Dec 8, 2023

Ralliers gather on the National Mall for the March for Israel on November 14th.

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
Report

Progressive Zionists Choose a Side

In attending the November 14th March for Israel and refusing to call for a ceasefire, many progressive Jewish groups have cast their lot with the Jewish mainstream.

On the morning of November 14th, a few hours before the March for Israel was set to begin on the National Mall, members of the self-described “Peace Bloc”—a loose coalition of American Jewish progressive organizations—began to gather across the street from the National Museum of American History. To mark their territory, they draped an Israeli flag with the Hebrew word “Shalom” in the center over a tourist wayfinding pillar. On the other side of the street, on the steps of the museum, two men with a group called the Rhode Island Coalition for Israel had unfurled a giant blue banner that read “Destroy Hamas–No Ceasefire,” which admiring passersby kept stopping to photograph.

The March for Israel—which was announced just days after hundreds of thousands of Palestine solidarity protestors demonstrated in the capital on November 4th—was organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) around a broad set of demands: “Rally to support Israel. Rally to free the hostages. Rally against antisemitism.” The fact that the US government had already, in effect, met those demands—that the president and bipartisan congressional leadership had devoted countless words and promised billions of dollars to support Israel’s onslaught on Gaza and coordinate efforts against antisemitism in the United States—did not deter the delegations from Jewish Federations, synagogues, day schools, and youth groups that poured into Washington, DC, from around the country, equipped with Israeli flags and posters of hostages kidnapped by Hamas on October 7th. The rally was so thoroughly embraced by mainstream American Jewry that some progressive Jews feared that skipping it would be a form of self-banishment from the Jewish world. A Peace Bloc attendee named Eytan, who asked that only his first name be used, said that when weighing whether to show up, he kept thinking of the commandment in the rabbinic text Pirkei Avot: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

At the rally, speaker after speaker made the purpose of the assembly clear. They praised the audience for offering a show of Zionist strength to counter the unprecedented protests in cities and on campuses across the nation that have called for a permanent ceasefire in Israel/Palestine. (As Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident and former Israeli politician, thundered at one point: “There is another front in this war that is not in the tunnels of Gaza, not in the hills of Galil, but in Harvard, in Yale, in Penn, and Columbia.”) And they urged the US to stay the course in offering robust military and diplomatic support for Israel, and to back an assault that had, at the time, already killed more than 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza. “Let me be clear: We didn’t start this war, but we must finish it,” proclaimed Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, to rousing applause. “What Iran-backed Hamas perpetrated on October 7th was pure evil, and those monsters deserve nothing short of complete and total destruction,” said Republican Senator Joni Ernst. Anyone willing to hew to this line was welcome on the stage—even John Hagee, the evangelical pastor who chairs Christians United for Israel and has long peddled antisemitic ideas, including once arguing that Hitler had been sent by God to kill Jews in order to make the creation of Israel possible. “Look at history. From Pharaoh to Haman to Hitler, all of these antisemitic cowards are remembered only for their failed attempts to destroy God’s chosen people. And Hamas is going to suffer the same fate,” he proclaimed in his preacher’s cadence, to the crowd’s delight. The groups organizing the rally want “to keep devastating Gaza until every last member of Hamas is gone,” said Mitchell Plitnick, president of the progressive think tank ReThinking Foreign Policy. “That means wiping out Gaza . . . That rally was a pro-war rally, no matter how it billed itself.”

This put the groups that comprised the Peace Bloc—Americans for Peace Now (APN), T’ruah, J Street, the New York Jewish Agenda, the National Council for Jewish Women, Ameinu, Reconstructing Judaism, and Habonim Dror, many of which operate as a loose coalition called the Progressive Israel Network (PIN)—in an awkward position. (The Jewish Democratic Council of America also joined the bloc, but its mainstream Zionist policies have little in common with the other groups’.) While the organizations that led the rally have long lobbied the US government to give Israel carte blanche, several members of the Peace Bloc have pushed President Joe Biden to curb the country’s human rights abuses against Palestinians—or even, in the case of APN, to condition military aid. And while the mainstream Jewish community has spoken of a war on college campuses and supported legislation aimed at quashing dissent, multiple PIN groups have fought to prevent the codification of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which many critics say conflates antisemitism with anti-Zionism, and to combat legislation penalizing support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. After the election last winter of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, these fissures between the Jewish establishment and the progressive Zionist groups only deepened. In June, for example, the progressive rabbis organization T’ruah announced that it would be boycotting New York City’s annual Celebrate Israel parade to protest the actions of the Israeli government.

Yet since October 7th, these groups have declined to call for a permanent ceasefire—or have even, in the case of J Street, lobbied for US support for the war effort. “[We] urge the US government to do everything possible to assist the State of Israel in confronting this threat,” the organization said on October 7th. In the process, the PIN groups have positioned themselves closer to the pro-Israel establishment than to the anti-war left, including the tens of thousands of Jewish protestors from groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow who have blocked roads, shut down train stations, and occupied a US Capitol building to demand an end to the violence. The decision to attend the rally only underscored this new alignment: “Those organizations had been trying, in their own ways, to draw a line between their stance and the stance of the pro-Israel establishment, and going to the rally collapsed that line,” said Yonah Lieberman, a co-founder of the Jewish anti-occupation movement IfNotNow. A current J Street employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the move seemed to represent a change in the organization’s approach: “I was very surprised,” they said. “I don’t feel like that’s something we would’ve done before October 7th, being so publicly aligned with such far-right and antisemitic speakers and groups.”

The Peace Bloc organizations have insisted on the importance of claiming their place in the Jewish communal tent—and argued that doing so does not entail adopting the rally organizers’ positions wholesale. Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah, told me that her organization felt a need to affirm its connection to the rest of the Jewish world. “What we heard, especially from our rabbis, was that they wanted to be with their people, be with the Jewish community in this time when everybody is really just shattered and shocked,” she said. In a note to APN members letting them know that the group would attend the rally, CEO Hadar Susskind, who coined the “Peace Bloc” moniker, struck a note of apologia, acknowledging that it was “nearly certain that some speakers at the rally will say things that we disagree with, and they will certainly not say everything that we believe needs to be said.” But in an interview the Friday before the march, he defended the decision, saying that if the rally’s stated purpose was to oppose antisemitism, free the hostages, and support Israel, “the first two are easy yeses, and the third one is an easy yes too in that I support Israel. I don’t agree with a lot of the people who are organizing this as to what that means or should look like, but I’m not willing to cede that ground.” (At the time, Susskind was under the impression that organizers had decided not to offer a speaking slot to Hagee; when I ran into him at the rally, he was angry about the pastor’s inclusion, and said he wasn’t sure he would’ve brought APN to the march if he’d known about it earlier.)

But many who oppose Israel’s assault on Gaza have argued that by showing up at the march, the Peace Bloc groups lent support to its overarching aims, regardless of their attempts to distinguish their messaging. “These are called ‘demonstrations’—they are meant to demonstrate that there’s popular support for certain positions. This was a rally against a ceasefire,” said Lex Rofeberg, the senior Jewish educator for the nonprofit Judaism Unbound and a founding member of the Open Hillel movement to create spaces for Jewish students who are critical of Israel. “[The Peace Bloc] chose to participate in the rally and legitimize those people. If they had not attended, the demonstration of voices that oppose a ceasefire would’ve been smaller.” Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, saw a particular significance in the presence of self-identified progressive groups at the march. By attending, he said, the Peace Bloc marchers were “attempting to save Israel’s image and the image of Zionism even if in the face of a genocide.”

