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The new faces of Jewish-American resistance to Israel

Criticism of Israel was once confined to the margins of the Jewish-American community. But now activists say dissent is 'bigger and louder' than ever before

Sophie Edelhart says that for the longest time, she didn’t want to go anywhere near the topic of Israel and Palestine.

As a young Jewish woman growing up in San Francisco, her education was a curious mix of religious Jewish education and the liberal politics of California. 

Much of the discussion about Israel as a consequence focused on “diplomacy”, careful talk of “both sides”, and the idea that a “two-state solution” would bring peace to Palestine-Israel. The conflict, she says, was always described to her as “complicated” and never by the naked truth: Israel was an occupying state.

“I would always try to rationalise and explain Israeli occupation by trying to add ‘nuance' to every conversation. Everything was about ‘nuance’,” the 22-year-old continues, emphasising her point with repeated air quotes, before uncurling her fingers and stopping to laugh at herself.

Sophie Edelhart
Sophie Edelhart describes her shift from liberal Zionism to anti-Zionist as a "process" [Azad Essa/MEE]

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But a growing discomfort with the way in which the conflict was being discussed in her community led Edelhart to seek out Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the two-decade-old Jewish-American organisation that works relentlessly against bigotry, oppression and for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

Edelhart found the organisation to be pursuing a type of justice she had always associated with her Jewish values. But it was an event held by the JVP during her first year studying history at New York’s Columbia University in 2016 that forced her out of a comfort zone.

After hearing Palestinians speak about their experiences in the occupied territories she remembers thinking to herself: “There is no way I can defend this. There is no moral grounding to stand on here.

'Nuance is actually a form of violence if it hides the truth'

- Sophie Edelhart

“I soon realised that at some point, one has to take a stance and acknowledge that something is not right, and actually very wrong... that nuance is actually a form of violence if it hides the truth,” says Edelhart, who is now a JVP organiser.

“For too long, I, like other liberal Zionists, have been [hiding] behind the idea that the Israeli occupation is ‘too complicated’ or ‘too difficult to take a stand.'” 

Edelhart’s move from liberal Zionism to anti-Zionist sentiment mirrors what observers describe as a generational shift among Jewish Americans who are increasingly turning their backs on the expectation of unconditional support for Israel.

'The perception has changed'

Jewish Americans, numbering around six million, are fundamentally diverse in religious and political opinion, but the perception of a steadfast commitment to Israel is on the wane.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza and its treatment of Palestinians, and its influence on American political life that will cost at least $38 billion in security assistance alone over the next decade, is under new scrutiny.

The sidelining of non-Orthodox Jews (who make up the majority of American Jews) in religious life in Israel and the passing of the Nation State law, that grants Jews supremacy over non-Jewish Israeli citizens, has only added to the growing divide.

What is Israel's Nation State of the Jewish People Law?

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Nation State law

Less than 500 words in length, the Nation State of the Jewish People Law says Israel is the “historical homeland” and the “national home” of the Jewish people.

It says that only Jews have the right to exercise national self-determination in Israel. It says that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and Hebrew is the state language, demoting Arabic to a language with "special status". It describes Jewish settlement as a “national value” to be promoted by the state.

The law was passed by the Knesset, Israel's parliament on 18 July, 2018, by a vote of 62-55 with two abstentions. Israeli Prime Minister said after the vote: "This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel".

Opponents of the law say that it enshrines discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, notably Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up about a fifth of the population, according to census statistics.

Read in full: Israel's Nation State of the Jewish People Law

And it is precisely young Jewish Americans, plugged into social media and alternative news sources, and influenced by the rise of new social movements in a shifting social and political context in the US itself, who are increasingly distressed by the actions purportedly made in their name.

