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US Jewish protests against Israel highlight growing schism

14 American Jews arrested in action aimed at persuading members of Congress to condemn Israel’s killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza
Jewish Voice for Peace members were arrested in front of US Senator Chuck Schumer's office (MEE/Jake Ratner)

Fourteen American Jews were arrested by the New York Police Department after blocking the entrance to US Senator Chuck Schumer’s New York office on Thursday, the latest Jewish-led civil disobedience action aimed at pushing members of Congress to condemn Israel’s killing of Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

Chanting “Free, Free Gaza” and singing Jewish prayers while wearing black, the protesters, all members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), sat in front of Schumer’s office building, locked arms and unfurled a banner that read: “Schumer, your silence is shameful. NYC Jews stand with Gaza. Palestinians should be free.”

The 14 who were arrested were joined by at least 40 other JVP members there to support the protest and push Schumer, the Democratic majority leader, to speak out against Israeli actions in Gaza. The demonstrators wore signs around their necks with the names of the 41 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since 30 March, when Gazans began the Great March of Return.

The Gaza protest is a weeks-long encampment near Israel’s self-imposed militarised barrier with Gaza, calling for the right of return to lands Palestinians and their descendants were expelled from in 1948, when Israel was founded. The Palestinian demonstrators have been met with sniper fire and tear gas fired by Israeli soldiers.

As a Jew, I have a responsibility to speak out publicly when violence is committed in my name

- Audrey Bruner, Jewish Voice for Peace

“We’re here today to call on Senator Schumer to condemn the murder of 41 people in Gaza,” said MJ Edery, a member of JVP’s New York City chapter. “Everyone should have the right to peacefully protest for their rights without being murdered.”

Schumer has been one of Israel’s most steadfast backers in the US Congress.

But JVP said it hopes to use this protest to pressure other US senators to urge Israel to stop using sniper fire on unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

The sit-in is the first in a series of JVP-led demonstrations to be held in front of the offices of US politicians across the country to press for enforcement of the Leahy Law, a US provision that prohibits American military aid from going to foreign army units that violate human rights. The US provides Israel with more than $3bn in annual military aid.

”As a Jew, I have a responsibility to speak out publicly when violence is committed in my name,” said Audrey Bruner, a JVP member who was arrested outside Schumer's office.

Growing Jewish protests over Gaza

There have been several indicators, including these latest sit-ins at politicians' offices, of a growing split in the American Jewish community over Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinians.

Since 30 March, at least 51 American Jews have been arrested protesting against Israel’s lethal response to the Great March of Return.

“The recent wave of actions reflects more broadly that the tide is turning in the American Jewish community, and its time that Jewish institutions took note,” said Noah Wagner, a Boston-based member of IfNotNow, a group of young American Jews that organise against the Israeli occupation.

IfNotNow members are arrested in Boston for protesting Israel's occupation (MEE/Emily Glick)

Wagner is one of 37 IfNotNow members who have been arrested by police officers in various states for blocking the entrances to offices of US politicians or Israeli consulates. Wagner and seven other IfNotNow members were arrested after blocking the entrance to the Israeli consulate in Boston. The Israeli consulate responded by saying that the demonstrators were “lawless”.

“This is a moment of reckoning, a moment when young Jews are exhibiting moral leadership and showing a sense of clarity and integrity when it comes to putting fundamental human dignity first,” Wagner told Middle East Eye. “The violence in Gaza laid bare, exposed the ugliest undercurrents of the occupation, the real overt brutality that is required to uphold it. And I think that young Jews no longer feel we can look away.”

US Jews increasingly critical of Israel

The memberships of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace have steadily increased in recent years, the groups say, calling them a reflection of how Israeli human rights abuses of Palestinians are driving members of the American Jewish community away from supporting Israel.

For decades, the American Jewish community has stood as a pillar of support for Israel. Washington has shielded Israel from diplomatic sanctions at the United Nations and has given it more than $134bn in aid, most of it military assistance, since 1948.

But the 50-year-long Israeli occupation of Palestinian land - and the deaths, mass detentions and building of illegal settlements, all hallmarks of its rule - has eroded support for Israel among American Jews.

People involved in these demonstrations are the future leadership of the American Jewish community

- Dov Waxman, Northeastern University

Various studies have shown that more American Jews are becoming critics of Israel. Two surveys conducted by the Brand Israel Group six years apart revealed a drop in support for the state, as between 2010, when one poll was taken, and 2016, support for Israel by Jewish college students dropped by 26 points.

Dov Waxman, a professor at Northeastern University, said that American Jews will not be able to change US policy towards Israel single handedly.

The US-Israel relationship rests on a number of pillars, like Christian Evangelical support, intelligence sharing and US weapons companies that profit from Israeli purchases.

Still, Waxman, who authored Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, told Middle East Eye that the wave of American Jewish protests against Israel’s killings in Gaza was important.

“People involved in these demonstrations are the future leadership of the American Jewish community. It does matter what their views are and what their positions are,” said Waxman. “[The Jewish protests] can make a difference, particularly for some congressmen - it can embolden them to speak.”

And as Israel continues to inflict violence on protesters in Gaza, the Jewish-led protests in the US will continue, the groups involved say, in the hopes that pressure will embolden members of Congress to criticise Israeli actions.

“With Nakba Day, and the move of the US embassy [to Jerusalem] coming up, we can expect to see more tragedy and more death in Israel-Palestine,” said Wagner, the IfNotNow member. “We will be watching that with a lot of compassion and concern. We will not let that go unaddressed.”

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