Indeed, some say that the decision the PIN groups faced over the rally—in which they could either throw in their lot with the Jewish mainstream, or repudiate it at the cost of their own excommunication—is indicative of a stark new polarization in Jewish politics after October 7th, and that their choice indicates the path that many in the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” camp have taken when forced to choose between those two commitments. In a Forward op-ed last week, Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the liberal Zionist think tank Shalom Hartman Institute, celebrated the fact that the current moment has caused “political realignments” in the American Jewish community, in which progressive Zionist groups like those affiliated with PIN have reasserted their place in the mainstream’s “big tent,” while leftist Jews have found themselves unequivocally outside it. Many on the Jewish left, too, have noted this sharp divide: “This is a real moment of reckoning: ‘Did you care about the occupation because you believe that both Palestinians and Israelis deserve the same rights—or did you care about the occupation only because you believed that the occupation is a threat to Jewish security?” said Lieberman. Hazel Sher-Kisch, who served as a camp director for the labor Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror North America (HDNA) this year, agreed that this moment has only amplified the existing contradictions in the groups’ progressive Zionist ideology. She said that HDNA has always had to balance its stated commitment to justice with a tendency to justify Israel’s human rights violations as the price of maintaining the Jewish state. “I always hope that if it ever comes down to it, that HDNA will choose the side of justice, not the side of a Jewish state by any means necessary,” she said. “But in the moments where it becomes clear that it is necessary to kill thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians to preserve Israel as a Jewish state in its current form, it forces their hand to accept that that’s okay.”

J Street and the National Council of Jewish Women signs for Peace Bloc attendees.

Mari Cohen

The Conference of Presidents and JFNA have claimed that their rally was the largest mass Jewish gathering in American history, estimating that it attracted some 290,000 attendees (though some sources have given lower estimates, like the Crowd Counting Consortium, which put the figure at 160,000). For many, the rally recalled the 1987 Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry, when some 250,000 American Jews gathered on the Mall to support the Jews of the USSR in their desire to emigrate and freely express their Jewish identity. Like last week’s march, the Soviet Jewry march was not a plea to a government to change course, but an affirmation of a political program that politicians already shared with their Jewish constituents. “It was a rally, not a protest, because the foreign policy establishment basically accepted what this movement was trying to do, which aligned with their agenda,” said Hadas Binyamini, a doctoral candidate in Jewish studies at New York University who studies Jewish politics in the Cold War era. Also like the November rally, the Soviet Jewry march united the Jewish mainstream with its progressive critics, essentially turning out “everyone who wasn’t a communist in the American Jewish community,” Binyamini said. This occurred despite the movement’s close alliance with the hawkish right wing of the Democratic party, which saw in the Soviet Jewry issue a source of legitimacy for Cold War policies. Even the leftists, including socialist groups, “ended up being part of a movement that was in the long term captured by neoconservatives and Reaganites,” Binyamini said.

The next attempt to bring a critical mass of Jews to Washington, DC, came in 2002, during the Second Intifada, when suicide bombers were targeting Israeli civilians and the Israeli military was engaged in a brutal crackdown on Palestinian towns and villages. Some 100,000 American Jews gathered in support of Israel in a moment when it faced increased international scrutiny. This time, rather than enduring as a symbol of unity, the march became known for a moment of discord. The Bush administration sent Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, an Iraq War architect who had emerged from the Soviet Jewry movement’s neoconservative milieu, to address the rallyers. When Wolfowitz mentioned from the podium that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well,” he was greeted with deafening boos, requiring him to stop his speech several times. Ruti Kadish, a former employee of J Street and the PIN group New Israel Fund who marched with the Peace Bloc in November, said the 2002 march was generally unwelcoming to those who brought signs calling for peace. At the time, many of the major progressive Zionist organizations didn’t yet exist: T’ruah was founded later that year, for example, while J Street didn’t debut until 2007.

At the 2023 rally, the closest analogue to a Wolfowitz moment came early in the program, when the political analyst and CNN contributor Van Jones took the stage. Halfway through a speech mostly focused on condemning antisemitic violence in the US and Hamas’s October 7th attack, Jones said, “I’m a peace guy. I pray for peace. No more rockets from Gaza. And no more bombs falling down on the people of Gaza.” From where I sat in the press bleachers close to the stage, I watched the crowd’s initial discontented silence become a rumble of boos, which then exploded into a full chant: “No ceasefire! No ceasefire!” The chant continued, growing louder, for the rest of his speech, causing Jones to stumble over his words. Susskind said that where he stood with some Peace Bloc members, Jones’s words got a different reception—a hearty cheer—but this reaction was lost in the crowd. In contrast, Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson was greeted with one of the loudest cheers I heard all day when he declared an hour later, “This is a fight between good and evil, between light and darkness, between civilization and barbarism. The calls for a ceasefire are outrageous.” His words set off another, now jubilant, chant of “no ceasefire.”