Jewish-American activists stand in solidarity with Ilhan Omar
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“The perception of the conflict has changed. You have young Jews who have no memory of the Six-Day War or the 1973 war. Many of them have grown up through the Second Intifada and only really known [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu,” says Dov Waxman, professor of political science, international affairs, and Israel studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

“And I think it is to do with shifts within the Jewish community; the chronological distance from the Holocaust and less of a perception that Israel is a safe haven for Jews that once motivated the unconditional support for Israel.”

While the Israeli invasions of Gaza in 2008 and 2012 had prompted that shift for some in the community, it was the 2014 bombardment of Gaza that coincided with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that influenced a new generation of Jewish activists to draw parallels between police brutality in the US and the subjugation of Palestinians.

The rise of groups like IfNotNow, a youth-led organisation that began in 2014 to demand an end to American support for the occupation, the expansion of others like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and the rapid growth in influence and visibility of JVP is emblematic of this trend. 

In Austin, Texas, Liana Petruzzi, an organiser with IfNotNow, says that even here, among a traditionally conservative Jewish community, ideas are beginning to shift. She describes the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were murdered in October 2018, as a wake-up call for much of the community.

“When people talk about anti-semitism in the US, they often mean criticism of Israel, but I think Pittsburgh showed that anti-semitism is linked to the far-right and white supremacy and not related to criticising Israel,” the 31-year-old Petruzzi says.

The repeated anti-semitism demonstrated by President Donald Trump and his supporters during his election campaign, and the White House’s alignment with the hard-right policies of Netanyahu with whom most American Jews cannot identify, has cost Israel its reputation even beyond traditionally progressive circles, she adds.

“People are asking themselves: What does it mean if Donald Trump is allies with someone like Netanyahu?”

A growing divide

The data available presents a mixed picture.

A J-Street national post-election survey in 2018 among Jewish Americans found that 84 percent of those polled agreed that one could be critical of Israel while being pro-Israel.

When it came to settlements, 32 percent said it made them feel negatively towards Israel while 48 percent said it had no impact on their views on Israel.

Just 27 percent believed that Israel should suspend all construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law.

'More young people are realising that our Jewish values are actually about social justice and have to be for all people'

- Maya Edery

Forty-nine percent of respondents opposed the idea of the US playing an active role in resolving the “Arab-Israeli” conflict if it meant publicly disagreeing with Israel.

Another survey, conducted by Brand Israel in 2018, found that support for Israel among Jewish American college students had decreased by 32 percent between 2010 and 2016.

These numbers prompted Alan Hoffman, the then-CEO and director-general of the Jewish Agency to conclude: “If I were to target one demographic that is critical for the future of Israel and the Jewish people, it is them.”

And while there is an absence of precise data examining the attitudes of American Jews belonging to the three major movements, namely Orthodox, Conservative and Reform (categories used in a Pew study in 2013 ), substantial anecdotal evidence suggests a tremendous shift in the larger community.

Caroline Klaasen
"We have been tackling racism and white supremacy at our synagogue for the past decade," says Carolyn Klaasen (Azad Essa/MEE)

The rise of JVP, whose membership is said to have “soared” during the 2014 Israeli bombardment of Gaza and which remains the fastest growing Jewish organisation in the country, exemplifies this change. 

Journalist and writer Peter Beinart, who said in 2010 that progressive American Jews were likely to choose “liberalism over Zionism” if community organisations continued to leave Israeli policies unaddressed, told the Judaism Unbound podcast in 2018 that groups like “IfNotNow are pushing beyond some of the formulations that framed my argument".

Questions of whether these shifting sentiments are only in the liberal boroughs of New York and Washington DC (where the majority of American Jews live) are being answered through the opening of chapters in Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Austin and elsewhere.

“I think Jewish communities across the country are changing drastically and quickly,” Maya Edery, JVP’s national campus coordinator, says. “We have chapters in over 25 campuses with eight new chapters in the past six months alone.

“More and more young people are realising that our Jewish values are actually about social justice and have to be for all people,” Edery says.

“They realise that a lot of Jewish institutions have lied to them.”

