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Among Jewish Americans, a ‘quiet middle’ has growing qualms over the war in Gaza 

(JTA) — Rabbi Yael Ridberg recently returned from a four-day mission to Israel with the Jewish Federation of San Diego, which has a 25-year sister-city relationship with Sha’ar HaNegev, a municipality near the Gaza border. Their group witnessed firsthand the destruction and devastation left after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel’s south; among the 1,200 killed was Sha’ar HaNegev’s mayor, Ofir Libstein, who was slain while defending Kibbutz Kfar Aza.

“When I came back,” she said, “and I started to share a little bit about the experience, a few of my congregants, we might call them center left, came away from what I shared feeling, ‘Yes, of course, it’s horrifying. But how can I resist looking away from the footage and the coverage in Gaza?’” 

Ridberg, 55, says she understands the “anguish” of these congregants at her synagogue, Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego. Supporters of Israel, they were plunged into grief by the Oct. 7 murders and hostage-taking and disgusted when allies on the left failed to acknowledge or even justified the suffering of the Jewish victims. Nonetheless, they are appalled by the enormous death toll in Gaza as a result of Israel’s two-month counteroffensive and harboring doubts about Israel’s end-game.

“I think my community is a perfect representation of that sort of quiet middle: People are very clearly supportive of Israel, horrified by the events of Oct. 7, stymied by the silence around the hostages, stymied by antisemitism everywhere — and at the same time, are trying to figure out how to feel as okay as possible with the IDF plan, which for some of them, they’re not sure what that plan is,” said Ridberg. 

“And the farther we get away from October 7,” she said, “the harder it is for some of them to feel fully grounded in what that support needs to look like.” 

Since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, much has been made of the political divide between an older generation of Jews who take Zionism for granted and a younger generation who are less attached to Israel than their elders.

But even among firm supporters of Israel, who back Israel’s right to defend itself and accept its goal of eradicating a deadly enemy, are those who feel neither at home in the Jewish left — which includes anti-Zionists who have opposed Israel’s retaliation from its beginning — or in the mainstream which they say is uncritical of the Israeli war effort. 

“I’m someone who looks at what seems to me to be quite inflammatory language from the American left decrying Zionism, and I recoil as someone who believes that Israel has a right to exist,” said Michael Pasek, 33, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who has studied the psychology of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “And yet, I then look at actions taken in the name of quote Zionism, that seem to be endorsed by quote, Zionists, and ask myself, What am I closer to?”

Rabbi Yael Ridberg meets with leaders of Achim L’Neshek-Brothers and Sisters for Israel — a civilian operations center in Tel Aviv — during a mission to Israel with the Jewish Federation of San Diego, Nov. 30, 2023. (Guy Yechiely/Jewish Federation of Sand Diego).

Whether they call it “stuck in the middle” or “threading the needle,” these are Jews who wouldn’t join a Jewish-led protest calling for a ceasefire, but bristle at some of the messages of unquestioning solidarity heard during pro-Israel rallies led by mainstream Jewish groups. 

“I am too progressive for the Zionists and too Zionist for the progressives,” writes journalist Steven Zeitchik in a JTA essay. A longtime reporter at the Washington Post and founder of a tech newsletter, Zeitchik finds himself caught between the militancy of his father, a Holocaust survivor who experienced the Oct. 7 atrocities as a fresh trauma, and the empathy he feels for innocents caught in the line of fire. “Perhaps that is my place, tilted between trauma and empathy,” he writes. “Perhaps that is the curse of the survivor’s son. You are destined to live in the lonely middle — haunted by everything, aligned with no one.”

That sense of loneliness is exacerbated by the poisonous discourse on social media, where nuance is dismissed by one side as collaboration with the other side. Many American Jews also have friends and relatives in Israel, including some in the army and some whose relatives were taken hostage, and are wary of appearing critical or ambivalent about the war when the country is unified around it. A few I spoke to did not want to be identified out of deference to these friends and relatives.

Many Jews are also wary of appearing to support a far left that is accusing Israel of carrying out a “genocide” — often the same groups endorsing a ceasefire.

Many of the people I spoke to for this article said they noticed a shift in recent weeks, as the grief, anger and solidarity felt after Oct. 7 gave way to more complicated feelings about the war. 

That shift could be seen in the person of President Joe Biden — not Jewish, but a pro-Israel politician whose initial, horrified reaction to the Hamas attacks and the green light he gave to Israel seemed to mirror the feelings of so many Jews. As the death toll has risen in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis worsens, Biden has signaled that his patience is running out, and that Israel must take more care to protect civilians, ensure more deliveries of humanitarian aid and — while still firmly avowing his support of Israel.

“There’s a sense of people wanting to be more clear that they are resolutely committed to the people of Israel, which is not the same thing as the government of Israel,” said Jeremy Burton, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, when I asked if he has seen a shift in his community. “Folks are still very much holding their anger, their grief, their core issues like freeing the hostages. But there’s been an increasing sense of the importance of addressing the long-term commitment to a larger resolution of the conflict and genuine concern over Palestinian civilians. It’s holding those things together.”

Coinciding with the administration’s shift is one on the Jewish left. While far-left groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace began demanding a ceasefire within days of the war, and cast the war almost exclusively in terms of Palestinian suffering and Israeli culpability, left-leaning groups like J Street and T’ruah were careful to weigh calls for peace with empathy for Israel. Over 750 rabbis and cantors signed a T’ruah letter written and circulated beginning Oct. 20 that condemned the Hamas attacks, praised the “extraordinary response by Israel’s civil society,” and called for “a just, negotiated political solution that protects the human rights and political self-determination of both peoples.” The letter did not mention a ceasefire, but rather called on “all parties to follow the laws of armed conflict in order to ensure the safety of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.”

