A group of people protest on a street corner
Eli Newell, a field organizer for the October 23 action, leads demonstrators in chants demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. People from across Chicago's Jewish community coalesced to stand against Israel's actions. Credit: A.J. Rocca

Editor’s note: U.S. Senator Dick Durbin on November 2 called for a ceasefire in Gaza, becoming the first person in his chamber to do so.

“Two Jews, three opinions” is an old saying used by Jewish people to express the beautiful (and often maddening) diversity of perspective found inside their communities. The saying could have been a slogan for the October 23 crowd gathering at 3:30 PM in Federal Plaza when Jews and others came out to blockade the streets of downtown Chicago and protest Israel’s conduct in the Israel-Hamas war.

At about 4 PM, they began to march down Clark, chanting, “Ceasefire now! Free Gaza now! Free, free Palestine!”

Arms linked, they deployed in two lines across Clark and Ida B. Wells to block rush-hour traffic. A large group of protesters gathered on the corner with a megaphone to make their demands. They called for an immediate ceasefire of Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip, and demanded Illinois senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin push to end U.S. military aid to Israel. “Durbin, Duckworth you can’t hide. Your silence upholds genocide!”

The Jewishness of the majority of protesters was no secret. Many of the men wore kippahs; songs in Hebrew wafted through the crowd; chants were punctuated by the blast of a shofar. “Jews say: ceasefire now! Jews say: free Gaza now! Jews say: not in our name!”  

A coalition of Jewish, pro-Palestinian groups organized the protest, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), IfNotNow (INN), and Never Again Action—among the most active allies in demonstrating for the pro-Palestinian cause. The coalition made international news when they mass demonstrated on October 19 in Washington, D.C. to demand a ceasefire. They sat down inside Congress’s Cannon House Office Building and refused to leave, an action that resulted in about 400 arrests. 

The Chicago protest was comparatively modest—100 to 150 people showed up, and the worst they got for their direct action were police citations for obstructing rush-hour traffic—but the spirit and the demands were the same. Speakers, including Rabbi Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago, an anti-Zionist synagogue, Deanna Othman, a journalist and educator with American Muslims for Palestine, and Rifqa Falaneh, a local organizer for Palestinian rights, spoke against Israeli militarism and on behalf of Palestinian human rights. 

The protesters, the majority of whom appeared to be white Ashkenazi Jews, gathered from across the Chicagoland area to demand an immediate ceasefire to the Israel-Hamas war and to send the message that not all Jews support the State of Israel. 

“I’m someone who’s spent my life in the Jewish world,” says Eli Newell, a chapter coordinator for INN and one of the protest’s field organizers. “I was raised in the Jewish community, went to Jewish day school, had rigorous Jewish education . . . and I feel a responsibility as a member of that community to [resist] things that desecrate that tradition.”

Ashley Bohrer, a member of JVP’s Chicago chapter and an assistant professor of gender and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, expresses similar sentiments. “What it means for me to be Jewish is that I’m Jewish all the time. I’m Jewish when I go to work, I’m Jewish when I take a shower, I’m Jewish when I go to a protest,” Bohrer says. “If I watched atrocity unfold without saying anything, this would fly in the face of everything I learned in Jewish day school, of basically every line of Pirkei Avot or the Talmud or the Mishnah.”

Both Newell and Bohrer name pikuach nefesh—a concept from Judaism which sees human life as sacred and demands its preservation in almost all circumstances—as a guiding principle to their activism. They agree with the official position of INN and JVP, which condemns Hamas’s October 7 attack, but also argue that that Israel’s extreme retaliation constitutes the beginning of genocide. “I do not understand how anyone can root themselves in Jewish tradition, including the laws of pikuach nefesh, . . . and stand idly by and watch the atrocities that are being committed in Gaza and in the rest of Palestine,” Bohrer says. 

David M. Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel under former president Donald Trump, remarked on Twitter about the October 19 protests in Washington, D.C. that “any American Jew attending this rally is not a Jew – yes I said it!” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), tweeted “these radical far-left groups don’t represent the Jewish community. Far from it. They represent the ugly core of anti-Zionism —> antisemitism.”

The ADL has made a number of criticisms in this vein of the Jewish left, especially of JVP. It argues JVP exploits Jewish tradition to provide a cover for their anti-Zionism, expresses support for terrorism, and tolerates anti-Semitic hate speech in their web spaces. The ADL placed both JVP and INN on its list of activists who “celebrate Hamas attacks.”

The ADL itself has come under increasing censure for using its reputation as a Jewish advocacy group and civil rights watchdog to push a hard Zionist line and weaponize the accusation of anti-Semitism against critics of Israel. Earlier this month, for example, the ADL sent a letter more than 200 university presidents asking them investigate pro-Palestine student groups on their campuses for “materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.” Its criticisms of the Jewish left thus bear closer scrutiny. Broadly, they boil down to two points.

The first charge—that the Jewish left is not authentically Jewish—belies the real shifts occurring in American Jewish opinion. According to Pew Research Center’s 2020 polls (the most recent polling available), nearly a quarter of American Jews say America is too supportive of Israel, up from 11% in 2013. The same study found two-thirds of Jews think the Israeli government is not making a sincere effort towards peace with Palestinians, and a little under one in five Jews who’d heard of the BDS movement supported it (BDS stands for boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and it refers to a movement for cutting financial ties with pro-Zionist organizations). 

Several prominent Jewish American writers, artists, and intellectuals have also voiced dissent against Israel. The Guardian recently published an open letter to President Joe Biden demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Judith Butler, Masha Gessen, and Michael Chabon are amongst its signers.