American Jews and Israel

Rosalind Petchesky says she wants to start our conversation with a story.

It is 1959, and a 16-year-old girl with Russian immigrant roots living in a town called Tulsa in Oklahoma goes on a trip to Israel with a Jewish organisation called B'nai Brith Youth.

'There is deep and valid trauma and deep and valid fears. But we disagree that Israel is the answer to our safety'

- Zack Chatterjee Shlachter

While visiting a kibbutz, she meets a black man and starts-up a conversation with him. After a few minutes, a white woman approaches the teenager and instructs her to “stop talking to the African”. The incident leaves her angry and confused. It becomes one of many racist incidents she witnesses during her short visit to Israel.

It is the late 1950s after all, and for the teenager, the civil rights movement was in full flight, and she knew prejudice when she saw it. On her return to the US, she mentions what she had witnessed while sitting around a dinner table with family members, a local rabbi and a few strangers.

After the meeting, one of the strangers complains about the story she has told to the rabbi. The rabbi, in response, writes a letter to the stranger and gives the young woman a copy.

“It said that she is just a little girl and whatever she said was not true. He also wrote he had also made the trip and no such thing ever took place.”

The young woman, of course, was Petchesky herself, and she says it changed her perspective about Israel forever.

“You could say that moment was seminal to me. It launched me into a lifetime of activism,” the 76-year-old recalls, with a light smile.

"The fact that two Muslim women in Congress feel empowered enough to openly support BDS is a sign of a monumental shift in the US," says Rosalind Petchesky (MEE/Azad Essa)

Even then, Petchesky says her education about Palestine only really began years later as a college student, through her interactions with Palestinian Professor Ibrahim Abu-Lughod at Smith College in Massachusetts, and with her uncle, the main biographer of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.

It fermented an intense bond with the Palestinian struggle. But she says that her experience was not the norm.

“My sense about generational difference towards Israel is that there is absolutely a shift. When I was young, and we began to try and raise awareness, I didn’t know anyone else, who thought the way I did.”

The relationship between Israel and American Jews has always been a complex affair. 

'When people talk about anti-Semitism in the US, they often mean criticism of Israel, but I think Pittsburgh showed that anti-Semitism is linked to white supremacy'

- Liana Petruzzi

According to Waxman, American Jews only really began supporting Zionism, a 19th-century political ideology that emerged from the persecution faced by Jews in Europe, closer to the time of the Holocaust and the formation of Israel itself.

Since then, American Jews have held a plurality of views towards Israel, though this diversity of opinion has not always made it into the public domain. 

On the one hand, a liberal community at the forefront of anti-war and anti-racist movements, but with a blind spot when it comes to Palestinians, an approach Jewish anti-Zionists describe as “PEP” or “Progressive except Palestine.”

On the other hand, pro-Israeli individuals and groups holding on to an idea of Israel and Zionism cast at a time in which the Holocaust was a lot more visceral to the Jewish imagination; in the face of deep intergenerational trauma from anti-Semitism and the fear of annihilation, an alternate, safe space seemed imperative, even urgent.

In between, a cohort of others, either indifferent, silently ambivalent, or even working for justice for Palestinians in some form or another.

Meanwhile, and most prominent in American political life, have been lobby groups like the 56-year-old American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) who imbue a legion of pro-Israel lobby groups, accused of exerting undue levels of influence over US government officials and policy.

The activists of the 80s

In the 1980s, there were organisations like the New Jewish Agenda (NJA), a social justice grouping, that described itself as "a Jewish voice among progressives and a progressive voice among Jews". The NJA went on to organise protests against apartheid South Africa and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  

Sherry Gorelick, a long-time activist and former professor in sociology and women’s studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, says she "has been in Jewish groups critical of Israel since 1983". 

She recalls Women in Black, an Israeli peace organisation that called for an end to the occupation, holding solidarity vigils in at least 38 US states at one point during the 1980s. The organisation is still in existence today.

