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Why so many young Jewish Americans are anti-Zionist

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Why so many young Jewish Americans are anti-Zionist

Zainab Iqbal

Fri, 01/12/2024 – 19:32

Middle East Eye speaks to young Jewish Americans who reject the union between Judaism and Zionism, often at the cost of marginalisation within their communities

There is one image that is forever engraved in Hanna Stolzer’s brain. It is a photograph that was posted on social media, dated 10 October. It showed a surgical board in a hospital in Gaza where doctors would keep track of surgeries. 

On it was a simple message, written in capital letters and in blue ink: “WHOEVER STAYS UNTIL THE END, WILL TELL THE STORY. WE DID WHAT WE COULD. REMEMBER US.”

Those powerful words gave Stolzer pause. “How can you look at that and not be moved to action?” she said. 

On 10 January, that photograph was used as evidence at the International Court of Justice where South Africa accused Israel of violating the Genocide Convention in its unrelenting bombardment and siege of Gaza since 7 October when the war broke out after Hamas attacked southern Israel. 

Right after the surgical board image was shown, another one followed, and that image showed the surgical board had been destroyed, with the words in blue ink, just barely hanging on. 

“I see now just how dire the circumstances are for Palestinians and how much that is at the direct hands of Israel, and also how much that is at the direct hands of the United States who is backing Israel,” Stolzer told Middle East Eye.

Stolzer is a 24-year-old Jewish American who proudly supports a free Palestine. She is one of the thousands of Jewish people who believe Israel is engaging in genocide against the Palestinian people. But for many like her, it wasn’t always like this.

Stolzer grew up never being taught the history of Israel and Palestine. She attended Hebrew school and was taught from a young age that Israel is the holy land for Jewish people only. She remembers being in school and learning about the Holocaust and wondering: “Why didn’t anyone do anything? Why didn’t anyone speak up?”

She remembers standing up on the bima, a synagogue platform, on her bat mitzvah and echoing the values of the Torah, “Honour thy neighbour”.

A surgical board in a hospital in Gaza where doctors would keep track of surgeries, on 10 October 2023 (social media)

“Today, right now, to me, being a Jewish American means standing up against the Israeli government and practising the values that have been instilled in us since Hebrew school. To be Jewish is to expand the compassion and empathy and humanity, for everyone, whether they are in DC or New York or Gaza,” she said.

In December 2019, Stolzer went on a “birthright” trip to Israel. 

Birthright Israel, often referred to simply as Birthright, offers a free ten-day journey to Israel, with stops in Jerusalem and the occupied Golan Heights, among other places. Young adults with Jewish heritage, aged between 18 and 26, are eligible for the trip which is paid for by the state of Israel and by donors.

She said she was embarrassed to admit it, but she went on the trip partly because it was free. And who was she to turn down a free international trip to a historical place?

“There was a lot of propaganda,” she said. She explained that while they met with Palestinians on the trip, the Palestinians advocated for peace and a two-state solution. She said it was obvious now that those on the trip were not exposed to people from Palestine who were telling them the true realities of what Israel was doing. 

“It was the most sanitised version of ‘both sides’,” she said. 

Stolzer took her time to learn about the history of Palestine and the sheer intensity of the occupation taking place. She learned about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had been forcibly displaced during the 1948 Nakba, or what is known as “the catastrophe” in English. She learned of the children who were left without their parents, and the parents who were left without their babies. She read articles from journalists straight from Gaza, years before 7 October. She immersed herself in books upon books. 

“I think before I would have been proud and loud about saying, ‘We need a two-state solution’. But it’s not like that. My understanding has changed. I have so much more information than I did before,” she said.

“I see an immense amount of humanity and I see they have been completely ignored and intentionally obscured from the media that had consumed me.”

Like many others, Stolzer has received tons of pushback from her community. Sometimes, she responds and tries her best to educate them. But other times, she feels there is no point.

Stolzer explained that she is aware of what Jewish students learn about Gaza both inside and outside Israel. She says she is aware of what they have been told their entire life. “I also know I am sitting in DC in my comfortable apartment with a war so far away from my own home.”

A pro-Palestine protest in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York, on 21 October 2023 (Zainab Iqbal/MEE)

She has been told by members of her Jewish community that she “turned a blind eye” to her religion – something she disagrees with entirely.

“I faced animosity from the Jewish community and it just makes me feel like I’ve almost been gaslighted about what my religion is,” she explained.

This is why Stolzer says she refuses to stay silent. As a Jewish person in America, she feels it’s important to speak up.

“Those war crimes are being committed in the name of my security, and my safety, and my religion. And that really offends me because it’s antithetical to everything I have ever known Judaism to be,” she said.

“If safety comes at the expense of the annihilation of another population, then that safety was not deserved and it is not worth the price.”

What bothers Stolzer the most, she said, is that in the Jewish community, people are invoking the fear of genocide of the Jewish people. She said they mention antisemitism and how there are people who want to kill Jews, and while she knows that there is truth in that, she said it is not the entire truth.

“They are using a hypothetical genocide to justify an actual genocide taking place,” she said. 

“Israel does not equal Judaism. Antisemitism does not equal pro-Palestine. People are supporting Palestine not because they are excited to oust Jews. They are supporting Palestine because it deserves to be free.”

Learning the history of Palestine

Carly Shooster is a 28-year-old Jewish woman from Florida. She regularly attends protests in Gainesville, Florida, led by her Palestinian colleague, on Sundays at the corner of the main intersection in her college town.

Cars driving by often honk in support or drivers raise their fists and their flags. However, they have also been screamed at and harassed for being Jewish. Once someone screamed that they’d like to kill all Jews. But still, every Sunday, Shooster makes her way to that corner and chants for a free Palestine.

Like Stolzer, Shooster attended Hebrew school and a birthright trip to Israel when she was in college. The majority of her education about her heritage centred around the Holocaust. 

Her journey into what she calls the “cold, hard facts of Israel’s occupation of Palestine” began many years ago with the book, Mornings in Jenin, by Susan Abulhawa, which paints a harrowing portrait of Palestinian reality told through fiction.

She also recently finished reading Ilan Pappe’s, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, and recommends it to anyone and everyone. 

Since 2014, many Jewish people in her community, including those in her family, have accused her of being a self-hating Jew. She has been told she was uneducated; that Israel gives Gaza electricity and water; and that there are a “million other Arab states. Why don’t the Palestinians just go to one of those?”

Carly Shooster (left) at a pro-Palestine protest in Florida, on 10 December 2023 (Supplied/MEE)

The further Shooster reads into the history of the Middle East, the more she says she’s convinced that Zionism and Israel are military strategies to ensure a western stronghold in the Middle East. “The violence this has wrought on the indigenous inhabitants of the land is inexcusable and should be condemned,” she explained.

For Shooster, being a Jewish American today means being actively anti-Zionist. It means divesting from Israel in any way she can. It means practising Judaism with friends and family. It means loving her family despite their inability to see through their own Zionism, she said.

“I am deeply committed to being the best daughter, friend, dog mom, employee, artist, and teacher I can – and that commitment is inextricably linked to my Jewish background. My humour is linked to my Jewish background. The way I eat, talk, laugh, fight, all of these aspects of myself are so Jewish, so Ashkenazi,” she said.

“I don’t want to be any other way, so I will continue to be committed to anti-Zionism and continue to practice the holidays, traditions, and family connection through this link.”

Israel and Jewish-American identity 

According to Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) – which describes itself as the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organisation in the world – more Jewish Americans, both young and old, “are anti-Zionist (more) than ever before”. 

“Jewish Voice for Peace is an anti-Zionist organisation (and has been since 2019) and we’re very public about that,”  Sonya Meyerson-Knox, the communications director at JVP, told Middle East Eye.

Knox explained that across the board since 7 October, JVP has doubled or more in terms of membership, supporters, followers, and people simply signing up to take action.

“We’re seeing more interest in what Zionism is and what it means to be anti-Zionist than ever before.”

In a 2022 poll of American Jews, when Zionism was defined as “the belief in privileging Jewish rights over non-Jewish rights in Israel,” 69 percent of American Jews said they were probably or definitely not Zionist. 

Rachel Liberty, a spokesperson for IfNotNow (INN) NYC – an American Jewish group that opposes Israel’s occupation of Palestine – believes that the tide is turning, as more Jews refuse to accept giving Israel unconditional military support and financial aid.

