On Wednesday evening at the Redemption to the Nations church in Chattanooga, an Israeli spokesperson lambasted his nation's critics in higher education, the media and the streets and declared Hamas's Oct. 7 attack as a "mask-off" moment in which everyone must answer a simple moral question: Do they, or do they not, support savagery?
"Let this be, my friends, an age of accountability," said the spokesperson, Shahar Azani, "where we demand responsibility of all of those who espouse evil, all of those who support terror."
On Thursday, Chattanooga protesters called for accountability of a different sort, with a rally denouncing a local lawmaker's votes to back Israel's war effort in response to the Hamas attack -- and what a social media post advertising the event called his genocidal world view.
In Chattanooga and beyond, activists and institutional leaders are mustering dueling historical narratives, media critiques, vocabulary and analytical lenses to shape the public's understanding of a complex, brutal conflict in the Middle East.
In Chattanooga, strong language, heated emotions and dueling calls for accountability on Middle East
What's happening in Chattanooga is happening nationwide. The Israeli spokesperson who came to town Wednesday had been traveling the nation, and the national media circuit, to share his message. And Thursday's rally for Palestine was part of a national day of protest called by activist leaders: On the same evening that a small group gathered in downtown Chattanooga to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, thousands of like-minded protesters reportedly shut down traffic in midtown Manhattan.
Israel's U.S. backers are preparing a mighty rejoinder. Michael Dzik, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, plans this week to fly to Washington for a rally against antisemitism -- and in support of Israel's effort to defeat Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack shook Jewish people across the world.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Hafiz El-Etr, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, like the protesters Thursday evening, described Israel's response to those attacks in Gaza as genocidal.
As of Friday, Dzik and El-Etr had not recently been in touch.
"It might be the best thing is: We pray for him and his community, they pray for us," El-Etr said in an interview. "And for everybody to stay safe."
At a service Wednesday evening, Deven Wallace, who leads Highland Park-based Redemption to the Nations with her husband Kevin Wallace, recalled meeting Azani at an event to honor Israel as well as Donald Trump's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, after the administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. She said Azani, a seasoned spokesperson for Israel, could offer the church the unfiltered truth about the conflict.
Then Azani took the mic. Stating he was speaking on behalf of an Israeli people in great pain, he began an impassioned speech on history and morality. And he began with the events of Oct. 7.
"It was on that red dawn that the red day descended upon us," he said, "when almost 3,000 barbarian savages of terrorist organization Hamas breached the fence between the Gaza Strip and the south of Israel, and for hours and hours they butchered -- mercilessly -- women, children, families, babies."
He told tales of individual children taken hostage and invited attendees to look at their faces. There was Abigail, whose parents were murdered as Hamas took her into Gaza. There was Emily, kidnapped out of a sleepover.
That the Hamas attackers gleefully documented their actions -- an instinct which, according to Azani, distinguished them unfavorably from even the Nazis -- only heightened the horror.
Then, he said, there was the sickeningly inadequate moral response from Ivy League schools, the media, the United Nations, which in a world full of atrocities seemed intent on singling out what Azani called the "Jew among the nations." Even on the streets of the U.S., Azani said, pro-terror movements run amok -- many, he suggested, covering their faces because they know they should be ashamed for who they are.
When it came to Israel, a discussion of politics might have reasonably taken place Oct. 6, Azani said.
"But now post-Oct. 7, when masks are off, the moral issue is clear," he said. "Are you with humanity or against it? Are you with barbarism or against it? Do you support terror or do you object to it? It's a 'Yes, No' question. We now demand an answer."
Misinformation about the war abounds. As an antidote, many have offered nuances -- for example the fact that not all Palestinians are Muslim and many are Israeli citizens -- and history lessons too.
Omitting much, Azani offered a brisk one of his own. In the mid-2000s, he said, Israel left behind its humming strawberry export factories, dug up and hauled off the remains of its dead and left Gaza to rule itself, encouraging its people to create for themsevles the Singapore of the Middle East.
That potential, Azani said, was rapidly squandered even as the population of Gaza grew -- a fact, he later added, which undermined the claim of some that Israel is waging a genocidal campaign. Yet, while he said he regretted to have to acknowledge that some Gazan civilians participated in the Oct. 7 massacre, many others were innocent, and themselves living under the boot of Hamas.
"By taking the blood of our soldiers to rid the world of this evil," he said, to growing applause, "we are pro-Palestinian. We are pro-Israeli. We are pro-humanity. We are pro-civilization. We are anti-barbarism. We are pro-the United States of America!"
During the ensuing Q&A session, Deven Wallace retook the microphone and warned of the danger posed by those who hate America -- some of whom, she said, are entering through its Southern border, and some of whom are already here.
"What Shahar made clear today in our conversation," she said, "is that what gets past Israel will reach our shores."
Then she and other pastors gathered around Azani, laid their hands on him and prayed.
The next day, in a conference room at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, the group's executive director, Dzik, sporting a blue Israeli and U.S. flag pin over his shirt, described the rally he planned to attend this week in Washington.
He'd just heard the details over a Zoom call. Attendees would call for the release of Israeli hostages and speak against burgeoning antisemitism. Congressmen and even President Joe Biden had been invited.
In recent weeks, the abiding narrative of the conflict in the U.S. has shifted, Dzik said. Media reports focused initially on the individual stories of those killed in Israel. Now, he said, the lens is trained on the suffering of Gazans.
