Meet the Jewish Americans taking a stand against Israel's actions in Gaza

'This is not part of our religion, it’s not part of our cultural identity,' activist says

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About 20 years ago, Laura Kraftowitz, who was raised Jewish, made a trip to Israel with the intention of studying at a local university – but her plans changed following a brief visit to Gaza.

“I was afraid that everything my Israeli friends said would be true, that people would hate me because I was Jewish, that they would throw rocks at me,” she recalls.

“Instead, I was warmly welcomed. I was taken in and made to feel the kind of safety and community that I hadn’t felt, frankly, ever in my life.”

That experience prompted Ms Kraftowitz to move to Gaza for nearly a year, changing the course of her life forever.

Over the past eight weeks, Ms Kraftowitz has been on the streets of Detroit, Chicago and Washington to protest against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. She has been arrested several times.

“It’s so important right now to use our voices as Jewish Americans to say we oppose this, we do not stand for genocide,” she says.

“This is not part of our religion, it’s not part of our cultural identity. We want to use every tool that we have to make that clear.”

And Ms Kraftowitz isn’t alone.

Jewish Americans across the country are taking to the streets in increasing numbers to protest against Israel’s siege of Gaza that has killed more than 15,000 people and displaced about 1.7 million so far, according to local tallies.

“I grew up with stories of the Holocaust. I had a really strong sense of my ancestors and the history and trauma,” says Dana Kornberg, an academic and member of the Detroit, Michigan, chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a progressive, anti-Zionist organisation.

While on a trip with Birthright, a programme in Israel that invites young Jews to visit and experience the country, she says she “was horrified to see how that narrative was being used to time and time again to justify [Israel’s actions]".

“The history of the Holocaust has been used to justify Israeli oppression and occupation and really horrific acts that are clearly violating international law.”

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Ms Kornberg was part of a group of peace activists who blocked the entrance to the Israeli consulate in Chicago on November 13.

Last month, dozens of Jewish Americans, including Ms Kornberg, protested at government offices in Detroit to call for an end to the US government’s support for Israel's attacks on Gaza. On Thursday, she and others protested against Israel’s actions during the Detroit Thanksgiving parade.

While Jewish Americans have recently become more vocal about Israel’s actions in Gaza and the occupied West Bank amid the war on Gaza, it is part of a broader shift over the past several years.

A 2021 poll of Jewish Americans found that a quarter believed Israel to be an apartheid state, with nearly as many saying they believed that Israel was “committing genocide against the Palestinians”.

While the voice of progressive Jewish Americans may be growing louder, many still support Israel’s war on Hamas. Dozens of state and federal politicians, including leading members of the Democratic Party such as Chuck Schumer, attended a major rally in support of Israel on Washington's National Mall on November 14.

The White House has continued to assert Israel’s right to defend itself.

“In the early days [of the current conflict], we were more hopeful that our elected leaders would listen to us,” says Ms Kornberg.

“There was a little bit more hope that if we call, write, protest, something might change but what we found was that we were completed stonewalled by our elected representative across the board.”

The Washington Post reported this week that about 10,000 Jewish Americans have travelled to Israel with the intention of fighting for or signing up with the Israeli military.

Even before the war, Jewish Americans held widely differing views on Israel, with a 2021 Pew Research poll finding that 45 per cent of those surveyed believed that “caring about Israel is essential to what being Jewish means to them.”

Still, observers say they are witnessing a shift in attitude in recent weeks, especially among young Jewish Americans. The aforementioned Pew Research poll found that only 24 per cent of 18–29-year-olds thought Israel was making a sincere effort towards peace.

That is an observation members of Jewish Voice for Peace say they are seeing on the ground.

“I think there is a generational divide,” says Joshua Feinstein, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and a Michigan resident.

“I’ve seen that happen first-hand that there’s a shift, [that younger Jewish Americans are thinking] ‘wait a second, maybe there’s a missing piece here'.

“I think this is the first time that you are starting to see cracks in the information starting to get out.”

He says that while several of his family members fully support of Israel, younger generations getting their information through social media do not.

“It’s our moment to decide what it means to be Jewish. I’m very heartened by the number of Jewish people stepping up and saying, ‘not in my name.’”

Mr Feinstein says he first began to question the narrative of unconditional support for Israel that he grew up with when hearing that Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli citizen in 1995.

“I remember thinking: ‘wait, that doesn’t add up,’” he says.

“I can’t believe in this day and age, after everything the Jewish people have been through that there is a genocide being perpetrated – in our name.”

Ms Kraftowitz says: “It’s the fact that I grew up looking at atrocities that had been done to my people and being told ‘never again,’ and seeing that that phrase was not holding up.

“Exterminating a people does not keep us safe.”

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Updated: November 28, 2023, 8:24 PM