BADIL, in its newspaper Haq alawda, published a special issue on the Israeli war on Gaza and requested an article from the authors on the growing organizing being done by Jewish Americans in opposition to the brutal assault on the Palestinian people of Gaza. The article, written by Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark and Donna Nevel at the end of the summer, was published in Arabic in Haq alawda newspaper, issue no 59, September 2014. The link to the Arabic piece is here, and below is the original piece in English. (The authors note that the piece was written before the Open Hillel conference held mid-October in Cambridge, MA. The conference brought together hundreds of students across the US to challenge the rigid political litmus test on Palestine and Israel imposed by Hillel and the mainstream Jewish community.)
Since the inception of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century right on up to today, there have always been Jews who took issue with particular aspects of –or even the very idea of– a Jewish nation-state in historic Palestine. The recent Israeli bombardment of and incursion into Gaza – what Israel called “Operation Protective Edge” – saw a new surge in Jewish-American opposition to Israeli practices and policies. While this activism stands on a many-layered foundation of more than half-a-century of organizing in the US – especially from 1967 forward –it reveals some new and heartening trends.
These developments can be seen in stepped-up on-the-ground activism, the widening scope of the discourse around what is at issue, and even in the increasing cracks in the once-solid attitudes of liberal Zionists. All of these factors emerge, of course, within a wider U.S. (and indeed, international) movement and context.
It’s no surprise that in the urgent moment of a crisis like “Operation Protective Edge,” already-established groups working for justice in Palestine/Israel, would be ready and able to mobilize, and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), founded in 1996, did just that. On top of their on-going work to expand U.S. and Jewish-American engagement through grassroots, media, and other campaigns (including playing a significant role in promoting the June decision of the Presbyterian Church USA to divest $21 million from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard, companies that enable the occupation), JVP mobilized members and supporters to respond immediately to the assault in Gaza, with street demonstrations and civil disobedience protests in dozens of cities, and on-line petitions, lobbying letters, and participatory social media projects. So, too, did several other groups — among them, Jews Say No!, Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, International Jewish Anti-Zionist network (IJAN) — organize and participate in a range of actions and public protests in the streets and on the web. Also on the web, one can find particularly hard hitting commentary and reporting by some Jewish bloggers and news sites, such as Mondoweiss.
What was less expected was the enormous swell in interest in these groups as well as the launching of new ones. During “Protective Edge” JVP reported a jump of 50,000 in their email list over a four-week period, and a tripling of its Facebook “likes” to 184,000. The organization could barely keep up with the requests for new chapters all over the US — 18 new groups are under-way. Meanwhile, the new formation, #IfNotNow (taking its name from a famous moral call from the 1st-Century Jewish sage and scholar, Hillel), came onto the scene through social media, and quickly held an action, which included civil disobedience, at the New York office of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, where they recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, for the victims of the violence in Gaza and recited their names. In their letter to the head of the Conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, who refused to speak with them, they said they were “outraged that so many speak of Palestinians as if their lives were worth less than our own, outraged at the justifications offered for the killing of so many.”
While changing attitudes toward Israel are visible among people of all ages, younger Jews are at the top of the list. Last year’s Jewish Population Survey, tallying views and practices of American Jews, showed a steady decline by age among those who regard themselves as “very attached to Israel”: 38 percent among Jews over 65 and only 25 percent among Jews between 18 and 29. (Such changes are seen in Americans in general, not only among Jews. Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and Gallop in late July 2014 found that 55 percent of those over age 65 considered Israel’s actions in Gaza justified, while only 25 percent of those between 18 and 29 concurred.)
While the numbers of Jews engaged in critical protest against occupation is growing, their demands are changing, too. Previous outpourings of Jewish activism often took place under the banner of “two states.” While today’s activists have a range of views, it is no longer a given that a “two-state solution” is a consensus position — nor even a real possibility given the vast expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While this summer’s protests necessarily focused on the current bombing campaign, many also have addressed underlying, fundamental issues: the siege of Gaza, the Occupation, and the Nakba and Palestinian refugee Right of Return. (The recently launched Nakba Education Project U.S. (NEP) has received many requests for resources from activists and educators.) JVP and many Jewish activists recognize that these issues must be in the forefront as part of the longer-term, sustained organizing work as partners in the broader movement for justice.
