Jewish Activists Mobilizing Against War Are Finding a New Community

As groups gain support, many on the left are looking to reconcile their concept of justice with their heritage

Jewish Activists Mobilizing Against War Are Finding a New Community
Close to 5,000 American Jews rally in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 19, 2023, to demand an end to Israel’s bombing of Gaza. (IfNotNow)

“Let Gaza live! Let Gaza live!”

The chant bounced off the century-old granite walls of New York City’s historic Grand Central Station on Oct. 27, as thousands poured onto the floor wearing black T-shirts reading “Jews Say Ceasefire Now.” This messaging has become familiar, as massive rallies around the country, including one of 5,000 people in Washington, D.C., and others in dozens more cities, have been organized by Jewish activists speaking primarily as Jews.

These protests represent the biggest explosion of progressive Jewish organizing in decades, and have helped to launch the biggest surge in Palestine solidarity organizing since the Second Intifada. They also represent a newly unified movement with a new demand: a cease-fire.

The New York demonstration was organized by two groups: IfNotNow, an anti-occupation Jewish organization, and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an explicitly anti-Zionist group as large as it is controversial in the Jewish world. “The important thing was we needed to shift the narrative and bring cease-fire into the mainstream,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, the former executive director of JVP and current activist with the organization’s New York City chapter that flooded the station rotunda, told New Lines. “There is a clarity, fierceness and sheer size of those coming out.”

Both groups, along with other partners on the growing Jewish left, are mobilizing thousands of American Jews to leverage their unique role in this American-Israeli-Palestinian schema to demand an end to Israel’s war on Gaza, which at the time of publication has taken over 23,000 Palestinian and 2,000 Israeli lives. In doing so, they have invigorated members of the Jewish community looking to redefine Jewish life in ways that reflect their vision of justice, even if it puts them at odds with the major Jewish organizations that tend to set the tone in the U.S.

JVP and IfNotNow have chapters around the country where local activists take on regional campaigns, such as fighting for divestment from weapons manufacturers selling to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or pushing elected officials to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations. The two groups have similar missions, but are distinct: IfNotNow is silent on the question of Zionism and hopes to influence mainstream Jewish opinion, while JVP — perhaps not willingly — has had to operate as something of an outsider to the rest of the Jewish world.

But that rebellious image has also worked to JVP’s benefit. The organization has more than 22,000 members, many thousands of whom have joined since Oct. 7. Its advisory board has included high-profile Jewish figures like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Judith Butler. JVP now sets much of the tone for the Palestine solidarity work coming to define the Jewish left. The new situation, and the unifying cease-fire demand, has allowed for a partnership to form between the two organizations as they jointly sponsor action after action in places where activists hope to create sufficient disruption to show political leaders that their constituents are passionate about peace.

In Chicago, the Jewish left has formed a historic new coalition. Directly after the Oct. 7 attack, JVP Chicago chapter leader and peace studies scholar Ashley Bohrer organized a flurry of meetings among Palestine solidarity activists to develop what she called a “united front” in the fight to stop what seemed like an inevitable Israeli assault on Gaza. Bohrer grew up in the world of Jewish day schools (private schools where students learn religious subjects alongside academic ones, as well as Hebrew) and summer camps — youth programs that huge numbers of American Jewish families send their children to — and said she has lost friends and severed relations with family members, including many living in Israel and serving in the IDF, over her break with Zionism.

“I had really grown up with the idea that to be Jewish was to be a Zionist,” said Bohrer. “When I started questioning Zionism I began to question whether I am myself Jewish.” It was “finding other anti- and non-Zionist Jews and being in community with them and having [access to] a whole different part … of Jewish history that has been systematically hidden from us” that brought her to a new understanding of Jewish life, she told New Lines.

