No. 3

Gaza and the Rise of the Jewish Left

A fissure has shot through the American Jewish consensus on Israel.

Esther Kaplan

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, and other Palestine solidarity protesters at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, Oct. 27, 2023. Photograph by Christopher Lee for Hammer & Hope.

Most of us were still in a state of sleepless agitation on Oct. 18, after absorbing the images of carnage at Kibbutz Be’eri and then of the unrelenting, catastrophic attacks on Gaza, when a new set of images appeared. Hundreds of Jewish protesters had taken over a rotunda in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., their black T-shirts emblazoned with JEWS SAY CEASE-FIRE NOW, chanting, “Not in our name.” In the following weeks and months, Jewish protesters shut down Grand Central Terminal in New York, blocked an interstate highway in Philadelphia, and halted rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles; they held Hanukkah vigils for the Gazan dead in Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Atlanta, and interrupted a campaign speech by President Joe Biden in a Charleston, S.C., church with shouts of “Cease-fire now!” They joined mass marches in San Francisco and Chicago and Washington, D.C., and helped delay a U.S. military supply ship from leaving the Port of Oakland.

These expressions of Jewish opposition to Israel’s brutal bombardment of civilians have been intense, raw, and emotional — and unprecedented in scale. Most significantly, they began immediately, while news of the Hamas attack was still fresh, as Biden, echoed by established national Jewish institutions, was insisting that Oct. 7 had given Israel an unfettered right “to defend itself and its people,” even as that military campaign took a form that a federal judge later determined “may plausibly constitute a genocide.”

“We saw a completely uninterrupted march to genocidal war in that first week,” Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, told me in December. “The U.S. government and the Israeli government in equal part were weaponizing Jewish grief and identity to justify it.”

Instead, tens of thousands of American Jews have helped unleash a global explosion of protest. The Palestinian American political historian Rashid Khalidi described it to me as “a new phase in an alliance of progressive groups in the U.S.” By January, a poll showed that half of American Jews supported a permanent cease-fire. A fissure has shot through the American consensus on Israel.

Video documentation by Black people has been pivotal to the movement against police brutality, most notably Darnella Frasier’s 9-minute-and-29-second recording of the lynching of George Floyd, which helped launch a global uprising. Maybe the stream of images by Gazans documenting the horror of what they’re witnessing — Israel’s targeting of hospitals, universities, and apartment buildings, of aid workers and journalists, of children in refugee camps — is the only explanation that’s needed for the current wave of protest and the strong Jewish presence within it.

Children bloody and battered by the bombardment. Parents in the first unimaginable moments of grief. Unslept doctors treating patients without proper supplies, without even anesthesia. The empty gaze of a debris-covered child sitting on a hospital stretcher. A little girl named Alma, my daughter’s name, trapped deep beneath the rubble of a five-story building, shouting up to rescuers to please save her siblings, parents, and grandparents first, though a glance at the wreckage that surrounds her makes it seem impossible any of them could have survived. The poet and scholar Refaat Alareer struggling to articulate how impossible it was to parent through the deadly strikes that were coming as steadily as 25 an hour. “You don’t want to hug them so they don’t feel this could be the last one, and you want to hug them so at least there is a hug at the end,” he said on Oct. 9. “All the lies we tell them — that it’s going to be O.K., that the bombing is far away — they’re not working.”

Two months later, he, too, was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

More than one activist has said to me, “We’re watching a Nakba.”

But for generations, the destruction of Palestinian lives has been visible to anyone willing to look. An international commission that examined Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon found that Israel was directly involved in planning the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, for the “deliberate or indiscriminate or reckless bombardment of a civilian character, of hospitals, schools, and other non-military targets,” and for the “systematic bombardment and other destruction of towns, cities, villages, and refugee camps” — for the very kinds of military actions unfolding now, which Amnesty International has said should be investigated as war crimes.

Activists say it took years of educational, ideological, and organizing work to be ready for this moment, when tens of thousands of American Jews were able to throw off their blinders and head into the streets.

“Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them,” Edward Said wrote in his essay “Permission to Narrate” 40 years ago. “Such a narrative has to have a beginning and an end: in the Palestinian case, a homeland for the resolution of its exile since 1948.”

