'It turns out that our allies don't see us as victims'

On Tree of Life shooting anniversary, liberal US Jews mourn alone over Hamas atrocities

Many Jewish progressives find that unlike the outpouring of support five years ago, allies don’t show up for Israel, regardless of magnitude and brutality of the violence suffered

  • Zioness founder Amanda Berman at a vigil in New York City for victims of the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Courtesy)
    Zioness founder Amanda Berman at a vigil in New York City for victims of the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Courtesy)
  • Pro-Israel demonstrators sing a song during a protest at Columbia University after the October 7 Hamas atrocities, October 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
    Pro-Israel demonstrators sing a song during a protest at Columbia University after the October 7 Hamas atrocities, October 12, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
  • Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) director Audrey Sasson at a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018. (Gili Getz)
    Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) director Audrey Sasson at a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018. (Gili Getz)
  • Rabbi Aaron Bisno in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2020. (Danielle Ziri)
    Rabbi Aaron Bisno in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2020. (Danielle Ziri)

Five years after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the embrace American Jews once felt from communities across the United States seems to have faded away.

Instead, as they are grappling with the tragedy of Hamas’s October 7 massacre of Israeli civilians, which took place just 20 days before the anniversary of the Pittsburgh shooting, public expressions of solidarity are few and far between, leaving many feeling disheartened.

“I don’t feel betrayal as acutely as I feel like I’ve woken up from a naivete,” Rabbi Aaron Bisno, who at the time of the Tree of Life attack was leading services in a nearby synagogue, told The Times of Israel. “It turns out that our allies don’t see us as victims. They are not looking through a moral lens, they’re looking through a racial lens or an identity politics lens.”

On Saturday, October 7, thousands of Hamas terrorists swarmed into Israel, invading towns and villages around the Gaza border, slaughtering over 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians — and committing atrocities including rapes, mutilations, beheadings and torture. At least 220 people were kidnapped, including children and the elderly.

Rockets are fired daily by the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups into Israel since the onslaught. As it continues to prepare for a ground invasion, Israel has responded with intensive strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, instructing civilians to move to the south of the strip for their safety. Israel says it killed 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.

The Hamas massacre came almost exactly five years after a white supremacist shot to death 11 people during Shabbat morning services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in what was the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh, October 29, 2018. (Matt Rourke/AP)

A ‘different type of moment’

“The Tree of Life story was one of defenseless Jews being attacked, at prayer, by surprise,” Bisno said. “They were all older, no one was fighting back and there was no recourse.”

The synagogue shooter, Bisno also pointed out, was a lone actor, and “everyone understands a crazy person doing terrible things.” But in the case of the October 7 massacre, he added, “People go immediately to the ‘What about?’ or, ‘Well, you have to understand that the Palestinians have been very angry for a long time,’ or whatever else.”

“Now we’re in a geopolitical debate about whether it’s justified,” he said.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2020. (Danielle Ziri)

At Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), a far-left organization aiming to combat racism and economic exploitation in New York City, executive director Audrey Sasson recalled that the Tree of Life shooting was “a moment where we were so clearly attacked and there wasn’t a counter-attack. We were attacked and we had time to grieve, we’ve been grieving.”

An JFREJ initial statement following the Hamas attacks was less unequivocal: “We recognize that attacks on civilians by Hamas are neither justifiable nor unprovoked.” Likewise, on October 11, the group posted on social media that it lit candles for the loss of life and “For decades of apartheid that have culminated in this moment.”

When it comes to the atrocities of October 7, Sasson told The Times of Israel, “There hasn’t been time to grieve because there was an immediate response, so I think that that has complicated the dynamic a little bit.”

More than 5,700 people have died in Gaza since Israel began its operation, according to unverified numbers given by the Hamas-run health ministry, which are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen killed in Israel and Gaza, as well as victims of a blast at a Gaza City hospital on October 17 caused by an Islamic Jihad missile misfire that Hamas blamed on Israel. The humanitarian situation in the strip has also been concerning for the international community, as aid is starting to be distributed in Gaza.

“At Tree of Life when we had the vigil, our Muslim partners came to do security for us. It was a moment for that solidarity to be demonstrated and to be really fortified,” Sasson added. “It was a different type of moment and I think what our members are struggling with right now is that we haven’t had the time to process or grieve or anything.”

Muslim partners with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) at a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018. (Gili Getz)

Amanda Berman, founder of a progressive Zionist group called Zioness, believes there are two main reasons why Jews in the United States are not being shown as much solidarity as they were after the Pittsburgh shooting.

