In the aftermath of Hamas’s brutal massacre of more than 1,200 people and imprisonment of 200 hostages in southern Israel on October 7, many American Jews and their friends have been shocked by the silence, or in other cases, implicit or vocal support for Hamas from humanitarian organizations and progressive individuals they assumed would condemn the wanton killings and beheadings of civilians and rape and sexual torture of women.

Even more disconcerting has been the presence of Jews among them. As the Internet exploded with anti-Semitic language and as physical assaults on Jews and Jewish institutions became commonplace, the phenomenon of Jews on the left prominently aligning themselves with open anti-Semites has evoked angst and despair in the mainstream Jewish community. It has also provided cover for anti-Semites eager to distance themselves from the charge that their hostility to Israel is in any way related to anti-Semitism.

Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and If Not Now have played prominent roles in demonstrations targeting Israel and its supporters in the United States. JVP casts its opposition to Zionism as a consequence of its love “for Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism.” It issued a statement on October 7 expressing regret about the loss of life on both sides. It added, however, that “Israeli apartheid and occupation—and United States complicity in that oppression—are the source of all this violence.” The statement made numerous demands on America and Israel, but none—including freeing the hostages—on Hamas.

That is the norm for JVP. It has frequently claimed that “the right to resist colonization is enshrined in international law,” a position that has led the organization to refer to itself as “the Jewish wing of the Palestinian solidarity movement” and to insist that Israel does not have a right to self-defense. One of its most prominent figures, queer theorist Judith Butler, who did condemn without qualification the violence committed by Hamas on October 7, still insisted, “It’s not an anti-Semitic attack, it was an attack against Israelis,” an “act of armed resistance.” JVP has also campaigned on behalf of terrorists convicted in Israel.

JVP sees anti-Semitism emanating only from the political right. It has refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan, defended the exclusion of Jewish lesbians from a woman’s march because they carried Israeli flags, defended Jeremy Corbyn from charges that he enabled anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, and denounced Israeli tolerance for gays and lesbians as “pinkwashing.” While accusing Israel of genocide, it ignores the calls for genocide in the Hamas charter and the ethnic cleansing of Mizrachi Jews from Arab countries.

Jewish Voice for Peace stands in solidarity with those either indifferent to Jewish lives or actively hostile to them. It is remarkably insouciant about the consequences for Jews if Israel were to be replaced by a Palestinian-dominated state. Judith Butler, for example, has envisaged a single state inhabited by Jews and Palestinians who have surrendered their national identities in favor of binational identities, an indication of just how divorced from reality utopian fantasy can be. Others exalt a diasporic Judaism that supposedly has eschewed all attributes of power. A few even suggest that Israelis return to their native countries, indifferent to what awaits Jews who repatriate to Russia or Iran or Syria or Ethiopia.

Gabriel Winant, a professor at the University of Chicago and an editor of Dissent, a socialist magazine, cited McCarthyism to explain why there was unfair criticism of Hamas. Those who invoke the monstrous crimes against Israelis on October 7 and after—claims that Winant believes are “dubious”—“are participating, presumably without intent, in a new Red Scare…against all who defend the right of Palestinians to live and to live as equals.” Writing “as a Jew,” Winant advises his co-religionists that “the genuine humane sentiment that it is possible to grieve equally for those on both sides is, tragically, not true.”

Winant fantasizes that Jews might use mourning rituals to disassociate themselves from Israel: “It is a high threshold—and right now, perhaps implausible—to imagine that every shiva might become an occasion to curse the state that has made Jews, of all people, into génocidaires. Nonetheless, it is the one that must be met by we Jews who wish to keep fidelity with the full meaning of ‘never again.’” 

Thus, the Jewish determination not to stand by idly while Jews are massacred is transformed, by a man invoking his Judaism, into a call for Jews to abandon the state of Israel and refuse to mourn Jews massacred in a pogrom. And not only to abandon Israel, but to curse it and fight to destroy it.

Who are these people? What is motivating such thinking, such talk, such bile?

To gain an up-close look at Jewish participants and leaders of the anti-Israel demonstrations, we twice interviewed a middle-aged teacher at a university. We’ll call him Daniel Segal, but that is not his real name. He is a member of a different anti-Zionist group, and he has traveled to Palestinian areas to do “civil disobedience.”

