After outrage at the last-minute inclusion of controversial pastor John Hagee as a speaker at the massive “March for Israel” rally earlier this week, many progressive US Jewish groups who threw their support behind the protest expressed dismay with its speaker lineup.
“Even the speakers who were on the ‘left’ were like a right-wing person’s imagination of a left-wing person; there was nobody who spoke who was left of center on Israel-Palestine,” said Hadar Susskind, who leads the progressive Jewish group Americans for Peace Now (APN).
Susskind says he and other leaders in the “peace bloc” — a coalition of liberal Jewish groups led by Americans for Peace Now that attended the protest — were blindsided by the rally organizers’ last-minute decision to invite John Hagee, a controversial Evangelical pastor who has made antisemitic statements in the past.
“The decision to invite Hagee was divisive and wrong,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the rabbinic organization T’ruah. “His supposed support for Israel comes from a theology in which Jews are pawns in a Christian supersessionist plan.”
A week ago, Susskind recalled being told by those involved in planning that Hagee’s name was floated as a potential speaker, but was quickly shot down because organizers wanted to ensure the protest remained big-tent.
“Then, of course, the night before, they announced that Hagee was in fact speaking. It was a 100 percent unacceptable, terrible decision,” he said.
Despite the rally’s strong bipartisan messaging and platforming of both Democrats and Republicans, many peace bloc attendees felt that the speaker lineup skewed rightward beyond just Hagee.
“Even among the Democrats who spoke, none of those people are on the left on this issue. They may be on the left in the world [in general] because they’re Democrats, but Chuck Schumer is not a progressive on Israel, and neither is Kathy Manning,” Susskind said. “They literally had nobody up there who brought anything close to a left-wing view.”
The peace bloc as a whole, which included Americans for Peace Now, JStreet, Partners for Progressive Israel and T’ruah, among many other organizations, found itself scattered out into smaller groups during the rally along with hundreds of thousands of other demonstrators from across the United States.
Susskind said that he estimates the peace bloc numbered around a couple of thousand people out of nearly 300,000.
The massive protest was organized by two leading Jewish umbrella organizations: Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Despite the fact that APN holds membership in the Conference of Presidents, Susskind says that he was not in direct contact with its leadership in the week before the rally.
“We did not have any say in the planning of this at all. Although we are Conference members, they did not reach out to us at all about who was going to speak and what was going to happen,” he said.
Liberal Jewish groups were severely upset with the speaker lineup and organization of the protest, however, those who partook in the peace bloc say there was almost no tension between its attendees and the broader crowd.
Jacobs compared the harmonious dynamic this week to Washington’s massive pro-Israel demonstration during the Second Intifada and called it a “huge contrast” to 2002 when she attended with a group of liberal rabbinical students and their “signs got ripped up and we got yelled at,” by fellow attendees.
“People [this time] mostly said they were glad to see us or ignored us. A couple of people had questions, but real questions that invited conversation,” Jacobs said. This time, she and her organization T’ruah passed out signs that read: “Pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-humanity,” for like-minded demonstrators.
Since the outbreak of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, progressive Jewish organizations have struggled to assert themselves between outspoken anti-Zionist groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, and the mainstream Jewish establishment.
“You’re always holding a tension, you’re always feeling like there’s dueling narratives and competing ideas in the space that you’re in and your challenge is to hold all of those ideas,” said Maytal Kowalski, executive director of Partners for Progressive Israel.
“We were all there at the rally because we wanted to be with the community,” she said. “I don’t think that it helps anybody to walk away in defiance.”
The peace bloc organizers knew going in that they would be at the rally’s fringes but maintained that they made the right move by participating. Still, they were jarred by how it played out in real time.
Susskind worries that by failing to platform any speakers with a progressive message on the conflict, organizers “missed an opportunity” to garner support from liberal Americans and could end up driving them further away.
“This is probably the highest profile Israel-related event that we’ve seen or will see for years, if not decades. For people who don’t live and breathe this all the time, who saw it on the news or read about it on social media, the ‘pro-Israel rally’ was a right-wing rally,” he said.
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