"And we should be seeing that," he said.
But he added, there is a difference between terrorists coming into Israel and slaughtering people at a party and in their homes, and Israel going into Gaza to take out Hamas, which has intentionally webbed itself into the civilian population.
"The Jewish community is concerned about the safety of civilians," he said. "We realize children are being killed and mothers are being killed. We see this just like everybody else sees it, and it's breaking our hearts. But we also -- again, back to where the Jewish community is supportive -- is that we know it has to be done, in the sense of: Hamas has to be eradicated."
A political link
Dzik said some leaders on the left have spoken irresponsibly and disseminated misleading information, but took heart that U.S. political leadership seems to be generally behind Israel's attempt to defeat Hamas. Among them is Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Southeast Tennessee, whose vote to send Israel further aid and to censure the Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, for her condemnations of Israel made him the target of a Chattanooga rally Thursday evening.
Fleischmann's office did not grant an interview request. But in an email statement, spokesman Justin Doil said Hamas is a murderous terrorist organization and that Fleischmann would always stand with Israel. As for Tlaib, he said, she had on multiple occasions engaged in antisemitic tropes, including her recent promotion of the phrase "from the river to the sea."
"That," the statement said, "is a blatant call for the complete destruction of Israel, the world's only Jewish State. Israel has a fundamental right to exist and defend itself from attacks."
At twilight Thursday, outside the congressman's local office on Georgia Avenue, a few dozen protesters launched their rally with the very slogan that Fleischmann, Dzik and many others have condemned: "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."
Leading the chant was Kamari Sherard, surrounded by a large young and multiracial contingent whose signs suggested a sense that the Palestinian cause was linked to others in which they believed. One protester held a poster with a large stop sign in the middle. It was surrounded by the words "cop city," "school shootings," "Palestinian genocide" and "queerphobia."
Organizers said the newly-formed Chattanooga Palestinian Solidarity Network posted about the rally only about a day before it took place as a way to muster local participation in a national day of action that had been called to support Palestinians.
Megaphone in hand, Sherard said the speed with which Israel-critiques get branded as anti-American suggests just how intertwined the nations' histories of imperialism and land grabs truly are. Sherard denounced U.S. taxpayer support for the Israeli military and said the money should go to public housing, health care and schoolteachers.
Fleischmann's voting record suggested his allegiance was not to Tennessee communities, she said, but the institutions that oppress them.
"Dump Chuck," another chant began.
In an interview after her speech, Sherard said she does not condemn Jewish people but what she called Zionist ideology. She spoke of the robust involvement of many Jewish people in activism like hers. And like Tlaib, she characterized the "from the river to the sea" chant in liberatory terms -- as a call for Palestinians to not be second-class citizens in their homes.
Sherard is Black and said when she sees how unwilling many seem to extend even basic empathy to Palestinians and the dehumanizing language widely used to describe them, she recognizes core aspects of the African American experience.
"It's a visceral resonance," she said.
Protesters called for a ceasefire. Kaitlin Blanchard, another organizer, said in an interview that she hoped to target the Tennessee law forbidding state and local governments from contracting with entities who boycott Israel and its businesses. She said death toll data can be numbing, but for the average person trying to get a grasp on the dynamics of conflict, the vast discrepancy between Palestinian and Israeli deaths -- many times more dead have been reported in Gaza than in Israel since Oct. 7 -- is a good place to start.
Sarah Elghalban, a Palestinian American, said scores of her family members have died in recent weeks in Gaza, and she lit a candle in their honor at the rally.
In a phone interview Friday, Elghalban said she has little substantive experience with political organizing, but she's been pleased with Chattanooga's support for Palestinians and in recent weeks has learned much. When helping plan a ceasefire rally in late October, she said she envisioned a march, but more experienced hands noted that mobility meant vulnerability from a safety standpoint. Better to stay put at Coolidge Park.
In a conference room following Friday afternoon prayer at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga's mosque, El-Etr, a doctor and the organization's president, described the sermon he'd just heard from the Interim Imam Youssef Fares, which he said encouraged those in the congregation to make supplications to their creator on behalf of Palestinians -- and convey to them that even amid their suffering, they are not forgotten.
Stressing that he was speaking only for himself and not the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga as a whole, El-Etr said there is an obvious genocide taking place in Gaza. He said some in the local Muslim community use Slingboxes to receive local Gaza news channels. As Israelis wage war, those channels show bombs falling and innocent people -- not Hamas, he said -- getting shot in the street.
El-Etr said many Chattanooga-area Muslims feel guarded right now. Women, conspicuous in their coverings, have reported receiving verbal aggression around town. And speaking out publicly about the conflict seems to have little upside. At a protest in Chattanooga in late October, El-Etr said, some people covered their faces so they wouldn't get bullied or attacked.
He said it's a scary thing to feel that even in the U.S., you cannot have a peaceful rally against a genocide without someone thinking you are pro-Hamas and promoting terrorism.
Muslims, El-Etr said, are "people of the book," share many common beliefs with Christians and Jews and have nothing against another human being. He said in Chattanooga they seek to welcome others, be part of the local community and engage with people as individuals -- an ethic they echo in school for their youth.
"Our main concern is about what Israel -- the government -- is doing to people," he said. "It's a political stand."