As conflict in Gaza rages again, a shift in the American Jewish response
When Israel responded to Hamas rocket fire from Gaza with air strikes and a ground invasion of the seaside enclave in the summer of 2014, the Union for Reform Judaism published a prayer defending the operation Israel called Protective Edge.
“This is not easy. It is not desired,” read the prayer written by Alden Solovy, a poet, and published at the height of the conflict, in which more than 2,000 Palestinians and 72 Israelis were killed. “And yet, we cannot be held captive to hatred and violence. How much longer should we wait?”
But this week, as Hamas rockets again rained down on Israeli cities and towns — and Israeli again responded with airstrikes that killed scores in Gaza — the Reform movement published a far more restrained prayer. It condemned Hamas attacks on civilians — but also far-right Israeli Jews for attacking Arab citizens and businesses and the pending evictions of six Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
“The voices and actions of extremists who seek to polarize – Jewish and Palestinian alike – must not prevail,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the denomination’s president, said in a statement published alongside the prayer.
The marked change in tone by the same organization is one sign of how the American discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed over the last seven years. While many elected officials and much of the American Jewish establishment are issuing strident support of Israel’s right to defend itself, some liberal Zionist organizations like the URJ are taking a more nuanced approach and many progressive groups and younger activists are sharply criticizing Israel and focusing their responses on Palestinian rights.
Another sign of the shift can be seen in statements from T’ruah, a leftist rabbinic group focused on human rights, and Americans for Peace Now. Seven years ago, both groups mentioned Israel’s “right to defend” itself. That phrase was notably absent from their responses to the current conflagration. In the past week, both organizations criticized Hamas, but left out the unequivocal support for Israel’s use of force that had once been standard among even progressive Zionist groups. The URJ has also not used the phrase.
Simone Zimmerman, who helped create the left-wing Jewish group IfNotNow during the 2014 Gaza War, attributed the shift in the discourse among many younger American Jews to the fact that their political consciousness has been shaped during Israel’s repeated military engagements in Gaza and its government’s shift to the right.
“Living through these operations in Gaza — where the death toll and destruction on the Palestinian side is just so disproportionate — and everything that happens in between those, the hasbara talking points just don’t hold water anymore,” Zimmerman said, using the Hebrew word for Israel’s public-relations campaign.
Scott Lasensky, who served as a Middle East advisor during the Obama administration, said the mainstream Jewish community is still broadly supportive of Israel’s decision to launch air strikes in response to rocket fire. But organizations have also been more comfortable criticizing the Israeli government or commenting on the internal violence in Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities that many have worried could grow into a civil war.
“The community has a baseline of solidarity to Israel but beyond the baseline it’s a very fragmented landscape,” Lasensky said. “The old zero-sum solidarity posture — ‘we stand with Israel, we’re against fill-in-the-blank’ — that’s alive and well in some quarters but it doesn’t monopolize the discourse.”
Trump and Black Lives Matter change the climate
Pro-Palestinian advocates say a few key things have changed since 2014. The election of President Donald Trump drew more liberals into political issues as they turned out for events like the Women’s March and vigils opposing Trump’s immigration policies. Then the police murder of George Floyd last May sparked a wave of racial justice protests that prompted millions of Americans to consider previously obscure demands, like the call to “defund the police.” Meanwhile, Palestinians and their supporters had been working for years to convince the broader progressive movement to speak out against Israeli human rights abuses.
Ahmad Abuznaid helped found the criminal justice reform organization Dream Defenders in 2012 and four years later was instrumental in putting harsh criticism of Israel into the manifesto of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of groups including the Black Lives Matter Network. That document sparked a backlash from many Jewish groups, but Abuznaid said it has since become easier to convince left-wing groups to support Palestinian rights.
Both the Sunrise Movement, which is focused on climate change, and United We Dream, a group that advocates for immigrants, issued statements this week condemning Israel, and the Working Families Party came out in support of a bill introduced by Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, that aims to restrict some aid to Israel.
We’re in solidarity with Palestinians.
Climate justice cannot exist without collective liberation, and collective liberation is only reached when people are freed from colonial and imperial violence worldwide.
— Sunrise Movement ? (@sunrisemvmt) May 12, 2021
“What we’re seeing is a real progressive movement bound by values and ideals,” said Abuznaid, who is now director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “I know for a fact this time it feels different.”
