaming, the pumped-up crowd echoing her back, then, “Intifada! Intifada!,” fists raised at us. The police asked the flat bed to move on, and it did. Organizers piled the sound gear on the sidewalk.

We played Oh Canada over our speakers, and across the street the yelling calmed with occasional outbursts as we sang about standing on guard. But when we started, Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, the protesters roared again, the leader pressing the mic so hard to his lips that the sound distorted like a swarm of angry hornets while he accused us of killing kids in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria.

The peaceful feeling was impossible now, our vigil felt pointless.  I shuffled to the front to thank organizers. Two young cops in body gear were planted at the edge of the crowd with arms folded, a black woman, and a white man with multiple ear piercings.

I leaned in towards the woman. “They’re yelling Intifada at us; do you know what it means?” They shook their heads. I had to strain to be heard above the chanting. “I never thought I’d hear it on the streets of Halifax. It’s violent. Kill Jews.”

“I’m sorry we’re hearing it now,” the guy said. I thanked them for being there, for having increased patrols near our shul.

Back at home, I posted about the vigil, and Jewish friends immediately chastised me, correcting me that Intifada just means “resistance, a shaking off.”  They all know the word’s as loaded as a pointed gun though.

I Google Omri Miran, devouring his story. At Kibbutz Nir Oz, he was taken captive in his own car, leaving behind his wife, Lishay and their two small daughters Roni (2) and Alma (6 months) behind (and alive).

The children were sleeping when the sirens began wailing. The parents put the girls into the safe room, a feature of every Israeli home (bomb shelters for civilians don’t exist in Gaza). The terrorists kicked in their bathroom window and entered the home, while Omri and Lishay readied themselves with two knives for protection. The attackers brought a sixteen-year-old neighbour, Tomer Arbe-Eliaz, who asked them to open the door, otherwise, they would hurt him. They did so. They appeared ready to kill them, but instead took them to a neighbour’s house, where the eighteen-year-old daughter had already been murdered. Two more women were brought to the house around 1:00 p.m.

According to The Times of Israel: “Thirty minutes later, the terrorists told Omri and the father of the other family to stand, and they took them, with their car keys to their cars. Minutes later, said Lishay, she saw them driving away.”

“I had told Omri minutes before, ‘I love, I’ll protect our girls, we’re waiting for you, and don’t be a hero,’” she told news media. The women and children waited four more hours until IDF soldiers found them.

I try to imagine watching your captive husband being driven away as I check my inbox. There’s a colleague’s latest literary newsletter, her book recommendations, teaching updates, and tips for up-and-coming writers. Without saying why, she includes a 2011 poem by Gazan writer Refaat Alareer, If I Must Die, currently going viral, having been translated into dozens of languages.

Born in Gaza City and with an MA from University College London, Alareer earned a PhD in English Literature at the Universiti Putra Malaysia, writing a dissertation on John Donne. He taught at the Islamic University in Gaza: world literature and creative writing, with a focus on Shakespeare. Alareer was killed in an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza in December of 2023, along with his brother, brother’s son, sister and her three children, having refused to leave at the start of the war. Israel is now accused of deliberately targeting him in the airstrike that killed him.

According to The New York Times, Refaat Alareer was notorious in Israel due to his “virulently anti-Israel and antisemitic” comments in the classroom and online. When it was revealed that Hamas had killed a baby by placing it in an oven, his Twitter response was “with or without baking powder?”

He called Israelis “scum,” “Nazis,” “filth,” “the root cause of evil” and “worse than Nazi Germany,” a claim that media watchdog HonestReporting revealed he’d made more than 100 times. Making media appearances on the BBC, ABC News and Democracy Now!, Alareer described the Hamas attack on October 7 as “legitimate and moral,” saying it was “exactly like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” He also denied that Hamas had engaged in sexual violence, calling the accusations lies “used to justify the Gaza genocide.”

Alareer also claimed that “Hitler is as peaceful as any Israeli leader,” and that Zionism and Nazism are “two cheeks of the same dirty arse.” He referred to all Israeli citizens as “soldiers.”

The BBC later expressed regret for airing the interview where he referred to the murder of 1,200 Israelis as “Palestinian resistance,” calling his comments on the Warsaw Ghetto “offensive.” We don’t intend to use him again,” they told a British newspaper.

A 2021 piece authored by The New York Time’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Patrick Kingsley, portrayed Alareer as a gentle professor of poetry who “teaches Palestinians about empathy”; after his tweets about “dirty Zios” were revealed, they issued a lengthy correction, retracting much of the article.

No doubt this literary hero of the woke world blamed Israel for the death of another brother in the 2014 Gaza War. Israel National News revealed that Mohammed Rafiq Alareer was featured in a martyr video produced by Hamas, seeming to suggest he served as a terror-operative combatant. They also noted he acted in a Hamas TV program, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” playing a giant bee that taught young children to “shoot all Jews.”

Olam Hafuch. Refaat Alareer is memorialized and mourned around the world, while the name of Omri Miran (either dead or alive in captivity), gets buried by angry voices.

I held you close, Omri, all the way home, and still held you as I leaned against the closed door, thanking God for a haven from hate. I hang your picture up and pray for good news, an end to the war. I pray you too will come home soon, and drink café hafuch with all who love you.

Poster calling for the release of Omri Miran, captive in Gaza.
About the Author
Peggy Walt has worked for 40 years in the arts and culture sector in Nova Scotia, Canada. She's writing a book on the search for what happened to her husband's family during the Holocaust and her conversion to Judaism in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at King's University in Halifax.