The bombs Israel has dropped on Palestinian homes have reverberated around the globe, fueling a seismic shift within the U.S. Jewish community. More than ever, U.S. Jews are condemning the violence and calling upon Congress to end U.S. military funding to Israel.
Thanks in part to decades of grassroots activism, a generation is increasingly awakening to the gruesome sights in Gaza, and American Jews of all ages are recognizing that support for Palestinians is not incongruous with embracing a Jewish identity but rather consistent with it.
On May 14, 2021, over 700 people joined a Shabbat service held in the streets of Brooklyn, where protestors read the names and placed stones in remembrance of Palestinians killed by Israel’s latest attacks. Rabbi Miriam Grossman of Congregation Kolot Chayeinu led those gathered in reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer spoken in honor of those who have died.
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The following day, thousands more joined massive Palestinian-led protests in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn — the heart of Palestinian New York — to express solidarity and rage alongside New Yorkers of all backgrounds.
Arielle Angel, editor of Jewish Currents, was astonished by the scale of the demonstrations.
“I felt alone as a Jew attending a Palestine solidarity rally in 2014,” she said. “I don’t feel alone anymore.”
The Making of This Moment
The courageous acts of Palestinians defending their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, fending off mob attacks in cities like Lod/Lydd, and resisting siege in Gaza have served as a catalyst for Jews taking to the streets.
“Palestinians are doing every single thing they can do to survive,” said Morgan Bassichis, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist grassroots organization with over 70 chapters across the country. “Our duty and our responsibility and our commitment is to do every single thing we can do in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
At the same time, the sheer horror of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza leading to the deaths of at least 66 children, the destruction of thousands of peoples’ homes, and targeting of media and medical infrastructure, including the only COVID testing site in Gaza, has driven people all over the world — including diaspora Jews — to speak out on Israel in ways they may not have before.
“I wanted to take action now as I finally felt the internal courage — and duty — to do so. I’ve historically been told the ‘conflict’ is too complicated,” said Emily Schacter who joined pro-Palestine protests for the first time in May, in Brooklyn. “In learning, listening and watching more, I’ve grown to feel confident and unafraid in voicing that Zionism is wrong and that Israel is an apartheid state.”
The swelling of support for Palestinian liberation in this moment also reflects a deeper shift that has been underway in the Jewish community and beyond.
In January, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, released a report acknowledging, as Palestinians have long expressed, that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians constitutes apartheid conditions. Human Rights Watch soon reached the same conclusion.
In March, a group of 200 academics released the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, clarifying that anti-Zionism does not constitute antisemitism. Prominent Jewish studies and Israel studies scholars soon followed by condemning Israeli violence.
In April, liberal Zionist groups like J Street and T’ruah took the unprecedented action of supporting Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill to condition U.S. funding to Israel. In May, J Street held a national conference that included much conversation about the topic. As Mari Cohen reported, “While there was no audience to applaud, the conference’s virtual chat lit up with approval. ‘We love aid restrictions!’ wrote one attendee.”
While there is still a considerable distance between groups like J Street, which oppose the Palestinian-led call for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), and Jewish Voice for Peace, which both embraces BDS and supports the Palestinian right to return, Jewish organizations across a wide spectrum are increasingly speaking out against Israeli human rights violations.
The pressure continues to mount, with over 500 Democratic staffers and former campaign staff signing an open letter urging President Biden to “hold Israel accountable.”
These shifts are not just happening in New York City, Washington, D.C. and on Twitter. Recent mobilizations in Chicago, Milwaukee, Birmingham and San Diego show the surge of support for Palestinian human rights is in fact a national phenomenon, reminiscent of last summer’s sweeping racial justice uprisings.
“I Don’t Deserve Applause Because I Am Too Late”
As organizations take sharper stands and new individuals are moved to speak out for Palestinian rights, even long committed activists are leveling up their commitment in the wake of the recent attacks.
Talia, a Mizrahi Jew and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, shares in a video that has been viewed over 600,000 times, “This is the first time I am using my full real name to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. I don’t deserve applause because I am too late. Because every single day that we don’t speak out as Jews in support of Palestinian liberation is another day too late.”
