Protests surge: U.S. and Israeli Jews decry devastating occupation of Palestine

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Raya Fidel, Ph.D., is a Jewish feminist born and raised in Israel who now makes her home in Seattle. A professor at the University of Washington, she returned from her most recent visit with family members in Israel in May.

A Palestinian woman activist told me recently: “It is so nice to meet a progressive Israeli. You are the first one I have come across.” Other people are likely to have similar reactions when talking to an Israeli or an American Jew who openly criticizes the policy and actions of the Israeli government.

The days when that criticism elicits surprise, however, may be numbered. Internationally, Jewish opposition to the Israeli government is growing very rapidly, challenging the impression fostered by the mainstream media that Jews are united in their unconditional support of Tel Aviv.

Far from it. From the “refuseniks” in the Israeli armed forces who recoil from serving in the occupied territories, to U.S. Jews who protest Israeli state terrorism with signs saying “Not in my name,” Jews are increasingly demanding that Israel end its war against the Palestinians.

The root problem: Zionism. Israel’s creation in 1948 was a result of Zionism, the nationalist movement based on the belief that Jews can find a safe home only in an exclusively Jewish state. To rationalize establishing that state in the land of Palestine, Zionism had to disregard the rights of the people already there. As of the early 1900s, 700,000 people lived in Palestine, the vast majority of them Arab. Yet, in building support for Israel, the Zionists popularized the myth of “a land without people for a people without land.”

Currently, the extreme right of this movement says publicly that Israel should get rid of the Palestinians, both in Israel and in the occupied territories. The more “moderate” Zionism, meanwhile, has no proposal for resolving the conflict.

Not all Jews are Zionists. Many individuals and organizations disagree with this ideology, and Jews have led many radical movements whose politics include rejection of Zionism.

Nevertheless, since the Holocaust that murdered half the world’s Jews, Zionism has an extremely strong influence on Jews everywhere. It is not easy, therefore, for a Jew to criticize Israel. Doing so, one is likely to be labeled a traitor, a “self-hating Jew,” or an anti-Semite.

These accusations carry a heavy charge. Most U.S. Jews have experience with anti-Semitism. Israeli Jews, for their part, have suffered through numerous wars with their Arab neighbors (most of them instigated by Israel), and are taught to believe that “the whole world is against us.” Overcoming this emotional, unconditional defense of Israel is an act of dissent that may cause one to be cast out from her or his community, friends and family.

But since the systematic increase in the brutality of the occupation following the beginning of the new Palestinian Intifadah in October 2000, growing numbers of Jews, even Zionist Jews, realize that the war against the Palestinians makes Israel a racist and immoral state. And many of them are organizing groups for action.

Blossoming of dissent in Israel. The Israeli peace movement was largely silenced after the first suicide bombings spawned by the occupation. But, in response to Israel’s bloody invasion of numerous towns and cities, it is making up for lost time.

The movement is composed of many fragments, ranging from anti-Zionist groups at one end to those who seek a more “humane” occupation at the other.

In the middle are those Israelis who now call the war against the Palestinians “the war for the settlements,” a characterization I heard repeatedly during my last visit to Israel. These Israelis believe that the real reason for the war is preserving and expanding the settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. And this is not a cause they are willing to die for, or see hundreds of Palestinians displaced and killed for.

Other Israelis oppose the war on the grounds that it harms the Jewish state, saying, “The occupation is killing us.”

Yet, on May 11, just after I returned from Israel, they all came together. I received an e-mail that day from my brother in Tel Aviv: the peace rally there had drawn 100,000 people ? in a country of barely more than six million!

Meanwhile, from week to week, groups of Jewish Israelis join in direct actions to subvert the military offensives, from trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian houses to bringing food to cities under siege.

U.S. Jews for peace and justice. In the U.S., local Jewish organizations have formed to oppose the occupation not only in large metropolitan cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, but also in cities that don’t often make the national news, such as Albuquerque, Minneapolis, and even Olympia, Washington.

Many of these local groups are heavily involved in coordinating rallies, marches, petitions, and other protests. Some work only with Jews. Most, however, participate in broader coalitions that include Palestinians ? such as the International Solidarity Movement, which sends “protectors” to the occupied territories.

In an effort to build a national movement of U.S. Jews, activists in the Midwest held a conference in early May 2001, which I attended. Named Jewish Unity for a Just Peace, the weekend-long meeting brought together more than 200 Jews, from many states and even other countries. However, it became apparent that Zionism is still a great dividing wall inside the movement, just as it is in Israel.

A majority of participants wanted to support the right of Palestinian refugees to return not only to the occupied territories or a future small, independent Palestinian state, but to Israel as well. With the help of some raucous Zionists, however, the organizers managed to end the gathering with no common statement or plans for future activities.

Nevertheless, despite disagreements, Jewish outrage continues to mount over Israeli horrors such as the deadly destruction of the Jenin refugee camp this year. At the massive demonstration for peace and justice in Washington, D.C. on April 20, Jewish contingents figured prominently among the 75,000 people who rocked the capital with their demand for an end to the carnage.

With such Jewish activists included, the U.S. antiwar movement seems poised to challenge Zionism at home. In the bleak days of September 2000, noted Palestinian scholar Edward Said keenly envisioned this possibility. Writing in the publication Al-Ahram Weekly, he said: “There exists inside the U.S. a vast body of opinion ready to be critical both of Israel and U.S. foreign policy.”

U.S. funds maintain the war. Are these peace and justice movements effective? I think they can be, and particularly in the United States.

The U.S. government has complete control over the war, because our tax money is paying the bill. Israel could not maintain such a lengthy and atrocious occupation without the generous financial support of the USA. This is provided not because the U.S. ruling class cares about the fate of Jews, but because it needs an outpost and pawn to use in furthering its interests in the oil-rich Middle East.

Therefore, it is extremely important that we in the U.S. demand in every way possible that the government stop aiding Israel.

And who better to oppose the funding of Israeli apartheid than U.S. Jews, with their proven record of concern for other Jews worldwide and for victims of all types of persecution? Who better to insist that the only way to make Israel safe for Jews is to stop the war against the Palestinian people and recognize their historic rights?

In the moving words of one banner flying on April 20 in Washington: “We didn’t survive Auschwitz to bury Jenin.” End U.S. funds to Israel now!

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