Inside story'Every day under Israeli system of apartheid is provocation'

A tear in the tent: The US Jews who are protesting Israel following Hamas massacres

Galvanized by groups including ‘IfNotNow’ and ‘Jewish Voice for Peace,’ thousands of US Jews have denounced the Jewish state almost immediately after slaughter of 1,200 Israelis

Matt Lebovic

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Some thousand demonstrators on Sunday gathered in Manhattan's Times Square to voice support for the Palestinian people and urge against continued US military aid to Israel (© Bryan R. Smith/ AFP)
Some thousand demonstrators on Sunday gathered in Manhattan's Times Square to voice support for the Palestinian people and urge against continued US military aid to Israel (© Bryan R. Smith/ AFP)

NEW YORK — While most American Jewish organizations lurched into emergency mode this weekend to plan pro-Israel rallies, not all US Jews placed themselves in the “communal tent” regarding support for the Jewish state at war.

On Sunday, as many were still processing the nature and extent of Saturday’s Hamas massacres which left over 1,200 Israelis dead and over a hundred captured following a well-planned air, land and sea attack, the far-left Jewish group IfNotNow took a different tack.

“We cannot and will not say today’s actions by Palestinian militants are unprovoked,” read the statement from IfNotNow, which was founded in 2014 to protest US defense aid to Israel.

“Every day under Israel’s system of apartheid is a provocation. The strangling siege on Gaza is a provocation,” said the statement.

As for civilians murdered in Saturday’s attacks, IfNotNow said, “their blood is on the hands of the Israeli government, the US government which funds and excuses their recklessness, and every international leader who continues to turn a blind eye to decades of Palestinian oppression, endangering both Palestinian and Israelis.”

These statements reflect a certain reality on college campuses, where activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict battle for hearts and minds, said historian Sara Hirschhorn, a fellow at the ADL’s Center for Antisemitism Research. There has been a sea change among youth regarding support for Israel, she said.

Sara Hirschhorn, author and historian (courtesy)

“There is a generational change among young millennial American Jews that is signified in this [IfNotNow] statement and it suggests there are some shifting attitudes here,” Hirschhorn told The Times of Israel on Monday.

On many campuses, said Hirschhorn, “young Jews are being asked to check their Zionism at the door of the progressive cause. If they are hearing from their peers that Zionism represents bigotry, injustice, and racism, why would they stand for Israel?”

Wall-to-wall Jewish support for Israel in the US began to erode about 50 years ago, said Hirschhorn. Although the reasons behind today’s disunity are varied, a new element was added to the mix last year, she said.

Young Jews are being asked to check their Zionism at the door of the progressive cause

“The latest Israeli government and some of its policies have been a real source of shock and awe for American Jews, especially Jews who are starting to question if the Israel-Diaspora relationship is built on shared values,” said Hirschhorn, who added that many Jewish students are “really committed to progressive values and activism.”

‘Harvard Jews for Liberation’

A lot of keffiyehs have been spotted around the heads and necks of students at Harvard University since Sunday, Alex Bernat, a junior studying electrical engineering and computer science, told The Times of Israel.

The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee had started the “Keffiyeh Thursday” movement at Harvard long before this weekend’s attacks, so Bernat was accustomed to seeing about “10 or 20” people wearing a keffiyeh on any given Thursday, he said.

Illustrative: The Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee holds its weekly ‘Keffiyeh Thursday’ in support of Palestine (Facebook)

On Sunday, however, Bernat said he was “shocked” to see many people he knew wearing a keffiyeh, including fellow students.

“Harvard has a very toxic environment for Israel-related issues and Jewish students and [Saturday’s Hamas massacres] brought the sympathy for terrorism and other nasty stuff out into the light,” said Bernat, who led the high-profile Harvard Israel Conference for two years.

Although Bernat said he did not observe Jewish students wearing a keffiyeh on Sunday, the university’s “Harvard Jews for Liberation” organization garnered international media attention for co-signing a statement condemning Israel over the weekend.

Billed as a “Joint Statement by Harvard Palestine Solidarity Groups on the Situation in Palestine,” the statement called for action to help protect Palestinians from “colonial retaliation.”

