More American Jews are calling Israel an ‘apartheid’ state, and big organizations are struggling to fight the trend
JTA quoted B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin in its coverage of the recent No Fear Rally in Washington, D.C. and the narrative around the state of Israel.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Sharon Nazarian has a theory about why a recent Washington, D.C., rally against antisemitism struggled to reach as large an audience as organizers had intended.
The Anti-Defamation League, for which Nazarian is senior vice president of international affairs, co-sponsored “No Fear: A Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People,” along with several other of the largest American Jewish organizations. But it drew just 2,000 people on Sunday. By comparison, a rally in 2002 at the height of the second intifada drew more than 100,000 participants.
Nazarian says the traditional mainstream organizational focus on, and lionization of, Israel is becoming a liability and turning people away.
“This narrative about Israel needs to be a more realistic one, one that [brings] attention to the strengths of the state, and to its weaknesses,” said Nazarian, a philanthropist who is president of a family foundation that funds research into education. She added that the rally was put together on short notice in the heat of the summer, at a time that the coronavirus pandemic is still a factor.
Two days after the rally, a poll of U.S. Jews was published with some surprising findings: 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state,” 34% agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States” and 22% agreed that “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.” The numbers only climb among younger Jews: More than a third of those under 40 gave Israel the “apartheid state” label.
The numbers are striking given American Jewry’s longstanding and steadfast support of Israel, even throughout times of right-wing governments, such as the ones led for years by recent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that have pushed policies that clash with the majority of their individual beliefs. But American criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza over multiple military conflicts in the last decade — most notably in 2014 and May of this year — has steadily grown harsher, and this year saw an unprecedented public outcry, accentuated by several influential celebrities. Many feel more comfortable agreeing with influencers and others who label Israel’s military response to rockets fired from Gaza as “genocidal” — even if human rights experts caution that the term is an exaggeration in this case.
“What we’re missing, even the centrist organizations, is that for years now we’ve been hearing these sensationalist labels, and the reason we didn’t engage with it was because it was on the fringe, it was taboo, and we thought it would stay there,” Nazarian said. “What has happened now as a result of the May conflict is the real mainstreaming of this language.”
Another factor over the last year, since the murder of George Floyd, is the burgeoning awareness of racial disparities among Americans. Many of Israel’s critics have increasingly framed Israel’s conflict as one of racial injustice.
“We have to understand the building blocks, the framing,” Nazarian said. “And really the conflation of a lot of what we saw in the post-George Floyd kind of anti-racism activism that we as a Jewish community of America participated in.”
Many “No Fear” rally speakers explicitly conflated some of the harsher criticisms of Israel with antisemitism, and that disinclined some groups from accepting the invitation to participate, including the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street.
“Rather than engage with young people and try to put the reality of the situation in context, and admit problems that are going on, they’ve chosen to deny that there are problems, and to attack those who raised them,” said J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. “That has resulted in polarization. Rather than engaging people who have questions and criticism, they push them away.”
Those who did participate in the rally and responded to a request for comment on the Jewish Electorate Institute National Survey of Jewish Voters doubled down on their assertions and emphasized education, arguing that the Jewish community needed to do more to educate younger Jews about Israel — and to push back against characterizations that they said originated with its enemies.
“A main source of disconnect between segments of American Jews and the reality of Israel is deficient education,” David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, one of the rally’s sponsors, said in an email.
Harris pointed to an AJC poll last month that showed only 37% of respondents described their Israel education growing up as “strong,” and to separate data showing that young people increasingly are getting their news from social media “where untruths are rampant,” he said.
“Clearly, greater efforts at educating American Jews, especially younger cohorts, about all aspects of Israeli society, and connecting them with their counterparts in Israel, are critical for ensuring nuanced understanding about Israel and strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations,” he said.
Harris pointed to AJC programs aimed at reaching Jews under 40. So did Adam Teitelbaum, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of North America’s Israel Action Network. JFNA was also a sponsor of the rally.
