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How Anti-Zionist American Jews Are Organizing for a Ceasefire in Gaza

Anti-war Jewish Americans are urging U.S. leaders to call for a ceasefire. A progressive wing of American Judaism has gained prominence, one defined by mass mobilization against the Israeli government's unrelenting bombing in Gaza.

Activists from Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow occupy the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on November 6, 2023 in New York City.,Photo credit: Agence France-Presse (AFP) // Arab News

Over the past two months, a progressive wing of American Judaism has gained prominence, one defined by mass mobilization against the Israeli government's unrelenting bombing in Gaza. That intergenerational community – nearly always youth-led, but with those old enough to be Holocaust survivors regularly involved – has faced police pepper spray at the DNC, sat on hunger-strike with Palestinian organizers outside the White House, interrupted politicians at dinner, and shut down transit centers across the country.

In November, more than 400 New Yorkers, most of them Jewish, covertly entered the Statue of Liberty to hold a sit-in on the pedestal of that monument calling for a ceasefire. Dressed as tourists, they boarded boats to the statue in small, disconnected groups among the thousands who visit the statue each day. Once they convened, they hung “CEASEFIRE NOW” banners from the statue’s pedestal and chanted for just under an hour before leaving the island on a tourist ferry.

The sit-in at the Statue of Liberty was one in a series of disruptive actions held by groups of American Jews for a ceasefire in Gaza. On Friday, October 27th, as dusk fell over Grand Central Station, commuters were unable to make their way through the midtown Manhattan hub — not because of usual rush hour traffic, but because of several hundred protesters led by the progressive anti-Zionist American Jewish group Jewish Voice for Peace, staging a sit-in in the main terminal. More chanted outside, blocked from the entryways by police. Activists clambered up the departures board to drop banners, and stood there until the police used a boom lift to arrest them and lower them down.  

As the American government continues to send messages of support, and funding, to Israel’s siege on Gaza, young people across the country have mobilized to call for an end to the violence; in particular, Palestinian-American led groups such as the Palestinian Youth Movement have organized teach-ins, cultural events, and mass protests drawing thousands week after week across the country. Recent Gallup Poll numbers show that 67% of Americans under 35 oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza, while progressive think tank Data for Progress has released polling that states 61% of Americans overall support a permanent ceasefire.

Protest in Los Angeles

Meanwhile, within the Jewish American community, the political divide is to some degree generational: in a Jewish Electorate Institute poll in November, 83% of those over 36 supported Biden’s handling of the war, while only 53% of American Jews under 36 agreed. That makes anti-war Jewish Americans an outlier group in the Jewish community, while their religion also makes them a minority part of the broader American left. They have taken on two roles: as headline-grabbing stagers of civil-disobedience and co-crafters of what a pro-Palestinian Judaism can look like.

They urged U.S. leaders to call for an end to the Israeli military’s ongoing assault on the people of the Gaza Strip, which has killed over 15,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7th, an estimated 5,000 of whom were children, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Gaza Health Ministry. CNN calculations from November suggested a child is killed in Gaza every 10 minutes, based on Gaza Health Ministry figures.

On October 7th, Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip attacked Israel, killing at least 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals and abducting about 240 into Gaza. Over 100 of those hostages have since been released in a prisoner exchange, along with hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. That doesn’t mean the taking of prisoners has ceased: Israeli NGO HaMoked estimates that 7,000 Palestinians are currently in Israeli prisons, nearly 2,900 of whom are held without charge. Since Israel declared war on Hamas, its nonstop bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip, a 140-square-mile piece of land, ceased for a week then began again in December.

Israeli airstrikes have destroyed nearly all of Gaza’s internet infrastructure, and the Israeli government announced it would cut off water, fuel, food, and electricity supplies, the New York Times reported. There are currently no fully open border crossings, leaving Palestinians in Gaza with practically nowhere to run from the bombs, though a few who are severely injured or hold foreign passports have been able to evacuate to Egypt.

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In the U.S., meanwhile, both Islamophobic and antisemitic harassment have increased since October 7th, as has outright violence: A Palestinian child was killed in what was ruled a hate crime on October 14th in Chicago in a stabbing attack, and a Jewish man attending a pro-Israel rally died from blunt-force head trauma after an altercation with a counterprotestor (authorities are investigating whether his death was a hate crime, ABC News reports). Pro-Palestinian student groups at Columbia University and George Washington University have been suspended and prohibited from operating as clubs on their campuses. Over Thanksgiving, 3 Palestinian college students were shot in Vermont while speaking Arabic and wearing keffiyehs.

