As the death toll rises in Gaza, many American Jews are speaking out — often in conflict with friends and family.
Thousands of Jews and allies hold an emergency sit-in, demanding a cease-fire in Gaza at New York's Grand Central Station on Oct. 27.SELCUK ACAR/ANADOLU VIA GETTY IMAGES
Robert Neuwirth, a journalist and author, watched from behind a police barricade as hundreds of American Jews staged a sit-in demonstration inside New York’s Grand Central Terminal on Friday night. He was coming to terms with a bloody military operation in the Gaza Strip that the state of Israel claims it is carrying out on behalf of Jews worldwide.
“I spent the bulk of my life trying to avoid this,” Neuwirth said, referring to the public show of dissent against Israel’s military action in the Strip, which Palestinian officials say has now claimed 8,796 lives.
“I didn’t want my life defined by the atrocities that Israel committed. So I just stayed quiet. Now, I can no longer stay quiet.”
A few feet away, Lane Stein choked back tears as he denounced “by-the-book ethnic cleansing” in Gaza. Stein, whose sister lives in Israel, said his family doesn’t speak to him about what’s happening. “They know my stance on the issue.”
The 35-year-old recalled being on a “Birthright” trip in Israel during “Operation Cast Lead,” Israel’s 2008 war with Gaza that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children. The trip ― a paid-for excursion meant to encourage Zionism among young Jews ― still haunts Stein, who said Israel has done “very little to secure a lasting peace.”
“I remember that vividly. Hundreds of children were killed,” Stein said. “To be on Birthright during that I think just made such a big impact. I wish other of my fellow Jews could see that.”
American Jewish life has been torn asunder since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants took the lives of more than 1,400 Israelis and, according to Israeli officials, took at least 230 more as hostages. There are about 7.5 million American Jews total in the United States, and many are one or two steps away from victims of the horrific assault ― the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, and one that recalled the pogroms that moved generations of American Jews’ ancestors to flee for the New World. And as pro-Palestinian demonstrators assemble across the globe to protest Israel’s brutal counteroffensive, which now includes a ground invasion, antisemitic incidents have spiked as well.
But as many Jews rally behind the Israeli government’s military response, a vocal and growing minority is speaking out — often in conflict with their close friends and family. They’re campaigning for a cease-fire and diplomatic efforts to save the lives of hostages currently held in Gaza, as well as the more than 2 million innocent civilians in the tiny territory.
Inside Grand Central, as protesters chanted “cease-fire now,” Helen Schiff — a Jewish veteran of the movement for Palestinians’ rights, who was part of a 2009 Code Pink delegation to Gaza ― said the demonstration was one sign of a historic shift among American Jews.
“I hope that it’s going to result in something changing,” Schiff said. “But it’s going to be a long haul.”
Confronting Trauma, Calling For Cease-fire
American Jews who have worked with Palestinians for years to establish a just peace in the region have watched in horror as entire neighborhoods have been flattened in Gaza ― all with the support of the U.S. government, which has cast the battle as one of Jewish survival. “It’s going to be messy,” White House spokesperson John Kirby said while emphasizing the United States’ support for Israel. “Innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward.”
In more than a dozen interviews in the past week, American Jews speaking out against Israel’s military actions in Gaza conveyed either a sense of frantic urgency or distraught helplessness.
Miriam Grossman, a Brooklyn-based rabbi, is one of dozens of “Rabbis for Ceasefire” calling for an end to the violence and the release of Israeli hostages in Gaza. She told HuffPost that the grief people feel over the recent bloodshed is sacred ― and so are their efforts to preserve life.
“As a rabbi, it feels very painful to hold the grief of so many of the people I care for who are in mourning, and at the same time, I have so much grief for the ways this violence, this atrocity, is now being enacted in my name,” Grossman said. “But on an even deeper level, honestly, just as a parent, as a mom, I just feel so heartbroken. For me, that’s where the clarity and the desire for a cease-fire comes from.”
“As a parent, as a mom, I just feel so heartbroken. For me, that’s where the clarity and the desire for a cease-fire comes from.” - Rabbi Miriam Grossman
Grossman’s father, Daniel Grossman, was also a rabbi ― and a supporter of Israel. He died last year, and his daughter said she sometimes thinks of whether his views might have changed over time.
“I’d like to think that he’d be able to see what I’m doing ― in calling for a de-escalation, cease-fire, negotiated release of all hostages ― as part of a fight for the sanctity of all human life that includes Jewish life and makes no exception for Palestinian life,” she said.