Segal spoke rhapsodically about participating in a protest with a group of rabbis. “They were wearing kippas and chanting and praying, and we were praying and chanting with them,” Segal said. “People converged from all over, getting to know each other and engaging in something so deep. It’s the relationship between courage and trust and community and connection. Conviction made it possible to do this work.”

He has found less community in his hometown, where for some time he had been trying to persuade the board of a local synagogue to take the Israeli flag out of the sanctuary—what he calls “decolonizing the bimah.” He said he had been making headway with the synagogue until the events of October 7, when, mysteriously, “the faces of the shul members turned to stone when they saw me.” He now feels cut off from the Jewish community. “I have a niece in Jerusalem,” he said. “The last text message I received from her was ‘F—k off, Uncle Daniel.’ I was so hurt.” He continued: “We’re talking about the realization that our Judaism is not historically, out of necessity, completely intertwined with Zionism.”

We asked Segal why he was so disillusioned with Israel. “I began to experience a shift in my understanding when Israel, unprovoked, invaded Lebanon in 1982,” he said. “And then Sabra and Shatila happened. I’m freaking out. Thousands of people getting slaughtered. A big, huge chunk of my world kind of collapsed. My alienation really began right there.”

At first Segal found us curious and sympathetic, but we hadn’t asked many hard questions yet. He even called us “Habibi” (an Arabic endearment meaning something like “sweetie”). We asked Segal whether he thought Hamas was justified in murdering and torturing Israeli civilians and taking hostages.

“That’s a difficult question,” he said. “I’m an activist in a theater where there’s a lot of violence. The pain is heart-wrenching, the pain is intolerable.” We asked whose pain he was referring to.

“All of it. Too much destruction. Israel is an occupying force. They actually don’t have a right to defend themselves. According to international law, the Palestinian people are occupied people. And they have a right to defend themselves with force.”

Did he think that the Palestinians in Gaza disagree with what Hamas did?” He answered: “Do you disagree with what your government has done in Afghanistan or Iraq? Or what they had to do to Dresden or to Hiroshima?” He paused. “I think you’re referring to Hamas’s violence.” He insisted, “I am not going to defend or rationalize October 7. But people have a right to defend themselves.”

 “You mean the Israelis?” we asked.

 “Actually, I mean the Palestinians,” Segal replied. “Against the severity of the occupation.”

What should or could Israel do if Hamas were to remain in power and try to repeat what it did on October 7? Segal replied: “I’m an activist and a human being. I’m a friend. I do resistance and solidarity activism. I’m really good at planning actions, praying, chanting, singing, humming, meditating, playing musical instruments. I don’t really know much about these kinds of things, to be honest. When I give talks, I talk about people I know, what’s happening to them. And how I think things need to be otherwise. I talk about history from the lived experiences of people I know. We have programs on the ground in Palestine. I do co-resistance and solidarity activism and, as the song goes, for us to dwell together.”

He is referring to “Hinei Ma Tov,” a Hebrew song adapted from Psalm 133: “To dwell with our Palestinian partners, to be with them in partnership in community, in song, in chanting, in praying, in meditating,” he said. “We do special programs like ‘protective presencing’ to help children get to school. If they walk through a Jewish settlement, they’ll get killed. They witness their parents getting beaten nearly to death by the settlers. Not being able to go to medical school, instead having to become a nurse. These are the microphysics of the occupation that on a daily basis are like a thousand cuts, like the last straw. Everything is a story about how the IDF and the courts and the border-control and the settlers are trying to destroy the will of a people so that they will just pack up and leave. The IDF doesn’t fill the potholes on the highways!”

We asked: “What do you think would happen to you if you lived under Hamas in Gaza?”

He was frank: “I’d be dead.”

What would happen to gays who lived under Hamas? “They’d be dead.”

Daniel Segal ultimately exhibited a seething anger that helped us understand what it was that caused him to identify with the perpetrators of October 7.

He protested that we had sent him an article to read that was critical of Hamas: “You are trying to school me.” He went on: “There are no two sides. You are very arrogant. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Your questions are fascist. ‘The Jews have a right.’ What are you talking about? The Jewish people or the Israeli people? Where are we? What do you mean, the Jewish people? Do you think that those bombs can actually hit people that aren’t Jewish, too, that are coming from Hamas? But you don’t really care about that because you’re Jewish nationalists, just like everybody else. Do you think I’m in this because I have a problem with Jews?”

Then he denied that there was a world-wide epidemic of anti-Semitism. “Not really, no.”

Even with all the attacks on Jews going on?