Speaking with one’s name often comes with a price. Palestinian solidarity activists have lost jobs and faced estrangement from their families for their politics. Just days after Israeli bombs demolished the Associated Press offices in Gaza, a Jewish AP reporter Emily Wilder in Arizona was fired due to her past activism with Students for Justice in Palestine, a move which elicited outrage from fellow journalists.
Yet more and more people are willing to take such risks as activists strengthen their mutual support networks and the Palestine solidarity movement grows in size and strength.
Elena Stein, a staff organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, captures this sentiment: “For all of those who have taken risks and who have lost significant things, we honor your risk. For all those considering taking a risk, we want you to know, we have your back. You call on us. We want to have your back.”
In fact, a significant infrastructure exists to organize those who are becoming politicized on Palestine. Jewish Voice for Peace has 500,000 online supporters and over 70 chapters. While IfNotNow, a growing youth movement opposed to the occupation, is in the midst of an extensive reevaluation process, the group will surely continue to play an important role.
Additionally, emerging Jewish religious and spiritual communities offer meaningful connection for non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews. These spaces include Jewish Voice for Peace’s Havurah Network, synagogues like Tzedek Chicago and Kehilla Synagogue in California, as well as organizational Rabbinical Councils that offer pastoral care to Jewish Palestine solidarity activists.
Increasingly, Jews can continue to participate in Jewish communal life while speaking out against Israeli apartheid. In fact, many Jews are finding deeper spiritual connection in communities that do not over-emphasize Israel at the expense of other components of Jewish identity.
“All of Our Struggles for Liberation Are Intertwined”
A week after the initial Shabbat action, 700 New York Jews gathered again to decry the violence and march to the doorstep of Senator Schumer’s home, calling upon him to support the resolution introduced by Senator Sanders to disapprove of the U.S. sale of military weapons to Israel.
This time, Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, felt moved to share that while her organization was founded to focus on domestic issues, its first public event served to honor Nelson Mandela after the anti-apartheid hero who was recently freed from prison at the time was snubbed by the establishment Jewish community for his expression of solidarity with Palestinians.
“I want to say clearly and for the record we believe in speaking out and taking action in support of Palestinian rights and freedom and in demanding an end to Israeli apartheid, occupation, displacement, annexation, aggression, and ongoing assaults,” said Sasson. “All of our struggles for liberation are intertwined.”
In a year that began with neo-Nazis storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, donning attire glorifying Hitler’s genocide, the question of Jewish safety amidst a spike in antisemitism is pertinent.
According to the May 2021 Pew Research Poll, 75 percent of American Jews believe there is more antisemitism in the United States today than five years ago, a result of President Trump utilizing his time in the White House to embolden white supremacists.
Yet, Israel’s blatant disregard for basic human dignity has led the American Jewish community to recognize that support for Israel is not a tenable answer to the question of how to seek safety for Jewish people.
In fact, according to Emma Saltzberg of Data for Progress, Trump’s overzealous support of Israel’s rightwing, often encouraged by Christian Zionists, “Has opened up new space for progressives to criticize Israeli policies more sharply, calling special attention to the human rights crisis facing Palestinians.”
According to Pew, the vast majority of American Jews do not strongly oppose the Palestinian-led call for BDS. Instead of aligning with the Israeli state, which is backed by billions of dollars in U.S. military funding, the unprecedented numbers of American Jews spilling into the streets right now believe that a demilitarized and decolonized future means a safer world for us all, and recognize BDS as a viable tactic in that pursuit.
On May 18, 2021, the world witnessed Palestinians leading a historic general strike. Responding to their call for solidarity demonstrations across the globe, New York Jews joined Palestinians in marching from the Israeli embassy to the offices of AIPAC and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, calling out the complicity of the organizations in the violent attacks on Palestinians. Police arrested several demonstrators as they disrupted business as usual in Midtown Manhattan.
Unconditional support for Israel has been broken. An end to U.S. military funding is on the horizon. A liberatory Jewish future demands full freedom for all.