This is a common experience in these circles, where people’s emerging political consciousness around Israel and Palestine frequently creates barriers within families and the Jewish community. The growth of groups like JVP is a testament to the demand not only for a movement against what many call ethnic cleansing in Palestine but also for building a Jewish identity that allows for an affirmative Jewish continuity by ensuring that a Jewish community aligned with such values exists.

As they did around the country, JVP linked up with IfNotNow and the pro-refugee Jewish organization Never Again Action, which had not previously primarily focused on Israel and Palestine. This unprecedented coalition drove a series of actions, first at the office of Democratic U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, whose suburban Chicago district includes heavily Jewish Skokie and the heavily Orthodox area of West Rogers Park. Schakowsky, who is Jewish herself, has moved left on the issue of Israel and Palestine, partly through her involvement in the liberal Zionist group J Street, but had yet to publicly support a cease-fire (which J Street had also not voiced support for). Next, this newly formed coalition staged an even larger demonstration at a Chicago federal building that houses offices for both of Illinois’ U.S. senators, Democrats Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, demanding that they support an immediate cease-fire. The action eschewed public promotion and instead connected specifically and directly with Jewish activists, 300 of whom turned out. Over 50 Jews sat down in the roadway during rush hour in an act of civil disobedience “to talk about how we cannot allow business as usual to go on while we are witnessing a genocide,” Bohrer said.

Hundreds of American Jews, including two dozen rabbis, hold a sit-in at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., in October to demand that Congress call for a cease-fire in Gaza. (Zachary Schulman)

While JVP and IfNotNow are major players, they are only part of the diverse range of organizations mobilizing Jewish identity on the left. Much the same idea that drives JVP motivates Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) in Canada, which has been fighting what it says is the manipulation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which has now been adopted by countless universities, organizations and governmental bodies (but has been challenged and debated by leading scholars), and according to which anti-Zionism is almost always tantamount to antisemitism. Palestinian solidarity activists counter that the IHRA definition has been used to silence their activism by erroneously labeling criticism of Israel as antisemitism, thus putting their demands out of bounds.

Addressing the way that pro-Israel organizations often wield accusations of antisemitism to silence Palestinian demands, Corey Balsam, a founding member of IJV, told New Lines, “I think we were able to use that to open up space for others to, especially, be against the centrality of accusations of antisemitism by Zionist groups, by Israel itself. I think we have certain legitimacy to speak to those issues as Jews, as Israelis.” IJV collected thousands of signatures supporting their letter demanding that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly move toward a cease-fire, which Trudeau ultimately did in the U.N. General Assembly’s nonbinding resolution vote of Dec. 12.

If claims of antisemitism are frequently made by those opposed to pro-Palestinian activism, activists’ Jewish identities can give them a vantage point to reframe the issue. But this tactic is only one aspect of how identity plays into their organizing strategy, because it also gives many of those engaged in activism a pathway back into Jewish life. “I think there’s also an element of Jewish community-building. … We can have Shabbat dinners and Pesach seders and practice Jewish religion or culture with those that are like-minded,” Balsam said.

These relationships are part of the reason Jewish-led movements are growing. Many young Jews report feeling alienated by a Jewish leadership that is disconnected from their politics and especially by that leadership’s defense of an increasingly far-right Israel. While major Jewish organizations often cling to the idea of Jewish “continuity” — which they often present as threatened by intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews or a break between young Jews and the state of Israel — the actual continuity of young Jews with the traditions of their ancestors has come, in part, from the alienation they feel in the face of a Jewish political reality that appears increasingly untenable to them. Zia Laboff, a JVP member in Oregon, said that as she became more critical of Israel she felt increasingly unwelcome in mainline Jewish spaces. “It’s very difficult to seek spaces of Jewish spirituality that aren’t tied up in some way with Zionist funding or Zionist ideals or just not talking about politics, which I think are antithetical to Jewish values.”

