The massacre by Israeli soldiers of dozens of Palestinians in Gaza this week has prompted a new round of protests by progressive Jewish-American groups who object to the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem – and who lump the Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu administrations together as enemies of peace in the region.
Groups such as IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and others began to step up protest activity – marches, vigils and community meet-ups – in late March, when Israeli forces killed 17 Palestinians and wounded at least 1,400 in Gaza.
The protest activity has been echoed by influential voices such as the actor Natalie Portman – who last month canceled a planned trip to Israel to accept the Genesis Prize, saying through a spokesperson that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her” – and the comedian Sarah Silverman, who tweeted:
Look I know it’s scary bc it takes so little for the world to hate Jews, but wrong is wrong. And Jews should stand up and take the lead in saying so. RIGHT?????
The Israeli foreign ministry has said it was “protecting its citizens from thousands of violent rioters from Gaza, who have been trying to break the fence and cross into Israel, with the goal of killing or kidnapping Israelis”.
That rationalization was repeated and amplified on Tuesday by UN ambassador Nikki Haley and by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and other influential US-based institutions.
But those organizations are increasingly being taken to task by groups with younger members and different views on what it means to support the Jewish state.
“The violence that is being committed in our name, the massacre of 50-plus Palestinian protesters Monday in Gaza – we’re not going to sit idly by as that’s committed,” said Ethan Miller, a spokesman for IfNotNow.
“We’re actually going to be taking action and building a movement within our communities to make sure that we’re no longer part of supporting the occupation, and our community is actively working against it.”
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, blasted the juxtaposition of the celebratory US embassy opening, attended by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, and the killing of Palestinians.
“Monday I thought was one of the most disgraceful days in the history of the Israeli relationship to Palestinians, with the celebration of annexation – even as Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are refugees, were being gunned down, just for protesting their basic rights to live in dignity and freedom,” Vilkomerson said.
“The idea that this is being done in our name, or being justified in our name, is absolutely unacceptable.”
About 100 protesters affiliated with IfNotNow blocked Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC for about two hours Monday, chanting “stop the violence” and other slogans.
Jewish Voice for Peace has helped to organize 45 actions across the country since the end of March, Vilkomerson said, and on Monday the group held events in New Haven, Connecticut; Montclair, New Jersey; Philadelphia, Boston, central Ohio, Washington DC and New York City.
Concerns about an “American Jewish-Israeli Jewish divorce,” have grown over the past decade.
An in-depth 2013 Pew Research study found a decline in attachment to Israel among non-religious American Jews. Only 38% of Jewish-American respondents overall said the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians.
“For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead,” the editor and writer Peter Beinart warned in an influential 2010 essay titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”.
The progressive Jewish-American groups said they had experienced friction with more established groups.
Said Vilkomerson: “Often organizations like JVP get a lot of pressure from Jewish institutions because we’re speaking out so strongly for Palestinian rights. But … there’s a lot of people who feel alienated from their Jewishness, because of the way that Jewish institutions are mindlessly supporting Israel. People are finding their way back to us, and back to their Jewishness, through places like JVP.”
Miller described IfNotNow’s “You Never Told Me” campaign, which seeks to get Jewish education outlets including summer camps and day schools to teach the history of “the occupation”.
“What we’ve realized is that on the one hand the American Jewish community teaches its people about the values of social justice, of looking out for your neighbor – and on the other hand there are large institutions that do a lot of work to support and uphold the occupation.
“And that’s a hypocrisy that we’re no longer willing to accept. We know that we have to put our values first.”