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Adnan Zai Discusses the Beachwood Jewish Community in the Face of Crisis

Today, we have the privilege of sitting down with Adnan Zai of Beachwood Ohio, an individual with unique insights into the ongoing challenges in Israel. The troubles in this region, steeped in a tapestry of historical, political, and cultural intricacies, have sparked global attention and discussions. Adnan Zai brings not only a wealth of knowledge but also personal perspectives that promise to shed light on the nuances of the current Israeli experience. Growing up on three continents, with Iran as his place of birth, he has seen Israel firsthand and understands the complexities of the situation that the country and indeed the world are now facing. Furthermore, his current home in Beachwood is home to many people of Jewish background. As a Muslim himself, Adnan Zai of Beachwood is a student of the world, and has a personalized perspective that can teach and offer a unique perspective to those around him. As we embark on this conversation, we invite you to join us in understanding the multifaceted layers that contribute to the intricate dynamics of the current Israeli landscape.

Mary Kraven: Thank you for talking with us, Adnan Zai. Obviously the situation in Israel is getting more tense by the day with the explosion at the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City. This adds over 500 deaths to a death toll that already stood above 2,000 since Israeli forces began pounding the densely populated area with airstrikes following Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault. The unthinkable bloodshed is building tension throughout the Middle East, and indeed the world. There is some talk of World War III, and a weary world watches and waits to see what will happen next. The Jewish community in the region as well as around the world is anxious and terrorized by the turn of events in the Gaza Strip at the hands of Hamas.

In light of all of this bloodshed, let’s go back to the beginning as we get started, and talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of history. What can you tell us about how this problem all began? It seems like Israel and Palestine have been fighting for a very long time. What are they fighting over and how did this start?

Adnan Zai: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a deeply entrenched and multifaceted struggle that spans over a century, rooted in historical, political, and religious complexities. At its core, the conflict revolves around competing national aspirations for self-determination and statehood in the same land. The establishment of Israel in 1948, following the UN partition plan, ignited hostilities between Jewish and Arab communities. The ensuing wars, such as the 1967 Six-Day War, reshaped the geopolitical landscape, leaving Israel in control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. This occupation and the subsequent establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have been persistent sources of tension, with the international community often condemning these settlements as impediments to peace. In the most basic terms, they are fighting over land and a home to call their own.

One important focal point of struggle and contention is the status of Jerusalem. Both Israelis and Palestinians consider the city significant for religious and historical reasons, and its disputed status has been a major obstacle in peace negotiations. Additionally, the right of return for Palestinian refugees who fled or were displaced during the conflict remains a divisive issue. The ongoing struggles and cycles of violence, including the Intifadas and conflicts in Gaza, further complicate the path to a resolution. While there have been periodic attempts at reconciliation and peace, reaching a comprehensive and lasting agreement that addresses the core issues continues to elude the parties involved, reflecting the deeply rooted nature of this enduring conflict.

Mary Kraven: Yes, this is a deeply entrenched conflict, and I thank you for your insights. For such a holy city, Jerusalem is in the middle of one of the world’s biggest and most ongoing struggles. Adnan Zai, I know you have lived in many places around the globe. Have you experienced any of these troubles between the Israelis and Palestinians firsthand?

Adnan Zai: I would say I definitely have a different and more nuanced understanding of the difficulties between Israel and Palenstine than most Americans because of my upbringing on three continents. I was born in Iran, moving away at a young age, but because of the revolution in 1979, it has become impossible to return there. Interestingly, my father had been very good friends with an Iranian Jew during my youth, and because of the close-knit relationships between our families, I became intimately acquainted with Jewish traditions and holidays. I considered them an extension of my own family, as we were so close. Even today, the next generation maintains this closeness, and I continue to extend Jewish holiday greetings to all my Jewish friends, in Hebrew of course, often earning me the title of “the honorary member of the tribe.”

With this multi-cultural experience in my background, it was profoundly symbolic for me to follow in my father’s footsteps from another time, by forming business partnerships and establishing the same close friendships with members of the Jewish faith. Because of these business partnerships, I have traveled extensively, and have even spent time in Israel itself.

Two decades ago, I visited Israel, which proved to be highly successful from a business standpoint, as I engaged with and forged partnerships with Israeli tech entrepreneurs within the first week of my trip. I had the supreme privilege of exploring Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and concluding my trip in Haifa. I felt so much at home as the culture, food, people, energy was all that was familiar to me. The country is beautiful, and filled with warm and inviting people. There were many reminders of Iran for me, even how Israelis drive and at times yell at the traffic police reminded me of the way I grew up.