“The dissent is not new. It’s just bigger and louder than ever before,” Gorelick says. “This generation seems to be more progressive in general. I taught for 31 years but this period is remarkably different."

Maya Edery, an activist based in NYC, says the growing divide between young and old has created tensions in some Jewish American families (MEE/Azad Essa)

Petchesky says the burgeoning of young Jewish-American support for justice for Palestine and critique of Israel wouldn’t exist without the other social justice movements expanding in the US.

“I would not have seen racism in Israel [as a 16-year-old] if it hadn’t been for my participation in the civil rights movement. I saw things differently from other people in my cohort because they were not involved in civil rights or anti-racism.

“Similarly, I don’t believe there would be students pushing for justice in Palestine without Black Lives Matter (BLM),” she adds.

Edelhart, the Columbia university organiser from JVP, agrees. “The movement for black lives is one of the most prominent movements today and that movement has made it very clear that liberation for black lives here is deeply connected to the liberation struggle in Palestine.”

'Many of us now realise that these institutions didn’t show us the truth, didn’t tell us everything about Israel, and we had to get it elsewhere'

- Naomi Hornstein

The tactic of weaponising accusations of anti-semitism, which some see in recent criticism levelled at Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, is a method that has long been used to deter and counter critics of Israel.

Rabbi Gerry Serotta, a founder of NJA, is quoted as having said: “We felt that the only way to affirm that we were not attacking Jewishness itself by criticising Israeli policy was by dealing with the broad spectrum of American Jewish life.”

Commenting about the level of sensitivity in the community during the 1980s, Rabbi Toba Spitzer, who leads the Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, Massachusetts, says that the mere inclusion of “the letters ‘PLO’ in a document calling for dialogue between Israel and its enemies could get you kicked out of the organised Jewish community”.

“The movements today are so much larger. All sorts of things that couldn’t be said earlier are being said now. We didn’t have that in 1983,” Gorelick says.

“It was difficult to get anyone to listen to you especially if you wanted to talk about the issues within a Jewish framework.”

A question of consensus

Zack Chatterjee Shlachter, an IfNotNow organiser and JVP member in Austin, says the shift among younger activists today is due in part to the groundwork laid by elder activists. He says the new wave of activism does not discount the deep-seated and intergenerational fears that many Jews still hold about their place in American society.

“There is deep and valid trauma, and deep and valid fears. But we disagree that Israel is the answer to our safety,” he says.

This growing disparity is not just between American Jews and Israel, but between younger and older Jews and within Jewish families in America itself.

“Many have parents who do not support their activism, because they are stuck with this idea that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic,” Edery, the organiser from JVP, says. “Others [however] have been able to mobilise their elders into the movement.”

But by no means does this mean there is consensus in the community regarding the way forward. When it comes to the Israeli occupation, progressive Jewish Americans remain on a spectrum.

Attempts by many US states to criminalise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign - a tactic endorsed by Palestinians themselves to force an end to the occupation through the economic and cultural isolation of Israel, (26 US states have enacted anti-boycott laws) and malign those linked to it with severe professional or personal consequences - demonstrate that opposition is stern and often systemic. 

Jewish students, for instance, who organise protests or campaign against Taglit-Birthright Israel (also known as Birthright Israel) trips, or for universities to divest from Israel, face immense personal and professional challenges, Edery, from JVP, says.

“They are often targeted and blacklisted [by pro-Israel groups],” she says. 

At least two activists interviewed by Middle East Eye asked to retract or adjust comments that inferred a personal or organisational endorsement of BDS. The price would be too hefty, they said.

“The idea that people are trying to ban BDS from happening is incredibly disturbing," Rebecca Pierce, a documentary filmmaker and member of the Jews of Color and Sephardi-Mizrahi Caucus based in San Francisco, says. 

"Boycott as a tool of non-violent resistance has always been a tactic used by black activists in the US ... the bans could also harm other struggles for justice,” Pierce says.