Repression of that Palestinian narrative, Khalidi argues, has been at the heart of the Zionist project. In The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, he traces that denial from its beginnings — the early Zionist slogan “A land without a people for a people without land” and the omission of any explicit reference to Palestinians or Arabs in the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine.

The Israeli state, U.S. Zionist organizations, and the U.S. government have each in their way heavily policed efforts to recognize Palestinian land claims — even Palestinian realities. On the one hand, an effort by Israel and the United States to delegitimize Palestinian resistance by labeling every successive organization — the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Fatah, Hamas — a terror group. On the other, a discourse that has often described Palestinian aspirations as tantamount to a death wish against the Jewish people.

Donna Nevel, a longtime Palestine activist and a cofounder of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (where I served as an early executive director), recalled the 1989 Road to Peace conference at Columbia University, for which she served as a coordinator. The PLO was considered a terror organization at the time by both Israel and the United States, requiring special visas for its representatives to travel to New York to sit down with members of civil society and the Israeli Knesset. It was a taboo-breaking act for Jews to attend talks focused on self-determination for both peoples then. Yet even the progressive Knesset members in attendance and the Israeli activists from Peace Now, which had held mass demonstrations protesting Israel’s abuses of Palestinians, shot down any discussion of the right of return as “totally unacceptable.” Twenty years later, long after the collapse of the Oslo Accords, Nevel recalls her efforts with Jews Say No! to open up a conversation in the New York Jewish community about joining the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, a campaign to end Israel’s occupation and colonization of Arab lands and establish the Palestinian right to return. When the group sought to organize a series of public conversations in New York City about the nonviolent strategy, “not one synagogue would let us hold the debate,” she said.

In 2010, as the BDS campaign gained traction, the national campus student organization Hillel adopted a censorious “Standards of Partnership” policy to officially end the discussion. It was now forbidden for students to invite anyone who supported BDS or who sought to “delegitimize” the idea of a Jewish state to speak at Hillel. When an Open Hillel movement erupted on several campuses to defy those restrictions and create room for debate, Hillel threatened those chapters with disaffiliation.

The silencing has often been accompanied by threats, such as those surrounding the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement, which brought volunteers to the occupied territories in the early 2000s to engage in nonviolent actions such as preventing the demolition of Palestinian homes and orchards. A New York Post columnist called its leading U.S. organizer, Adam Shapiro, “the Jewish Taliban,” and his family faced death threats so credible they were forced to temporarily leave their home in Brooklyn. The following year, ISM activist Rachel Corrie was run over and killed by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer in Gaza. Starting in 2015, dozens of states adopted laws or policies denying contracts and funding to any institution that refuses to do business with Israel.

Now we are witnessing a new wave of repression, including the firing of journalists, the suspension of student organizations and professors, and university presidents being hauled before Congress and forced out of their jobs.

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, and other Palestine solidarity protesters at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Nov. 6, 2023.
Photograph by Dave Sanders.

Within the major national Jewish organizations — what Rebecca Vilkomerson, a former executive director of JVP, likes to call the “legacy Jewish institutions” — the ideological alignment on Oct. 7 was immediate. “Walk into any synagogue, federation, school, or other Jewish institution in the U.S. these days and it is clear what solidarity means right now, and it is not just shared grief or outrage over the killing of innocent civilians on Oct. 7,” Daniel May, the publisher of Jewish Currents, wrote in The Forward in December. “It is support for Israel, and by extension, support for Israel’s war.” A statement from the Jewish Federations of North America, issued on Oct. 7, was typical:

Once again, on a holy day of the Jewish calendar, the people of Israel have come under attack.  Once again, the brave military forces of the State of Israel are responding and will defend our beloved Jewish state. And once again the Jewish communities of North America stand in total and complete solidarity with our Israeli brethren.

A friend who attended an annual meeting of Jewish summer camp leaders a couple of weeks after the attacks, when the Gazan dead already outstripped the Israeli dead by three to one, said the salute “Am Yisrael chai!” (“The people of Israel live!”) was everywhere. Breaking ranks, whether by raising concerns about Israeli perpetration of genocide or engaging in what the head of one Jewish education institution called “tendentious rhetoric about colonialism” or the “repudiation of Zionism altogether,” put people, he said, “outside the framework of Jewish communal respectability.”

Of an early Jewish protest at the White House in October, David M. Friedman, the Trump administration’s ambassador to Israel, wrote, “Any American Jew attending this rally is not a Jew — yes I said it!”

Michel Warschawski, a founder of the Palestinian-Israeli human rights organization Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem, describes Israeli culture in his memoir On the Border as “inward-looking” and tribal, a clan in which opposition and dissent are seen as anomalies and the assumption is everyone will eventually “step back into the warm ambience of national consensus.”

Activists I spoke with described the legacy Jewish community in the United States in similar terms. One core tenet of this American Jewish tribe is that Zionism is sacrosanct, because it is central to Jewish safety. Eva Borgwardt, national spokesperson for IfNotNow, explained, “Decades and decades and millions and millions of dollars have been invested in us feeling this way.”

Audrey Sasson, the executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, spoke with me in December about trying to pull rabbis into the cease-fire movement. “The progressive Zionists don’t want to touch it,” she said. “They think if they touch cease-fire, then it means they’re aligning with an anti-Zionist organization. And they don’t want to be tarred with the same brush. They won’t do it. And not only that, they’ll say we’re betraying the Jewish community by doing it.”

My introduction to this tribal system was an ad hoc protest I helped organize during the first intifada, in 1992 or 1993. Several dozen of us gathered along New York City’s Fifth Avenue as a voice of dissent during the annual Salute to Israel Parade. One friend played percussion; another led us in an Israeli peace song, “Lo Yisa Goy.” We carried a banner that read “Two Peoples, Two States.” Busloads of Jewish day school students and their adult chaperones marched by, gaily waving their Israeli flags and pausing to boo and jeer us as they passed. One elderly woman approached and spat at us; then, looking me straight in the eye, she said, “Hitler should have finished you off.”

On the fourth night of Hanukkah, I attended a small gathering in Manhattan. After a young boy lit the candles and a melody rose up for the blessing that was beautiful and unfamiliar, unlike the one I’d grown up with, I turned to ask our Israeli host how he was feeling in this moment. He said for him the horror was matched by a kind of relief that everything was now visible. He’d left Israel as a young man after spending his mandatory military service enforcing the occupations of the West Bank and southern Lebanon, and he and his partner had come to New York to build a life far away from that place. Now everyone could see plainly that Israel was a fascist theocracy, he said, and that much of the Israeli left had fallen in line in support of its brutal war.

When I spoke with Fox, the JVP director, a few days later, she expressed a similar sentiment. For years, the lobby group J Street had positioned itself as the liberal alternative to JVP, a political space for Zionist Jews to oppose the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But since Oct. 7, she said, there has been very little daylight between J Street and AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, in endorsing Israel’s war. “The self-described center has completely fallen out,” she said. “A whole new wave of people have seen these liberal Zionist organizations for what they are. And that’s forced a confrontation.”

Many American Jews are struggling with the painful recognition that even within their own communities, their own families, there is a refusal to see Palestinian humanity. Jewish Currents devoted an episode of its podcast to the question of how to navigate relationships with family members who are “attached to a destructive Zionist politics.” For a few of the activists I spoke with, there’s no way around the question: how can you support the slaughter of the more than 30,000 in the name of the slaughter of the 1,200 if you value all of those lives equally? It’s a contradiction, Nevel said, that can only be rooted in racism and Jewish supremacy.

Perhaps so many of us in the American Jewish community have been able to avoid seeing the deadly attacks on civilians and the denial of food as war crimes because we have decades of practice at blinding ourselves to both Palestinian realities and Israeli repression, to the massacres as far back as Dayr Yasin in 1948 and Khan Yunis in 1956, and to the checkpoints, home demolitions, settlement construction, preemptive arrests, and other intolerable acts of expulsion and humiliation that have taken place as recently as yesterday.

“A lot of people say, ‘These are not my people,’ and I can’t say that,” Nevel told me. “These are my people. And I just can’t come to terms with it.”

It took nearly 20 years after the Nakba for Palestinians to revive a resistance movement through the formation of the PLO. It would take another 20 years for any beachhead of American Jewish support to form, following, and in some sense given permission by, the emergence of Israeli opposition to atrocities committed against Palestinians. New Jewish Agenda mobilized 2,000 to protest a visit to the U.S. by Ariel Sharon, the architect of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in 1983. But often, Nevel said of Jewish solidarity work with Palestine in the 1980s and 1990s through such efforts as the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation, “If we could get a minyan, we were lucky.”

Those protests, galvanized by images from the first intifada of stone-throwing children facing off against Israeli tanks, had one central call: to end the occupation, meaning the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza that began in 1967, after the Six-Day War. It was a position, Nevel suggested, that left intact the myth that a “Jewish and democratic” state was possible and erased the reality of Palestinian expulsion.

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace and other Palestine solidarity protesters marching to the home of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Brooklyn, N.Y., Oct. 13, 2023.
Photograph by Dave Sanders.

A few critical developments began to shift that political framework during the second intifada, in the early 2000s. One was the Palestinian call for BDS, which, as BDS cofounder Omar Barghouti says, played a pivotal role in “mainstreaming the analysis of Israel’s entire regime of oppression as one of settler colonialism and apartheid.” Another was the growing presence of the Palestinian cause in the global antiwar movement that rose up in opposition to the Iraq War. Less visible was the birth of strategies to educate Jewish people about the Nakba, first through the Israeli organization Zochrot (roughly, “remembering”), followed by Facing the Nakba, a U.S. curriculum Nevel and other Jewish activists developed that was offered primarily to JVP chapters, and then for broader audiences, the Palestinian American–led Project48. New (or relaunched) progressive Jewish outlets including Mondoweiss and, later, Jewish Currents began to grapple frankly with the Nakba in articles and podcasts. The taboo was lifting.

JVP, like most U.S. organizations advocating for Palestinian rights, had long avoided taking a position on BDS. The campaign was “demonized in the Jewish community,” Vilkomerson recalled, and endorsement risked being a strategic disaster, cutting off whatever access JVP had to synagogues and other Jewish spaces. But in 2011, under Vilkomerson’s leadership, JVP launched a process to consider whether to become the first national Jewish organization to do so. In the extraordinary, highly consultative process, every member was invited to weigh in. Each chapter, and special constituencies such as students and rabbis, met separately to discuss their concerns; members created zines about their relationship to Zionism. The conversations unfolded over four years, a span of time when state after state was passing anti-BDS laws. “It was a very intensive process and not a foregone conclusion,” Vilkomerson recalled. Yet in 2015, a vast majority of members chose to endorse BDS. Barghouti described it to me as “a tipping point” for progressive Jews.

It wasn’t long before JVP began a similar process about whether to formally become anti-Zionist. “The more that anti-Zionism was being equated with antisemitism in ways that made it impossible for Palestinians to narrate their own lives without being called antisemitic, the more it felt like a responsibility of ours to take on that position,” Vilkomerson said. By showing that a national Jewish organization could be anti-Zionist, “we’d be giving cover and space for other non-Jewish organizations, in particular Palestinian organizations, to be openly anti-Zionist.” By 2018, they had made the leap.

Lara Kiswani, executive director of the San Francisco–based Arab Resource & Organizing Center for the past 11 years, described JVP’s decision as a critical victory. Before then, she had found a handful of anti-Zionist Jewish people to partner with, many of them associated with the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, but “it wasn’t broad based.” She said AROC and other Palestinian-led organizations engaged with JVP over many years, laying out how powerful it would be for a national Jewish membership organization to stake out a position against Zionism and in support of a Palestinian narrative of “anticolonialism, anti-imperialism, and internationalism.” In committing to anti-Zionism, she said, “JVP has really stepped up to challenge Zionist organizations and communities in a way only Jewish people can do.”

With each high-stakes decision, instead of hemorrhaging members, JVP grew.

At the same time, many organizations at the heart of the rising U.S. social justice movement were staking out positions on the side of Palestinian freedom, including the Movement for Black Lives, whose platform, issued in 2016, described Israel as an apartheid state. Sandra Tamari, executive director of the Palestinian-led Adalah Justice Project, lives in St. Louis, and she looks back on the 2014 protests against police violence in Ferguson as a pivotal moment, when activists began to see parallels between police serving as an occupying force in Black communities and the militarized Israeli occupation. Two years later, she said, the Standing Rock protests popularized the language of settler colonialism. Then in 2018, a new left flank of the Democratic Party emerged, with defenders of BDS such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar elected to Congress. By 2021, American support for Palestinians was broadly on the rise.