Towards the conclusion of my initial trip, on the last day, we descended from Haifa and made a stop at another renowned Israeli establishment called Maxim’s. This restaurant, situated right by the water, was steeped in history and symbolism, notwithstanding its exceptional cuisine. I had the privilege of meeting the owners, who were partners since the 1960’s: one was an Israeli Jew and the other was an Arab Christian. The three of us sat together, sharing stories and experiences, all while reflecting on the irony that we, as a Jew, Christian, and Muslim, were sitting in perfect harmony at the same table, amidst the backdrop of hatred emanating from all directions. I relished our extended lunch, conversation, and newfound friendships before making my way to Tel Aviv to catch my flight back to the U.S. I have always known that knowledge is power, and when you meet a man face-to-face, differences like race or religion tend to fall away. I truly experienced that during my meal at Maxim’s.

I was mortified, however, when just 48 hours later, at that very spot where I had dined, a suicide bomber wreaked havoc, claiming the lives of those present—Jews and Arabs alike—and shattering the hope that the place had come to symbolize peace and harmony. I have often pondered what the trajectory of my family’s life would have been if I had been there that day. My two children at the time would have been left fatherless, my third child would never have come into this world, and I wouldn’t be here today, writing about the perplexing madness that has been unfolding in Israel since just a week ago. In Islam, it is unequivocally stated that such acts are utterly unacceptable, as the very essence of Islam embodies the concept of peace. The overwhelming majority of Muslims across the world adhere to this fundamental principle. Period. Though many in both Israel and Palestine also strive for peace, and it is certainly a tenet of the Jewish faith as well, it has to date not seemed attainable for the area as a whole.

To bring this Israeli chapter of my life full circle, exactly 20 years from my first visit, and after a 15-year absence from Israel, I only recently opened an office in Tel Aviv on October 1, 2023, through another business venture. Once again in my life, I find myself standing in solidarity with the people of Israel, alongside my Israeli partners, staff, and their families. With this new business venture, I am again reminded of the warmth and kindness of the Israeli people.

Mary Kraven: It certainly seems that if individuals who are different in religion or culture can get along together and even create business ventures side by side, then with some effort, peace could be obtained in this region. How would you describe the work that many have undergone in the region to strive for peace?

Adnan Zai: Certainly efforts have been made to work for peace. However, efforts for a two-state solution have faced challenges from internal political dynamics, regional influences, and shifting geopolitical landscapes. International actors, including the United States, European Union, and various Arab states, have played important roles in mediating and brokering peace talks. Even now, the President of the United States, Joe Biden, has traveled to wartime Israel to support the people.

The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict underscores the need for nuanced and comprehensive approaches that address the historical grievances, security concerns, and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. Achieving a just and sustainable resolution remains a pressing and elusive goal with far-reaching implications for regional stability and global peace. Unfortunately, as I have seen firsthand, there is no easy fix. But the coming together of Israel and Palestine is no doubt one of the most important things that need to happen for peace in the region.

Mary Kraven: Yes, the only way to reach peace is through this type of struggle it seems, especially for these two wartorn countries. You mentioned President Biden, and many people were surprised that he traveled to war-torn Israel to support its people. The Associated Press reported that Biden had a heartfelt talk directed at the Israeli people, in counseling them about the atrocities they had faced.  “I understand. Many Americans understand,” Biden said as he wrapped up his stay in Tel Aviv on October 18th, likening the Oct. 7 Hamas assault to the attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed nearly 3,000 people. “You can’t look at what has happened here … and not scream out for justice,” he said.

“But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” he said. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” Biden and other United States officials have been trying to assist Israel and Palestine in coming closer to an agreement. That was certainly courageous for him to visit wartime Israel, and the people he counseled have been very grateful.

Let’s switch gears for a minute, and maybe you can help us understand one piece of the puzzle that is always confusing. Can you please explain the idea of Hamas more clearly? We always seem to hear the word, but never necessarily know what it means. Maybe you can shed some light on this?

Adnan Zai: I understand. Many people struggle to understand exactly what is meant by the term. And you often hear the term in the news, especially lately, so it would be helpful to know what it means. Hamas is a Palestinian political and militant organization that emerged in the late 1980’s.It was founded during the First Intifada against Israeli rule in the occupied territories. The group’s primary objective is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as its capital.