“First of all, Americans love to politicize antisemitism by pointing to their perceived ideological enemies and accusing them of hosting it, without ever being willing to confront it in our own spaces,” Berman said. “So it was easy for people to call out white supremacist attacks in Pittsburgh, like it was when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.”

In addition, Berman said, “People are applying a simple oppressor/oppressed binary onto the conflict in a way that is leading them to totally misunderstand the history and actual dynamics on the ground.”

Zioness founder Amanda Berman at a vigil in New York City for victims of the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Courtesy)

However, according to Bisno, the decision from other communities on whether or not to stand with Jews is also motivated by personal interest.

“In the States, the default if you think of an American is white male Christian,” he said. “[Tree of Life] was such an abhorrent thing, attacking Jews like this, that the Christian community wanted to make it very clear that this is not them.”

“Yes they were standing with the Jews, but they were really standing opposite the killer,” he added. “[October 7] is more complicated because they don’t identify with the Jews or the Muslims.”

After the shooting in Pittsburgh, which also happened on a Saturday, Muslims from the area showed up in large numbers for their Jewish counterparts. Many also participated in Bisno’s service the following Shabbat. This time, however, he said the Muslim community has been “very quiet.”

Personal outreach in, public statements out

In a note to a progressive partner organization dealing with women’s rights, Zioness requested that it make a “uniquely focused statement of solidarity with the Jewish community” on a coalition call.

“Such a statement would be consistent with your values as a leading progressive organization committed to women’s rights, human dignity and bodily integrity, and will be incredibly meaningful to our members joining tonight who are grieving and still trying to process this horrific tragedy,” Zioness wrote.

The group did make a statement, but according to Berman, it was broad and not specifically one of solidarity with Jews.

“They did this mealy-mouthed thing that was totally unacceptable,” Berman said.

A vigil for the Black Lives Matter movement with social distancing due to COVID, held during the Jewish fast day and day of mourning Tisha B’Av by Jewish groups in Brookline, Massachusetts, July 30, 2020 (Emily Glick/Boston)

Berman founded Zioness in 2017 to provide a safe space for liberal Zionist Jews who have been feeling alienated from progressive spaces as pro-Palestinian activists have often pushed the idea that Zionism is in conflict with social justice. In 2017, Chicago Dyke March organizers kicked Jewish participants out for displaying pride flags with the Star of David. The Women’s March in 2019 also sparked controversy, with some organizers claiming that there is no room for people who support Israel in feminism. In 2016, Black Lives Matter also endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which critics have condemned as antisemitic, as part of this platform.

Activists with Zioness at the Dyke March in Washington, DC, on June 7, 2019. (NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP)

The Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter posted an image on their social media showing a paraglider along with the words: “I stand with Palestine.” In the initial stages of Hamas’s October 7 atrocities, terrorists used paragliders to cross the border with Israel before embarking on their murderous rampage, including at the Supernova desert rave where some 260 were mown down by gunmen.

The Chicago chapter later took down the post, but doubled down on its message: “We stand with Palestine and the people who will do what they must to live free.”

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota in 2020, Jewish activists across the country joined BLM protests. One young Jewish activist, who asked to remain anonymous, said she feels “mentally shattered” after the events of October 7.

“I don’t feel like I’m supported by other communities,” she said. “I think that’s mostly a result of those friends not really knowing what to say when it comes to Israel-Palestine.”

The activist said she is both understanding and also hurt by the lack of support.

“On one hand they want to condemn Hamas, but on the other, they see what’s happening in Gaza as a grave injustice and they don’t know if it’s acceptable to hold both truths, so they stay mostly silent,” she said. “Or they go extreme to one side.”

When it comes to the Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians earlier this month, both Berman and Sasson have received personal outreach from people outside the Jewish community.

“Most of the allyship is happening privately because people are afraid of the backlash,” Berman said. “I understand this fear of backlash because it’s real, people are getting attacked online when they stand up for the Jewish community.”

“When the debate inevitably erupts on their platforms, they won’t know how to defend their allyship to Jews, they won’t have the language to respond when people accuse them with essentially the same blood libels that Jewish communities have faced for centuries and millennia,” she added.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) director Audrey Sasson. (Gili Getz)

JFREJ director Sasson, however, points out that most progressive organizations are simply trying to support their communities, with members all over the map on the Middle Eastern conflict.

“You can imagine, for an organization that’s not even Jewish, how do they wrap their head around it?” she said.

