Last month, at a West L.A. meeting of Jewish activists gathered to plan a protest in front of the Israeli consulate, Rick Chertoff introduced himself. ”My family’s divided,“ he said. ”I can‘t talk to most of my family. Some of them won’t even talk to me, which is sad.“ The day before, 30,000 people had gathered in Encino‘s Woodley Park to celebrate Israel’s independence day, and it was exactly that apparent unanimity of American Jewish support for the Israeli government that Chertoff and the others were hoping to break through.
So emotional is the issue among Jews, though, that even this small group, united in its conviction that Israel‘s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is unconscionable, had a hard time reaching a consensus. The posting of seven demands discussed at a previous meeting — ranging from an immediate end to Israel’s occupation, to the ”right of return“ for Palestinians displaced since 1948 — led to two hours of amiable but impassioned debate. Some could not agree to endorse the right of return; some had no faith in the possible intervention of a U.N. peacekeeping force; others were not willing to equate violence committed by Israelis and Palestinians; one, an anti-Zionist, was not comfortable with a demand defending ”the national aspirations of both peoples.“ Nearly every word carried with it decades of ideological freight, and demands were repeatedly added and subtracted from the list. It was nearly 10 p.m. when the group, calling itself ”Not in Our Name! Jewish Voices for Peace,“ was able to agree on the statement: ”As Jews, we call for the following: an immediate end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, stopping all United States military aid to Israel, a just peace with human rights and co-existence of all peoples.“ a
Even that, in the end, would prove to be controversial. The demand that U.S. aid be cut off, said Art Goldberg, prevented some older, more moderate activists from attending. The organizers nonetheless deemed the protest, which took place last Thursday afternoon, a success. Between 80 and 100 people turned out, more than anyone expected. Bearing picket signs reading ”End the Occupation“ and ”No Military Aid to Israel,“ they marched in circles in front of the consulate at Wilshire Boulevard and La Jolla Street, and, at the end of the day were satisfied that they had got out the message that you can be Jewish and still oppose Israeli policies, that you can in fact oppose them precisely because you‘re Jewish. As organizer Cameron Levin put it, referring to the recent military incursions into the West Bank, ”For me, fundamentally, in terms of what it means to be Jewish, given all of our history, it seems inconceivable that we could be doing this. To me, the core of being Jewish is to stand up for justice.“
Levin knew, though, that would not be an easy stand to take. In the days prior to the protest, he received several harassing phone messages. ”They ranged from ’You‘re stupid, you’re foolish‘ to ’You‘re a traitor,’“ he said. And indeed, no sooner had the demonstrators unfurled their banners than a group of counterprotesters arrived, wrapping themselves in Israeli flags and taunting the protesters with chants of ”Self-hating Jews!“ One of them, Max Kessler, who carried a sign reading ”Arabs=911“ and chanted ”Death to Arabs! Death to Jewish Traitors!“ explained his presence: ”We‘re just here to show these guys that they’re a bunch of kapos.“ The counterprotesters were sufficiently aggressive that the police moved them to the opposite side of Wilshire, and as passing cars honked their horns to express support, it was hard to tell which side they were honking for.
Though pro-Israeli events attract greater numbers and more media attention, last Thursday‘s protest was not the first such action. Women in Black, a group composed largely of Jewish women, has taken part in two vigils in front of the consulate over the last two months, one of them sponsored by a Palestinian women’s group. There have been a handful of other events sponsored by Jews opposed to the occupation — a forum at UCLA‘s Hillel House, speeches by members of the Israeli opposition at the Wilshire Boulevard and Leo Baeck temples. The Tikkun Community, a group organized by Tikkun magazine publisher Rabbi Michael Lerner, is currently meeting to organize a teach-in on the occupation. ”Something is going on all the time,“ said Arthur Stern, regional co-chair of Americans for Peace Now, the American branch of the Israeli peace movement. ”On the other hand, we are not a very large organization, and even with our allies, we do not have the capability of out-shouting the organized Jewish community.“
The pro-Israeli side, composed locally of groups such as the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles (whose Web site now declares, ”Israel’s very survival is at risk“), is extremely well-funded and organized, and has proved itself effective at creating a unified front of support for the Sharon government. ”The organized forces of the Jewish community seem to be speaking in a single voice of uncritical support of Israel that speaks with such force that the other voices don‘t get heard,“ said Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, agreed. ”There are many people who feel uncomfortable with blind, lock-step support of the Israeli government, certainly with Sharon. There is a diversity of opinion within the community. We don’t really hear about it because it‘s not being spoken about by the leadership.“
The protesters at the consulate last Thursday were optimistic that they were not alone, that the car horns were honking for them and not their flag-draped adversaries across the street. ”The organized Jewish community — the rich part — really isn’t in touch with a lot of Jews and non-Jews who do not believe the occupation is just,“ said Goldberg. Another protester, Julie Browne, spoke of ”the rising tide of opposition among Jews“ and said, ”I don‘t think that there’s nearly the consensus behind Sharon that the media represents.“ They know, however, that there are many obstacles to getting dissenting voices heard, from the fear of being labeled self-hating Jews to divisions among dissenters.
Emotions are sufficiently high that even groups opposed to the occupation are nervous about taking too strong a stand against Israel. The Progressive Jewish Alliance, which has come out publicly against the occupation, refused to announce the Not in Our Name protest to its membership for fear that it would be perceived as an endorsement. ”We describe ourselves as a progressive Zionist organization, but a Zionist organization nonetheless,“ Sokatch said. ”There are few things a group can do that are as provocative as demonstrating.“
Perhaps most difficult of all to overcome is a general fear among Jews of publicly criticizing Israel, no matter how they may feel individually — what Not in Our Name organizer Susan Goldberg called ”the silence thing,“ which she repeatedly encountered while trying to publicize the protest. ”We can debate about lots of issues,“ she said, ”but somehow when it comes to Israel, you‘re not supposed to talk about it.“ To the contrary, Goldberg said at the conclusion of the protest last week, ”As Jews, we have an extra responsibility.“