Within the past two years, JFREJ and IfNotNow have also redefined their politics on Palestine. As JFREJ, which focuses primarily on domestic social justice issues, grew, it attracted a more politically diverse membership, including many Zionists. Yet, executive director Audrey Sasson said, “we needed to not feel paralyzed in critical moments.” After surveying the membership, leaders identified ways in which it was mission critical for JFREJ to mobilize on Palestine, such as when anti-Zionism was equated with antisemitism and weaponized against progressive Democrats and student activists — and especially in moments of crisis. “We anticipated another escalation,” she told me in December. “We knew something was going to give.”

Meanwhile, the young activists in IfNotNow decided to follow human rights organizations such as B’Tselem and Amnesty International in using an apartheid framework to talk about Israel. They created a mission statement on Palestine that called for “equality, justice, and a thriving future for all,” including, critically, the right of return. The Open Hillel movement was reborn as Judaism on Our Own Terms, a network of independent Jewish campus groups that embarked on its own strategic reassessment, which led to the group also defining itself as anti-Zionist. The goal, board member Aaron Kirshenbaum said, was to reclaim Judaism as antiracist and internationalist, “to divorce it from a harmful ideology and colonial force,” and to normalize anti-Zionism the same way Hillel National had for so many decades worked to normalize Zionism.

“What we have today,” Tamari said, “is a younger generation that not only has those frameworks but rejects abuse and gaslighting, who are able to say, That’s not the truth.”

This deep and painstaking work of political realignment, led primarily by women and queer people, was in place when Hamas bulldozed through the Gaza perimeter on Oct. 7. Tens of thousands of American Jews had a historical lens that allowed them to see Hamas’s shocking incursion as a strike of colonized against colonizer, and after Israel’s previous assaults on Gaza in 2009 and 2014, they knew that more extreme brutality would most likely follow. In Barghouti’s view, it was both time spent in the Palestine solidarity movement and the “adoption of a principled anti-Zionist framework” that allowed progressive Jewish organizations “to deal with Oct. 7 and the Israeli genocide that followed it in a morally consistent manner.”

“We could put all of our energy into action,” Vilkomerson said.

The refrain in those first days after Oct. 7 was “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” from Israeli officials and the White House to the Israel solidarity rally at the U.S. Capitol in November. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared the Hamas attack to the Babi Yar massacres in Ukraine in 1941, when tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by Nazis, and linked Jewish children hiding from armed militants to the plight of Anne Frank.

But for many of the activists I spoke with, the shadow of the Holocaust extends over this crisis in an entirely different way. What they see is a population walled in on all sides, systematically starved, unable to exit, subject to a military assault so total that a former military intelligence officer has called it a “mass assassination factory.” Vilkomerson said she’d never heard people chant with such feeling as they did at that first civil disobedience action on Capitol Hill in October: “Never again! Not in our name!” “That fierceness came from the correct lessons of history, which are never again for anyone,” she said. “The reason people were out there screaming that is because they feel it so intensely.”

Two months into the Israeli bombardment, Masha Gessen put this sentiment into stark terms in The New Yorker. Gaza was not, in fact, an “open-air prison,” a term that has been widely used by human rights organizations, but a ghetto, a ghetto of the kind Jews were confined in under the Nazi regime. And the ghetto, Gessen wrote, was now being “liquidated.”

“Any of us who were raised with stories of Jewish antisemitic persecution and genocidal antisemitism,” said Fox, the JVP director, “any of us raised to understand that history by its facts and shape and what the rest of the world allowed to happen are saying, Where else would we be but right here?

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and other Palestine solidarity protesters at Grand Central Terminal in New York City, Oct. 27, 2023. Photograph by Christopher Lee for Hammer & Hope.

What’s unfolding, IfNotNow’s Borgwardt suggested to me, is a battle over the question of Jewish safety. The hegemonic answer is that the only way to protect Jews is through unconditional support of Israel, that failing to support Israel is an antisemitic rejection of the value of Jewish safety, that to call for a cease-fire is to stand with Hamas and to stand on the side of Jewish slaughter.

