When thousands of New Yorkers march up Fifth Avenue in fervent support of Israel on Sunday in the annual solidarity parade, a growing group of Jewish dissenters and their allies will try to add an alternative message, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Like Jewish protesters at the march in years past, they can expect to be called vicious names, spat at, and even physically attacked by parade-goers. But quite simply they feel, as Brooklyn filmmaker Lorne Lieb, 25, puts it, that “as a Jew, I can’t stand by and let violence be done in my name.”
As the massive Israeli crackdown on the Palestinian uprising continues, Jewish opposition in the U.S. is finding its voice again. Along with a dozen other New Yorkers, Lieb joined some 180 Jewish activists from around the country (and from Canada, Israel, Germany, France, and Brazil) in Chicago from May 4 through 6 to trade strategies, deepen analyses, and hear on-the-ground reports from their Israeli counterparts. Out of all the talk, they hoped, would come a coordinated campaign to widen support for ending the occupation.
The conference—Jewish Unity for a Just Peace (or “Junity,” as organizers quickly nicknamed it)—brought together folks from their teens to their seventies. Some had been active on the issue since occupation began in 1967; others had been stirred to protest in the last few months. Well over half of the participants were women, and banners decorating the hall ranged from “Queers for a Free Palestine” to a São Paulo organization’s “Shalom-Salam-Paz.”
There was plenty of political diversity, too—from, say, Jewish communal professionals working to support a “viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel” to socialists holding out for a “single binational secular state.” Still, the bottom-line principles were resoundingly clear: End the occupation (including of East Jerusalem), stop abuses of Palestinians’ human rights, and reverse Israel’s settlement policy. Consensus broke down during efforts to add to this call to action—over the fine points of Palestinian refugee rights, for instance—with misgivings expressed from both the “right” and the “left” of the gathering. But even debating a statement that included a phrase about “the rights of refugees”—not to mention coming very close to winning a 75 percent majority for it—shows how far the movement has come since the first intifada in the late 1980s, when the subject was largely taboo, even among lefty Jews.
For Marcia Freedman, a former Knesset member and one of Junity’s keynote speakers, the conference mirrored recent efforts among Israeli peace activists, especially the women’s groups, to build an effective national coalition; that, she said, provides “a little glimmer of hope in a very black sea of despair.” Whether Junity will become a national membership organization was left unresolved at the end of the 48 nearly nonstop hours of debating and plotting. But pulling together a network is itself a powerful achievement, participants said.
People who have been holding regular anti-occupation vigils in Boston since the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada, for example, had no idea that others had been doing the same from Syracuse, New York, to Petaluma, California. Simply knowing that they are not alone, vigil organizers said, fortifies them against the hostilities of mainstream Jews in their home communities. More concretely, activists who have been bringing Palestinian and Israeli speakers to their towns made plans to coordinate national tours, while others discussed synchronizing actions in far-flung places. Representatives from 20 cities, for instance, signed up to organize women’s vigils on June 8, in solidarity with a mass demonstration planned by Israel’s Women in Black in Jerusalem on that day, the 34th anniversary of Israel’s seizure of East Jerusalem. A national mass action was also hatched—a High Holiday demonstration in New York in September, where some Jewish participants would relinquish their “right of return,” the privilege of automatic citizenship in Israel.
Meanwhile, loose groups formed to produce and disseminate a range of educational materials, whether for Hebrew school students or the mass media. Others shared skills for lobbying members of Congress, especially on the once unmentionable subject of cutting the $3 billion in annual aid the U.S. gives to Israel.
“There’s a passionate sense of urgency here,” said longtime activist Melanie Kaye/ Kantrowitz, who spoke on a panel addressing the lessons of Jewish organizing on Israel-Palestine in the ’70s and ’80s. And that urgency will be essential “in our work in the Jewish homeland of the U.S., New York, as we try to win back mainstream Jews who had supported the peace process but retreated to an Israel-right-or-wrong defensiveness when the violence started.”
Getting through to those Jews who abandoned even a shallow support for Palestinian rights was one constant theme of the Junity conference. An ossified narrative, repeated over and over by mainstream Jewish leaders, is getting harder and harder to crack, explained Irena Klepfisz, another two-decade veteran on this issue, who spoke in an opening panel on secular and religious Jewish traditions of social justice activism. “The line is ‘We tried a two-state solution, we made an offer, they answered with violence, and now we have no choice.’ What that completely leaves out is the fact of occupation. The occupation continued all through the Oslo process, with house demolitions, land confiscations, roadblocks, and all the rest.”
What is more, argued Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Israel has continued to strengthen its “matrix of control” in the territories. Even during the “peace process,” it expanded settlements in the occupied territories and constructed a vast network of Jewish-only bypass roads. While Israel crowed about the generosity of its offer to give up 95 percent of the West Bank, he explained, it was using the remaining 5 percent to hold sway over the economy and natural resources, and over the movement of Palestinians. Think of a prison, he suggested. “There, 95 percent of the space is used for the prisoners—they have cells, exercise yards, work areas, and dining areas. It takes only the other 5 percent to contain and control them.”
While Halper described the current situation as “the worst since 1948,” his colleague Rela Mazali offered some cause for hope in her presentation about the deep militarization of Israeli society. A founding member of the Israeli feminist organization New Profile and an organizer of various peace and resistance activities against the occupation, Mazali pointed out that 25 percent of 17-year-old Israelis are currently finding excuses not to enlist in the army, though the law requires that they do so, and a full third of those who do enlist find reasons for early discharge. (Conscientious objection is illegal for men in Israel.) Meanwhile, an astonishing 70 percent of reserve soldiers—essentially all Jewish Israeli men up to the age of 49—are simply failing to show up when called for duty. Though they are hardly organized into a coherent movement of draft resistance, Mazali sees their neglect as a tacit rejection of Israeli policy.
Linking up with the Israeli peace movement is one of the most important ways U.S. activists can be effective, Halper insisted. “Peace is not going to come from within Israel,” he said. “We can’t do it alone.”