“The best way to combat this phenomenon is to meaningfully and authentically engage young Jews with questions such as ‘what do you think apartheid means?’; ‘what is the best path forward?’; and ‘how can Israel address real security concerns while still fighting for peace?’,” Teitelbaum said. “Young people recognize that the situation in Israel is complicated. We at JFNA and through the Israel Action Network know that when Jewish Federations and Israel educators approach young people’s questions with compassion and authenticity, they engage meaningfully and elect to become changemakers themselves.”
The removal of subtlety from the discourse is what kept Americans for Peace Now away from the rally, said its president, Hadar Susskind, even though his group was approached to participate.
“Organizations look at many members of the Jewish community, including particularly younger ones, and disregard them, or, you know, answer them in ways that are at best dismissive and at worse, call them antisemites,” Susskind said in an interview.
Susskind said his group rejected terms like “apartheid” and “genocide,” but said that energy dedicated to countering those terms would be better spent by the Jewish community grappling with Israel’s status as an occupier of Palestinian areas and people.
“The answer to this isn’t another college fellowship to show people the sandy white beaches in Tel Aviv, it’s ending the occupation,” he said.
Some of the “No Fear” Jewish organizations reflexively say that they accommodate criticism.
“The No Fear antisemitism rally included a number of voices and was meant to be a broad tent,” Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly said in a statement. “Our movement is firmly and proudly Zionist and supportive of the State of Israel and its people. Our movement is also a big tent and includes many different voices on Israel, all coming from a place of love and support for Israel, even when critical.”
Daniel Mariaschin, the CEO of B’nai B’rith, another of the rally’s sponsoring organizations, called for the classic strategy of playing up Israel’s strengths.
“We must restore pride by re-doubling our efforts at Jewish education: formal and informal, biblical to contemporary, in classrooms and at the dining room table, at summer camps and on excursions to Israel,” Mariaschin said in an email. “Are we celebrating, enough, Israel’s many contributions to contemporary civilization in innovation, medicine, and agriculture, and its wide open, but sometimes fractious democracy?”
Crosstabs of the recent survey shared with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by the pollster, GBAO Strategies, show that among those who described themselves as emotionally attached to the country, a substantial minority buy into the harsh criticisms. Among those with strong ties to Israel, 19% agreed that Israel was an apartheid state.
Halie Soifer, the CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, one of the sponsoring organizations, said she was frustrated attending the rally to hear most of the speakers condemn antisemitism of the left. The survey showed most respondents, 61%, perceived the antisemitic threat to come from the right.
Soifer, whose JDCA is affiliated with the group that commissioned the poll, the Jewish Electorate Institute, said the emphasis on anti-Israel rhetoric from the left at the rally was emblematic of why the establishment was failing in its outreach to younger Jews.
“To the extent that those at the rally focused on antisemitism emanating from anywhere other than the right, it demonstrates a disconnect between the focus of some Jewish organizations and the priorities of American Jews,” Soifer said.
On Capitol Hill, rally-goers agree that antisemitism is un-American. But when Israel is involved, it gets complicated.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Several thousand people spent a sweltering afternoon in front of the U.S. Capitol at a rally on Sunday that denounced antisemitism as un-American and made the case that Jewish identity and support for Israel are inextricable.
Those were the unifying messages of the “No Fear” rally on Sunday, which drew about 2,000 people, but there were differences among the speakers and in the crowd on how precisely Israel figures in the fight against antisemitism.
Some of the most searing messages came from people who have suffered antisemitic attacks in recent years. A recurring theme among these speakers was that they never expected to suffer such attacks in the United States. Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, who sustained stab wounds in a July 1 attack in Boston, appeared with his arm still in a sling, and in evident pain.
“I was born in the Soviet Union in the city of St. Petersburg,” Noginski said in Hebrew, having explained that he was still too pained to speak fluently in English. “I remember how even as a young child, I experienced terrible antisemitism. Never in my darkest dreams did I imagine that I would feel the same way here in the United States, the land of freedom and endless possibilities.”
The crowd shouted “hero!” as Noginski spoke. He had held the attacker at bay outside a Chabad facility where about a hundred children were in summer camp.
Another speaker hailed as a hero was Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who described saying the viduy, the Jewish prayer before death, as a gunman shot 11 worshipers dead in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October of 2018. Myers was the first to alert the police of the attack.
“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are all endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Myers said, quoting the Declaration of Independence. “To be an antisemite means you do not accept that pact of being an American.”
