For Many American Jews Protesting For Palestinians, Activism Is A Journey Rooted In Their Jewish Values

Author: Atalia Omer

(MENAFN- The Conversation) In April 2024, during Passover, a group of American rabbis approached a border crossing in Israel. Affiliated with Rabbis for Ceasefire , the group joined Jewish Israeli activists attempting to deliver food to Gazans.

It had been seven months since Hamas' Oct. 7, 2023, attack and Israel's subsequent assault on Gaza.

One of the American rabbis told reporters at Democracy Now! that this was the only way she could imagine marking Passover, a holiday that celebrates the story of liberation from oppression and slavery. Marching to the gates of Gaza with food for starving Palestinians was consistent with Passover's imperative to invite the hungry to every table.

As of April 2, 62% of American Jews believe Israel has responded to Hamas' attack in an“acceptable” way . Yet that support drops to 52% among U.S. Jews ages 18-34, with 42% saying Israel's response has been“unacceptable,” according to Pew Research Center polling.

Many of those young people are involved in the variety of Jewish organizations that have mobilized for a cease-fire since October, such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. Public attention has focused on campus protests, which included many Jewish students – I am a member of Faculty for Justice in Palestine , which formed in response to concerns about freedom of speech for U.S. students mobilizing for Palestinian rights.

But as a peace and religion scholar , I know that some U.S. Jews' involvement in Palestinian solidarity movements began years before the current war. In my ethnographic research , which included in-depth interviews and participant observation work, activists emphasized that they were inspired to act because of their Jewish identity and values, not in spite of them.

American and Israeli rabbis from Rabbis for Ceasefire march toward the Gaza Strip with food aid for civilians during Passover on April 26, 2024. AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo Journey toward activism

Many interviewees came to activism for Palestinian rights after wrestling with how to square their beliefs and ideals with the reality of Israeli policies they do not support – policies that they feel are often invoked in their name.

My 2019 book ,“Days of Awe,” examines American Jewish critics of Israeli policy and Zionism – support for a Jewish state in the Middle East. Some activists focused on the Palestinian territories Israel has occupied since 1967, which they consider a departure from the country's ideals as a Jewish democracy. Others found themselves in complete disagreement with the idea of Zionism, given how the creation of the new state necessitated Palestinian displacement .

Their activism has taken different shapes: from protests in the West Bank against the occupation, to forming anti-Zionist synagogues in the U.S., to rewriting Jewish liturgy to reflect solidarity with Palestinians and other oppressed people.

For example, one interviewee in his mid-20s shared an experience from a 2008 Birthright trip to Israel, a free tour designed to strengthen young Americans' connection with the country. The trip coincided with Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which lasted about three weeks and resulted in about a dozen Israeli deaths, approximately 1,400 Palestinian deaths and thousands of people displaced .

A tour guide was reluctant to respond to the young man's questions about the conflict. This prompted the student, upon his return to campus in the U.S., to read about the Palestinian experiences of the Nakba – meaning“Catastrophe” in Arabic – of 1948, the year the state of Israel was established, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced off their lands or fled.

This interviewee and others say their journeys toward activism began because their understanding of Jewish values was inconsistent with what Israel was doing in the name of Jews' safety. It was also a journey of“unlearning” or critique – challenging narratives that emphasize the concept of Jewish return to Israel or that downplay Palestinian displacement.

They were tapping into Jewish tradition in new ways – what I refer to as“critical caretaking .”

IfNotNow protesting the American-Israel Political Action Committee's 2017 conference in Washington, D.C. IfNotNow Movement/Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA

Take IfNotNow, an American Jewish group opposed to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. The movement was born during the 2014 Israel-Hamas War, when a group of young Jews organized a public recitation of the mourner's kaddish , the Jewish prayer for the dead. By reciting both Jewish and Palestinian victims' names, they hoped to use Jewish tradition to challenge the devaluation of Palestinian lives.

When I asked Rebekah – a pseudonym for a college student in the American South whom I interviewed for my book – how she understood her Jewishness , she told me:“I have always maintained that the basis for my activism was my Jewish ideals, the radical equality I had absorbed at home.”

Shadow of history

For Rebekah and many other American Jews, the cultural memory of the Holocaust, and the common refrain“Never Again,” inspires their activism for Palestinian rights.

“Growing up in Hebrew schools, you grow up with the nightmarish Holocaust films,” she stressed.“The conclusion of this education should have been clear: 'You can't do it to another group of people!'”

This lesson is reflected in the cry“Never again to anyone ,” heard at demonstrations over the past few months.

Another interviewee likewise asserted that her solidarity with Palestinians is grounded in the legacy of the Holocaust:“For me, understanding the Holocaust was hard because of the enormity of it – it happened because masses of people made a conscious decision to do nothing. I didn't want to do nothing.”

For these interviewees, discriminatory or violent policies contradict their understanding of Jewish values, which they assert by standing in solidarity with Palestinians.

Protesters standing outside the Miami office of U.S. Sen. Rick Scott on Oct. 17, 2023, call for a cease-fire in Gaza. AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Another interviewee told me:“I consider myself a spiritual Jew. I am able to separate Zionism from Judaism and I believe in equality. Because I am Jewish, I protest – I am informed by values of humanism, which is the main framework for organizing. The experience of doing solidarity work actually strengthened my Jewish identity. ... My Judaism translates into my commitment to uphold universal humanist values.”

Here and now

In 2017, several dozen Americans gathered with other activists in the southern hills of Hebron, in the West Bank. They established what they called a“sumud” camp – a Palestinian concept denoting steadfastness – to protest the Israeli military's decision to declare the area a“closed military zone,” meaning Palestinians must leave.

The activists wore shirts exclaiming“Occupation is Not My Judaism.” Occupation, they say, dehumanizes Palestinians and Jews alike – so they are seeking their own liberation, too. Therefore, their“critical caretaking” is not just about underscoring what Judaism is not. It is also about rewriting what they believe Judaism is.

For example, many of these organizations decenter Zionism's role in Jewish texts and liturgies . Rather than emphasizing the idea that the“Jewish home” is in the historical region of Palestine and Israel, some emphasize“doykayt ,” Yiddish for“hereness”: the concept that Jews' true home is wherever they are in the world.

Doykayt is just one example of how these activists embrace often-overlooked aspects of Jewish history, including marginalized voices such as Arab Jews and Ethiopian Jews, as they discover new ways to live their Jewish values. Through their activism, they are trying to convey their understanding that Jews cannot be free until Palestinians are free .

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