Hamas, which stands for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement) has both political and military wings. The political wing engages in governance and social services, while the military wing is involved in armed resistance against Israel. Hamas actually gained significant support through their charitable work and resistance against Israeli occupation. However, it has also been designated as a terrorist organization by several countries and international entities due to its use of violence, including suicide bombings and rocket attacks.

The conflict between Hamas and Israel has been a longstanding and complex issue, deeply rooted in the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The situation involves political, historical, and religious dimensions, making it a highly sensitive and challenging matter to address. And clearly at this point, the situation is rather dire. The conflict is long past the time when the two sides can reach an easy agreement.

Mary Kraven: Let’s bring this back to today and what has been going on in the month of October. According to the Washington Post, “Palestinian authorities said at least 500 people were killed in a strike on a crowded hospital in Gaza City this week, adding a dramatic escalation to a death toll that already stood above 2,000 since Israeli forces began pounding the densely populated area with airstrikes following Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault. As many as 1 million people were ordered to flee south as bombardment reduces much of northern Gaza to rubble and conditions deteriorate following Israel’s suspension of water and electricity to the Hamas-ruled enclave.”

Clearly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for the rights of his people and has vowed to “demolish” Hamas as Israel comes together to prevent further attacks.

Adnan Zai: Yes, Netanyahu certainly has skin in the game. He is trying to bring this situation to a peaceful resolution. The atrocities are definitely hard to witness, but Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, warned that Israel might repeat the miscues America made after 9/11, with a broad military and intelligence response that pushed away people who had been supporters. The missteps also led to anti-American sentiment around the globe. He has definitely spoken out about the dangers of reacting quickly with too much military response,

Mary Kraven: Yes, the Washington Post explained earlier this week that “This is the delicate tightrope the Biden administration has to walk. They’ve got to deal with people who are just like us 22 years ago,” Pollack said. “They’ve got to be simultaneously sympathetic with the Israelis … and give them the benefit of the wisdom of our mistakes.”

Since the outset of the conflict, the Biden administration focused on protecting civilian life and offering humanitarian aid. Since the United States has been through this before, they would be good models to try to help the Israelis and Palestinians deal with the situation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has tried to encourage Israeli leaders to minimize human suffering, striving to get aid into Gaza. And Biden’s visit to Israel this week echoed these same sentiments.

The Associated Press reports, As rage spread through the region because of the hospital carnage, and with President Joe Biden visiting war-torn Middle East in hopes of stopping the war from spreading, Jordan’s foreign minister said his country canceled a regional summit scheduled for Wednesday in Amman, where Biden was to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Biden still went to Israel to support its people. Did you personally expect that move from the President of the United States?

Adnan Zai: I know that Biden has been busy trying to reach a peace agreement, and this political landscape is a critical one to tame. He has worked tirelessly to help Israel avoid the mistakes the United States made after the atrocities of the attack on 9/11. With Secretary of State Blinken working for the cause of peace, having a powerhouse like the United States speak on the situation tells the entire world exactly how important it is.

As far as I am concerned, the bloodshed is even more appalling because the United States was trying to convince Israel to allow the delivery of critical supplies to aid groups and hospitals in the Gaza strip. The Gaza strip has been under siege since Hamas’ deadly rampage last week, with hundreds of thousands of civilians without bread and water. At the heart of the matter is that innocent people on both sides are being hurt, and without the two sides reaching an agreement, innocent lives will continue to be lost. As someone who has visited the region and experienced the beautiful Israeli people firsthand, I grieve for the lives lost and the peace that seems so elusive to the area.

Mary Kraven: The story will continue to unfold, as the world watches and waits to see if both Israel and Palestine can get rid of old grievances and work for peace.

But it is not just the Jews in Israel that have grown worried by the threats and violence of Hamas. Let’s talk about how your current town of residence, Beachwood, comes into play with this story.  There is a burgeoning section of the Jewish population that lives in this suburb of Cleveland, Beachwood, and it seems that as a resident, you would have some firsthand knowledge of this. When did this conglomeration of the Jewish community start?

Adnan Zai: Beachwood is definitely known for having a vibrant Jewish community. The city, located in Cuyahoga County, is part of the Greater Cleveland metropolitan area. The Jewish population in Beachwood and its surrounding areas has played a significant role in the community’s cultural, social, and economic life. The city of Beachwood itself is certainly a great place to live, and these cultural and social experiences definitely add to the tapestry that is so important to our town.

But the people of Jewish descent that live in Beachwood are not just interested in their faith. The Jewish community in Beachwood has been active in establishing synagogues, community centers, and educational institutions as well. These institutions often serve as focal points for religious, social, and cultural activities. Synagogues such as the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, and Green Road Synagogue, located in nearby Beachwood, have been integral to the religious life of the Jewish community.

