Placards with photos of hostages held in the Gaza Strip after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack hang on damaged houses in Kfar Aza, on April 7, 2024

Amir Levy/Getty Images

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‘The Time to Stay Silent Was Over’

I am a Native American, originally from Colombia, and a practicing Christian. I’m also a fierce defender of Israel—even though speaking up has cost me friends.

by
Maria Muñoz
July 09, 2024
Placards with photos of hostages held in the Gaza Strip after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack hang on damaged houses in Kfar Aza, on April 7, 2024

Amir Levy/Getty Images

I never had a country that made me feel like I was a part of a family without being a citizen myself until I was in Israel—a country that hugged me back when I embraced it.

I identify as a Native American, originally from Colombia, but I am a U.S. citizen who moved here in 2001 when I was only 1 year old. Since then, I have traveled the world, and although I’ve experienced wonderful hospitality in many places, Israel is the only place that felt like a second home during my visit.

The first time I went to Israel, in May 2023, I learned about the tensions that had endured for decades, but I also experienced the strong community between Israelis, something that I felt was missing in the U.S. It felt like it didn’t matter if you were a religious Jew, a secular Jew, Druze, Bedouin, Arab, or a foreigner exploring—you were part of Israeli society. During that visit, I stopped by a kibbutz called Kfar Aza to learn about life inside the Gaza Envelope. The residents showed us the missile that had been launched at their beloved kibbutz earlier that week. The sight of the missile gave me chills. I admired how brave the residents were for continuing to live in this community despite being so close to a dangerous, intimidating militant group.

Little did I know the missile was an omen of what was to come. Or that I’d return to Israel in a matter of months.

My family has a unique religious background. We are not Catholic, like most people from Colombia. My mother discovered Southern Baptism when we moved to our first American city, Miami. I subsequently grew up in several Baptist churches across the Bible Belt. Although my family was adjusting to a new culture, my mother made sure I never lost a connection to our home culture. She taught me how to cook traditional dishes, helped me become well-versed in Colombian arts and media, and passed on our centuries-old cultural dances to me. She was also wonderful at teaching me about other cultures—including Judaism—in our local Miami neighborhoods.

When I was still an infant, my mother got her first job in Miami: taking care of an elderly Jewish couple. I developed so much affection for them that I endearingly called them my grandparents, “Abuelito Caplan and Abuelita Ruth.” They even included my family in religious holidays, including Shabbat on Friday nights.

If you are an ally, like I am, it is important more than ever to speak up. Never again is never again now.

After my father changed jobs and we had to move to Texas, I was no longer around Jewish culture. I did not encounter the Jewish community again until I started college at the University of Austin, Texas, in 2021. I became friends with an Ashkenazi girl who invited me to Hillel, where I was able to participate in Friday night Shabbat dinners again, like I did when I was a child. Despite not being Jewish myself, I was quickly welcomed into the community and eventually invited on a Perspectives trip to Israel. I had previously done research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in high school but had little understanding of it. As an international relations major, I decided that this trip was an excellent opportunity to gain access to primary knowledge on the conflict. I also was excited at the chance to see sites I had read about all my life in my religious texts.

After my first trip, I kept up with Israeli news but I did not speak much about the country to anyone. As a practicing Christian, the extent of my connection with the Jewish community in the U.S. was simply going to Shabbat at Hillel from time to time. I never posted about my time at Hillel; only my closest friends knew about my casual attendance. It was not common for me to share my religious practices, including Christian ones, online or when introducing myself to new people.

On Oct. 7, I was giving my partner a tour of Washington, D.C., as I was doing a fellowship there. In one sudden moment, I started receiving a stream of messages from my friends at Hillel that Israel had been attacked. I was not very alarmed at first, as I knew Israel consistently received missiles from the Gaza Strip. I had no idea about the magnitude of the attack until I heard the news that several kibbutzes, including Kfar Aza, had been razed to the ground. I was devastated. I thought other people would be torn into pieces, like I was.

To my confused horror, the next day there were people in front of the White House beating drums while holding signs that said, “Our resistance is not terrorism.” The following weeks of my life were some of the darkest, most dystopian weeks I have ever lived through. I worked at the Library of Congress and almost weekly was being caught on the streets amid demonstration after demonstration against Israel. I heard the same chants as always: “There is only one solution, intifada revolution,” a chant that echoed the message of Hitler’s final solution in Nazi Germany. I did not have a chance to mourn for Kfar Aza—I was immediately swallowed by the deep hate and vigor of antisemitism. I felt too scared for weeks to speak up, as I had been convinced by social media that I had no right to be sad for the victims of Oct. 7. I never believed the victims’ deaths were justified, but I was worried about facing backlash for saying anything at all.

I called myself weak for still feeling upset weeks after it happened. However, as I watched the news for months, something inside kept telling me that what I was seeing on the media was not lining up with what actually happened. I felt desperate to know the truth. My breaking point came when the raging antisemitism reached my friend group. I was told by them that I was the “most Jewish person” they knew and saw how quickly their demeanor changed toward me as well. I couldn’t believe that the propaganda was so strong it had even infected people around me who were never involved in politics. I decided the time to stay silent was over. I needed to go to Israel to show people the true horror of Oct. 7. I was done being intimidated into not speaking up.

I returned to Israel in January 2024.

I had a feeling that as soon as I made the decision to cross into Israeli territory to force people to bear witness to the horror through my social media, I would probably lose everyone around me. I was right—I lost my friend group, was isolated from college organizations, and received hateful messages online. I have absolutely no regrets. I myself had not seen the devastating scenes of the Oct. 7 massacres until I came back to Israel. My social media feed for the past three months had been purely pro-Palestinian media. The stories of Israeli victims had been pushed to the bottom of my feed.

My reluctance to be an advocate vanished when I was brought back to Kfar Aza. The bright, flourishing community I once knew was now in ruins. Seeing the burned rubble of family homes was the first time I fully understood the fate of the kibbutz residents. Their voices had been stolen by the self-proclaimed activists of social media who were telling the world that the stories of Israeli victims did not deserve to be heard because their deaths were “justified.” I never was an activist myself, but I knew this sentiment was wrong. People who were antiwar were now openly celebrating the deaths of innocent civilians.

It made me realize people were not using this movement to stand up for human rights. They were using it to ignite hate against Jews—again.

Since my second trip, I have been fiercely using my voice through social media to tell people the truth. If the people marching in pro-Palestinian protests and my former friends had seen the atrocious evidence of the attacks like I did, they would also be shouting to the world that Hamas is a genocidal regime, not a revolutionary “freedom fighting” group. I have realized how small the Jewish community truly is with a population that only makes up 0.2% of the world. If you are an ally, like I am, it is important more than ever to speak up. Never again is never again now.

As someone who is native to the Americas, it has been appalling to see people who benefit from the settler-colonial project that killed 56 million Native Americans get on a high horse and call for the destruction of Israel—a nation that I consider the most successful decolonization project of all time. I unapologetically support Israel and the Jewish people. People have tried to call me a Zionist as an insult, but I wear the badge proudly. The existence of Native Americans and the Jewish people is a testament to our survival through the trials. Today, we still live under powerful systems that seek to dehumanize us. Yet we must stay strong because our ancestors before overcame these trials.

Our resistance must be our persistence to exist.

Maria Muñoz is a current fellow at Maccabee Task Force, a pro-Israel group fighting misinformation and antisemitism on college campuses.

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