In early December, congressional Republicans led the passage of a resolution declaring anti-Zionism to be antisemitism; some even equated the term “intifada” (uprising) with “the genocide of Jews,” as Rep. Elise Stefanik did while grilling Harvard’s president at the time, Claudine Gay. The Anti-Defamation League released a headline-generating report in January documenting more than 3,000 antisemitic incidents in the three months that followed Oct. 7, more than it typically tallies in a year. Some of the incidents were grave, including synagogue bomb threats. But The Forward reported that the ADL had broadened its definition of antisemitic incidents to include “anti-Zionist chants and slogans.” Rhetoric at rallies made up 40 percent of the tally. “It’s clear that antisemitism has become a regular feature at many of these protests,” an ADL spokesperson told me, saying they have left Jewish communities feeling “demonized and harassed.” But the examples he offered focused squarely on Israel, not on Jewish people as a whole, including calls to “globalize the intifada” and slogans such as “Zionism is terrorism” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Many organizations on the Jewish left have developed a very different answer to the question of Jewish safety: that the Israeli occupation makes Jews unsafe in Israel and around the world; that ethnonationalism makes Jews unsafe, whether it’s Trump’s white nationalist movement in the United States or Netanyahu’s Jewish supremacy in Israel; and that safety and security is a mutual project, built in solidarity. “Jewish allies are explicitly stating Israel does not make us safe,” Kiswani, AROC’s executive director, said. “Solidarity makes us safe. Palestinian freedom makes us safe.”

The organizations leading this new wave of Jewish protest share an understanding of how antisemitism has been weaponized and see a role for themselves in blunting it. When the Movement for Black Lives issued a platform in 2016 endorsing Palestinian liberation and calling Israel an apartheid state, JVP and IfNotNow squared off against the ADL in defending it. When progressive Democrats such as Jamaal Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez have faced accusations of antisemitism over their support for Palestinian liberation, JFREJ has come to their defense. The pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC launched a super PAC in late 2021, the United Democracy Project, that successfully knocked out Andy Levin, Jessica Cisneros, and other progressive Democrats who advocate for Palestinian rights. “This multimillion-dollar bazooka,” Borgwardt said, made AIPAC “a primary blocker to the progressive movement having state power.” IfNotNow responded by launching a national campaign, Reject AIPAC, in a bid to make AIPAC dollars toxic to Democrats.

These groups recognized after Oct. 7 that protesting Israel’s assault on Gaza would be tarred as antisemitic and that Jewish visibility would be critical in challenging that narrative. “No one can say it’s non-Jews versus Jews when some of the loudest voices and biggest protests are being organized by Jews,” Leo Ferguson, JFREJ’s director of strategic projects, said. “That matters a lot in terms of people being able to claim that it’s antisemitism or claim that Jews are under attack.”

The Israeli government and Jewish Zionist organizations “purport to speak for all Jews when they defend the Israeli system of apartheid, when they smear the movement, when they attack Palestinians, when they justify their genocidal war,” Fox said. “As the largest progressive Jewish organization in the world committed to Palestinian liberation, we have the responsibility to build a mass grassroots movement of U.S. Jews that has the power to counter the specific role that Jewish Zionist organizations play in upholding the U.S.-Israel alliance.”

Anti-Zionism may have been declared a form of antisemitism by the ADL and the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet for many of the activists I spoke with, it is simply the idea that Israel should not be an apartheid state that, in law and policy, privileges Jews above Palestinians and maintains a Jewish majority by means of expulsion and permanent occupation. Most Jews in the world, after all, have voted with their feet, choosing to live in multiracial democracies, however flawed, such as the United States.