Like many in her small radical Jewish network in Portland, she jumped into action in the days after Hamas’ attack and organized public events to pressure elected officials to support a cease-fire. JVP was a leader in Portland, organizing rallies with names like “Jews Against Genocide” where Jews could be publicly visible in their demands. On Nov. 8, this led about 80 of them to stage a sit-in at the Portland office of Democratic U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, asking for a cease-fire commitment. For Laboff, the work is important, but it is also a way of building the kind of Jewish space that was promised by the mainstream Jewish world but no longer feels on offer.

“There’s just a lot more people getting involved,” said Laboff, suggesting that the motivation behind the flood of participation includes being visible and recognizable as Jews, so that organizers are holding mixers and meet-ups to facilitate introductions. Since there are concerns about how Jewish grief over the Oct. 7 attack has been used to funnel energy into support for the war, Laboff arranged a private processing session so that Jews could meet with other anti-Zionist Jews in an environment of their own choosing. Essential conversations are happening among Jews around the world, and if young Jews cannot find a version that suits them, then they will create it themselves.

This is how Jewish anarchist Cindy Milstein described their work in Asheville, North Carolina, where addressing trauma and community-building are intertwined. “The trauma and grief we feel … we can either feel profound empathy where we can understand that our struggles and our faiths and our freedom and our future are completely intertwined … or people become brutal, fascistic or mean-spirited, and support unthinkingly or uncritically the Israeli state committing genocide,” said Milstein, who has created public mourning events highlighting both Jewish and Palestinian voices in shared grieving.

Milstein distributed a number of zines featuring voices from the conflict that are heard less often, such as Palestinian and Israeli anarchists, and discussing how direct action and mutual aid can help. At their rallies, they have seen a diverse range of people with common views meet for the first time, and security has been provided by both Jews and non-Jews so that they could share in what Milstein described as “webs of care.” “Our fates are so intimately tied in that region. … Any diasporic peoples, our fates, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, all of us have for millennia been targets of pogroms, displacement, dispossession, genocides. … To combat antisemitism, we have to fight white supremacy and Islamophobia. … It’s incredibly important to make those connections.”

Part of this was bringing Jewish ritual into the public events, an important part of the Jewish left since the 1960s, which activists often say honors the prophetic elements of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. In this moment of rising casualties, Milstein, Laboff and others we spoke with employed the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer meant to honor loved ones who have passed. The names of those who have been killed, Hebrew words of loving kindness and the candles that adorn memory have turned these public protest venues into altars to acknowledge the suffering.

“My initial feeling [on Oct. 7] was horror,” said Nate Cohen, a Chicago member of JVP and Never Again Action who notes that, like many people in his community, he had to balance both repulsion at what Hamas had done with a total rejection of Israel’s occupation and bombing of Gaza. “It can be true that Hamas did a horrible, horrific, terrible thing and that Palestinian liberation is deeply important and deserves to be a massive priority for the global humanitarian movement.” As a street medic, Cohen jumped into the work of planning the large coalition protests, helping to train and prepare for large-scale street demonstrations.

“The Holocaust is such a defining part of our collective narrative. … When I see a community for whom that notion and the spirit [of resisting oppression] is so deeply entwined in our collective identities, and then committing atrocities and war crimes against other people, I just feel like it is so wildly disconnected from what I understand Judaism to be,” Cohen said. “The biggest entity in the world, that claims to speak for our collective identity, is doing things that go so inherently against my understanding of what that identity is, I think … people’s rage is correct.”

A November 2023 protest organized by the Los Angeles chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. (Jewish Voice for Peace — Los Angeles)

“I am seeing … a major move in the American Jewish community to the right,” said Dove Kent, a longtime progressive Jewish organizer who closely watches the Jewish organizational landscape. Within 48 hours, she said, the center moved right, and firm binaries, which already existed when it came to Israel and Palestine, became entrenched. This could have the effect of breaking off the piece of the Jewish left that foregrounds Palestinian autonomy, forcing them into the same woods where JVP has been living for years.

