On Nakba Day, 15 May, amid the outbreak of war in Israel/Palestine, I attended a rally in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, to commemorate the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from the new Israeli state in 1948, and to protest against the oppression of the Palestinian people in the land between the river and the sea. From the signs I saw as part of that crowd – “This Jew will not stand by” or “Another Jew for a Free Palestine” – and from monitoring my social media feeds, it was clear that there were thousands of Jews taking part in these protests in cities all over the country.
For me, the conspicuous presence of larger numbers of Jews – many, but not all of them young – at every major Nakba Day protest was significant. During the 2014 assault on Gaza, I ventured out to a Palestine solidarity rally in Columbus Circle in Manhattan by myself. An ardent Zionist until that point, my worldview had been profoundly shaken by the images in the papers – Palestinian children bombed to pieces on a beach; Israelis in the rattled buffer town of Sderot gathered on hilltops overlooking the Strip, cheering as the bombs fell.
I didn’t know a single person that might accompany me to such a protest. To go at all felt like a betrayal of everything I’d ever known and loved. And yet even stronger was my anguish at doing nothing. I felt alienated by the march itself, unprepared to face the righteous anger at the Israeli state from the perspective of its victims. My heart raced when chants broke out of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – a popular protest slogan calling for equality in a single democratic state, which Jews have long been told amounts to their expulsion. I stayed another 30 minutes, then ducked into Central Park, collapsing on a bench in sobs. I’d never felt more alone.
I don’t feel alone any more. Though the years since 2014 have seen the growth of a small but committed Jewish anti-occupation movement, the last week and a half have brought an even larger circle of the community to a place of reckoning. We’ve seen Jewish politicians, celebrities, rabbinical students and others speak up loudly for Palestine. We’ve seen a powerful display of solidarity from Jewish Google employees, asking their company to sever ties with the IDF. At Jewish Currents, the leftwing magazine where I am now editor-in-chief, we asked for questions from readers struggling to understand the recent violence. We’ve been deluged.
These questions taken in aggregate paint a striking portrait of a community at a turning point. Though many queries aim to understand specific aspects of the recent round of violence – the circumstances surrounding the expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, for instance, or the affiliations of the Jewish revelers dancing ecstatically opposite a fire on the Temple Mount – many more are simply expressions of confusion, and a newfound willingness to confront it head on.
“I know what’s happening is wrong, but does supporting Palestinian liberation mean supporting Hamas?” asks one reader. “How do I talk to my family about this?” asks another. There are people struggling with new terminology (“Is apartheid an accurate word for what is happening in Israel/Palestine? What about ethnic cleansing?”) and with the foundational events that shaped the current situation on the ground (“Was there really an expulsion of Palestinians in 1948?”). Though many of our Jewish readers are anxious about antisemitism and about Jewish safety in Israel, there are strong indications that they are beginning to separate these feelings from the moral reality on the ground. On the whole, their questions represent a genuine outpouring of curiosity and compassion about the plight of Palestinians.
What has changed? The Black Lives Matter movement can claim credit for helping masses of people understand the mechanisms of structural racism and oppression, and for consistently linking the Black struggle to the Palestinian one. White people, including white Jews, who spent last summer confronting their own complicity in anti-Blackness or their discomfort with the force of abolitionist demands like “defund the police”, are perhaps finding themselves prepared to face similar complicities and discomforts in relation to Palestinian liberation. Jewish groups in solidarity with Palestine like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow in the United States and Na’amod in the UK, some of which were formed following the 2014 assault on Gaza, have steadily moved the intra-communal conversation around Israel/Palestine, creating more space for Jews to speak their conscience without having to abandon their identities. These groups all enjoyed periods of growth during the Trump-era, when Donald Trump’s close relationship with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, heightened the contradictions for a largely liberal Jewish populace. Young Jews becoming politically conscious for the first time saw a powerful, rightwing Israel intent on entrenching a decades-long occupation – a story that contrasted sharply with the one many of their elders had told them.
It remains to be seen whether this new visibility of Jewish dissenters on Israel/Palestine will have a meaningful effect on conditions on the ground. Many Jewish communal institutions rely on mega-donors to keep the lights on, and many of those mega-donors are conservative – meaning that our institutions are not particularly responsive to constituent pressure. For another, much of the American support for Israel comes from evangelical Christian Zionists, who, despite stirrings of dissent in their own communities, remain wedded to an apocalyptic Second Coming predicated on a warlike Jewish state. In Israel/Palestine itself, the single most important factor in Palestinian liberation is unified Palestinian resistance, which has taken inspiring new forms this week.
But there’s no question that Jewish support for the status quo in Israel/Palestine provides a powerful justification for Israeli government support globally. More Jews speaking up against Israeli apartheid weakens that justification, leaving politicians, lobbyists and others to account for what their support is really about.
On Thursday, a ceasefire took hold between the Israeli government and Hamas, ending an 11-day engagement that has left 12 Israelis and 232 Palestinians dead. The announcement was a genuine relief, but it does not change the reality in Israel/Palestine, where Palestinians across the land live under various forms of Israeli subjugation – the crushing blockade in Gaza; the military occupation in the West Bank; and second-class status in East Jerusalem and within the Green Line. Just as 2014 produced new infrastructure in the Jewish community to encourage dissent, I am certain that this moment will prove pivotal in a changing Jewish American conversation about Israel/Palestine.