“There’s rising anti-Semitism. But what we’re really seeing is a rise in anti-Zionism. A big part of the work we do is to address these confusions. I think we need to be very careful in looking at the rise of white supremacy and the relationship between that and attacks on Jewish people. What happened in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life was a heinous crime of anti-Semitism. But I think that the bombs that fell on Tel Aviv, or wherever, that’s not anti-Semitism. That’s anti-Zionism. Israel is responsible for the outbursts of anti-Zionism. I’m saying that white supremacy, as it’s being reborn in the world, is responsible.”

So what should Israel do, we asked. Wouldn’t Hamas repeat October 7?

“I don’t know. I have no idea.”

We asked whether he was saying Israel has no right to defend itself against terrorism.

“No,” he said. “It doesn’t.”

So Israeli Jews have no rights at all of self-defense?

“Israel does whatever the hell they want, whenever they want to, to these people.”

We said that after the Holocaust, the Jews had nowhere to go, and much of the world was indifferent. What should they have done, we asked.

“Your questions are fascist,” Segal responded. “Palestinians don’t exist for you. All you care about are the Jews. You don’t know anybody who has lost everything and is desperate and burning with anger. I’m done. This is a bag of shit.” He hung up the phone.

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Sentiments like those voiced by Winant and Segal are historically evocative. Intense antipathy to Zionism is nothing new in the history of left-wing political movements, even among Jews. And it has often veered into apologias for anti-Semitism. When left-wing political movements in the past have justified or apologized for the murder of Jews by proclaiming they are merely opposing Zionism, some of their Jewish allies have been all too eager to add their voices to the chorus. Three examples from three different decades suggest that it is a feature, not an anomaly, of radicalism.

Nearly a hundred years ago, in 1929, a number of American Jews cast their lot with anti-Semites who gleefully raped, beheaded, burned, and massacred Jews living in Hebron in Palestine. These voices claimed to have the best interests of Jews and Judaism at heart, denouncing the supposed alliance of Jews with Western imperialism in favor of solidarity with “oppressed peoples.” Virtually none of the Jewish victims had been Zionists; most were deeply religious, studying at a yeshiva. The others were Sephardim with long histories of residence in Palestine.

These apologists for mass murder were Jewish Communists grouped around a daily Yiddish-language newspaper, Freiheit. The paper, which billed itself as the “progressive” answer to the larger socialist and anti-Communist Jewish Daily Forward, resolutely set itself at odds with the overwhelming majority of American Jews.

Contempt and hatred for Zionism was gospel to the Communist movement from its origins. In 1905, Lenin had written of Jewish nationalism in general and of Zionism in particular: “The idea of Jewish ‘nationality’ contradicts the interests of the Jewish proletariat, directly and indirectly—a mood hostile to assimilation.”

By the early 1920s, Zionist organizations came under attack in the Soviet Union, and Zionist activists faced repression and arrest by the Bolsheviks. At the same time, Jewish emigration to Palestine was gaining steam. So was Arab resistance, often on explicitly anti-Semitic grounds.

Many of the tensions that led up to the 1929 riots centered around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had embarked on a new construction project that interfered with Jews praying at the Western Wall. He used vitriolic language suggesting that Jews had designs on the Temple Mount. That, in turn, led to a Muslim attack on Jews praying at the Western Wall. The tensions quickly spread to Hebron, where a small community of religious, non-Zionist Jews lived.

The parallels between August 24, 1929, and October 7, 2024, are eerie. Fearing an attack, members of the secular Jewish self-defense force, the Haganah, offered protection, and its offer was declined. The undermanned British police advised Jews to remain in their homes. The advice was fruitless. On August 24, 1929, mobs of Muslims armed with “staves, axes, and knives” attacked Jews. An eyewitness reported that Muslims were going from door to door, slaughtering the Jews. The British police chief later testified that he “saw an Arab in the act of cutting off a child’s head with a sword. He had already hit him and was having another cut, but on seeing me he tried to aim the stroke at me but missed; he was practically on the muzzle of my rifle. I shot him low in the groin. Behind him was a Jewish woman smothered in blood with a man I recognized as a[n Arab] police constable. He was standing over the woman with a dagger in his hand.”

A British report noted that “a schoolteacher, wife and mother, and a lawyer were cut to pieces with knives and the attackers entered an orphanage and smashed children’s heads and cut off their hands. Another victim was stabbed repeatedly and trampled to death.” The final toll in Hebron was nearly 70 Jews dead; another 18 were murdered in Safed.