While these Jewish Palestine solidarity activists are largely in line with American public opinion, which shows support for a cease-fire at close to 70%, there’s a disconnect with mainstream Jewish life. Nearly 300,000 joined the pro-Israel march in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, a bipartisan affair where blame for the violence was directed at Hamas and an end to the bombing of Gaza seemed off the table. Across town, something called the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable was convened, a meeting where progressive Jewish activists compared notes. Some in attendance joined the pro-Israel demonstration, while others felt conflicted. That conference floor could be an indication of how the coming years of Jewish organizational life will look.

Rebecca Zimmerman Hornstein, executive director of the Boston Workers Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice, described an unprecedented tension simmering in the American Jewish community as she spoke to me from that conference. The Workers Circle was founded by Eastern European Jewish migrants as a mutual aid project tied to the socialist labor movement and has a history spanning more than a century. The Boston chapter was recast in the 1980s as a progressive, secular outlet for Jewish life, with Yiddish classes, a Sunday school and member-driven committees that work on political issues. Inside the organization, disagreement is welcome: The old Yiddish adage suggests that among two Jews, three opinions exist. So Zimmerman Hornstein explains that they have Zionist, non-Zionist and anti-Zionist members, who are all driven by what they see as core values of freedom, democracy and equality for all inhabitants of the region.

“We had a long history of holding conversation, holding conflict on the issue in our community,” said Zimmerman Hornstein. “It’s not an issue we ever avoided in our community just because it can be challenging.”

But as a tenuous member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, a Jewish organizational coalition, members of the Workers Circle knew its days were numbered. The primary reason was that they had one particularly controversial collaboration. When they joined a coalition to hold a vigil after the 2018 synagogue shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, the council threatened expulsion because JVP was a co-sponsor.

They weathered that storm, but after the council passed a resolution saying any organization partnering with an anti-Zionist group would be expelled, their exit seemed inevitable. “Based on our principles … calling for a cease-fire was really in line with our organizational outlook on Israel-Palestine,” said Zimmerman Hornstein. They joined an Oct. 18 cease-fire rally co-sponsored by JVP, IfNotNow and the progressive Boston synagogue Kavod, but before the event even wrapped up she received a call from the council announcing its intention to expel.

JVP, as the largest Jewish anti-Zionist group, is controversial, often the “last stop” for radical Jews questioning consensus politics on Israel. But because it never had access to the support, or money, of mainstream Jewish organizations, it had to build its own infrastructure. Organizers from a number of groups who have sponsored these cease-fire rallies told me that they could not have done it without the pioneering work of JVP, and the reaction from mainstream Jewish organizations has pushed them more firmly in the direction of partnering with it.

“The desire to marginalize us is a desire to kind of make impossible or make invisible what is actually true about us, which is that we represent a real and growing and furious constituency of the Jewish community in the U.S.,” said Stefanie Fox, the current executive director of JVP. Their size, their connection to Judaism and their challenge to those who claim to speak for all Jews force some mainstream Jewish organizations to see them as a challenge to the apparent pro-Israel consensus in the Jewish organizational world, she said.

“I think a massive shift has just taken place, and … there are many progressive Jewish groups that are going to have to decide if they are leaping forward into full-throated solidarity … while [also] holding space for our own loss and grief and pain,” Sophie Ellman-Golan, the communications director of the long-established progressive organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, told me. “And there are the people who are going to decide they cannot move forward with that because they are still so deeply feeling that pain.”

She, like many others, lamented that many Jewish organizations are acting as if “empathy is a finite resource that has to be conserved,” which leaves them too inwardly focused, in her view. This is pushing those on the Jewish left even further away from the larger Jewish philanthropic infrastructure as demands for a cease-fire are uncommon and controversial. Many left-leaning Jewish organizations are facing some of the divisive and exclusionary treatment that JVP has had in the past.

