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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

18 March 2019
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
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
“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 describes her shift from liberal Zionism to anti-Zionist as a

"process" [Azad Essa/MEE]
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
“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
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
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.
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.
“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
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
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

"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".

Peter Beinart
The American debate over Israel is changing fundamentally. The only
questions now are the pace and ultimate destination. Shabbat Shalom.
5:37 PM - Mar 8, 2019
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92 people are talking about this
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
“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
- 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
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
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
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 Newark, 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 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
“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, 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
“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
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
“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, 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
'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.

sippin on dat@vivafalastin
· Mar 13, 2019
this ain’t it chief

sippin on dat@vivafalastin
imagine thinking the solution to birthright is to create ANOTHER free
propaganda trip on stolen land that palestinians still can’t access. j street is a
10:36 AM - Mar 13, 2019
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See sippin on dat's other Tweets
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
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 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 our land, regardless of their religion, is an expression of my faith and
the importance my faith places on that land.”
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