When Israel pounded the Gaza Strip in 2008-09, activists across North America occupied Israeli consulate buildings in protest of Operation Cast Lead, which killed an estimated 1,400 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians.
Now, as the death toll reaches Cast Lead-like levels, with over 1,000 Palestinians slain by Israeli forces, activists are once again ramping up their tactics in an attempt to pressure the Jewish establishment and corporations to cease their support for Israeli actions.
A wave of civil disobedience actions has spread around the U.S. in recent weeks as Israel’s pummeling of Gaza continues apace. The activists, many of them young people, including Jews, are putting their bodies on the line in an attempt to draw attention to how the U.S. is implicated in the conflict in the Gaza Strip. And with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that the assault will continue for days ahead, it’s likely that civil disobedience will increase in the U.S.–in addition to the protests around the country that have erupted in response to the war.
There have also been bold actions in Israel. A group calling itself Jews Against Genocide has been lighting things on fire in front of Israeli government buildings. The latest move was the burning of a funeral pyre in front of the Israeli Supreme Court this week.
There’s no political consensus among the varied groups of people protesting. Some believe in a two-state solution, while others support a bi-national state. But what has united the disparate groups is a commitment to action–despite risking arrest–to show outrage over the Gaza war.
The recent spate of actions began on July 16th, when five people were arrested inside the lobby of Boeing’s office in Chicago. The demonstration, which included members of Jewish Voice for Peace and Chicago Divests, was meant to call attention to the corporation’s sale of fighter jets and other equipment to the Israeli army, which the state buys with American taxpayer dollars. They wore white shirts splattered with red–a symbolic image conveying Gaza’s mounting death toll.
Civil disobedience spread the next week to New York, when nine members of Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No! were arrested after occupying the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces office. They held the space for about an hour as they sang and read the names of those who died in Gaza. Three days later, yet another group of activists lied down in front of the Israel Discount Bank and threw fake blood on the bank’s windows. The bank was targeted for financing settlements in the occupied West Bank.
But perhaps the most significant protest came on July 28th. Over 70 American Jews, most of them young, gathered in front of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to protest the key Jewish establishment group’s support for Israel’s attack. The young protesters, with no organization or resources behind them, came under the banner of If Not Now, When?, a hastily organized group formed to press Jewish groups into voicing opposition to the Israeli assault. (The group’s name is a reference to a famous question voiced by Rabbi Hillel.) Nine of them were arrested after they refused to leave the lobby of the office after their request for a meeting with the president, Malcolm Hoenlein, was rejected.
“We are witnessing Israel’s third military operation in the Gaza strip in the past six years. We are alarmed and horrified by the death and destruction being committed in our name,” a letter addressed to Hoenlein from the group read. Some of the participants in If Not Now, When’s action are currently or were involved in J Street, an organization that stays away from civil disobedience actions and strident calls for an end to Israel’s assault. That fact could be an indication that some young Jews want to go beyond what J Street is willing to do.
The wave of civil disobedience shows no sign of letting up. On the same day of the If Not Now, When? action, Palestine solidarity activists in Seattle blocked the entrance to Boeing. They were joined by 40 protesters who held a symbolic “die-in” on a nearby sidewalk.
And on Tuesday, more than 75 people blocked traffic in front of the Israeli consulate. About 25 were arrested. The action was organized by the scholar Norman Finkelstein.