Click here to read the full article in Hammer & Hope's Winter 2024 issue


Most of us were still in a state of sleepless agitation on Oct. 18, after absorbing the images of carnage at Kibbutz Be’eri and then of the unrelenting, catastrophic attacks on Gaza, when a new set of images appeared. Hundreds of Jewish protesters had taken over a rotunda in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., their black T-shirts emblazoned with JEWS SAY CEASE-FIRE NOW, chanting, “Not in our name.” In the following weeks and months, Jewish protesters shut down Grand Central Terminal in New York, blocked an interstate highway in Philadelphia, and halted rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles; they held Hanukkah vigils for the Gazan dead in Boston, Seattle, Portland, and Atlanta, and interrupted a campaign speech by President Joe Biden in a Charleston, S.C., church with shouts of “Cease-fire now!” They joined mass marches in San Francisco and Chicago and Washington, D.C., and helped delay a U.S. military supply ship from leaving the Port of Oakland.

These expressions of Jewish opposition to Israel’s brutal bombardment of civilians have been intense, raw, and emotional — and unprecedented in scale. Most significantly, they began immediately, while news of the Hamas attack was still fresh, as Biden, echoed by established national Jewish institutions, was insisting that Oct. 7 had given Israel an unfettered right “to defend itself and its people,” even as that military campaign took a form that a federal judge later determined “may plausibly constitute a genocide.”

“We saw a completely uninterrupted march to genocidal war in that first week,” Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, told me in December. “The U.S. government and the Israeli government in equal part were weaponizing Jewish grief and identity to justify it.”

Instead, tens of thousands of American Jews have helped unleash a global explosion of protest. The Palestinian American political historian Rashid Khalidi described it to me as “a new phase in an alliance of progressive groups in the U.S.” By January, a poll showed that half of American Jews supported a permanent cease-fire. A fissure has shot through the American consensus on Israel.

Video documentation by Black people has been pivotal to the movement against police brutality, most notably Darnella Frasier’s 9-minute-and-29-second recording of the lynching of George Floyd, which helped launch a global uprising. Maybe the stream of images by Gazans documenting the horror of what they’re witnessing — Israel’s targeting of hospitals, universities, and apartment buildings, of aid workers and journalists, of children in refugee camps — is the only explanation that’s needed for the current wave of protest and the strong Jewish presence within it.

Children bloody and battered by the bombardment. Parents in the first unimaginable moments of grief. Unslept doctors treating patients without proper supplies, without even anesthesia. The empty gaze of a debris-covered child sitting on a hospital stretcher. A little girl named Alma, my daughter’s name, trapped deep beneath the rubble of a five-story building, shouting up to rescuers to please save her siblings, parents, and grandparents first, though a glance at the wreckage that surrounds her makes it seem impossible any of them could have survived. The poet and scholar Refaat Alareer struggling to articulate how impossible it was to parent through the deadly strikes that were coming as steadily as 25 an hour. “You don’t want to hug them so they don’t feel this could be the last one, and you want to hug them so at least there is a hug at the end,” he said on Oct. 9. “All the lies we tell them — that it’s going to be O.K., that the bombing is far away — they’re not working.”

Two months later, he, too, was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

More than one activist has said to me, “We’re watching a Nakba.”

But for generations, the destruction of Palestinian lives has been visible to anyone willing to look. An international commission that examined Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon found that Israel was directly involved in planning the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, for the “deliberate or indiscriminate or reckless bombardment of a civilian character, of hospitals, schools, and other non-military targets,” and for the “systematic bombardment and other destruction of towns, cities, villages, and refugee camps” — for the very kinds of military actions unfolding now, which Amnesty International has said should be investigated as war crimes.

Activists say it took years of educational, ideological, and organizing work to be ready for this moment, when tens of thousands of American Jews were able to throw off their blinders and head into the streets.

“Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them,” Edward Said wrote in his essay “Permission to Narrate” 40 years ago. “Such a narrative has to have a beginning and an end: in the Palestinian case, a homeland for the resolution of its exile since 1948.”