Jews against Israel rally in Brookline, Massachusetts, the day after Hamas murdered 1,000 Israelis, Oct. 8, 2023 (social media)

According to the statement, put out by Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), Israel’s response to the murder of more than 1,200 civilians and soldiers “will require a firm stand against colonial retaliation. We call on the Harvard community to take action to stop the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians,” read the statement.

According to Bernat, the majority of Jewish students at Harvard support Israel. On the heels of the anti-Israel statement put out by PSC, Bernat published an open letter in support of Israel which denounced the 32 Harvard groups that signed the PSC statement supporting Hamas.

“For the most part the Jewish community here is extraordinarily unified,” said Bernat, adding that both the campus Hillel and Chabad leadership joined the letter, which has been signed by more than 3,500 people so far.

According to the Chicago-born Bernat, Harvard Jews for Liberation is a “manifestation” of Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, as opposed to a campus-incubated organization.

Illustrative: Jewish Voice for Peace activists in Bryant Park, New York City (social media)

Jewish Voice For Peace (JVP) was founded in 1996 by anti-Israel activists including Tony Kushner and Noam Chomsky. Similar to the Zionist organizations J Street and AIPAC, JVP is a national movement with student activists on campuses.

Yesterday, JVP issued a blog post urging the US government to “immediately take steps to withdraw military funding to Israel and to hold the Israeli government accountable for its gross violations of human rights and war crimes against Palestinians.”

‘Immeasurable Palestinian suffering’

While thousands of Jews and Israel supporters flocked to rallies and vigils beginning on Saturday night, some well-known American Jews used their platforms to blame Israel for the Hamas massacres.

“There can be no return to the status quo ante of indefinite occupation in the West Bank and siege of Gaza, the underlying conditions against which Palestinians have long struggled,” wrote Jewish Currents editor Joshua Leifer.

A popular social media voice against Israel, Leifer said this month will be remembered for Israel perpetrating a genocide in Gaza, and not for the Hamas massacres.

Journalist and ‘Jewish Currents’ editor Joshua Leifer (public domain)

“Contrary to those on the left who were quick to hail the Hamas attack as the opening act of putative uprising, it is more likely to be remembered as an act of will-to-suicide that will all but certainly result in immeasurable Palestinian suffering,” wrote Leifer.

In the assessment of Hirschhorn, remarks like the IfNotNow statement released Sunday are “not supportive of two states or against terrorism,” she told The Times of Israel.

Hirschhorn said she “does not know whether IfNotNow, personally or professionally, define themselves within the [communal] tent,” she said.

“I’m not sure how they stand on those issues and how they see themselves,” said Hirschhorn.

On Monday night, IfNotNow tweeted that some of its staff members lost “Israeli loved ones” in Saturday’s attacks. However, according to the tweet, Palestine activists should be “terrified for loved ones in Gaza with nowhere to hide as leaders weaponize our pain to call for genocide.”

The statement released by IfNotNow on Sunday placed the group beyond “red lines” maintained by mainstream American Jews, said Hirschhorn.

In opposition, J Street, founded in 2007 to protest US support for Israel’s presence in disputed territories, issued a robust statement condemning Hamas by name.

“We are appalled to have seen some organizations, commentators and politicians find ways to excuse, justify or even celebrate these horrific crimes against Israelis,” said J Street’s statement, published on Monday.

Photograph of Harvard University ‘Israel Apartheid Week’s’ so-called ‘Wall of Resistance’ in 2019, Cambridge, Massachusetts (social media)

The Harvard campus J Street chapter is an affiliate of Hillel, and so far has refrained from issuing statements about the Hamas massacres.

In addition to supporting the campus J Street chapter, for the past 15 years, Harvard Hillel has hosted “Breaking the Silence” speakers, who are IDF vets who “have taken it upon themselves to expose the public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

Confined by Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership,” however, the Hillel was unable to “open the tent” to include the “Open Hillel” movement, which claims to “focus on broadening the discourse on campuses surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

For Hirschhorn, an imperative for Jewish life both on campus and off is an openness to varying points of view and dialogue. However, she said, statements published by groups including IfNotNow and JVP are disturbing and upsetting to the vast majority of American Jews.

“This is a time to come together as a community,” said Hirschhorn. “We should try to remain an open tent as much as possible, but there have to be some red lines that have to be signaled to groups strongly in moments like this as civilians are killed in gruesome events.”

Most Popular
read more: