Jewish American Calls for a Ceasefire Highlight Divisions in the Community

8 minute read

Progressive Jews calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war are shutting down U.S. train stations, highways, and government buildings. Their rallying cries: “Not in our name,” “never again for anyone” and “ceasefire now.”

So far, thousands of Jewish American protesters have participated in more than a dozen civil disobedience actions since Oct. 7, at places ranging from an office building near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; Grand Central Station and the Statue of Liberty in New York City; and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, to the Israeli consulate in Chicago, a federal building in Oakland, Calif., a bridge in Boston, and a highway in Durham, N.C.

Their calls for a ceasefire align with 66% of U.S. voters, who say they "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" with the idea, according to a poll conducted between Oct. 18-19 from Data for Progress, a progressive think tank and polling firm.

The relationship between America's Jewish population and Israel has long been complicated. While almost half say caring about Israel is "essential" to what being Jewish means, 16% say it is "not important" to their Jewish identity, according to a 2021 Pew survey, and the rest fall somewhere in-between, considering it "important, but not essential."

Other polling supports the finding that the population's views on Israel differ widely. A Jewish Federations of North America survey released on Nov. 9 indicated widespread support for military aid to Israel; 87% of Jewish Americans were in favor. But other polls reflect intense criticism of the Israeli government. A 2021 Jewish Electorate Institute poll found that one-quarter of Jewish American voters agreed with the statement that "Israel is an apartheid state." Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which have spearheaded many recent civil disobedience actions in the U.S., are not new. But in the last several weeks, the conflict in the Middle East has put divisions within the American Jewish community into stark relief.

In the time since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages, Israel’s assault on Gaza has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, per the city’s health ministry. More than two-thirds of the region’s hospitals have closed because of damage from airstrikes or are running out of fuel, according to Gaza's health ministry. The commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, Philippe Lazzarini, said that by the end of Wednesday Nov. 15, more than two-thirds of Gaza’s population would not have access to clean water. “Our entire operation is now on the verge of collapse,” he says.

Jewish Voice of Peace Activists Occupy The Statue Of Liberty Calling For Ceasefire In Gaza
Activists from Jewish Voice for Peace activists occupy the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on November 6, 2023 in New York City. Stephanie Keith—Getty Images

More than 2 million people live in Gaza, half of whom are children, and face the spread of disease and malnutrition as Israel continues its blockade. In recent years, international human rights groups have referred to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians over the decades as apartheid and consider Gaza to be an open-air prison. Many pro-Palestinian protesters argue the high civilian death toll is a sign of a disproportionate response towards an occupied territory. (While Israel formally pulled out of the Gaza strip in 2005, the U.N. considers the strip to be under occupation because of Israel's control of land, air, and sea access.)

After Jewish protesters occupied the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, the Anti-Defamation League's CEO Jonathan Greenblatt spoke out on X, taking issue with challenges to Israel's right to defend itself after Hamas' surprise attack; the U.S. government and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group. The protesters, Greenblatt wrote, were "radical far-left groups [that] don't represent the Jewish community" and instead represent the "ugly core" of anti-Zionism: antisemitism.

Read more: Column: It's Not Easy to Be Jewish on American Campuses Today

The ADL has condemned Jewish Voice for Peace's leaders for arguing that Israel was the "root cause" of the violence on Oct. 7 and said in a statement that their "most inflammatory ideas can help give rise to antisemitism." Jewish Voice For Peace accuses the ADL of fueling Islamophobia, securing impunity for the Israeli government, and conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Many pro-Palestinian supporters, including some Jewish Americans, describe themselves as anti-Zionist.

“It’s totally reprehensible to conflate those speaking out for Palestinian rights with the very real existence of antisemitism,” says Morgan Bassichis, a Jewish artist who organized a group of artists and writers to get arrested at the Grand Central protest and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. “Essential to my Judaism is a deep belief that Palestinians should be free,” they say.

At a Nov. 1 fundraiser in Minneapolis, U.S. President Joe Biden—who is pushing to supply Israel with an additional $14 billion in military aidwas confronted by a protesting rabbi. “Mr. President, you care about Jewish people. As a rabbi, I need you to call for a cease-fire right now,” said Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg. She later wrote in a CNN op-ed that Israel’s pause for a few hours each day to allow Gazans to flee to the South has done little to help. On Monday, Palestinian Representative Rashida Tlaib, along with fellow Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, joined some rabbis in calling for a ceasefire outside the U.S. Capitol.

Many within Israel, including some family members of hostages, have also protested their own country's response to the Hamas attack. For example, Maoz Inon, whose parents were kidnapped by Hamas, started a protest outside the Israeli parliament building and called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to resign and end the war.

Rosalind Petchesky, a Jewish feminist scholar, was the oldest person arrested at the Oct. 27 Grand Central protest in New York City. Hundreds packed the train station; police arrested about 400 people. She organized a group of more than 30 Jewish seniors to join. “I’m 81 years old. I’m now older than the state of Israel,” she says. “I've been doing this work for a long time, but I've never seen a moment like this one and I’m horrified at…the hideous war mongering of our government and the Israeli government…and what we consider to be an out-and-out genocide against the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

Protestors In Chicago Rally Against Trump's Jerusalem Decision
Demonstrators with Jewish Voice for Peace Chicago protest President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 14, 2017. Scott Olson—Getty Images

For Petchesky, getting arrested isn’t an act of courage, but of commitment. “I'm retired. I don't have to show up at a job tomorrow,” she says. “People like me who are in a situation of privilege have a responsibility to put our bodies on the line. I don't think there's any great nobility in being arrested, but it is a kind of symbolic act that says 'I stand for these values.'”

Petchesky has friends in Israel and Gaza. She says she worries that a Palestinian journalist she knows and his family won't survive; she has also had tough conversations with a former graduate student of hers, an Israeli Jew who is critical of Israel's government but upset about Jewish Voice For Peace's lack of slogans centered on hostages. “She said ‘what about us? Aren’t we people, too?’” Petchesky says. “I have been trying to answer her as honestly as I can, and trying to convince her that saying 'stop the bombing, ceasefire now,' is an expression of support for the hostages because otherwise I'm convinced they're going to die.”

New York Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, a Muslim and vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, was arrested alongside Petchesky. Mamdani argues that recent civil disobedience shows that many Jewish Americans don't believe their participation in such protests is in conflict with their Judaism. “When anyone tries to sell you a monolith, they are selling you fiction,” he says. “There is no one group of people that believe one thing.”

Irena Klepfisz, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor and poet who was born in the Warsaw Ghetto, wanted to be at the New York protests but couldn’t because she is immunocompromised. “I’m very moved by it,” she says, about the two civil disobedience acts. “I don't know how killing more Palestinians in Gaza is going to do anything."

Kelpfiz formed the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation more than three decades ago. “The war marked me,” she says. “I didn’t have a father, I didn’t have grandparents, I didn’t have family…I grew up with that. I know what that can do to people. That’s what’s happened to children of those killed in Hamas’ attack and Israel’s airstrikes.”

For Bassichis, the artist, Grand Central’s protest “felt like a glimmer of hope, in a time of such profound despair.”

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