Each and every Jew who protested as a Jew against the Gaza war had a personal Jewish imperative for doing so. Some simply expressed dismay; most demanded action to end the carnage. To say that we failed is neither an expression of despair nor a statement that dissent wasn’t worthwhile. Realism suggests that it was inevitable.
Let’s be clear: diaspora and Israeli Jewish support for the war was extensive — and extremely dispiriting. It raises the question: critical Jewish voices may have increased, but can we ever trigger decisive change in mainstream Jewish opinion? An unsentimental look at developments may give reason for hope.
First, there’s been activity in many countries and support for Jewish peace groups has increased. European Jews for a Just Peace, a 10-country federation of such organizations, reports numerous initiatives in Europe. Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Jews for Justice for Palestinians and other groups in the UK demonstrated, lobbied, placed newspaper ads and joined demonstrations. IJV groups in Canada and Australia issued statements. Jewish and Israeli protesters in Toronto, Montreal and Boston occupied Israeli consulates. US peace groups have been increasingly active. Together with activity by Israeli groups, this amounts to an undercurrent of protest that is rattling establishment Jewish leadership.
Second, some groups of Jews have taken significant stands. On Jan. 11, the Observer newspaper made front-page news of a letter from rabbis, academics and prominent community figures at the center of UK Jewish life, calling for a ceasefire. In Germany, a letter from 35 supporters of the group Jewish Voice for a Just Peace, demanding an end to “the murder in Gaza,” was published on Jan. 17 in the Suddeutsche Zeitung — a major newspaper in a country where expressing public criticism of Israel is difficult for anyone, let alone a group of Jews.
But most significant was the strong anti-war stand taken by J Street, the new American liberal, “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby, which is effectively challenging the influential, rightwing, Israel lobby AIPAC. Heavily criticized by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a prominent US peace-camp leader, for being “profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment”, J Street stuck to its guns and attracted increased support. It then warmly welcomed US President Barack Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy, positioning itself to have clout in Washington. The positive consequences for further legitimizing Jewish dissent in the US and beyond could be crucial.
Third, there are signs of underlying disquiet in the middle ground of normally solid pro-Israel Jewish opinion. On Jan. 2, Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Ha’aretz newspaper: “Extremely disturbed and hurt by the level of civilian deaths and destruction ... [these Jews] say, there must, there has to be another way of doing this. And they live with those doubts, often unexpressed, even among families and close friends, because the worst thing they find is that others around them don’t seem to discern between the different nuances, and can’t find in themselves compassion for the dead and wounded on the other side.”
CLOSE TO THE LINE
Pfeffer is not alone in sensing this mood, which suggests Israel is perilously close to the line beyond which even some of its strongest supporters cannot go.