Even among Communists, the attacks in Palestine at first elicited horror. A headline in Izvestia, then the official party newspaper in Moscow, read “Pogroms in Palestine.” The Freiheit, always hostile to Zionism, similarly labeled the attacks a pogrom. Editors Moissaye Olgin and Melech Epstein placed responsibility on British imperialists who had resources to prevent the attacks but had not, as well as on the Zionists for being anti-Arab.

This initial effort to placate both sides failed. The Soviet Union supported the Arabs and blamed Zionists for inciting the riots. The American Communist Party leadership quickly followed suit and issued an attack on the Freiheit for failing to place sole responsibility on the Jews: “The war in Palestine is not a race war. It is a class war, carried on by the expropriated Arabian peasants against British imperialism and their Zionist agents.” It condemned the Freiheit’s position as similar to that of the “Jewish nationalist, Zionist, and capitalist press.” The denunciation appeared in the party’s newspaper, Daily Worker. The Freiheit was ordered to republish it.

The Yiddish rag quickly fell in line. In subsequent articles, it charged that “the Zionist-Fascists have provoked the Arab uprising.” Olgin sputtered that the Zionists “are playing with the blood of misled people….You are out to satisfy your nationalistic robbery instincts at the expense of an alien people on an alien land….The blood will fall on you. You are murderers.”

The Freiheit claimed that Zionists had massacred thousands of Arabs: One headline read, “Zionists Slaughter Arab Men, Women and Children.” At a protest meeting, the Communist Jewish participants adopted a resolution: “Long Live the Revolutionary Uprising of the Arab Masses in Palestine….Long Live the Independent Arab Republic With Full Rights for the Jewish and Other Minorities.”

It was one thing to oppose Zionism—indeed, the American Jewish community was sharply divided on the question of a permanent Jewish homeland in Palestine—but quite another to provide justifications for massacres of Jews. The Freiheit’s position led to boycotts; news dealers refused to handle the paper. Local and national advertisers were urged to shun the paper, and it lost a significant portion of its revenue stream.

Numerous prominent writers refused to publish in its pages, prompting the Freiheit to denounce them as “petty bourgeois elements” who had become “open supporters of imperialism and reactionary Zionism.” The newspaper became a pariah in the Yiddish-speaking world.

Several notable themes from this 1929 episode warrant emphasis. Even though most of the victims were Jews who happened not to be Zionists, for the Communists their murders were not to be ascribed to Jew-hatred. For them, it was Zionists, not Arabs, who were held responsible for Jewish deaths. Arabs had been motivated not by anti-Semitism, but by anti-imperialism and class consciousness. But in the larger American Jewish world, it turned out that the act of blaming Jews for the murder of Jews properly provoked outrage, not support.

A decade later, American Communists had largely recovered from their self-imposed isolation among American Jews. Facing the rise of fascism, the Communist Party, following Soviet orders, had proclaimed a Popular Front, an alliance of all anti-fascist forces. It had made conciliatory gestures toward Zionists. Earl Browder, the boss of the American Communist Party, even offered to join hands with J.P. Morgan to oppose Hitler.

Then, in August 1939, the USSR suddenly and shockingly signed a pact with Nazi Germany and joined Hitler to launch World War II and divide Poland.

At first, Jewish-American Communists scrambled to rationalize the alliance, applauding the millions of Polish and Baltic Jews who had now supposedly been saved from Nazism by the Red Army. They fiercely denounced Polish anti-Semitism while ignoring the far more lethal German variety. They labeled Britain and France imperialist powers more pernicious than Germany. Izvestia called Hitlerism “a matter of taste” and warned that “to undertake war for the annihilation of Hitlerism means to commit criminal folly in politics.” America, the CPUSA insisted, should remain neutral, and the Jews, as peace-loving people, should oppose any aid to those countries fighting the Nazis.

This was, as you might imagine, a tough sell to American Jews, who watched helplessly as millions of their co-religionists fell victim to brutal Nazi persecution and mass murder while the Communists stood by. The Communist Party itself admitted that its membership dropped by 15 percent after the pact, but the real losses may well have reached 40 percent. No definitive figures are available, but it is reasonable to conclude that a significant percentage of the dropouts were Jews appalled by the Soviets’ actions and the Communist Party’s support for them.

After the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the Communist Party swiftly pivoted and demanded American entry into the war, emphasizing the USSR’s stalwart resistance to Nazism and its role in saving Jews.

_____________

Just as the lessons from 1929 made clear that some Jews were prepared to align themselves with killers of Jews, from the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the American Jewish community concluded that to American Communists—including Jewish Communists—Jews were expendable chips to advance Soviet interests.

As if these examples were not enough to demonstrate that Communist concern for Jews was limited and transitory, and that some Jews were so blinded by their hostility to Zionism that they would endorse explicit anti-Semitism, a series of episodes beginning in the late 1940s drove home the lesson.

The Soviet Union had briefly astonished and delighted the Jewish community with its crucial support for the creation of the State of Israel in 1947. But once it became apparent that Israel’s socialist government would not side with Moscow in the developing Cold War and that Soviet Jews had been energized by its creation, Joseph Stalin began a series of attacks on Jews under the guise of attacking Zionism.

The USSR launched a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans,” a euphemism for Jews. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, created during World War II to build foreign support for the USSR, was disbanded and its leadership murdered or arrested. In a series of purge trials in Eastern European Communist regimes, numerous party leaders were tried and executed on charges that they were spies and traitors serving such diverse masters as Yugoslavia’s Tito, American imperialism, and Zionism.

None of the purge trials was more egregiously anti-Semitic than the one that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1952. Rudolf Slansky, the number-two man in the Czech Party, along with 13 of his comrades were convicted of spying on behalf of Great Britain, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and international Zionism. Eleven were of Jewish origin. Most were executed after abjectly confessing. Needless to say, all of them had long histories of opposition to Zionism and had long since repudiated any connection to Judaism.

The key witness against them was Mordechai Oren, an Israeli who had been arrested while on a visit to Czechoslovakia. Oren was a leader of Mapam, a strongly pro-Soviet Israeli party that had styled itself committed to both Socialism and Zionism. Oren’s worship of Stalin was no help to him. He himself was sentenced to 15 years in prison and released after serving five. After his return to Israel, he admitted that he had been tortured into falsely confessing and implicating Slansky and the others.

The false charge that Zionists and international Jewry had been plotting against the Soviet Union, redolent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was even then not enough to disabuse Oren of his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union. It was a position he adhered to even after he returned to Israel, attributing his travails to “decadent and rotten elements,” not anti-Semitic animus at the heart of the Communist project.

His conviction led to a split within Mapam. One segment of the party accepted the guilt of Slansky and his comrades, excusing the anti-Semitism as necessary to protect Communism from its enemies. Ultimately, this faction, led by a former commander of the Haganah, Moshe Sneh, left Mapam and joined the Israeli Communist Party.

So for some radical Jews who professed a commitment to Zionism, even overt anti-Semitism, torture, self-evident frame-ups, and judicial murder were not enough to compel them to abandon their loyalty to the progressive world and its fantasies. Even later accusations that Jewish physicians in the Kremlin had conspired to murder Soviet leaders—the so-called doctors’ plot—could not shake their faith.

Jewish Voice for Peace and its acolytes have refurbished and rerun the same tropes as their left-wing anti-Zionist forebears. When Arab rioters murdered yeshiva students and long-time Sephardic residents of Palestine in 1929, Jewish Communists suggested that the blame lay with Zionist colonialists who had started the violence both by their presence in Palestine and their provocations. JVP puts the blame for October 7 on a colonial-imperialistic Israel that caged Gazans in an open-air prison.

When Stalin initiated an alliance with Hitler, putting millions of Jews under Nazi rule, Jewish Communists hailed their liberation. JVP and its allies demand that Israel ignore those who call for a jihad and rely on the good will of their enemies to ensure peaceful coexistence.

When a satellite of the USSR purged Jewish Communists opposed to Zionism and tortured an Israeli who supported Communism to testify against them, he and many of his Israeli comrades made excuses for them. JVP and its supporters insist that terrorists should suffer no consequences for their actions, since Israel is ultimately at fault.

JVP and its allies sometimes issue pro forma denunciations of Hamas, but insist that Israel is not justified in retaliating, since international law does not permit an occupying power the right of self-defense. The desire for self-abnegation is so intense that some anti-Zionist Jews even admit that the very people they claim to be defending would kill them if they had the power to do so, either because they are gay or lesbian or because they hate Jews. An old adage comes to mind: “You spit in his face and he thinks it’s raining.”

Photo: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

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