Across the country, such conversations are happening at Jewish dinner tables every day. Some turn out worse than others: One 21-year-old told NPR their father kicked them out of a Shabbat dinner after they’d attended a protest where demonstrators called for a cease-fire: “He was like, ‘You are not welcome at this dinner table.’”
Ben Lorber, who researches the far right and is working on a book about fighting antisemitism, told HuffPost that it felt like an “impossible balancing act” to respond to Jews’ grief and horror at the Hamas attack while also advocating for a cease-fire in Gaza.
“Many people in the American Jewish community are in shock, and in deep mourning at the sheer scale of the loss of Israeli life, the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust,” Lorber said. “I think it’s profoundly traumatizing to a lot of American Jews, who are living in terror that the hostages haven’t been released yet. And we’re looking at a rapidly unfolding war that makes American Jews deeply afraid.”
At the same time, he added, “A lot of us on the Jewish left feel this sense of urgency that, right now, we need to wake up our community to stop the unfolding atrocity in Gaza, and we feel this urgency, obviously, to try to get our community to oppose Israel’s attack.”
Eli Valley, an artist and author known for provocative images skewering Israeli and American politics, said he’d watched the brutality of Hamas’ attack turn otherwise apathetic Jews into “ardent supporters of Israel” in recent weeks. The violence, he said, had evoked historical traumas embedded deeply in the Jewish memory, including the terror of violent extermination.
“The danger with a fear of extinction is that all options are on the table, which is why the genocide of Palestinians is such a terrifying prospect right now,” said Valley, who was among those arrested at the Grand Central Terminal sit-in.
What would he say to those eager to back Israel’s response in the name of Jewish preservation?
Valley paused, finding the words: “We will not find liberation through the elimination of another people.”
‘Photo Inverse Of White Supremacists’
Israeli political leaders have for years elevated the rights of Jewish Israelis over those of others, attempted to weaken the country’s judiciary, and violently established settlements in the West Bank, all while imposing a blockade on Gaza. Now, after the Hamas attack, the situation appears close to spiraling out of control.
Scholars have substantiated fears of genocide, or a second “Nakba” ― Arabic for “catastrophe,” and a reference to the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from most of Israel, which created generations of refugees unable to return to their ancestral homes.
“Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza is quite explicit, open and unashamed,” Raz Segal, an Israeli historian who studies the Holocaust, wrote just five days after Hamas’ attack and the beginning of Israel’s response. Days later, nearly 800 scholars and practitioners of international law signed a public statement to “sound the alarm” about the possibility of a genocide. Among other things, they cited that Israel had issued a relocation order to more than 1.1 million Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip, and that an Israeli military spokesperson had said that “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”
Prominent Israelis have called for mass killing in Gaza. On Saturday, a mob attempted to break into a college dormitory housing Arab-Israelis in the city of Netanya, then shouted “death to Arabs” outside, forcing an evacuation. Dozens of Israelis have been detained for pro-Palestinian social media posts, and Israel Police chief Yaakov Shabtai warned that he would bus people protesting in support of Palestine into Gaza. An Arab-Jewish conference focused on “our partnership in the struggle for justice and against war” was canceled after police warned of “various consequences.” Israel Frey, an orthodox Jewish Israeli journalist, was forced into hiding after he expressed empathy for Palestinians under Israeli attack. In the West Bank, fundamentalist Jewish settlers have accelerated violent land grabs and an already historic number of killings.
In the United States, there have been widespread censorship efforts aimed at pro-Palestinian voices, and an increase in Islamophobic incidents, including harassment and violence. In Chicago, 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume was killed by his landlord in what authorities say was an anti-Muslim hate crime.
“We will not find liberation through the elimination of another people.” - Eli Valley
Yet voices of caution ― let alone advocacy for Palestinians ― are rare among establishment Jewish institutions and commentators.
“Over the days and weeks ahead, the [Israel Defense Forces] will take decisive actions to destroy the terrorist threat from Gaza,” read an Oct. 9 statement from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents 50 large, influential organizations. “Israel, like all other nations, has both the right and responsibility to protect its citizens. This military operation is not one of Israel’s choosing but one made necessary by Hamas and Iran.”
Stu Loeser, a prominent Democratic communications consultant, told The New York Times the next day: “This is not a time for nuance. People who have been dancing on nuance, it’s going to be really, really hard ... It is an important which-side-are-you-on moment.”
Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, a large and influential congregation in Manhattan, said during an Oct. 21 Shabbat service that Israel has an obligation to defend its citizens: “It is not complicated.”