Repression of that Palestinian narrative, Khalidi argues, has been at the heart of the Zionist project. In The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, he traces that denial from its beginnings — the early Zionist slogan “A land without a people for a people without land” and the omission of any explicit reference to Palestinians or Arabs in the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine.

The Israeli state, U.S. Zionist organizations, and the U.S. government have each in their way heavily policed efforts to recognize Palestinian land claims — even Palestinian realities. On the one hand, an effort by Israel and the United States to delegitimize Palestinian resistance by labeling every successive organization — the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Fatah, Hamas — a terror group. On the other, a discourse that has often described Palestinian aspirations as tantamount to a death wish against the Jewish people.

Donna Nevel, a longtime Palestine activist and a cofounder of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (where I served as an early executive director), recalled the 1989 Road to Peace conference at Columbia University, for which she served as a coordinator. The PLO was considered a terror organization at the time by both Israel and the United States, requiring special visas for its representatives to travel to New York to sit down with members of civil society and the Israeli Knesset. It was a taboo-breaking act for Jews to attend talks focused on self-determination for both peoples then. Yet even the progressive Knesset members in attendance and the Israeli activists from Peace Now, which had held mass demonstrations protesting Israel’s abuses of Palestinians, shot down any discussion of the right of return as “totally unacceptable.” Twenty years later, long after the collapse of the Oslo Accords, Nevel recalls her efforts with Jews Say No! to open up a conversation in the New York Jewish community about joining the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, a campaign to end Israel’s occupation and colonization of Arab lands and establish the Palestinian right to return. When the group sought to organize a series of public conversations in New York City about the nonviolent strategy, “not one synagogue would let us hold the debate,” she said.


Audrey Sasson, the executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, spoke with me in December about trying to pull rabbis into the cease-fire movement. “The progressive Zionists don’t want to touch it,” she said. “They think if they touch cease-fire, then it means they’re aligning with an anti-Zionist organization. And they don’t want to be tarred with the same brush. They won’t do it. And not only that, they’ll say we’re betraying the Jewish community by doing it.”


Within the past two years, JFREJ and IfNotNow have also redefined their politics on Palestine. As JFREJ, which focuses primarily on domestic social justice issues, grew, it attracted a more politically diverse membership, including many Zionists. Yet, executive director Audrey Sasson said, “we needed to not feel paralyzed in critical moments.” After surveying the membership, leaders identified ways in which it was mission critical for JFREJ to mobilize on Palestine, such as when anti-Zionism was equated with antisemitism and weaponized against progressive Democrats and student activists — and especially in moments of crisis. “We anticipated another escalation,” she told me in December. “We knew something was going to give.”


The organizations leading this new wave of Jewish protest share an understanding of how antisemitism has been weaponized and see a role for themselves in blunting it. When the Movement for Black Lives issued a platform in 2016 endorsing Palestinian liberation and calling Israel an apartheid state, JVP and IfNotNow squared off against the ADL in defending it. When progressive Democrats such as Jamaal Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez have faced accusations of antisemitism over their support for Palestinian liberation, JFREJ has come to their defense. The pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC launched a super PAC in late 2021, the United Democracy Project, that successfully knocked out Andy Levin, Jessica Cisneros, and other progressive Democrats who advocate for Palestinian rights. “This multimillion-dollar bazooka,” Borgwardt said, made AIPAC “a primary blocker to the progressive movement having state power.” IfNotNow responded by launching a national campaign, Reject AIPAC, in a bid to make AIPAC dollars toxic to Democrats.

These groups recognized after Oct. 7 that protesting Israel’s assault on Gaza would be tarred as antisemitic and that Jewish visibility would be critical in challenging that narrative. “No one can say it’s non-Jews versus Jews when some of the loudest voices and biggest protests are being organized by Jews,” Leo Ferguson, JFREJ’s director of strategic projects, said. “That matters a lot in terms of people being able to claim that it’s antisemitism or claim that Jews are under attack.”