The lack of consensus is not seen as a stalemate; for many it is merely emblematic of a community with no choice but to accommodate multiple levels of dissent on a topic that was previously seen as untouchable. 

'While support for Palestinian rights is growing, we must also recognise that conditions are rapidly deteriorating for Palestinians'

- Hanna Alsheikh

For instance, Jewish Voice for Peace calls Israel an apartheid state, and the brand of Zionism that has taken root as settler-colonialism; it also supports BDS.

IfNotNow, whose primary goal is to end American support for the occupation, in comparison, doesn’t endorse BDS or hold a unified position on Zionism or statehood, but holds an open tent policy for members to hold different views on these matters.

J-Street, a liberal Zionist organisation, that endorses a two-state solution, opposes the expansion of settlements and the criminalisation of the BDS campaign even if it doesn’t support it.

“Some of the people who are defending Ilhan [Omar] are Zionists, and they are defending the right to support BDS even though they disagree with BDS. The framework has completely changed,” Gorelick says.

The shifting sentiment among some Jewish Americans notwithstanding, support for Israel among right-wing Evangelical Christians, a source of tremendous power and influence in US politics, remains.

On the ground, meanwhile, little has changed for Palestinians. Gaza remains an open air prison for 2.2 million people. The indignity of life in the occupied West Bank, including the destruction of life and property continues daily. 

Hanna Alshaikh, a Palestinian American researcher and organiser based in Chicago, says that though she is optimistic for what the changes could signal in terms of changes in US policy in the near future, she says "the momentum in favour of Palestinian rights is the product of decades of Palestinian and Arab-led organising in the United States, and Jewish American organising has been a significant part of this movement".

'Crucial' work

Alshaikh describe the work of progressive Jews in the US as "crucial and immensely significant".

"While support for Palestinian rights is growing in the general American public, we must also recognise that conditions on the ground are rapidly deteriorating for Palestinians living under blockade in Gaza, under occupation in the West Bank, as second class citizens within Israel, and in refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries.

"With a rapidly growing Jewish-American contingency within this work for Palestinian rights, we can anticipate growing support for ending our complicity in the oppression of Palestinians in the broader US public - this could help push tangible changes in US policy soon," Alshaikh adds.

Naomi Hornstein
Naomi Hornstein, with IfNotNow, says young Jewish Americans are confronting the fact that Jewish institutions systematically conceal the Israeli occupation from the community [Azad Essa/MEE]

Naomi Hornstein was living in Jerusalem in 2014 when the Israeli invasion of Gaza began. She says she was horrified by the level of brutality meted out on Palestinians during Operation Protective Edge.

On her return to the US, she felt helpless and unsure if anything could be done.

“I then found out about IfNotNow, and other young Jews who were also feeling horrified and wanted to do something,” the 26-year-old says in a coffee shop deep in Brooklyn.

She joined the organisation in 2016. It was during the training sessions underwritten by the group that she realised how much of the occupation had been hidden from her as a child.

'We are saying that the trip is not free. It comes at cost of the dignity and freedom of Palestinian'

- Alyssa Rubin

It gave her a language to be able to understand what she had seen during her time in Israel and then in the West Bank.

“Many of us now realise that these [American Jewish] institutions didn’t show us the truth, didn’t tell us everything about Israel, and we had to get it elsewhere.”

The obfuscation of the occupation in the home or school or in the community is a common thread among young Jewish American activists. The practice also led many Jewish progressives to feel stunted and alienated from the community.

“Growing up, Israel was taught to us a ‘holy place’, and it was always held in high regard, and always ‘special’ or beyond critique,” Bethany Zaiman, a 26-year-old PhD candidate at American University in Washington DC, says.

“It was difficult to ask questions, it was almost frightening to do so.”

Edery, an organiser with JVP, says that growing up she was fed a narrative that erased Palestinians, and taught that Israel was the Jewish homeland and a saviour. “I only got to question these beliefs in college.”