Though he noted Jewish law counsels against excessive bloodlust, he argued that responsibility for civilian Palestinian deaths lies with Hamas. He also argued that “Israel is being held to a different standard than any other nation” when it comes to conduct in war ― a purported difference he attributed to antisemitism.
That argument ― that criticism of Israeli military tactics, or indeed of Zionism itself, is antisemitic ― has fueled perhaps the most bitter disagreements among American Jews since the war started. And last month, the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group whose research on far-right extremists and antisemites has long been a resource for journalists and Jewish community leaders, crystallized the debate in an attack against two of the most active Jewish groups calling for a cease-fire.
After the groups IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace ― two organizations that campaign for an end to what they argue is an ethnonationalist apartheid system in Israel ― held a pro-cease-fire rally and sit-in at the U.S. Capitol, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt referred to the groups as “the photo inverse of white supremacists.” A year ago, he used a similar phrase, referring to Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, as “the Radical Left, the photo inverse of the Extreme Right that ADL long has tracked.”
At least one ADL staffer, Stephen Rea, resigned over Greenblatt’s comment, referring to it as “throwing red meat to the people who want to do the *most* harm.” He said the organization has done great work but that he “couldn’t square my morals and politics with the direction I saw the org going in.”
Stefanie Fox, the executive director of Jewish Voice For Peace, said the ADL’s attacks “don’t mean a lot next to the stakes of what’s on the line right now.”
“The best way to honor all those lost is to insist that no further lives are lost, especially when millions of Palestinian lives are on the line,” she said.
Lorber, the antisemitism researcher, is also a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. He took issue with Greenblatt’s description, referring to it as “a shocking betrayal of reality.”
“A civil rights organization would be standing with protestors and saying, ‘Regardless of whether we agree with you, your civil rights deserve protection.’ And the ADL is not living up to that task in this moment,” he said. “The right is looking for excuses to demonize progressives, to paint civil rights activists with a broad brush as dangerous, antisemitic extremists, and that carries real-world consequences in the suppression of our speech... the ADL is adding fuel to that fire.”
In a statement to HuffPost, an ADL spokesperson referenced Greenblatt’s past commentscomparing far-right threats to Category 5 hurricanes, while “antisemitism from the far-left was more akin to climate change: slow, subtle, but steadily rising largely unnoticed until the disaster is already upon us.”
“ADL has long defended free speech and the right of people to express even odious views,” the statement added, “but we certainly will call out when those protests cross lines and are organized by groups that take extreme positions – positions that include blaming Israel as the ‘root cause’ and ‘source of the violence’ for the massacre of Jews by the antisemitic terrorist organization Hamas.”
Changing Beliefs About Israel
Though they have reliably supported Democrats more often than Republicans in the past, American Jews are not a political monolith, particularly on questions of Israel-Palestine. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanuyahu and other Israeli leaders have cozied up to the American right in recent years, and generational changes reflect a different attitude toward Israel among young people. Now, facing a historically bloody war, a simmering divide over support of the Israeli government among American Jews is coming to the fore.
In July 2021, as Vox noted recently, 58% of Jewish voters responding to a Jewish Electorate Institute poll supported restricting U.S. aid to Israel so that the country could not spend the money “on expanding settlements in the West Bank.” Roughly a quarter agreed that Israel “is an apartheid state,” and 22% agreed that Israel “is committing genocide against the Palestinians.”
According to a different poll conducted from July 16, 2021, until Jan. 5, 2022, 42% of American Jews either agreed or strongly agreed with the goals of the “Boycott-Divest-Sanction” movement (though just 23% supported the tactics of the movement). The poll also found that 51% of American Jews believed U.S. support for Palestinians should be increased, while only 26% believed the same for Israel. The poll was conducted by Carleton University political science professor Mira Sucharov, who shared the results with HuffPost. She used a “convenience sample,” disseminating a survey link by email to a network of Jewish organizations in the United States, as well as by social media. The responses of 2,298 self-identifying Jewish Americans were weighed against Pew Research Center’s 2020 report on Jewish Americans on variables including age, gender, region, income, partisan identification and Jewish ancestry.
Well before Oct. 7, some Jewish intellectuals saw an opportunity to widen the lens of debate about Israel.
“There’s much more openness to the analysis of the Jewish left, at this moment,” Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, a left-wing publication that relaunched in 2018, saidin June during a discussion on the future of “Jewish dissent.” Angel said Jewish Currents had been receiving invitations from synagogues and Jewish community centers ― generally older, more conservative audiences than the magazine’s readership.
“In the past, we would have been shouted down. And now, people on the panel are more inclined to have to answer us, and even to agree with us, at least to cede the premise that we are in an anti-democratic paradigm [in Israel],” she said.