Along with faith, education is another important aspect of the faith family, with Jewish day schools and community centers providing a foundation for preserving cultural and religious identity. In Beachwood, you may find Jewish Community Centers and educational programs that contribute to the community’s cohesion and continuity.

The city of Cleveland itself also has a rich, Jewish history, with Jewish immigrants settling in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the years, the Jewish community has grown and diversified, contributing to the cultural mosaic of Beachwood and the broader Cleveland area. For these people who strive for peace, education, and community, the happenings of the last few weeks have been even more difficult to bear.

Mary Kraven: With the call by Hamas for violence across the world, what is the Beachwood community doing to keep its citizens feeling safe during this critical time?

Adnan Zai: Since Beachwood has such a large Jewish population, naturally there was a lot of worry and unrest in the area. Last week the Jewish Federation of Cleveland held a rally to support Jews worldwide, and since the invasion, the JFC has created the Cleveland Stands with Israel Fund to help provide immediate assistance to victims and their families torn apart by terror.  The immediate response was gratifying to the Jewish community in the area, and shows how critical a helping hand is at a time like this.

Mary Kraven: Yes, I was just reading about the swift and compassionate response to the Jewish community.

Fox 8 News reported that “Israel is at war and our brothers and sisters in Israel need our help, they need our prayers, they need our love, they need our support,” said Daniel Zelman, board chairman for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. Leaders around the area attended the rally, including Ohio Rep. Shontel Brown, offering prayers, support and words of hope.

“We have to stand together to support Israel’s right to exist, the Jewish people’s right to exist,” said Brown. This unity goes a long way in helping the Jewish community both in Israel and abroad.

Adnan Zai: It is hard to believe that in the year 2023, a whole people has to fight like this simply for the right to exist. We are lucky to have people like Erika Rudin-Luria, the president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, who has the job of leading more than 80,000 people who have  family and loved ones directly affected by the terror invasion of Israel by Hamas militants. He has spoken out adamantly to bring a voice to the needs of the Jewish people.

Mary Kraven: Yes, the Jewish people are under siege. Rudin-Luria has definitely said some very profound things in support of the Jewish people. “When the leader of a country, a terrorist organization like Hamas that is a proxy for Iran says we want to kill all Israelis, we want to wipe Israel from the map, we should take them at face value. Period,” she said.

Other leaders have spoken out as well. “There is no excuse or justification for kidnapping children or slaughtering young adults at a festival, for killing parents in front of their children, for celebrating over the lifeless bodies of murdered Holocaust survivors,” Zelman added.

The JFC certainly wasted no time in coming to the aid of the people who need it most. The JFC immediately created the Cleveland Stands with Israel Fund, which has already allocated more than $1.2 million to assist the victims of terror. One key is to support the mental health of those who have witnessed the horrors that are happening firsthand.  The Governor of Ohio, George DeWine, is even ordering the flags in Ohio to fly at half mast after the attacks, furthering the notion that Ohio is banding together to help those who have been affected by the troubles.

Human beings have a fundamental need to stick up for each other. “This is about how human beings treat other human beings,” Rudin-Luria said.

Do you think the rally had a big impact for those affected by everything going on in Gaza?

Adnan Zai: Any time people stand up for another group of people, that is an important moment. The number of people in the Beachwood and Cleveland area that have reached out and spoken up is very pivotal to the situation and shows the Jewish community that they are not alone.

The rally was a way for people who are personally affected by the atrocities to feel like they are doing something. This is important for several reasons. This certainly helps people who are in Ohio and have lost or are missing someone in Israel. But it also helps those in Ohio to stand up for something greater than themselves.

Mary Kraven: Yes, I was reading about some of the human interest stories that surrounded this rally. For instance, Zoe Winger attended the rally, holding a photo of her 23-year old friend Gili Adar, who she has not heard from since the attack.

“I lived in Israel for a year after high school through a program called “Young Judea.” She was one of the Israelis on that program with me and she was at the nature party and she’s been missing. They say that they tracked her phone to be in Gaza, but we don’t know anything other than that,” said Winger. For people who have lost someone, the wait can be unbearable. The rally gives a way for people to get the support and camaraderie they need.

Aside from the support of people in crisis, Jews around the world are taking the threats seriously. According to Fox News, “One million Palestinians have been told to evacuate Gaza and major U.S. cities are increasing security, after a former Hamas leader called for protests during a ‘global day of Jihad.’” Is Cleveland part of this situation too?