Pew Research also notes more than a third of Jews under 30 years old say America is too supportive of Israel, compared with just 16 percent of those 65 and older. This means young American Jews often find themselves painfully at odds with their parents. 

“Most of my biological family does not talk to me anymore,” Bohrer, of JVP Chicago, tells me. “I know that for many Jews who are thinking about speaking up on this issue that the loss or transformation of connections and relationships can really be an intimidating factor.” During the protest, I watched Bohrer get cited with her fellow protesters for obstructing traffic. After talking to her, the ticket seemed like a very small thing knowing how much she’d already sacrificed for her activism.

The diversity of Jewish opinion on Israel doesn’t just pose an ideological challenge for Zionists. Arno Rosenfeld writes in the Forward that the Hamas attack on October 7 opened fault lines in the Jewish left. Many in leftist spaces were initially split over whether Hamas’s attacks were justified and to what extent Israel bears responsibility. Lurking here is a broader question of when, if ever, it is ethical for Palestinians to use political violence in pursuit of liberation. Rosenfeld reports organizations like INN and JVP formed their coalition by ignoring the question of political violence to instead focus on a few key points all their members could get behind.

This unwillingness to answer the question of political violence led to some awkwardness at the protest on October 23.

Near 5:30 PM, about five people not associated with organizers joined the protest on the opposite side of Clark. A few wore keffiyehs, and they brought signs, a Palestinian flag, and their own megaphone. Many of this second group’s slogans departed from the main coalition’s. Two in particular stood out: “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free!” and “Long live the intifada!”

The first phrase refers to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and it signifies the territory of the modern State of Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. It first gained traction in the 1960s, and it communicated Palestinians’ desire to reclaim the land of historic Palestine. Many peaceful pro-Palestinian groups and individuals use it today to signify that the struggle for liberation continues. However, the phrase has also been adopted by militant organizations including Hamas, whose programs either historically or currently include violence in pursuit of freedom. Jewish organizations including the ADL and AJC flag the phrase as anti-Semitic because, in their interpretation, it signifies the intention to ethnically cleanse Jews from Israel. 

The intifada referenced in the second slogan denotes an uprising to “shake off” an oppressor. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this means resistance, often violent, against Israeli occupation. The conflict’s history is punctuated by two famous intifadas. The first, sometimes called the stone intifada because Palestinians literally threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israeli military, precipitated after a decade of increased Israeli land expropriation and political repression when, in 1987, an Israeli military truck crashed into a car, killing four Palestinians. In all, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 271 Israelis died and Israeli forces killed around 1,400 Palestinians. Provoked by failed peace talks and an Israeli opposition leader’s visit to an Islamic holy site to assert Israeli sovereignty over the area, the second intifada, from 2000 to 2005, was marked by suicide bombings, and rocket attacks; about 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians died. 

Regardless of the intentions of people in this smaller group, the two slogans they shouted are undeniably controversial. They raise the question of when, if ever, violent resistance by Palestinians against Israelis is justified.

I asked both INN and JVP what they thought of these slogans being shouted at their protest. INN organizers say they don’t know the second group of protesters but refused to comment further. Organizers instead pointed to two tweets affirming INN’s stance that Hamas’s October 7 attack was horrific and unjustified. The tweets emphasize that Israel is an apartheid state and the injustices it commits daily on Palestinians are an abomination. INN avoided the harder question of whether political violence can ever be an ethical response against injustices of the Israeli government. JVP did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

JVP and INN’s refusal to unambiguously distance themselves from the second group of protesters ties into the ADL’s second criticism of the Jewish left: that it tolerates extremism. The ADL has cited multiple instances of JVP sharing, platforming, or otherwise associating with people whom it says defend terrorism. One of JVP’s regional chapters, for example, once stated that Israeli civilians can be killed because they are part of an occupying force. And a speaker at a Philadelphia event cosponsored by JVP said Hamas was the only organization fighting for the rights of Palestinians.

Most of this material comes from JVP’s periphery—Facebook comments, rogue regional chapters, off-message signs at protests—and is contradicted by the group’s central statements. The question arises as to how much control JVP and INN—or any organization, really—have over extremists at their margins and how much responsibility they bear for what those margins say. 

JVP and INN could have disavowed the second group when asked, and they chose not to. While I can’t know why, it’s perhaps in part because the groups were afraid of pressing on the fault lines Rosenfeld mentioned in the Forward

What I love about the expression “two Jews, three opinions” is that it suggests the third opinion can’t be traced back to either Jew individually, but rather it somehow emerges as the result of the two talking to each other. The way I’ve come to think of the second group of protesters is that they are the Jewish left’s third opinion. While neither JVP nor INN proclaimed “long live the intifada,” that sentiment is a logical enough response to their criticism of Israel and something with which many of their individual members can sympathize. It may not be something they’d say, but it’s also not something they can safely disavow. 

Regardless of any internal division on the periphery, the Jewish left came together and put on a powerful demonstration at Clark and Ida B. Wells. For two hours demonstrators held space at the heart of the city to show their outrage at what is happening in Gaza. They successfully raised a coalition to put a Jewish voice to the defense of Palestinians.

Newell, with INN, speaks about the difficulty of organizing under present circumstances. “We don’t only need to hold the line to the general public and to our elected officials, but we also need to take stock of the needs in the [Jewish] community, which is full of grief, full of cognitive dissonance, and full of all the emotional things that happen when there’s a traumatic event.” Despite this, Newell emphasizes, “There is an immediate goal that we are working towards right now—and that is a ceasefire.”


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