According to Sasson, progressive groups are “taking their time, they are being cautious, they are trying to check in before making big statements.”

“And maybe that’s harsh, maybe people wonder why is it so hard,” she acknowledged. “But I think this is a lot to digest and because it’s moving every day and every minute, and because Israel has already retaliated, people are wondering what do we say to whom and why?”

Many of JFREJ’s partners, Sasson added, are Arab and Muslim and are simultaneously “grieving and terrified.” As her organization grapples with how to support all of its affiliated communities, Sasson said the “window to show up just for Jews is very short, so I think people are now trying to orient themselves to a war and how to be a strong powerful voice against it.”

Michael Koplow speaks at an Israel Policy Forum event in this undated photo. (Courtesy)

Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum, told The Times of Israel that there is an “overwhelming sense that [some organizations] are reluctant to [condemn Hamas’s actions publicly,] or if they do so, they are reluctant to do it just in terms of what happened to Israelis and Jews; they have to balance the statement on the other side.”

“That is going to impact the way American Jews feel at home and accepted,” Koplow said. “I think that private support is great, but if you are willing to say something privately but not willing to say it publicly, I think that creates problems.”

‘People love dead Jews’

In her 2021 book, “People Love Dead Jews,” author Dara Horn discusses her impression that what people know about Jews is usually tied to their deaths and murders, but not so much to the lives they lived. The title of her book resonates with Bisno after the October 7 attack: “In many people’s minds this is the natural order of things,” he said. “It’s really chilling.”

Berman believes this is part of the reason why expressions of solidarity now are much weaker than those after the shooting in Pittsburgh.

“Antisemitism is so part of the air we breathe, so ingrained and institutionalized and systemic that people are not even conscious of their hypocrisy,” she said. “The radical left says ‘silence is violence,’ but somehow at the same time, rape is resistance.”

They say we should believe all women, but then entertain the most obscene linguistic gymnastics to explain away the decapitation of babies

“They say we should believe all women, but then entertain the most obscene linguistic gymnastics to explain away the decapitation of babies,” she added. “It’s easy for the world to engage in performative mourning for dead Jews, but much more difficult for people to show up for Jews fighting for their lives.”

Progressive and/or Jewish?

After the May 2021 escalation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, JFREJ put in place a process to check in with members about how they orient to Israel and Palestine and what they need from JFREJ. The organization’s commitment, Sasson pointed out, is to “build a New York City where we can thrive; we do that in coalition with other communities.”

“I think those relationships that we’ve built over time have been coming through for us. It took a few days, I’m not going to say it was immediate,” she added. “Our partners are not necessarily experts on the Middle East. They do express concern and they do express solidarity.”

“It’s complicated for any group to say that they would stand for indiscriminate bombing,” she said, referring to Israel’s raids on the Gaza Strip.

Sasson and her team have been focused on their “lane” throughout the recent events: they are assessing the impact on communities in New York City, focusing on hate crimes, as well as rallying around the issue of hostages, asking partners to call for their release. JFREJ members and partners, Sasson made clear, are refusing to let the situation divide them.

In Pittsburgh, Bisno believes the lack of solidarity expressed in progressive groups is “incredibly disorienting” and “disheartening” for those in his community “who’ve spent years working in that progressive space, insisting that Jewish values are what motivates them being there on behalf of these other groups.”

“I think this may be a reckoning for how universalistic, how pluralistic, the liberal Jewish community is going to continue to be,” he added.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) director Audrey Sasson at a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018. (Gili Getz)

Berman believes that “American Jews are wondering whether we can continue organizing on justice issues with non-Jewish partners, given that the allyship model has obviously broken down completely — at least for us.”

However, she does not believe American Jews will cease to care about or fight for progress.

“What our activism looks like might change,” she added.

The Israel Policy Forum’s Michael Koplow, too, believes that American Jews’ deep commitments to social justice are philosophical, ideological and not transactional — but that what they are now experiencing can be emotionally traumatic.

“In some ways I think that actually makes this even more difficult because there are many American Jews who are still going to feel the need for these types of commitments and still feel that these things are important, but are now going to have pause because of these feelings of betrayal and abandonment,” he said.

According to Koplow, the feeling of loneliness the community may be experiencing since October 7 will “change the ways in which American Jews might be willing to show up as quickly and in the same numbers for other groups.”

“It definitely seems to me that in many of these more activist spaces, the price of entry has been setting Zionism aside,” he said.

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