Letter from the US: Opposition to Israeli policies growing among Jewish Americans

October 11, 2015

Photo: Jewish Voice for Peace Albuquerque Chapter.

For most of its existence since 1948, Israel has had the support of most Jews in the US. There have always, however, been some dissident voices, especially among Jewish members of socialist and communist groups.

As anti-imperialist consciousness grew in the 1960s, the radicalisation of young people led a layer of young Jews to question Israeli policies towards Palestinians, Israel's support of apartheid South Africa and the Vietnam war.

But most Jewish people in the US have continued supporting Israel.

That is starting to change, on different levels. This is important, as US imperialism's military and economic support for Israel is key to maintaining the Jewish-supremacist state. As more Jewish Americans speak out in opposition to Israeli policies, it can have a big impact.

Jewish Voice for Peace

The emergence and growth of Jewish Voice for Peace is an important indicator. JVP says: “We represent a growing portion of Jewish Americans. Israel claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people, so we are compelled to make sure the world knows that many Jews are opposed to their actions.

“There are often attempts to silence critics of Israel by conflating legitimate criticism with anti-Semitism. Israel is a state, not a person. Everyone has the right to criticise unjust actions of a state.”

JVP was started by three undergraduate students at the University of California at Berkeley in 1996. By 2007, it decided to expand into a national organisation of mostly volunteer activists, funded by grassroots supporters.

Two early members were Cindy Shamban and Marge Sussman. Shamban said: “I got involved [in the issue] after I moved to San Francisco in 1978. I decided it was time to educate myself on the issues, that I could no longer remain ignorant …

“Through readings and discussions I joined an organisation called Jewish Alliance Against Zionism.”

Sussman added: “I remember around that time we were at a Jewish feminist conference in San Francisco, and we were really targeted with all the 'you're a self-hater' attacks. And there was no support at all. It was just taboo.

“Everything was open for debate at that conference – except Israeli policies toward Palestinians!”

They began working with JVP around 2001. “It was a small group that met in living rooms,” Shamban said.

Israeli crimes

After going national, the group grew as the truth about Israeli policies became more widely known. The Israeli war against the people of Gaza in 2008-2009, which killed more than 1400 Palestinians, opened many eyes. The 2010 Israeli attacks on ships with humanitarian supplies bound for Gaza to break Israel's crippling blockade had a similar effect.

JVP has taken off in the past three years, increasing its full-time paid staff to 28. After last year's even more brutally destructive war on Gaza, and this year's Israeli election — won by Benjamin Netanyahu with escalating anti-Palestinian rhetoric — JVP membership has tripled.

It now has more than 60 activist chapters and more than 200,000 online supporters.

One aspect of JVP's work is coalition building, including with Arab, Iranian, Muslim and Christian groups. When a diverse coalition of Palestinian civil society groups called in 2005 for a global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel, JVP became active in many BDS campaigns.

BDS demands Israel's occupation be ended and its Apartheid Wall torn down; an end to discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; and “respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinians to return to their homes”. Active support for BDS sets JVP apart from most other Jewish peace groups.

Another thing that puts JVP in the vanguard among Jewish groups is its statement: “We believe that a just and comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians can only happen through acknowledgement of the Nakba of 1947-9, which led to the creation of millions of Palestinian refugees.”

This refers to the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from territory within what became the Israeli state — known to Palestinians as “the Catastrophe”, or “Nakba” in Arabic.

Regarding a solution to the conflict, JVP says: “We support any solution that is consistent with the full rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, whether one binational state, two states, or some other solution.

“It is up to Israelis and Palestinians to reach a mutually agreed upon solution. However, we also believe it is our obligation to offer honest analysis about the diminishing likelihood of a two-state solution given decades of Israeli settlement expansion and the current Israeli leadership's open resolve to block the creation of a Palestinian state.”

About the right of those Palestinians expelled from Israel to return to their land, JVP says it “supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right of people to return to their countries”.

“Peace will only be possible when Israel acknowledges the Palestinian refugees' right of return and negotiates a mutually agreed, just solution based on principles established in international law including return, compensation and/or resettlement.”

With such positions, it is no wonder that supporters of the Jewish-supremacist state attack JVP, as they do all who criticise Israel. The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are among the most vocal.

As far back as 2010, the ADL singled out JVP and noted its work on campuses. It said: “Jewish Voice for Peace is the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States.

“Despite the neutral tone of its name … JVP counts among its objectives an end to US aid for Israel (because of Israel's 'repressive policies') and the success of boycott and divestment campaigns against Israel.”

The gist of its attack was that JVP acted as a “shield” against Israel's assertion that BDS is anti-Semitic.

In this view, JVP are “self-hating” Jews who function as part of an anti-Semitic movement.


Another indication of many Jewish American breaking with unconditional support for Israeli policies has been the bitter divisions over the international deal on Iran's nuclear program.

“Debate on Iran Fiercely Splits American Jews” was an August 28 headline in the New York Times. The article talked about sharp discussions in Jewish congregations and organisation meetings. This even extended to attacks on Jewish members of Congress who supported the deal, including allegations they were “kapo” — a Jew who collaborated with Nazis in the death camps.

AIPAC, the Israeli lobby with very deep pockets, spent tens of millions of dollars in efforts to kill the deal — an effort which ultimately failed. The NYT noted that this signalled a decline in the power of the lobby. Polls indicate that only a minority of American Jews, especially among the younger generation, opposed the deal.

The difference between Washington and the Israeli government over the Iran deal was real. US President Barack Obama wanted to pull back from a confrontation with Iran that could lead to war. Netanyahu, however, wanted to step up that confrontation in the hopes of attacking Iran.

The whole issue of Iran's nuclear program was presented in hyped and false terms by both the US and Israel, as if an Iranian bomb would pose a threat to either. Renowned academic Noam Chomsky has pointed to a CIA analysis that said that even if Iran built a nuclear weapon, it would be as a deterrent, not an offensive weapon.

The image of the US — the only nation to have ever used atomic weapons on another and holding vast numbers of nuclear weapons, quaking in fear of Iran — is ridiculous.

Similarly, Israel is armed to the teeth with hundreds of nuclear weapons. Any offensive use of a nuclear weapon by Iran would lead to its immediate destruction.

What the US and Israel fear is that such a deterrent in the hands of Iran would constrain the military aggressions of both “rogue states” in the region — to use Chomsky's words.

The division between the US and Israel over the Iran deal does not mean any change in Washington's support of Israel. Indeed, Obama indicated renewed and extended military and financial backing of the imperialist outpost in the Middle East.

However, the shifting views of Jewish Americans — especially among the young — could be a threat to the bipartisan US elite support for Israel and its crimes.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.