Israel's Controversial Palestinian Policy Polarizes American Jewish Community
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
In late July, a group of young American Jews gathered outside the New York offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella organization founded in the 1950s and which claims to speak for a consensus of the American Jewish community. The young Jews outside, though, were challenging that organization’s claim to speak in their name. They read aloud the names of Palestinians and Israelis killed in the latest military escalation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and they recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
A few days later, the group delivered a letter to the Conference’s CEO, Malcolm Hoenlein, demanding “that the Conference of Presidents join our call to stop the war on Gaza, end the occupation, and forge a path forward for freedom and dignity for all people in Israel and Palestine.” Nine activists were arrested for civil disobedience.
Hoenlein called the protest “very insignificant” and the protesters “Jewish kids who are misguided.”
Known as #IfNotNow (a use of the well-known words of the first century rabbinical sage Hillel), the group is made up of Jewish activists, some of whom are veterans of J Street, the inside-the-beltway advocacy group launched in 2008 that describes itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”
Carinne Luck, a former J Street chief of staff and vice-president for field and campaigns, who is part of #IfNotNow, said it is “not a direct response to or turning away from J Street,” but #IfNotNow’s existence “does speak to the lack of spaces in our community to take these actions and speak with this kind of voice.”
The rising tensions between the supporters of Israel’s use of military force and the dissenters has led to an unprecedented polarization in the American Jewish community as Operation Protective Edge continues without a permanent cease fire, much less visible prospects for the moribund peace process.
While #IfNotNow’s actions and protests thus far have been tiny—numbering in the hundreds—they are reflective of a burgeoning discontent with institutional Jewish reaction to the current Gaza conflict. That institutional reaction, these dissenters charge, not only unquestioningly supports the official Israeli narrative that Hamas left Israel no choice but to attack—and no choice but to target locations packed with civilians—but fails to acknowledge and address the ongoing violence and repression inherent in the occupation.
That institutional reaction, additionally, fails to reckon with countervailing evidence to the official Israeli narrative of the immediate causes of the current escalation. That includes evidence that the Israeli government knew the three Israeli students kidnapped in the West Bank in June had been murdered, but still ginned up emotions, in Israel and the diaspora, for a search the government knew was futile to find them alive. The Jewish Daily Forward’s J.J. Goldberg has meticulously documented the series of events leading up to an “unnecessary war” that “nobody wanted.” The government claim to be searching for the three kidnapped students, was, Goldberg wrote, “simply put, a lie.”
The institutional reaction, its critics further charge, fails to reckon with rising anti-Palestinian racism in Israeli government and society, or of military and police brutality against Palestinians, such as that brought down on Tariq Abu Khdeir, an American citizen and cousin of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was burned alive by Jewish Israeli citizens.