Adnan Zai: Because there are so many Jews in the Cleveland area, in cities such as Beachwood, Orange Village, and University Heights, police are taking the threats seriously and increasing patrols. It is important to note that there have been no specific threats on Jews in Beachwood or Cleveland, but tensions are high around the world and the local communities are promising their vigilance and increased patrols. Some Jews are worried that the call to action given by Hamas will spur others to violence against Jews in various places.

Mary Kraven: Yes, the Beachwood police issued this very clear statement last week.

“While no specific threats currently target our community, I want you to be aware that Khaled Meshaal, a former leader of the Hamas organization, has disseminated a global proclamation designating today, October 13, 2023 as a ‘Day of Jihad.’ It is imperative to acknowledge what this call to action may evoke among those who are susceptible to its influence. The Beachwood Police Department has initiated proactive measures to enhance security citywide. In close coordination with both private and public law enforcement agencies, we are actively engaged in the collection of intelligence and have intensified patrol and visibility efforts. Our officers regard this matter with the utmost seriousness, and I have complete confidence in their abilities. In addition to our dedicated officers within our jurisdiction, personnel from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department will be deployed within our city as part of our collaborative endeavor to ensure security for the foreseeable future.”

Although no action has been taken by terrorists in the area, police will remain vigilant in the coming weeks to make the entire Jewish community feel safer and to ensure the safety of all in the community.

Adnan Zai: The United Nations acknowledges that it would be impossible to move that many people in 24 hours to avoid the threat and I am glad that they are looking out for our Jewish brothers and sisters with their increased police protection. Orange Village Mayor Kathy Mulcahy is on board with the same protection of the Jewish people, and issued a statement about vigilance as well.

Mary Kraven: It is so important that these key figures in leadership are willing to step up to the plate to put people’s minds at ease and build empathy for the Jewish community. Even for those half a world away, the fear at the call for destruction by Hamas is reverberating in Beachwood, Ohio. Beachwood Mayor Justin Berns said, “While we have NOT received any direct threats related to our community, we recognize that there are varying interpretations of what this call to action may mean to those who are inspired by it. We want to reassure you that we take this matter very seriously and understand the potential impact of such statements on our community,” Bern wrote. “Under the guidance of our Police Chief, Katherine McLaughlin, we have taken proactive measures to enhance security throughout the City, including our schools and institutions, for tomorrow and the entire weekend.”

Adnan Zai: Yes, Beachwood is known for its excellent schools and community atmosphere. Beyond just the religious ramifications of the situation, each member of our community deserves to feel safe and secure in their own city. I appreciate that the mayor, the police chief, and even the state representatives are all on board to ensure the safety of the people.

Mary Kraven: You are right. Even the sheriff’s department is getting involved. This is so good to see such cohesion among the law enforcement as well as all of the people who are poised to help the Jewish community both locally and abroad.

“We are actively collaborating with both private and public law enforcement agencies to gather intelligence, and have increased our patrol and visibility. In addition to our dedicated law enforcement officers, members of the (Cuyahoga County) Sheriff’s Department will be present in our City as part of our collective efforts to maintain security.

Beachwood Police Department says, “We extend our profound gratitude to each and every one of you for your unwavering dedication to treating this matter with the utmost seriousness. As a unified force, we are committed to safeguarding the members of our community.”

Mary Kraven: As we draw the curtains on this insightful conversation with Adnan Zai of Beachwood, it becomes clear that the challenges in Israel are as intricate as they are enduring. Through Adnan Zai’s thoughtful reflections and personal experiences, we have traversed the historical corridors, political landscapes, and personal narratives that shape the complex tapestry of this region. The troubles in Israel, far from monolithic, emerge as a mosaic of perspectives, each thread contributing to the intricate fabric of a story still unfolding. Through the current crisis, there are definitely other countries that have stepped in to help move the situation forward in peace.

In the face of adversity, Adnan Zai has shared not only information but a personal connection to the issues at hand. His nuanced understanding invites us to contemplate the human dimensions behind the headlines, urging us to foster empathy and a deeper awareness of the diverse voices woven into the narrative of Israel. Even in a place as far away as Beachwood, Ohio, we need to understand the fear of the Jewish people and the importance of empathy and kindness. As we step away from this conversation, let it be a reminder that engaging in conversations like these is not just an intellectual exercise but a path towards fostering understanding, tolerance, and, ultimately, the hope for a more peaceful and harmonious future.

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