These changes are also reflected in Congress, where McCollum’s bill, which would limit Israel’s ability to use American military aid for certain activities in the West Bank, has drawn 19 Democratic co-sponsors. On Thursday night, some of them participated in an unprecedented display of support for Palestinians on the floor of Congress, facing off against pro-Israel members of their own party.
Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, who defeated a moderate incumbent in last year’s Democratic primary, compared protests against police violence in Ferguson, Mo., to Palestinian activism in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“I remember learning that the same equipment that they use to brutalize us is the same equipment we send to the Israeli military to police and brutalize Palestinians,” Bush said in her speech Thursday. “We oppose our money going to fund military policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression.”
The fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected.
We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma.
We are anti-war. We are anti-occupation. And we are anti-apartheid. Period. pic.twitter.com/DO42FEre0W
— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@RepCori) May 13, 2021
The American Jewish establishment has taken notice of an emboldened progressive movement that includes elected Democrats and is increasingly hostile toward Israel.
“This is the contest for the soul of the party that we have all been preparing for and have seen coming for years,” said Jason Isaacson, chief of policy and political affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
Isaacson noted that critics of Israel are still in the minority of elected Democrats, and party leadership remains firmly behind Israel. But he said the AJC is still reaching out to liberal lawmakers to try and push back against what he described as misinformation coming out of the region.
He acknowledged that the circumstances leading up to this week’s fighting, including anti-Arab riots and the attempted eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem by right-wing settlers, had made even some members of Congress who are traditionally supportive of Israel more wary of defending the Jewish State.
“This is certainly a message that some of our friends are finding a hard time sorting out,” Isaacson said. “Instead of focusing on the fact that 2,000 rockets are flying toward Israeli civilians from Gaza, from a terrorist organization, they’re focusing on an attempted eviction.”
A progressive foothold
Making matters more difficult for groups like the AJC, Jewish progressives are significantly better organized now than they were in 2014. IfNotNow did not exist until the last war in Gaza began and is now well-established in left-wing circles; the group said that more than 211,000 people had visited its social media accounts in May, and more than 1,000 people registered for its online event Thursday focused on the evictions and ending what it described as Israeli “apartheid.”
Jewish Voice for Peace, another progressive group, doubled its dues-paying membership from 5,000 to 10,000 after the fighting in 2014 and spokeswoman Sonya Meyerson-Knox said it now had 20,000 members.
“Feels like more people are joining and looking to get involved as quickly as possible,” Samantha Brotman, JVP’s director of operations, said in an email. “People I’ve spoken with tell me how they’ve been observing from the sidelines, but now they’re ready to get active in supporting Palestinian rights.”
Critics of Israel have also been emboldened by two recent reports from human-rights organizations accusing the Jewish State of committing the crime of apartheid: the Israeli group B’Tselem in January, and Human Rights Watch last month.
To be sure, organizations like the AJC and StandWithUs, a pro-Israel group, continue to hold significant sway both in Congress and among the American public as they promote a narrative similar to the ones they embraced in past conflicts.
David Harris, who heads the AJC, published an op-ed Tuesday that decried “genocidal, death-celebrating Hamas” and said Israel had been dragged into a “reluctant confrontation.”
“Would any other country on earth sit back quietly, heed outside calls for ‘de-escalation’ or an end to the cycle of violence,’ or listen to sanctimonious lecturing from afar, while its citizens by the thousands rush to bomb shelters,” Harris wrote. “Of course not, and, as history has amply shown, few countries have demonstrated Israel’s restraint — yes, restraint.”
Harris’s organization has sent letters to every member of Congress and Isaacson said the group’s 24 regional offices are lobbying local politicians. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 people tuned into a Tuesday AJC webinar about the conflict and 14,500 people have used the organization’s “I Stand With Israel” profile badge on Facebook. StandWithUs reported that visits to its website were up 1,000% this week.
But Abuznaid, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights director, said he felt the ground shifting under the conversation about Israel’s use of force against Palestinians. He pointed to social media, where he said a steady stream of videos from Gaza, Jerusalem and across Israel was causing people to have a more visceral reaction to the type of violence that they might have only read about in the past.
He compared it to the lasting emotional impact of the video of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck last May, which sparked an unprecedented wave of protests.
“The things they’re seeing are calling them,” Abuznaid said. He think the pro-Palestinian narrative will be more durable than it was after past conflicts.
“In 2014 we had a bunch of celebrities posting things like ‘Free Palestine’ during the onslaught and then delete those posts,” Abuznaid said. “I don’t think those posts are getting deleted this time.”