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For some Jewish peace activists, demands for a cease-fire come at a personal cost

Members of the Jewish Voice for Peace and the If Not Now movement, two Jewish activist groups, stage a rally on Oct. 18 in Washington, D.C., to call for a cease-fire in the Israel–Hamas war.
Alex Wong
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Members of the Jewish Voice for Peace and the If Not Now movement, two Jewish activist groups, stage a rally on Oct. 18 in Washington, D.C., to call for a cease-fire in the Israel–Hamas war.

Updated October 28, 2023 at 12:14 PM ET

Last weekend, Ally was kicked out of a family Shabbat dinner. Ally is 21 years old and from New York.

"My dad is a staunch Zionist. He said, 'You better not f***ing have gone to that protest.' "

Ally has gone to many protests.

"He was like, 'I don't want to have you in my house right now. You are not welcome at this dinner table,' " Ally said.

Ally, who requested anonymity due to ongoing harassment, has family in Israel. Some are currently in the Israel Defense Forces.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began, there have been protests demanding a cease-fire. Many Jewish Americans have joined in. Some say they've been met with hostility from within their own communities. Ally is a student at Columbia University, and is part of Jewish Voice For Peace, which is vocally demanding a cease-fire in Gaza.

What Ally wants, beyond a cease-fire, is to address the human rights violations Palestinians have endured over the years.

"My position as a Jew is that it [has] always been our responsibility, according to our religion, to stand up for all those who are targeted, all those who are oppressed, all those who are facing violence. Because as a people, we've been persecuted for so long."

Rabbi Ari-Lev Fornari, also with Jewish Voice for Peace, says lately, he's been hearing about a lot of arguments like the one at Ally's Shabbat dinner table.

"I don't know a single person in my community who hasn't had a fight with a family member in the last two weeks," Fornari says.

He says some of these disagreements are generational. While diverse in participation, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace skew young, reflecting a shift in Jewish American political views. They also reflect the Israeli government's move to the far right, something which feels incompatible to many young liberal Jews.

According to the Pew Research Center, around half of Jewish Americans 65 and over say Israel is an essential part of their Jewish identity. For Jews 29 and under, that number goes down to 35%.

Arno Rosenfeld writes for The Forward, a Jewish-American publication. He says, "the mainstream Jewish community has really unified behind a single message of solidarity with Israel and support for a military response to Hamas. And so really the only release valve for American Jews who are opposed to that or who are calling for a cease-fire, are these youth-led movements."

Rosenfeld also says a lot of liberal Jewish people are feeling a sense of "political homelessness," as their synagogues seem to have abandoned concerns for Palestinian civilians.

In the last few weeks, Ally has felt this sense of placelessness.

"I mean, I've been spit on on campus for wearing a Keefyeh. I have received multiple death threats. And it gets very scary because the places where I'm supposed to feel safe to practice my faith and my culture on campus are now places where I'm not welcome," Ally says.

A lot of this is playing out online, where there is vitriol but also silence. Various Jewish people NPR spoke to shared a concern that expressing opposing beliefs would translate into serious real-life consequences.

Essie, a Jewish teenager in the Bay Area, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of retaliation, says she's wondered, as she applies to colleges, what the impact of speaking up will be.

She recently tweeted in support of high schoolers who staged a Pro-Palestine protest. That tweet went viral. She says she finds it amusing, and a sign of the times, that a post saying her high school friends who attended the protest were in no way hostile to her, garnered so much attention.

"I didn't think it was that big of a controversial statement," Essie says. "It makes me sad that we can't have these conversations without people getting defensive. But I think that everyone is reacting out of pain."

Many Jews say it is indeed painful to see a Jewish person protesting against Israel at this time. Lisa Harris Glass, CEO of Rutgers Hillel, a Jewish campus organization at Rutgers University, also feels that there is a generational issue at play.

"I was born in the 1960s. We were really being raised by the post-Holocaust generation," she says.

Glass has a daughter, around Ally's age.

"I remember giving birth to my daughter. And holding her in my arms. I'm thinking there are people who want to murder her because she exited my Jewish womb," Glass says. "But she is born a target. That's what it means to be Jewish. We have to care what happens to Israel. Because it's like ... your safety net."

Although there is a generational shift, many young Jewish Americans see Israel as inextricable from their identity. Kaitlin Pollack, a high schooler in Long Island, says she believes "the entire foundation of the Jewish faith is quite literally based on Israel. It's where our heritage is. I have so much family there, so many friends living there."

Pollack, who is 17 and also applying for colleges, says she's watching anti-Israel protests closely. She feels they promote antisemitism.

"I'd say the majority of people I know are living with a wake-up call to the impossibility of being a Jew in 2023," says Rabbi David Ingber,founding rabbi of Romemu, which says it's the largest Renewal synagogue in the United States.

"The impossibility of both demanding that people care when we get slaughtered, and the shock of how quickly the center of gravity shifted towards context, apologies, for what took place," he says.

Ingber expresses grief at the death of civilians. He also echoes the position of many Jewish Americans: That Israel is defending itself, and therefore Jewish people as a whole. And this is the fundamental disagreement with Jewish activist groups protesting against Israel.

Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, from Jewish Voice for Peace, says there's nothing inherently antisemitic about criticizing Israel's actions, about expressing outrage of over 7,7oo people being killed in Gaza, as reported by Gaza's Ministry of Health.

"If you told me to boil down, like, what is Judaism about," Fornari says, "I would tell you tikkun olam. It means it means the repair of the world. I don't want to be part of a Judaism that is being used, taken in my name, to kill and occupy and imprison millions of Palestinians."

He says protesters like him understand Jewish existential fear.

But he doesn't want to become what he's afraid of.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.