On a different day, Max Segall and Simone Zimmerman might have been protesting together for some other cause. Both are young, liberal American Jews educated by religious day schools. Both advocate progressive causes.
But on July 29, Segall, a junior at New York University, showed up to support Israel at a big rally in New York organized by several establishment Jewish communal organizations; just blocks away, Zimmerman, a 23-year-old community organizer, orchestrated an act of civil disobedience against Israel’s military operation in Gaza.
The events are the latest in a series of opposing rallies and protests that have drawn Jews on both sides since Israel initiated military action against Hamas, which rules Gaza.
Segall, a graduate of a liberal Orthodox Israeli yeshiva who considers himself a “big supporter” of Israel, came to the pro-Israel rally to show solidarity as the Jewish state endures criticism of its Gaza operation, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians — an estimated 70% of them civilians — have died and thousands have been wounded.
Zimmerman, a Conservative Jew active in J Street U while at the University of California, Berkeley, felt compelled to organize a demonstration to protest the human and political toll. “I care about the future of the Jewish people and know that our liberation cannot and should not take place upon the backs of another nation,” she said. “I have an obligation to call my community to responsibility in a moment like this.”
Roughly 1,000 people previously marched through Lower Manhattan against Israel’s military action as part of a “national day of action” on July 24, and another 3,000 marched through Times Square the next day.
Zimmerman and others staged their July 29 protest outside the Midtown offices of the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations, an establishment umbrella group devoted to backing Israel. Some 70 young Jews there demanded an end to the Gaza conflict and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, including its blockade, with Egypt, of Gaza. The demonstrators decried the deaths of Israelis in the conflict, as well, but skewered the organized Jewish community’s uncritical support for the war. Nine were arrested when they staged a sit-in in the lobby of the Presidents Conference’s building.
The pro-Israel rally was organized by UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and other groups, and had the backing of nearly the entire organized Jewish community, including the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements. A crowd estimated at close to 10,000 people, including numerous politicians, attended the rally, dwarfing the protests against Israel’s operation.
The pro-Israel rally’s backers decried hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas into Israel, sending whole towns scampering into bomb shelters. Almost all the missiles were either blocked by a high-tech air defense system or fell on empty ground, leaving three civilian fatalities so far. Since invading Gaza, Israeli military forces have also targeted an underground network of tunnels dug by Hamas to enable them to infiltrate militants into Israel.