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 tablecloth.
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 US 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 she has always supported a two-state solution, she said.
But she wanted Ms. Oliver to understand how she 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 as 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 de ella, a place that shaped her de ella, 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 agreed, but privately she collected. Her 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 was veered into the complexities of race in America.