Derek Penslar, who teaches Jewish history at Harvard University and is the author of “Zionism: An Emotional State” (2023), said that when many Jews encounter anti-Zionism, what they hear is “a challenge to their existential security” and a discrediting of their attachment to Israel. “They feel deeply psychologically, physically and existentially threatened,” Penslar told New Lines. He notes that the hardening of Jewish organizations toward criticism of Israel was “a product of the Second Intifada and a sense of real vulnerability,” adding that it was campus Jewish organizations like Hillel that, after 2000, developed a sharp line excluding anti-Zionists from the conversation.

We are now 20 years on, and views are increasingly polarized, while movements to confront what activists call Palestinian dispossession are met with a militant backlash, to the point that demands for cease-fire could be understood, as Penslar explained, as the “new BDS,” referring to calls for boycotts, divestment and economic sanctions against Israel.

“We’re building a movement of American Jews and that means we want to bring all of those Jewish institutions and leaders with us,” said Maya Yair of IfNotNow. “We recognize that we have all been sold on the idea that there is safety in this kind of violence. … We know that you are holding generational trauma. We know that there is a deep fear of antisemitism … and we know that we cannot find our safety through these means.”

This is how many of these groups re-imagine Jewish safety, and their “safety through solidarity” message suggests that it is actually a partnership between Jews and other marginalized people that ensures protection rather than Israeli nationalism. “I think it is really on us to say that [the current Israeli policy in Gaza] is not how you protect the Jewish people,” said Liv Kunins-Berkowitz, JVP’s media coordinator. “We don’t believe in a version of safety that’s predicated on the dispossession and destruction of another group of people.”

While coalitions like the Jewish Federations of North America (formerly the United Jewish Communities) may consider themselves the gauges of acceptable Jewish thought, there were always dissenters. This was, in reality, what Workers Circle was in the first place, with groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee created as more tepid and middle-class alternatives to the radical organization that poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrants preferred to solve their social issues and address antisemitism. Boston Workers Circle was added to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston only in 1944, in an all-hands-on-deck moment in the fight against antisemitism. It was always an uneasy alliance. The notion of a unified “Jewish community” is a recent construct and is now breaking down, largely along historical communal fault lines. Only now, there are thousands more looking for their place in the schema of Jewish life.

All these organizations report a massive spike in membership, with IfNotNow tracking 40 protests from Oct. 7 to a Nov. 13 event in Chicago. That Nov. 13 protest, which brought out more than 1,000 demonstrators from across the Midwest, was a follow-up to the coalition effort that pushed Senator Durbin to support a cease-fire. On Nov. 2, Durbin became the first U.S. senator to do so, which was surprising given his long-standing relationship with the right-wing pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, a history chronicled in a recent report in The Intercept. Swarming the Israeli consulate, demonstrators interrupted access to the Ogilvie train station in downtown Chicago, while around 100 demonstrators were arrested in a public act of civil disobedience.

While smaller than the roaring crowds of the pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., the next day, it pulled together a crowd with a fraction of the money, organizational and political might or media infrastructure, built instead on the kind of person-to-person chapter organizing that has made JVP so effective. The disparity was on full display on Nov. 15, when IfNotNow and JVP led a multifaith coalition in a candlelight vigil where police injured 90 activists. “We were met with police officers pulling people … down the stairs, pepper spray to the face, actions that led to concussions,” said JVP’s Dani Noble at their Nov. 16 press conference.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, president of the Society of Jewish Ethics, speaking at a November protest organized by the Los Angeles chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow. To his right is Benjamin Kersten, a Los Angeles chapter leader of JVP. (Jewish Voice for Peace — Los Angeles)

Those assaults happened around the same time that Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles was shut down by JVP activists and thousands of others, holding signs reading “Jews say no to genocide.” The next morning, IfNotNow led a blockade of a bridge crossing the Charles River in Boston to push Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren to support a cease-fire. Just hours later, Jewish activists shut down the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, with protesters locking arms using piping. The numbers of those involved and the intensity of actions are escalating, and much of the country appears to be with them.