The rally drew a broad array of sponsor organizations, covering the religious spectrum and many right-wing and central pro-Israel mainstream Jewish organizations.
Notably absent were representatives of more left-wing groups that were asked to join but opted out of attending because some of the sponsoring groups adhere to a definition of antisemitism that encompasses harsh criticism of Israel, including the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. Groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now oppose BDS, but object to defining it as antisemitic.
Melissa Landa, who leads the Alliance for Israel, a relatively new group that has as a central tenet that BDS is antisemitic, set the tone at the outset of the event. She had launched plans for the rally after antisemitism spiked during the Israel-Gaza conflict in May.
She spoke of the “shared promise for our children, that they will be free to live as proud Jews, and exercise their religious liberties granted by the United States Constitution, free to wear their yarmulkes and Magen Davids and free to speak their love of Israel without being attacked in the streets of New York or Los Angeles.”
Landa, like other speakers, named lawmakers on the left or the right that have in recent months incurred accusations of antisemitism. Mentions of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat whose criticism of Israel has been seen by Jewish groups as crossing into antisemitism, notably garnered much louder boos than those of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican who has drawn fire for peddling antisemitic conspiracy theories and for likening coronavirus restrictions to Nazi laws.
Noa Tishby, an Israeli actor, appeared with conservative pundit Meghan McCain and Alma Hernandez, a Democratic state lawmaker in Arizona. Each suggested that anti-Zionism was equivalent to antisemitism.
“So much of the antisemitism of today simply attributes all the evil tropes, lies and libels that have been used for centuries to justify the worst horrors against Jewish people to the Jewish state,” said Tishby, who is well known in Israel and recently published a book titled “Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth.” “As you will hear today, this hatred is being used to attack our Jewish communities. It is being used to impose a heavy cost on anyone who identifies as Jewish or even God forbid, Zionist.”
McCain has become an outspoken defender of Israel on the talk show “The View” — which she announced earlier this month that she is leaving — and elsewhere.
“I’m Meghan McCain and I’m a Zionist because, apparently, this is now something that is controversial to say,” she said at the rally.
Elisha Wiesel, the son of the late Holocaust diarist and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, had joined the planning of the rally to bring in mainstream and liberal-leaning groups after Landa hit a wall in bringing them in.
Major mainstream groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International, as well as the Orthodox Union and Reform and Conservative movements, signed on as sponsors, but few of their representatives spoke.
Wiesel said he feared division but was soothed by the unity he saw.
“The sages teach that it was our own hatred for each other that caused the destruction of the first and second temples,” he said. “And in the weeks leading up to this rally, it was this fear that dominated my field of vision, the fear that our community was divided beyond repair. That fear is our enemy’s dream. But looking out at all of you today if it comes clear that instead of dividing us, the enemies of the Jewish people, whether from the right or the left at home or abroad, they have instead united us.”
Wiesel appeared to nod to the concerns that some liberal groups had — that criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians would be conflated with antisemitism at the rally.
“We can disagree even passionately, without being divided. We can even disagree on Israel,” he said. “ We must not tolerate calls for an end to the Jewish state of Israel, through a one-state solution that once again leaves the Jews defenseless. We must also not tolerate denigration or hatred towards the aspiration for dignity and self-determination of our Palestinian cousins. If we hate, we will not win.”
Just minutes after his own speech, Wiesel jumped in to intervene and help out a fellow speaker — Erika Moritsugu, a deputy assistant to President Biden, who was representing the White House, and was booed. A cluster of supporters of former President Donald Trump shouted during her speech, particularly when she mentioned that President Joe Biden decided to run after the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville. Trump equivocated in condemning the marchers, which has become a sore point among his followers.
“Stolen election!” one man shouted. “You pay money to terrorists!” said another. One held up a placard saying “Screw Kristen Clarke.” Clarke, who leads the civil rights division at the Department of Justice, came under fire during her confirmation hearings for having hosted an antisemitic speaker when at an event when she was a student at Harvard decades ago.
Moritsugu appeared flustered and others in the crowd shushed the booers. After she finished speaking, Wiesel stepped in and said, to applause, “I’d like everybody to thank President Biden for the way that the White House stood with Israel during the Gaza war.”
Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the director of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness — the public advocacy wing of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church — invoked the black Jewish alliance of the civil rights era, to cheers.
“I am here today to express my support for the Jewish community in the face of antisemitism, in the face of the shooting deaths and attempted murders in synagogues, stores and homes,” he said. “Now is a time of solidarity. Now there’s a time of unity.”
A couple from Kensington, Maryland, Bruce and Malka Kutnick, were unnerved by the presence of the far Jewish right at the rally. Malka Kutnick said she had been reassured by Wiesel’s claim before the rally that both people who don’t care about Israel’s existence and Kahanists — followers of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane — would not be welcome. She held a placard that read “No to occupation, No to antisemitism.”
“I was just accosted by someone in a Kahane shirt,” she said. “He said I should stand with the Netorei Karta.” A small cluster of that fringe group, which is both haredi Orthodox and anti-Zionist, gathered on a green across the street.
Marie Berlin-Fischler, a 28-year-old Washington, D.C. preschool teacher, stood with a poster reading, “My fellow progressives, you missed a spot: Stop antisemitism.”
She said she felt untethered from the progressive movement, which she otherwise supports.
“The issue is that in this country as of late, I don’t feel as though anyone like me can exist in a progressive space anymore without checking my intersectionality at the door,” she said. “When I am asked to be part of myself as I show up to these spaces, the gap is closing. There’s nowhere for people who want to be American, the way I do.”
The Jerusalem Post quoted B'nai B'rith International CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin in its coverage of Jewish organizations' legislative priorities for 2021, noting B'nai B'rith's domestic and foreign policy concerns.
WASHINGTON – As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office and new members of Congress wait to be sworn in, Jewish organizations in Washington are working on their legislative agenda for 2021, thinking about what they should promote working with the incoming administration and what they should oppose.
While COVID-19 relief for nonprofits and security grants for religious institutions will continue to top the list of priorities for 2021, some organizations also voiced concern about the possibility the Biden administration will return to the nuclear agreement with Iran.
B’nai B’rith CEO Dan Mariaschin said the organization would focus on promoting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program into law and provide a path to citizenship for those protected under the act, known as Dreamers.
Additional legislation priority is the NO HATE Act, he said, adding: “As hate crimes against Jews and other minorities continue to soar, we hope that Congress will pass the act, which would strengthen federal laws that combat hate speech, threats and attacks.”
B’nai B’rith also supports the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, Mariaschin said.
“We hope that the current executive order against antisemitism, which achieves these aims, will remain in place,” he said. “If it does not, a legislative remedy would be in order.”
In the past, B’nai B’rith called for the creation of an antisemitism coordinator at the Justice Department who could work across agency lines to combat the rising tide of domestic antisemitism, Mariaschin said.
“The recent FBI report identifying Jews as by far the religious community most frequently victimized by hate crimes is evidence of the need for such a position,” he said.
Regarding foreign policy, Mariaschin said a bipartisan bill would help ensure that Israel retains its qualitative military edge if the administration approves arms sales to Arab countries.
He said he hopes Congress will pass legislation to elevate the position of State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism to ambassadorial rank. “Changing the title will send a clear message abroad that the fight against antisemitism will continue to be prioritized,” he said.
Regarding B’nai B’rith’s policy on Iran, Mariaschin said: “We call on the administration and Congress to apply concerted pressure on the Iranian regime to ensure that its nuclear program – as well as its ballistic-missile production, its support for terrorist organizations, its profligate human rights abuses and other malign behavior – are held in check,” he said.
Congratulations to Kayla Trinh of Clarksburg High School and David Ng of Damascus High School, who were awarded first place in the 2013-14 Washington, D.C. Diverse Minds Youth Writing Challenge.
Their winning book, "Cake Kingdom," embodies the purpose of the challenge: promoting tolerance and communicating a message of equality among all citizens, regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.
The end result was an appetizing story of pastries that put aside differences in order to live in harmony. For their efforts, Trinh and Ng will share a $5,000 college scholarship and become published authors with their first official book signing at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in downtown D.C.
Here is a gallery from last night's awards ceremony:
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