As long as there has been Zionism, there have been anti-Zionist Jews. It is easy to forget, from our contemporary vantage point, that in the interwar period, as Zionists responded to rising European antisemitism by aggressively recruiting colonists and buying up land in Palestine, the Jewish Labor Bund was a far more dominant Jewish political force in Eastern Europe. The Bund was vehemently anti-Zionist, committed instead to international socialism and to fighting antisemitism wherever Jews lived. At a 1948 conference, it called for a binational Palestinian state. For the 2003 anthology Wrestling with Zion, the scholar and activist Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark collected the voices of Jewish dissent on Zionism dating back to the 1890s. They included a prescient 1929 letter from the American rabbi Judah Magnes, then the chancellor of Hebrew University, in which he described political Zionism as “imperialist,” based upon “the creation (forcible if necessary) of a Jewish majority, no matter how much this oppresses the Arabs meanwhile, or deprives them of their rights. In this kind of policy the end always justifies the means.” He had exited what is now called the Zionist Organization of America in 1915, saying he was “desirous of having Palestine become a country of two nations and three religions, all of them having equal rights and none of them having special privileges; a country where nationalism is but the basis of internationalism.”

Warschawski, the Alternative Information Center founder, recalled that immediately after the 1967 war, while much of Israel was in a “nationalist euphoria,” student activists in Matzpen, the socialist group he had joined, responded by calling for an unconditional retreat from the occupied territories, the dismantling of Jewish settlements, the abolition of laws that privileged Jews, and the de-Zionization and democratization of Israel. The feminist Jewish writer and founding JFREJ director Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz proposed in 2001 a mass rejection of the Jewish right to return.

Now an explicitly anti-Zionist organization is at the heart of a Jewish Palestinian solidarity movement that has not only exploded in size but also matured and diversified. IfNotNow is reaching students who came up through the tentpoles of Jewish institutional life — Jewish day schools, synagogues, and summer camps — many of whom have become disillusioned with the refusal of those institutions to recognize Palestinian realities. By contrast, JVP, the anti-Zionist standard bearer, is focused on ingathering Jews who never felt welcome in Jewish spaces — Jews of color, queer Jews, Jews from interfaith families — “creating a home for people where they can bring their whole selves,” explained Vilkomerson, and bringing them into a global, intersectional antiwar movement with Palestine at its center. JFREJ is reaching back to the Jewish Labor Bund and its politics of doikayt, “hereness,” what Kaye/Kantrowitz and others have called radical diasporism. In forging this diasporic Jewish social justice identity in New York City, the largest Jewish city in the world, JFREJ is increasingly doing so as a direct alternative to the Zionist project, to what Sasson describes as its militarism and ethnonationalism. “What we build in New York,” she said, “is in so many ways an antidote to what’s going on over there.”

All of these organizations have grown, not shrunk, as they have made their political commitments to Palestinians more explicit. With every assault on Gaza, from Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 to the current monthslong bombardment, JVP’s membership has grown, Vilkomerson said, and the organization built campaigns to keep them engaged, from pushing university retirement funds to divest from Caterpillar Inc., which sells bulldozers used by Israel to demolish Palestinian homes, to campaigning to end an ADL program that sends U.S. law enforcement for training in Israel.

In all of the conversations I’ve had with Jewish organizers in recent weeks, I’ve heard tremendous generosity toward the role each organization is playing within the movement ecosystem — and tremendous compassion for where people are on their journey away from Zionism. “We don’t need people to come through the door” with any particular relationship to Zionism, Borgwardt said. Instead they need people “to be open to grappling with Zionism and learning about what Zionism has meant for Jews — and also what Zionism has meant for Palestinians.” Ferguson said JFREJ is committed to being a big tent, but one with “really clear values” that is open to causing “the right kind of generative discomfort” by throwing its energies into the movement for a cease-fire.

Several also talked about holding space for grief — grief about the horrific brutality being visited on Gazans; grief about the Israeli civilians, many of them anti-occupation activists, who were killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7; grief over the dehumanization of Palestinians by so many in the Jewish community. I attended a grief ritual for the Jewish community in the Bay Area in December, a space created to prevent that grief from being paralyzing — or weaponized. At its best, one of the leaders said, grief can teach us how we want to live, can threaten systems of dominance, and serve as the foundation on which we build a vision for a just world.

Esther Kaplan is a longtime, award-winning reporter and editor. She previously spent years as part of ACT UP, Communications Workers of America, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, where she served as one of the organization’s early executive directors. She was for 15 years a cohost with Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark of Beyond the Pale, a progressive Jewish radio show on WBAI/New York.

Hammer & Hope is free to read. Sign up for our newsletter, donate to our magazine, and follow us on Instagram, Threads, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.


Previous Article

Next Article

More From This Issue