One of the biggest purveyors of extending this perception is Birthright Israel, a group that offers free trips to Jews from around the world to help them connect with Israel and strengthen their Jewish identity.

Through mifgash, or encounter with Israelis, mostly soldiers, participants are meant to “develop long lasting bonds or friendships”. This is considered a central tenet of the trip.

According to the organisation, 650,000 Jews from all over the world have made the trip since 1999, with 48,000 in 2017 alone.

sophie ellman-golan
Sophie Ellman-Golan, activist based in NYC, says she felt liberated when she realised there were many ways to be Jewish without it being linked to Israel (MEE/Azad Essa)

Petchesky, the activist and academic, who went on a similar type of trip as a teenager in 1959, says the intentions of such trips were ultimately the same.

“You were supposed to fall in love with an Israeli soldier. It was designed to hook you on to Zionism, so that you would come back, and make Aliyah (move to Israel).”

IfNotNow, which began in 2014 as a protest against the war in Gaza and the American Jewish community’s support for it, have been campaigning since late 2018 for Birthright Israel to tell the truth about the occupation.

“We are saying that the trip is not free. It comes at cost of the dignity and freedom of Palestinians,” Alyssa Rubin, a campaign spokesperson, says.

“It is also preventing Jews from having an authentic relationship with Israel or Judaism. It is like taking someone to the American South in 1954 and not talking about Jim Crow,” referring to the laws which enforced racial segregration in southern states of the US from the early 19th century to the 1960s.

'Not Just a Free Trip'

In late February, IfNotNow launched a campaign in which it demanded that Birthright Israel makes adjustments to their programme.

They asked the group to include a map of the occupied territories, educate participants on the daily nightmare of the occupation, show a checkpoint from a Palestinian perspective and take participants to the city of Hebron to show the impact of occupation on the city.

How the Birthright movement is losing young American Jews
Read More »

This comes after previous campaigns in 2017 and 2018 in which dozens of alumni from Jewish summer camps, day schools and youth groups accused their institutions of keeping the truth of the occupation from them. 

At least a dozen American Jews walked off Birthright tours in 2018, in protest over the “disinformation” and “erasure” of Palestinians from the tour.

Zaiman, who was one of the participants who walked off mid-way said she had done so because Birthright Israel was proved to be disinterested in having a conversation about the occupation and the violence meted out onto Palestinians during the March of Return in spring 2018.

“My generation is talking about Birthright in a way that we have never spoken about it before. And we are seeing our community having a conversation about an ongoing crisis that we need to confront,” Zaiman says.

Earlier this month, J-Street announced that it will run its own trip to Israel and the occupied territories later in 2019, in response to Birthright's refusal to change its curriculum. Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for J-Street, said 40 Jewish American students would make the trip. 

"We want Birthright to get the message that this is the trip American Jews want to go on... they want to go to Israel, they want to see the tour sites, they want to meet Israelis, but they also want to talk about the occupation and they want to hear from Palestinians," Bayroff said.

In response to criticism that a trip to Israel would still undermine the BDS movement and is still disrespectful to Palestinians, given that many are unable to return home, Bayroff said that "J-Street recognises that American Jewish students are very privileged to have the opportunity to go on trips like this.

"We think it's a positive thing to be able to travel to the region and to meet with Israelis and Palestinians and engage with the realities on the ground... we want to make sure these trips are not blind to the occupation."

Birthright did not reply to Middle East Eye’s requests for comment. The organisation describes itself as apolitical and told the Times of Israel last year that participants are “encouraged to formulate their own views and ask questions in a constructive and respectful manner”.

A legacy of racism 

Rebecca Pierce was in and around Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, was killed by a police officer on 9 August 2014. The incident sparked protests and a nationwide debate on police brutality, racism and justice for African-Americans.

During the same period, Israel had started bombarding Gaza in a campaign that eventually killed more than 2,200 people, 60 percent of whom were civilians.