Jewish Voice for Peace, which organized the pro-cease-fire demonstrations in D.C. and at Grand Central, is itself explicitly anti-Zionist, describing its vision for the region as “Jewish Israelis joining Palestinians to build a just society, rooted in equality rather than supremacy.” But Fox, the group’s executive director, said the immediate focus of the protests was a cease-fire, not long-term political goals.
“We are not saying, ‘Come agree with every single thing we are saying or have said,’” Fox said. “We are saying: ‘Right now, come with your disagreement, your anger, your confusion, your grief. Bring it all.’ The only thing you have to agree to is that there is no military solution, and that we must end it now ― cease-fire now.”
“In this moment, the thing that gives me a lot of hope are those who are willing to hold their questions, confusion and disagreement while they also move into action to stop the Israeli government’s unfolding genocide of Palestinians,” she added.
That strategy is drawing large numbers: On Oct. 18, thousands of protesters converged on Washington, D.C., to call for a cease-fire, and another 500 people were arrested as part of a sit-in in the U.S. Capitol, including a couple dozen rabbis. Fox told HuffPost it was the largest event in JVP’s history. A few days later, the protest at Grand Central Terminal drew twice as many people as the D.C. event and resulted in the arrest of 350 participants, Fox said.
A Common Struggle
As sit-in participants were released one by one from law enforcement custody late Friday, an accordionist played klezmer music, and “jail support” volunteers cheered and handed out challah to a new generation of Jewish peace activists. The display was part of a long lineage of such activism ― including at Grand Central, 20 years ago.
Some on the Jewish left are wary of the effectiveness of organizing as Jews, rather than as part of larger multi-group coalitions. As Lorber put it, “American Jews don’t really set the terms for U.S. foreign policy around Israel-Palestine. I think those are increasingly set by the Christian right, Christian Zionists, by defense contractors, and by U.S. political leaders and their geopolitical interests.” Others worry about taking attention away from the urgent suffering of Palestinians.
Still, for Jews, anxieties abound: The spike in antisemitism around the globe is undeniable, and includes firebombing attacks on synagogues and a Russian Jewish community center, the incitement of a mob in Russia in response to an incoming flight from Tel Aviv, bomb threats in Paris, and menacing language aimed at students at Cornell University and elsewhere. In Grand Central Terminal, a man assaulted a woman because, as he allegedly said, “You are Jewish.” A Nevada man was arrested Monday for allegedly leaving voicemails for Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) threatening to finish “what Hitler started.”
And, outright bigots aside, some protest language following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack has been callous at best ― exemplified by the small but still bracing number of purported pro-Palestinian intellectuals and activists who’ve attempted to justify, or even celebrate, Hamas’ killing of civilians on the academic grounds that resistance to colonial oppression can take many forms.
“The justification ― or even just the passing over without comment ― of what was a really horrifying display of inhumanity by Hamas is very costly,” said Peter Beinart, editor-at-large at Jewish Currents, and a professor of journalism and politics at CUNY, who has studied the region for decades.
Beinart, like many American Jews HuffPost spoke to, said he was “feeling devastated.”
“The ability to create a sense of common struggle based on common humanity and a recognition of the infinite preciousness of both Palestinian and Jewish life, it seems like it’s been dealt a very serious blow,” he said. “And it’s become much more difficult to be in anything like the mainstream American Jewish community and also be someone who’s actively working for Palestinian freedom.”
Still, he and others have found hope in solidarity: Beinart has called on the pro-Palestinian left to advocate for the release of Israeli hostages, and for the Israeli government to release Palestinian political prisoners who aren’t affiliated with Hamas.
Valley, the artist who was arrested at Grand Central, said he could find little hope for the future in the past three weeks ― save for one thing.
“The reaction to the action at Grand Central was encouraging, because some Muslim Americans and Palestinians, they’ve been really isolated, and they were genuinely appreciative of the concept that they’re not objects of total dehumanization by at least some people,” he said.
Standing at the police barricade Friday night, Nour Chamoun, who is Palestinian, tallied the people she knew who had family and friends dying in Gaza. “A friend of mine just had 40 members of her family killed,” she said. “We’re seeing a televised genocide happening live in front of us.”
For Chamoun, like so many others, the future seems bleak. But, she added, the display of solidarity at Grand Central was truly meaningful.
“Honestly, I feel very, very grateful to have solidarity from a lot of non-Arabs,” she said. “The Jewish community has really shown up and put their bodies on the line, and I hope more folks come forward and speak out as they see more.”
“Unfortunately, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
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