Though some Peace Bloc attendees may have been uncomfortable with the vehemence of such chants, none of their organizations have called for a ceasefire so far. Instead, most have defended Israel’s right to mount a military response while calling for the country to act within the bounds of international law. (The groups have maintained their refusal to call for a ceasefire even as experts have consistently sounded the alarm that Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign is violating international law.) J Street has been particularly full-throated in its defense of the war. In an email to supporters the day after the rally, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote, “J Street has been clear that we stand with the state and people of Israel as they defend themselves and respond to Hamas’ unthinkable barbarity in accordance with international law.” That posture has gone beyond statements: The week after Hamas attacked and Israel began its bombing of Gaza, when some progressive legislators declined to co-sponsor a congressional resolution that condemned the assault on Israelis but made no mention of the killing of Palestinian civilians, The Intercept reported that J Street had threatened to pull its endorsement from lawmakers who didn’t back the resolution. A few weeks later, Jewish Currents reported that by refusing to call for a ceasefire, J Street had deterred legislators from making that demand: “J Street is influencing a lot of Democrats, and that’s a reason why more folks have not called for a ceasefire,” a congressional aide said at the time.

Instead, the group has pushed for “humanitarian pauses,” or temporary cessations of hostilities to facilitate the delivery of aid to civilians. Asked why J Street opposes a ceasefire, chief of staff Adina Vogel Ayalon called any such agreement “untenable,” saying, “We don’t see Hamas as a viable partner for the political vision necessary in order to see two states in Israel and Palestine.” On December 7th, J Street released a statement announcing that if the organization did not “see evidence soon” that Israel was changing its approach to a more limited targeting of Hamas fighters, it would pull its organizational support for the current military campaign; yet the missive reiterated that J Street does not see a “path to an immediate end to the fighting.” Lieberman, the IfNotNow co-founder, who once served on J Street’s student board, argued that the organization’s approach is “naive”: “Do they believe that this war is going to successfully remove every single person who is affiliated with Hamas from the Gaza Strip? That is just not going to happen. That takes no lessons from the history of counter-terrorism,” he said.

Some in the progressive Zionist camp say that positioning them against “Jews for ceasefire” activists obscures their actual positions. “I think people are getting very caught up on the word ‘ceasefire’—it’s a magic word, you said it or you didn’t say it. Many of us are saying similar things,” said T’ruah’s Jacobs, whose organization has also called for “humanitarian pauses” to allow for the release of Israeli hostages and the entrance of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Susskind, whose organization has also supported a “humanitarian pause” and more measures to protect civilians, made a similar argument. “I think the word ceasefire has been fetishized and become a slogan, a bumper sticker, a hashtag that people are screaming back and forth at each other,” he told me. “I refuse to get stuck in the linguistic fight.” Susskind pointed out that APN had been heavily involved in lobbying the US to refrain from vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that passed on November 15th calling for an “extended humanitarian pause” in order to allow aid into Gaza. The organization has continued to petition US leaders to condition military aid to Israel.

But those calling for a ceasefire see a clear divergence between the two camps. “At the end of the day, a ceasefire is very self-explanatory,” said Beth Miller, political director of Jewish Voice for Peace. “It means an end to this violence, an end to fighting.” Calling for a humanitarian pause, by contrast, “is an ask to put just a temporary hold on the brutal, indiscriminate carpet-bombing of 2 million people trapped in one of the most densely populated places on the planet. It’s just unacceptable.” By treating the call as a third rail, the Peace Bloc groups are shaping the political landscape, Sher-Kisch pointed out. “The call for a ceasefire is not a radical left-wing anti-Zionist call, but it’s become one because these progressive Zionist organizations refuse to call for it,” she said. Abuznaid of UCSPR argued that these organizations’ decisions will become part of their legacy: “Everyone who’s not calling for a ceasefire right now is showing their true colors to the masses,” he said. “I think this will be remembered for a long time.”

