Click here to read the full article in New Lines Magazine

By Shane Burley

"Let Gaza live! Let Gaza live!”

The chant bounced off the century-old granite walls of New York City’s historic Grand Central Station on Oct. 27, as thousands poured onto the floor wearing black T-shirts reading “Jews Say Ceasefire Now.” This messaging has become familiar, as massive rallies around the country, including one of 5,000 people in Washington, D.C., and others in dozens more cities, have been organized by Jewish activists speaking primarily as Jews.

These protests represent the biggest explosion of progressive Jewish organizing in decades, and have helped to launch the biggest surge in Palestine solidarity organizing since the Second Intifada. They also represent a newly unified movement with a new demand: a cease-fire.


"I am seeing … a major move in the American Jewish community to the right,” said Dove Kent, a longtime progressive Jewish organizer who closely watches the Jewish organizational landscape. Within 48 hours, she said, the center moved right, and firm binaries, which already existed when it came to Israel and Palestine, became entrenched. This could have the effect of breaking off the piece of the Jewish left that foregrounds Palestinian autonomy, forcing them into the same woods where JVP has been living for years.

While these Jewish Palestine solidarity activists are largely in line with American public opinion, which shows support for a cease-fire at close to 70%, there’s a disconnect with mainstream Jewish life. Nearly 300,000 joined the pro-Israel march in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, a bipartisan affair where blame for the violence was directed at Hamas and an end to the bombing of Gaza seemed off the table. Across town, something called the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable was convened, a meeting where progressive Jewish activists compared notes. Some in attendance joined the pro-Israel demonstration, while others felt conflicted. That conference floor could be an indication of how the coming years of Jewish organizational life will look.

Rebecca Zimmerman Hornstein, executive director of the Boston Workers Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice, described an unprecedented tension simmering in the American Jewish community as she spoke to me from that conference. The Workers Circle was founded by Eastern European Jewish migrants as a mutual aid project tied to the socialist labor movement and has a history spanning more than a century. The Boston chapter was recast in the 1980s as a progressive, secular outlet for Jewish life, with Yiddish classes, a Sunday school and member-driven committees that work on political issues. Inside the organization, disagreement is welcome: The old Yiddish adage suggests that among two Jews, three opinions exist. So Zimmerman Hornstein explains that they have Zionist, non-Zionist and anti-Zionist members, who are all driven by what they see as core values of freedom, democracy and equality for all inhabitants of the region.

“We had a long history of holding conversation, holding conflict on the issue in our community,” said Zimmerman Hornstein. “It’s not an issue we ever avoided in our community just because it can be challenging.”

But as a tenuous member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, a Jewish organizational coalition, members of the Workers Circle knew its days were numbered. The primary reason was that they had one particularly controversial collaboration. When they joined a coalition to hold a vigil after the 2018 synagogue shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the council threatened expulsion because JVP was a co-sponsor.

They weathered that storm, but after the council passed a resolution saying any organization partnering with an anti-Zionist group would be expelled, their exit seemed inevitable. “Based on our principles … calling for a cease-fire was really in line with our organizational outlook on Israel-Palestine,” said Zimmerman Hornstein. They joined an Oct. 18 cease-fire rally co-sponsored by JVP, IfNotNow and the progressive Boston synagogue Kavod, but before the event even wrapped up she received a call from the council announcing its intention to expel.

JVP, as the largest Jewish anti-Zionist group, is controversial, often the “last stop” for radical Jews questioning consensus politics on Israel. But because it never had access to the support, or money, of mainstream Jewish organizations, it had to build its own infrastructure. Organizers from a number of groups who have sponsored these cease-fire rallies told me that they could not have done it without the pioneering work of JVP, and the reaction from mainstream Jewish organizations has pushed them more firmly in the direction of partnering with it.

“The desire to marginalize us is a desire to kind of make impossible or make invisible what is actually true about us, which is that we represent a real and growing and furious constituency of the Jewish community in the U.S.,” said Stefanie Fox, the current executive director of JVP. Their size, their connection to Judaism and their challenge to those who claim to speak for all Jews force some mainstream Jewish organizations to see them as a challenge to the apparent pro-Israel consensus in the Jewish organizational world, she said.

“I think a massive shift has just taken place, and … there are many progressive Jewish groups that are going to have to decide if they are leaping forward into full-throated solidarity … while [also] holding space for our own loss and grief and pain,” Sophie Ellman-Golan, the communications director of the long-established progressive organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, told me. “And there are the people who are going to decide they cannot move forward with that because they are still so deeply feeling that pain.”

She, like many others, lamented that many Jewish organizations are acting as if “empathy is a finite resource that has to be conserved,” which leaves them too inwardly focused, in her view.

Click here to read the full article in New Lines Magazine