On Thursday, nine weeks later and with the reported death toll in Gaza at over 18,000, T’ruah put out a new statement calling on the Biden administration “to pressure Israel to return to the negotiating table to reach another ceasefire and end the war.” 

J Street also toughened its stance on Israel since October, issuing on Dec. 7 a statement saying that if Israel “fails to modify the nature of the military campaign or to take the steps urged by the United States, J Street will call on the Biden administration to change course.”

President Joe Biden, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City host a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House, Dec. 11, 2023. “We continue to provide military assistance to Israel until they get rid of Hamas,” Biden said at the event. “But we have to be careful. They have to be careful. The whole world’s public opinion can shift overnight. We can’t let that happen.” (Bonnie Cash/Pool/Getty Images)

Both T’ruah and J Street are widely seen as to the left of where most U.S. Jews are, and they certainly don’t speak f0r a conservative minority — common but not restricted to the Orthodox community, who tend to be hawkish on Israeli policy, including strong support for the settlement movement in the West Bank.

But polls show that most Jewish Americans identify as Democrats, feel attached to Israel and support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Most Jews are somewhere in the middle — you know, kind of hawkish doves or dovish hawks,” said Dov Waxman, 49, director of UCLA’s Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. “They’re concerned about the safety of Israel and Israelis that’s genuine, but at the same time, they also care and they’re also concerned about human rights and supportive of a two-state solution.”

Waxman said there aren’t polls at the moment gauging Jewish attitudes to the war, but in his conversations with Jewish leaders — including a group of non-Orthodox rabbis he met with on Thursday — he’s seen a definite shift since the first month. 

“There are growing concerns and qualms about the war not in terms of a justification for going after Hamas, but over the costs of this war on Palestinian civilians in Gaza,” he said. “In addition to the displacement and humanitarian crisis, there are concerns about Israel’s conduct of the war in terms of whether it is really doing its best to minimize casualties.”

 This balancing act — between empathy and outrage over the trauma inflicted on Israel, and qualms about the destruction of Gaza and the war’s aftermath — are also being heard in the sermons of rabbis who are strongly supportive of Israel.

On Dec. 9, in her Shabbat morning sermon, Rabbi Sharon Brous of the independent IKAR congregation in Los Angeles warned about the impulse to dehumanize the Palestinians in Gaza. “I am not a military strategist. I do not dare to suggest that I know how Israel is supposed to keep its people safe after Hamas has demonstrated through atrocities mimicking those of the most sadistic divisions of the” Nazis, she said. And yet, she continued, Jews must “muster the moral imagination to reckon with the other not as a bloodthirsty predator but perhaps as a parent, just like us, also aching for their lost child.”

In his Shabbat sermon on Dec. 2, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of the Conservative Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey decried the silence of women’s and humanitarian groups over allegations of sexual violence carried out by Hamas terrorists. And while he acknowledged the realities of war and inevitable casualties that result in pursuit of a justified objective like holding Hamas accountable, he said Torah asks that “we not use our anger and our grief to take it out on everyone. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to get there.” But Torah he said, “deems” Jews to strive for restraint even when “we don’t always get there.” 

Waxman said the strong consensus seen in the first month of the war is also being eroded by concerns over the ultimate aims of the Israeli government, a far-right coalition that, as Biden recently said, “does not want a two-state solution.” Waxman hears “doubts about whether Israel is going to be able to achieve its goals in the war. What are its plans for the future of Gaza? There’s the concern that this could easily end up in a long-term Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, even if that’s not what Israel wants.”

Sara Lithwick, 46, a rabbi and lawyer in Ottawa, Ontario who chairs the Reform Jewish Community of Canada’s Tikkun Olam Steering Committee, worries that a binary discourse that rejects “multiple perspectives” has “drowned out” the voices of people and groups working toward a better future for Israeli and Palestinians. Among the groups she mentioned are Hand in Hand, a network of joint Arab-Israeli schools in Israel; the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and the coexistence group Standing Together. Although such groups tend to be described as left-wing, they are also dismissed by Israel’s harshest critics as “normalizing” Israel.

“The only way I can imagine getting to the next place is by continuing to build connections across lines of difference,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be about solutions, but just in terms of our mutual humanity and holding each other up.”

She said her parents, whom she describes as “pretty centrist” professionals, are also struggling with their feelings after two months of the war. They sympathize with Israel’s goal of preventing another Oct. 7, but feel anguish at the death of children in Gaza, and lack trust in the current Israeli government and wonder what the long-term solution will be. 

“My heart is breaking for my parents,” said Lithwick. 

Michael Pasek also worries that Israel is carrying out the war — and Jewish organizations are supporting it — without a vision of a lasting solution. “I am someone who thinks that Zionism should be compatible with a two-state solution,” he said, “but I don’t see many leaders of Israel and, quite frankly, American Jewish mainstream organizations, advocating for Zionism in a way that I think is compatible with that.”

“This is a really, really hard struggle for the most Zionist among us and the most peace-loving among us,” said San Diego’s Rabbi Ridberg. To describe the tug she feels in both directions — toward unwavering support for Israel and concern over the Palestinians – she quotes the Tamudic sage Hillel: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I?” 

“I am fully supportive of this just war and its mission, and my struggle every single day is a responsibility that we have in both directions, according to Hillel,” she said. “How do I absorb the full impact of this war on Israel and Gaza?”

The post Among Jewish Americans, a ‘quiet middle’ has growing qualms over the war in Gaza  appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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