Those who want to see a ceasefire include some of the Peace Bloc organizations’ own employees, especially junior staff. (Polling shows that younger Jews are especially critical of Israeli policy and are far more likely than their older counterparts to disapprove of US support for the war.) A pro-ceasefire letter released Thursday and signed by more than 500 employees of American Jewish organizations included four signatories from T’ruah, five from J Street, and one from the National Council of Jewish Women, with some of them signing anonymously. A current T’ruah employee estimated that a sizable portion of the organization’s 21 employees wants to see the group call for a ceasefire outright, but said that the organization’s top decision-makers are opposed, due both to their “personal politics” and to their fear of alienating the more than 2,300 rabbis and cantors that comprise T’ruah’s membership. (The same employee opposed the group’s decision to attend the DC rally. “I feel like T’ruah should have organized some sort of alternative gathering,” they said.) The employee said the ceasefire call was being treated as untouchable within the organization in part because of its association with massive protests led by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace—which many mainstream Jews consider too radical due to its anti-Zionist politics. Yet, they argued, “I don’t think that reasoning is strong enough when we’re in the middle of a genocide. I really do understand that there’s a line that needs to be walked, but when push comes to shove, is T’ruah going to be able to live with what it did and didn’t say ten to fifteen years from now?”

At J Street, there are similar disappointments among junior staff: “The sentiment that I’ve heard, not unanimously, but from a decent swath of the organization is that this feels like a betrayal of the values that the organization claims to stand for,” said a J Street employee, who asked to remain anonymous. The source argued that if J Street called for a permanent ceasefire, several legislators might follow—as they did when J Street opposed Israel’s bombing of Gaza in May 2021. But this time, the source said, many of the senior staff members, including Ben-Ami, have “personal beliefs” in favor of the war, because they think the October 7th Hamas attacks merit a military response. As a result, J Street has found itself trailing several of its usual allies, including Reps. Jamie Raskin and Becca Balint, and Senators Jeff Merkley and Peter Welch, who have called for a ceasefire. Catie Stewart, a political communications professional who worked for J Street from 2015 to 2018, said the organization’s stance has surprised and disillusioned many of its alumni, who had hoped it would eventually use the power it had built in Congress to take a stronger stand against the pro-Israel establishment: “We all thought that, at some point, J Street would cash in its political chips,” she said. “But the moment seems to have passed them by, and I think they’re losing those chips because they’re not taking any leadership.”

DC resident Debbie Goldman, left, brought a “ceasefire now” sign to the March for Israel.

Mari Cohen

Despite the bellicose tenor of the rally’s dominant messaging, some of the PIN groups’ members attempted to carve out a space for dissent. Debbie Goldman, a DC resident who showed up to the Peace Bloc with a giant sign that said “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Ceasefire Now,” told me after the rally that she had generally productive discussions with those who saw her sign. Eytan—who told me that, as a traditionally observant Jew, “I’m in [the community,] and I’m in for good”—got more pushback for a sign that read: “Standing for Jewish life necessitates standing for Palestinian life. We can end the occupation. We can end the cycle of violence. Another world is possible.” When he first got to the rally, he experienced a lot of “quiet support”: Dozens of people asked to take photos of the sign, and some whispered to him, “Thank you for coming.” But about ten people also asked him to take down the sign, and others questioned whether the kippah he wore was just a “costume.” During the rally itself, two men next to him kept muttering under their breath: “scum,” “fake Jew,” “antisemite.” About an hour and a half in, they started recording him; when Eytan asked them to stop, one of them shoved him in the chest. He noted that no one intervened to help. “I think the only way to break the cycle of violence is through ending the occupation of the West Bank. The fact that that was seen as violence made me really sad,” he said. “And the fact that no one was there to defend me or to deescalate was also deeply sad.”

Eytan was standing near the Peace Bloc, but the group “didn’t feel particularly substantial,” he said—the loose cluster of peaceniks was intermixed with the rest of the audience, including the two men who shoved him. Susskind estimated that at least 1,000 people had come to join the Peace Bloc, and told me he gave out all 800 wristbands he had brought for registered PIN group attendees. But once people grabbed their wristbands and joined the swarms of people heading through the security corrals, it was hard for many of them to find the Peace Bloc in the crowd. Weaving through the Mall, I ran into several of the people I had interviewed in the run-up to the rally, who were also having trouble finding the group. After looking for nearly half an hour, I eventually gave up on finding them. After all, from afar, the Shalom flag looked like just another Israeli flag in a sea of blue and white.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.

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