The Palestinian-led call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is a critical part of this ongoing work. In fact, many of the civil disobedience actions across the country have targeted companies that profit from the occupation. In Seattle, JVP and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid blocked the entrance to Boeing’s defense factory while other protesters staged a die-in and read the names of Palestinians who had been killed. JVP activists were also arrested inside the headquarters of Boeing in Chicago. Boeing, listed in 2012 as the second biggest arms supplier worldwide, has sold Israel F-15A fighter jets and Apache AH 64 helicopters currently being used in attacks on Gaza.
While our own hearts and bodies are with these activists and with radical analysis, it’s also important to acknowledge a significant shift within Jewish-American liberal Zionism that has become evident this summer. High-placed liberal pundits who could always be counted on to support Israel in times of perceived crisis — Roger Cohen of the New York Times, Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, to name only a few — have been writing of their unease and even alarm over Israeli violence against Gazans and over the decline within Israel of what they regard as Jewish and as democratic values. These commentators always make a point of couching their critiques within assurances that they love and support Israel. Nonetheless, as they have witnessed an Israeli government that clearly has had no interest in pursuing peace with the Palestinians and that has tolerated blatant calls for ethnic cleansing (and worse) within its ranks, and seen how even the mildest dissent within Israel has been squelched, they have had to grapple with the contradiction in their abiding belief in a state that can be ethnocratically Jewish and a democracy.
For activists who long stopped believing in — or never did believe in — this sentimental Zionism, such rhetoric can grate; the writers seem to be disturbed more by the discomfort of their cognitive dissonance than by the actual suffering of Palestinians. Even so, that they are revealing the contradiction in mainstream publications at the very least reveals the cracks in the bedrock of liberal Jewish-American support for Israel — and maybe even widens them.
At the same time, The Forward, the national Jewish newsweekly, has published some critical news reports and analyses. For example the longtime columnist J. J. Goldberg had no compunctions about stating that, to gin up public support for the crackdown against Hamas and for war, the Netanyahu government lied about the status of the three Israeli boys who had been kidnapped; and the paper regularly publishes the even sharper graphic commentary by the cartoonist Eli Valley. Limited, yes, but still strong signs that the discourse is changing.
One thing the history of left Jewish activism in the US might caution us against is making too much of the swelling ranks of Jewish-Americans speaking out against Israeli violence. The first intifada saw an unprecedented rise in anti-occupation organizing, by groups all over the country. Again, during the second intifada, Jews took to the streets and their local editorial pages throughout the US. And so it has gone with each escalation of hostilities: the mainstream Jewish organizations close ranks; the opposition gears up.
But, in fact, we believe this time has been different because of both the dramatic jump in numbers and on-the-ground, sustained organizing and in the greater willingness of U.S. Jews to address core issues like the Nakba and Right of Return. Groups like JVP are working consistently as allies with the Palestinian-led movement for justice, and participating whole-heartedly in campaigns for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). With their greater numbers, Jewish groups are also in a better position to work with allies (such as the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation) to challenge the influence of the Israel Lobby (AIPAC, the even more numerous Christian Zionists and the arms industry).
We of course know that the work to change US policy remains enormous. Within ten days of the launch of “Protective Edge,” the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution supporting Israel. And on August 1st, the U.S. Congress voted $225 million in emergency funding for Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense (unanimously in the Senate and 395-8 in the House of Representatives). But, just a few days ago, the White House announced that they are reviewing all the Department of Defense arms shipments to Israel. A very small beginning, but definitely movement in a positive direction.
As the discourse changes and unquestioning Jewish support for Israel continues to erode – both for its policies and for its status as an ethnocratic state– there’s reason for optimism. But the ongoing work of Jewish groups standing with, and participating in the growing call for BDS and other efforts to achieve justice, equality, and human rights for the Palestinian people, as well as for a US foreign policy committed to these principles, remains more important and more challenging than ever.