A congressional committee hearing on the issue of combatting antisemitism on campuses occurred December 5th, with the presidents of University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and other institutions attending. It’s in this context that these young people choose to organize against the war — and they say their Judaism led them to that choice.

“Come to the capital on October 18”

About a week before protesters descended on Grand Central, five thousand progressive Jewish people and allies arrived in Washington, D.C. from all corners — buses out of New York, on flights in from Los Angeles and Toronto, Priuses jam-packed from Jersey. Four days earlier, a group of organizers with progressive Jewish groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow put out a call on Instagram: Come to the capital on October 18 and show that they stand against what the U.N. has warned could be a mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people.

Sumaya Awad, a Palestinian organizer with Adalah Justice Project, spoke in D.C. on the 18th. “It was especially critical to see thousands of American Jews come up and say, Israel is not acting in our name,” Awad told Teen Vogue.

What ended up being the biggest Jewish-led mobilization for Palestine in American history came together in about 72 hours. A reported 5,000 to 10,000 people trickled into D.C. between Monday and Wednesday, crashing on the couches and floors of friends and acquaintances. Spreadsheets were hastily shared in Signal group chats and filled up with the names of people staying behind, signing up to take care of other people’s pets while they were away.

On Wednesday, October 18, about 300 people were arrested in the U.S. House of Representatives Cannon Office Building, which they occupied for several hours with one clear demand: that the U.S. government work towards a ceasefire in Gaza. That demand has not changed in the intervening weeks – though, as President Biden is in support of the current “humanitarian pause” plan, the call for “ceasefire now” has shifted to include the word “permanent.”

The U.S. helps fund the Israeli military with 3.8 billion dollars in military aid per year. Many young Americans – as they did during the Vietnam and Iraq wars – are demanding accountability from their government for their country’s role in the violence.

Jay Saper, 32, an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, barely slept in the 10 days between the Hamas attack and the D.C. action. In the weeks since October 7, Saper has put their entire life “on hold.” Seeing most Jewish cultural institutions standing behind Israeli military action, Saper wanted to highlight another Jewish viewpoint, one many young people share. So, Saper said, they needed to “pierce through that narrative.”

“We cannot stand idly by as President Biden pledges more monetary support to the State of Israel,” Saper said. With their co-organizers, they feel a specifically Jewish impulse to dissent. “We have to make so clear, as Jews, that we do not believe our safety can ever come at the expense of another community.”

Not every Jewish group labeling itself progressive has stood behind the call for a ceasefire: notably, J Street, a liberal Jewish lobby group that supports a two-state solution as well as Israel’s “right to defend itself…within the bounds of international law,” has in this case called on its members to support a temporary “humanitarian pause” rather than a complete ceasefire. J Street is also asking the White House and Congress to pressure Israel to “acknowledge that post-conflict arrangements will ultimately result in the creation of an independent Palestinian state.” While some goals are shared across the groups, the difference in positions among J Street, JVP, and IfNotNow illustrate splits in the progressive and liberal Jewish communities. A coalition of former J Street staffers called on the org to bring their position more in line with that of the other two groups.

Jewish Voice for Peace has for years explicitly described itself as anti-Zionist. On their website, they state that “While it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others.” While IfNotNow states that its goal is to “end American support for Israel’s apartheid system,” they do not position themselves as explicitly anti-Zionist. The two groups have found some common ground for years in criticism of Israeli policy – now more so than ever.

Per recent polling, the call for a ceasefire is not a fringe position. An earlier November poll from Reuters and Ipsos showed that 68% of Americans backed a ceasefire, including ¾ of Democrats and half of Republicans. Saper wanted to represent that American majority, as well as the sizeable portion of American Jews who say the U.S. should not veto a U.N. ceasefire resolution – 45% of those under age 36, according to another recent poll.

Inside the Hill

Saper helped organize a protest outside Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D) house the night of October 7th. Schumer, a stalwart Jewish-American ally to Israel, has spoken at pro-Israel rallies, pushed for an expanded aid package to Israel, and has not supported any kind of ceasefire. A week after their initial protest, Saper co-organized another protest outside Schumer’s Park Slope home, while Schumer was en route to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was then that they knew they needed to change strategies. They texted everyone in their networks to come to DC on the 18th.

In order to enter the Cannon Building in such numbers, Saper said, the group dressed up in “lobbyist drag”: Business-casual cosplay. Then, all at once, they removed their dressed-up outer layer to reveal black t-shirts that read “NOT IN OUR NAMES.” That was one of the organizers’ goals: to disrupt what they see as a prevailing American narrative which, for decades, has cast support for the state of Israel as the one monolithic Jewish-American opinion–and statehood as the one possible path towards Jewish safety in a post-Holocaust world.

The Jewish protesters and allies echoed a primary demand of Palestinian civil society groups: that nations which fund Israel’s military call for an immediate ceasefire and demand that Israel comply with international law, so that those in Gaza have a chance to bury their dead, evacuate their wounded, and dig people out from under the rubble, where thousands are still estimated to be trapped. In Gaza, conditions are bleak: people are rationing waterhouses of worship and U.N. schools have been bombed by the IDF, most hospitals are shut down, and the Rafah border crossing, where thousands hope to flee into Egypt, is still closed. Information can hardly get to the outside world from many parts of Gaza: internet service is rapidly declining as Israeli airstrikes damage telecommunications infrastructure. The unrelenting violence has led many, including Israeli Holocaust scholars like Raz Segal and Omer Bartov, to call what we’re seeing unfold in Gaza an attempted genocide, though others dispute this assertion.

Since that violence is being funded in part with U.S. dollars, some American Jews, like Mateo Rojas, 28, feel a moral imperative to speak out. Rojas, who participated in October’s protests, is a teacher at the Workers Circle (a progressive Jewish center) in Boston. He has spent the past weeks figuring out how, as a Jewish educator, he can speak to his students about the violence in Gaza. The theme of his fifth grade class is social justice movements. “I know everyone says it’s a touchy issue,” Rojas said. “But genocide isn’t a touchy issue.”

Elana Goldman, a 25-year-old social work student from Los Angeles, was arrested on October 18th. Beyond direct action, she, like Rojas, focuses on speaking to members of her own community about her views on Zionism and the state of Israel.

“On a systemic level, I do think it’s important for Jews to openly say that they’re not Zionists, that Jews are not a monolith,” Goldman said. “It’s important for people to hear that. As people who have survived a genocide, it’s deeply disturbing to see that being done under the guise of Judaism.”

“It’s a lot of work, but that is what love and solidarity looks like,” Goldman said. “Doing that work to talk to people, to sit with them, to unlearn the propaganda. To sit with each other, and hold Jewish institutions accountable–which does have impact.”

Like many other protesters – including IfNotNow’s national spokesperson Eva Borgwardt, who told the rally crowd it could be “the biggest revival of the U.S. antiwar movement since the war in Iraq” – Rojas saw previous U.S. peace movements as instructive in this moment. This time, the violence is being broadcast live on our cellphones, unmediated even by cable news networks.

Inside the Cannon Building, the group formed a loose circle, and sat down. At the center were 22 rabbis and rabbinical students. Among them was May Ye, 29, a recent rabbinical school graduate who serves a congregation in Connecticut.

“I am the direct descendant of Holocaust survivors,” Ye said. “My grandfather was incarcerated in the concentration camp at Dachau.” Upon his release, Ye said, her grandfather warned against the creation of the state of Israel, believing that a Jewish state would not be what made Jews safe. That family legacy continued throughout the generations: Ye recalled her father sending letters to the editor about Palestinian human rights when she was a child. With that personal history in mind, Ye traveled down to D.C. on the 18th to stand with the 21 other rabbis.

“I want to say that rabbis must be calling for a ceasefire right now, no matter what their politics are,” Ye insisted. “And all rabbis must be condemning war, no matter what our politics are. I have seen rabbis call for a war and we cannot do that. We cannot be silent when genocide happens to another people, we have to say, not in our name.” The rabbis led the crowd singing “lo yisa goy el goy cherev” — nation shall not lift up sword against nation. And then, Ye said, the protesters began to intersperse the song with chanting, “CEASEFIRE NOW” echoed around the rotunda.

The rabbis sang in keffiyehs (traditional Palestinian scarves), yarmulkes and tallitot (Jewish ritual garments), dressed in white, surrounded by protesters in all black. From the balcony above, they looked like a photo-inverse drawing of a human eye. “We were not just Jews singing. We were singing and chanting. We were praying,” Rabbi Ye said. As part of that prayer, the rabbis read testimony from Gazans, in a call-and-response fashion, so that everyone in the building could hear. And while the arrests began, they recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

As Ye and the other rabbis were arrested, they made history: they became one of the largest known groups of Jewish clergy arrested in civil disobedience in American history, surpassing the St. Augustine 16, a group of rabbis arrested at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, at a civil rights protest in 1964. “It's going to be hard for the US government to look away,” Rabbi Ye said.

“How long will it take for them to listen?”

Pressure for a ceasefire is building inside the U.S. government, too: one Congressional staffer, Philip Bennett of Summer Lee’s office, saw what was going on, and sat down with the protesters–eventually joining them in being arrested by the Capitol Police. The next day, a letter signed by more than 400 congressional staffers came out demanding that their bosses sign onto the Ceasefire Now Resolution introduced by Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-MO)Greg Casar, D-TX, signed as the protest occurred, prompting a wave of cheers in the Cannon Building. As of this writing, 41 U.S. legislators are calling for a ceasefire. On Nov. 8, over 100 Congressional staffers held a vigil for a ceasefire, saying “our bosses on Capitol Hill are not listening to the people they represent.”

A historic wave of protests swept the world over the last two months: thousands gathered in nearly every major city on this continent. A massive protest moved through Paris after France banned all pro-Palestinian protest. Protests were also seen in Amman, Jordan, and Beirut, Lebanon, and elsewhere around the world. On October 25, students on over 100 U.S. college campuses walked out of class to call for a ceasefire. And on October 28th, the Palestinian-led community group Within Our Lifetime led tens of thousands through New York, temporarily shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge, while simultaneous massive pro-Palestinian protests continued across the country and the world. At the largest mobilization yet, on November 4th, some estimates put the crowd at 300,000 attendees.

In New York, “there have been protests every single day for the last 10 days,” said Sumaya Awad, an organizer with the Palestine-advocacy group Adalah Justice Project, in mid-October. At a rate of several protests per week in New York, often multiple on the same day, the mobilization has continued since then. “There's no sign of them slowing down,” Awad said. “And I think that's because people are committed to a ceasefire.”

Beyond a ceasefire, all the activists who spoke to Teen Vogue said the conditions that produced this wave of violence must end. “We need all the masses out to get the bombing stopped,” Saper of JVP said. “And while the ceasefire language is front and center, we know that we actually have to address 75 years of occupation and apartheid.”

Palestinian organizers tend to be targets of online harassment campaigns, and face threats of real-life violence, for their views. Collaboration between Palestinian and Jewish organizers, Awad said, can have a role to play in counteracting that narrative.

“There is so much smearing happening against Palestinians who are trying to organize around this – I think there's a lot of power in messaging and an influence that American Jews have in overcoming that,” Awad said. “And there's an urgency to it. It's not something that we can wait a week, or two weeks, or a month, for.”

Awad spoke at the Jewish-led rally on Oct. 18, and then coordinated both a sit-in at Ro Khanna’s office two days later, on Friday the 20th, and a Palestinian-led protest in New York that same day that she said drew 3,000 attendees. Khanna later became one of the politicians who was swayed by this activism–as of last week, he is publicly supporting a ceasefire.

As the protests have continued, some online commentators have sparred over whether or not Jewish Americans are centering their own identities and feelings too much in this moment. For activists like Goldman, working for Palestinian liberation from a specifically diaspora-Jewish perspective requires a bit of a balancing act.

“American Jews specifically need to find a balance between not centering themselves, and also knowing when to let their voices be heard,” Goldman said. “I think that when you build solidarity with Palestinians, it becomes personal, and it becomes rooted in actual love, and care, and accountability. When it gets to that level, it kind of gets easier to find out where and when your voice is needed.”

Awad, for her part, reiterated that she believes time is running out.

“How long will it take for them to listen?” she asked. “How many Palestinians will be killed by Israel's bombs, or from dehydration or lack of food because of this blockade, before our government actually listens and applies pressure on Israel for a ceasefire?”

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of the U.S. legislature, spoke at the Oct. 18 rally. “I wish the Palestinian people could see this,” Tlaib said. “I wish they could see that not all of America wants them to die–that they are not disposable.”

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[Sophie Hurwitz is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Brooklyn. They were previously the education and criminal-legal system reporter for the St. Louis American.]