The 28-year-old Pierce recalls how black protesters were comparing the Israeli crackdown on Palestinians to the police crackdown on activists on the streets of Ferguson. “People were chanting ‘Gaza Strip, Gaza Strip’ at the armed police who were trying to shut down their protests.

"Palestinians in the occupied West Bank actually reached out and provided advice on how to handle tear gas. It formed an immediate connection and the birth of the #Palestine2Ferguson campaign," she says.

For some young Jewish progressives supportive of the protesters in Ferguson, Pierce says, the conflation of the two movements forced them to think about and act upon issues related to Palestine in way that they would not have done so otherwise.

But this reckoning has not solved other burning issues within the Jewish community in the US.

“The American Jewish community has a racism problem,” Pierce says.

'There is also a tendency to uplift white Jewish voices as allies rather than black or brown Jewish voices'

- Rebecca Pierce

She believes that an assumption that Jews cannot be racist, because many elders were progressive and participated in the civil rights movement, eschews responsibility from the community in tackling some of its deeper racist and Islamophobic sentiments.

Chatterjee Shlachter, the activist from Austin, who is also a Jewish person of colour, says the community also has to face up to its own Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. 

“This community is located in the West and just like anti-Semitism, these kinds of prejudices are part of the air that we breathe.”

Pierce says that even if Jewish persons of colour in the US are able to recognise the racism inherent in the treatment of Palestinians, they often decide against speaking out on the issue of Palestine because of the community’s immediate resort to attack their identity.

“It’s harder for Jewish people of colour and they don’t want to engage on the issue because they are already dealing with so much racism, they find it too intimidating … but this too, is changing.

“When I see the exclusion and dispossession of Palestinians, I see my own experience reflected in that,” Pierce says.

“There is also a tendency to uplift white Jewish voices as allies on this issue rather than black or brown Jewish voices, when we have a very different perspective on Palestine solidarity.”

Sierra Mohamed
Sierra Mohamed says that as Jewish person of colour, it can be quite difficult to find acceptance in the Jewish American community [Azad Essa/MEE]

Sierra Mohamed, another Jewish person of colour, based in New York, agrees that the community often finds it difficult to accept black Jews.

For the 25-year-old Mohamed, her last name hasn’t made it any easier either. Her paternal great-grandparents, originally from India, changed their name to Mohamed decades ago to escape caste prejudice. When her parents got married in 1978, her Jewish mother simply adopted her father’s family name.

“I am often asked how I can be Jewish if my last name is Mohamed. It is often very accusatory.”

Mohamed, who works as a paralegal for a non-profit organisation in Manhattan, is a member of the race working group at the Kolot Chayeinu Synagogue in Brooklyn and has, since college, been a firm proponent of the BDS movement.

Mohamed says that she also spent time in Jerusalem in 2014 and didn’t particularly enjoy her time there.

“I was told that I would be welcomed with open arms, and that wasn’t the case. I found it antagonistic as a person of colour. And because of my name. On the other hand, there is no need to welcome me. My Judaism is not linked to Israel. It’s not my home.”

Though many Jewish Americans talk of Israel being the spiritual and physical home of Jews everywhere, Mohamed says that it really depends on who you are and what you look like.

“A white Ashkenazi [Jews of northern and eastern European descent] will have a different experience to a black Ashkenazi or Mizrahi [North African/Middle Eastern] Jew,” Mohamed adds.

“Once you start to dig a little deeper, it is so much more complicated than just being Jewish, because race and where you grew up is a big factor.”

Pierce says that historically, the Jewish faith places a lot of importance on the Holy Land. “This predates the state of Israel or an idea of any notion of a modern-day ethno-national Jewish state.

“Because of this historical reference, many people now make this connection between Judaism and modern state of Israel… for me, I do not think that has to be the only way we engage with this connection.

“For me, engaging in the struggle for human rights for every single person living on that land, regardless of their religion, is an expression of my faith and the importance my faith places on that land.”

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