“For years INN has worked to bring Jews of all ages into the fight to end the occupation and system of apartheid in Palestine,” Liberty told MEE.

She explained that in the last few months, INN has seen a wave of support amongst young Jews in the US for a permanent ceasefire and liberation of Palestine.

“In the last few months, more people have been waking up to the injustices committed by the Israeli government,” Liberty said. “In New York specifically, young Jews have shown up en masse to raise their voices alongside Palestinians and say no more to the institutional support of the Israeli government.”

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi attends a rally in support of Palestinians outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on 7 November 2023 (Kena Betancur/AFP)

According to the Brookings Institution, even before 7 October, there were distinct generational differences in Americans’ attitudes towards Israel, mirrored by divergences between older and younger Jewish Americans.

In March of 2023, Gallup found that Democratic sympathies in the Middle East now lie more with the Palestinians than the Israelis, 49 percent versus 38 percent.

Older Americans have more favourable attitudes towards Israel than younger ones. In those polled by Brookings, 61 percent of those aged 18 to 29 held a positive view of the Palestinian people. When asked if they were favourable towards the Israeli people, 56 percent said yes.

Among 30 to 49-year-olds, when asked if they felt favourable towards the Israeli people, 65 percent said yes. When asked if they felt favourable towards the Palestinians, 55 percent said yes.

Geoffrey Levin, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Jewish Studies at Emory University and the author of, Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948-1978, challenges conventional wisdom on the generational divide.

He explained that people wrongly claim that the “dissent” of the younger generation comes from their “distance” from Israel and a lack of knowledge of it.

But he believes that this generation of American Jews has far greater exposure and less distance to what is happening in Israel and Palestine, than any that’s come before it. 

Geoffrey Levin is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Jewish Studies at Emory University (Supplied/MEE)

This knowledge comes from travelling to the region, relying on new media sources, cultural interactions, educational resources, and conversations with Palestinians and Israelis both at home and abroad.

“My sense is that such exposure can both humanise Palestinians and familiarise left-leaning American Jews with Israel’s far right, which they unsurprisingly want to distance themselves from through statements and protest action,” he said.

He explained that since the 1940s, Israel has played a central role in American Jewish identity and for many non-Orthodox Jews, Zionism is as important to their Jewishness as most religious practices.

“Does our status as a minority and historically oppressed people carry a universalistic message that applies to the Palestinians – or does it mean we must prioritise advocating for Jews abroad including Israelis because otherwise no one else will?” Levin asks.

“I would guess most American Jews would say both of those are important, but there is a big debate over how to balance them.”

Over the last three months, in over 80 protests and through deep coalitions across the country, JVP has shut down businesses in big cities, small towns, and university campuses.

The organisation has held scores of protests across the district offices of elected officials in over 40 states, returning every day to call for a ceasefire. 

“We are united in the belief that when we say ‘never again,’ it must include Palestinians. We know that our beloved Jewish tradition calls upon us to stand up for justice wherever we live,” Knox said.

“From our ancestors who endured pogroms and genocide, we have learned to persist, and we will persist until Palestine is free.”

‘I put the blame on Hamas’

Activism, though, does not come without intense criticism. For some, it comes from within their community.

Tova Chatzinoff-Rosenfeld is a 30-year-old Jewish woman in New York who describes herself as a Zionist. For her, Zionism is defined as the belief that Israel has a right to exist as a state. It means that she has a homeland to go to and a connection in that place where she “belongs”. 

She believes her Jewish identity influences her views on the war in Gaza and her full support for Israel. The reason she cares is because she is Jewish, she explained. “Those people are really my people.”

Demonstrators gather during a “#Metoo unless you are a Jew” protest outside of United Nations headquarters in New York City, on 4 December 2023 (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

She grew up reading stories in the Torah about Jewish people trying to get to Israel. And that has shaped a lot of her political views, she said.

“My whole identity is my Jewishness. My heart hurts for my brethren who are living in danger, who have been killed, who are held hostage,” she said.

“My heart also hurts for all innocent people on both sides. But of course, any person is going to feel an affinity for their people. And I am a Jew. Israelis are Jewish.”

In October, when over a thousand protestors, mostly Jewish, filled the Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, calling for a ceasefire, Rosenfeld found it to be upsetting.

“I don’t claim to speak for all Jews and it makes me angry when people try to pretend they are speaking for all Jews. When in the end, they are just speaking on behalf of themselves and a few of their friends or colleagues.”

People demonstrate while calling for a ceasefire at Grand Central Station in New York, on 27 October 2023 (Kena Betancur/ AFP)

“I don’t know how someone can as a Jew say things that they know will either lead to or allow for the death of another Jew to happen,” she said. 

Over the last several months, JVP has been subject to threats and intimidation for their unequivocal support of the Palestinian people. Multiple members of the organisation have been subject to instances of doxxing and some even received violent threats. Others have had strangers contact their employers, attempting to have them fired for their anti-Zionist views.

“It has been incredibly painful to hear questions of our very Jewishness or witness endeavours to excommunicate us from Judaism itself – including an article in the Jerusalem Post claiming that members of Jewish Voice for Peace aren’t Jews,” Knox said.

She said that supporters of the Israeli government seem to believe that there is only one way to be Jewish: unequivocal support for the state of Israel. She added that both legacy Jewish institutions and individuals have attempted to erase the rich Jewish tradition of debate in favour of “narrow-minded support for ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and genocide”.

Knox says that as long as Zionism has existed, there have been Jews who oppose it.

“Our tradition tells us that ‘pikuach nefesh,’ the saving of a life, is the most sacred obligation in Judaism. We are protesting to stop the bloodshed, to save as many lives as possible, and are calling for a resounding and lasting peace grounded in justice for all.”

Tova Chatzinoff-Rosenfeld attends a pro-Israel protest in Washington DC, on 14 November 2023 (Supplied/MEE)

While Rosenfeld said she feels pain when she sees a video of dead Palestinian babies, she says one must accept the truth.

Rosenfeld explained that 7 October had a tremendous impact on her and all Jewish people. It brought on trauma she never thought she would experience in her lifetime.

“I put the blame where it belongs, which is on Hamas, the terrorists who started this war with an attack on 7 October,” she said. 

ICJ hearings in The Hague

Jonas Nelson is a 21-year-old fourth-year student attending Oberlin College in Ohio. He spent his Thursday and Friday catching up on the International Court of Justice hearings. Watching the clips was everything that he had ever hoped for.

Nelson is a white Jewish man living in the US. His family is from South Africa and spent most of their money to get out of the country during the apartheid era.

He explained that for his family, it’s been very powerful to see a nation that they view with “extreme pride for having broken from apartheid, supporting Palestine and many different places which have been subjected to genocide, forms of apartheid, and ethnic cleansing,” he said.

Nelson was not raised in the Jewish tradition. He would celebrate all of the major Jewish holidays, but being Jewish was never central in his family. In high school, Nelson took a Middle Eastern history course that focused on “both sides” and an overview of Israel and Palestine.

As high school went on, he remembers meeting more people, learning more about the history, and getting into arguments with Zionists. It was then that he realised the uniqueness of Israel and Palestine in American politics. 

“I would run into many people and talk about Black Lives Matter and we would agree the entire time. But when it would come to Israel, they put out all sorts of defences about technological prowess and how we need to defend Israel no matter what,” he recalled. 

South Africa’s Minister of Justice Ronald Lamola (R) delivers remarks to journalists outside the International Court of Justice, on 11 January (Remko de Waal/AFP)

On his campus, Nelson has been helping lead protests and other forms of activism as part of a newly formed organisation called Jews 4 Palestine – which is not chartered by the school. 

For Nelson, being a Jewish American means carrying the obligation to understand that America is a nation of immigrants. “And we are part of a religion that is migratory and diasporic,” he said. 

“Being a Jewish American is to understand that many of us came here facing oppression and came here facing ethnic cleansing,” he said. “It is to understand the role of oppressed people can take in one day becoming the oppressors.”

He explained that is it important to acknowledge that Judaism will never be Israel and Israel will never be Judaism.

Something Stolzer and Shooster endorse.

“They will always be intertwined in this impossibly complex way, but they will never be the same thing,” Nelson said.

“It’s important that as American Jews, even if you support Israel, you make that distinction and make sure that your identity isn’t being used to side with an oppressor and it’s rather used to side with the oppressed.”

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