As long as there has been Zionism, there have been anti-Zionist Jews. It is easy to forget, from our contemporary vantage point, that in the interwar period, as Zionists responded to rising European antisemitism by aggressively recruiting colonists and buying up land in Palestine, the Jewish Labor Bund was a far more dominant Jewish political force in Eastern Europe. The Bund was vehemently anti-Zionist, committed instead to international socialism and to fighting antisemitism wherever Jews lived. At a 1948 conference, it called for a binational Palestinian state. For the 2003 anthology Wrestling with Zion, the scholar and activist Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark collected the voices of Jewish dissent on Zionism dating back to the 1890s. They included a prescient 1929 letter from the American rabbi Judah Magnes, then the chancellor of Hebrew University, in which he described political Zionism as “imperialist,” based upon “the creation (forcible if necessary) of a Jewish majority, no matter how much this oppresses the Arabs meanwhile, or deprives them of their rights. In this kind of policy the end always justifies the means.” He had exited what is now called the Zionist Organization of America in 1915, saying he was “desirous of having Palestine become a country of two nations and three religions, all of them having equal rights and none of them having special privileges; a country where nationalism is but the basis of internationalism.”

Warschawski, the Alternative Information Center founder, recalled that immediately after the 1967 war, while much of Israel was in a “nationalist euphoria,” student activists in Matzpen, the socialist group he had joined, responded by calling for an unconditional retreat from the occupied territories, the dismantling of Jewish settlements, the abolition of laws that privileged Jews, and the de-Zionization and democratization of Israel. The feminist Jewish writer and founding JFREJ director Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz proposed in 2001 a mass rejection of the Jewish right to return.

Now an explicitly anti-Zionist organization is at the heart of a Jewish Palestinian solidarity movement that has not only exploded in size but also matured and diversified. IfNotNow is reaching students who came up through the tentpoles of Jewish institutional life — Jewish day schools, synagogues, and summer camps — many of whom have become disillusioned with the refusal of those institutions to recognize Palestinian realities. By contrast, JVP, the anti-Zionist standard bearer, is focused on ingathering Jews who never felt welcome in Jewish spaces — Jews of color, queer Jews, Jews from interfaith families — “creating a home for people where they can bring their whole selves,” explained Vilkomerson, and bringing them into a global, intersectional antiwar movement with Palestine at its center.

JFREJ is reaching back to the Jewish Labor Bund and its politics of doikayt, “hereness,” what Kaye/Kantrowitz and others have called radical diasporism. In forging this diasporic Jewish social justice identity in New York City, the largest Jewish city in the world, JFREJ is increasingly doing so as a direct alternative to the Zionist project, to what Sasson describes as its militarism and ethnonationalism. “What we build in New York,” she said, “is in so many ways an antidote to what’s going on over there.”

All of these organizations have grown, not shrunk, as they have made their political commitments to Palestinians more explicit. With every assault on Gaza, from Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 to the current monthslong bombardment, JVP’s membership has grown, Vilkomerson said, and the organization built campaigns to keep them engaged, from pushing university retirement funds to divest from Caterpillar Inc., which sells bulldozers used by Israel to demolish Palestinian homes, to campaigning to end an ADL program that sends U.S. law enforcement for training in Israel.

In all of the conversations I’ve had with Jewish organizers in recent weeks, I’ve heard tremendous generosity toward the role each organization is playing within the movement ecosystem — and tremendous compassion for where people are on their journey away from Zionism. “We don’t need people to come through the door” with any particular relationship to Zionism, Borgwardt said. Instead they need people “to be open to grappling with Zionism and learning about what Zionism has meant for Jews — and also what Zionism has meant for Palestinians.” Ferguson said JFREJ is committed to being a big tent, but one with “really clear values” that is open to causing “the right kind of generative discomfort” by throwing its energies into the movement for a cease-fire.

Several also talked about holding space for grief — grief about the horrific brutality being visited on Gazans; grief about the Israeli civilians, many of them anti-occupation activists, who were killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7; grief over the dehumanization of Palestinians by so many in the Jewish community. I attended a grief ritual for the Jewish community in the Bay Area in December, a space created to prevent that grief from being paralyzing — or weaponized. At its best, one of the leaders said, grief can teach us how we want to live, can threaten systems of dominance, and serve as the foundation on which we build a vision for a just world.

Click here to read the full article in Hammer & Hope's Winter 2024 issue