“We are pushing a cease-fire because we want Palestinians and Israelis to live in safety [and] we want there to be a long-term peace that is just and where there’s freedom for all Israelis and Palestinians,” said Matan Arad-Neeman, the Israeli-American deputy press director of IfNotNow. “I think there’s a clear choice for [Jewish establishment organizations] to make right now, whether … they will be on the side of peace … or will they be continuing to be calling for further war and destruction?”

The massive influx may also represent an exodus: from mainstream Jewish organizations and into the alternative infrastructure that many of the more radical groups have been building. JVP formed the Havurah Network, a collection of synagogues that are re-imagining Jewish life apart from Zionism. Synagogues like the Reconstructionist Tzedek in Chicago have helped spearhead this alternative pathway.

“Jews are going to find a way to pray together,” said Kent, who recently co-founded a progressive, anti-Zionist synagogue called Makom in Durham, North Carolina. “We’re going to find a way to be in spiritual community together that may be outside of the institutions that currently exist. There may be new ones built … luckily we come from a community that knows how to rebuild.”

Because memory is central to the rhythms of Jewish life, it’s easy to project the past onto current tumult. The chaotic years that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE were, in part, the result of Jewish infighting, an allegedly unified community fracturing on issues each segment interpreted as a matter of life and death. But following the catastrophe, a new Jewish path was built in exile — a set of institutions and laws and a peoplehood that was unthinkable when the Hebrew Bible was written.

This reinvention, the process of rabbinical commentary and debate, may be the core methodology of Jewishness. During rupture, Jews promise to continue being Jews, which means committing to both tear down and rebuild. As more Jews feel disenfranchised by the centerpieces of American Jewishness, they are not abandoning their Jewish identity but fashioning a new one. Whether this simply adds to the Jewish patchwork or replaces it will be up to the mainstream Jewish organizations that activists say have drawn impenetrable boundaries and chosen a type of narrow nationalism increasingly unpopular in the 21st century.

Part of this shift is involuntary: Some of those questioning and opposing Israel’s war are being forced out of their Jewish communities, and sometimes even their families. “After hearing that I went to a pro-Palestinian rally, my mom told me that she was ashamed of me, and that she wasn’t sure if she could have a relationship with me anymore,” said one caller featured on a recent episode of the Jewish Currents podcast titled “Talking to Our Families.” “She also asked why I don’t have any loyalty and why I don’t just convert to Islam.”

As Hanukkah began — a holiday meant to commemorate the Jewish resistance to compelled assimilation — those who see the fight for global justice as entwined with their Judaism made the holiday’s meaning a material reality. Demonstrations increased around the country, sometimes featuring early public lamp-lighting events and banners denouncing genocide or proclaiming “Hanukkah = Liberation.” On the final, eighth night of Hanukkah, when eight candles burn in unison, JVP led blockades on bridges and major thoroughfares around the country. In Seattle, a massive, 10-foot-tall menorah was positioned on the University Bridge, behind banners demanding a cease-fire and a line of Jews sitting down to stop traffic. “Up, up with liberation! Down, down with occupation!” chanted a dancing crowd in front of a banner reading “The Whole World is Watching” (a slogan made famous in the 1960s by protesters against the Vietnam War) hoisted into the air for cameras and onlookers.

That holiday ended with no established cease-fire in place, and the “humanitarian pause” lasted mere days. As the ground war in Gaza continues, the death toll will rise, creating an untenable situation for an American public whose tax dollars fund the munitions used. And the protests that promise to continue may be some of the most recognizably Jewish events in recent history, connecting an entire generation to these rabbinic traditions and ensuring the kind of continuity that the American Jewish establishment (in journalist Peter Beinart’s phrase) desperately yearns for.

Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy