In the second of a two-part series of interviews on changing American Jewish attitudes towards Israel and Zionism, Lori Allen, member of the MERIP editorial board, spoke with Sonya E Meyerson-Knox, Communications Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Their conversation, which took place in July 2022, has been edited for length and clarity.
Lori Allen: What do people get wrong about the history of Jews in the US and Zionism?
Sonya Meyerson-Knox: Almost everything. The general understanding about the American Jewish community and its positions towards Israel, like so many of the narratives involving Israel and Palestine, has been completely co-opted. As long as there has been a Zionist movement, there have been anti-Zionist Jews leading opposition to it. A lot of that history has been completely eradicated, and only now are we seeing a revived interest in different aspects of diaspora-ism and diaspora culture, including anti-Zionism, from the younger generations, Gen-X, millennial and onward. We’ve seen a return to Yiddish, and the radical history tied up in progressive and international causes, some which were very clearly anti-Zionist.
Most American synagogues did not have Israeli flags in them before 1967. The Reform Movement, the largest Jewish organization in America, was anti-Zionist initially. All of that history has been erased by this other version of history told as a direct marching line from endemic persecution of Jews for being Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, and finally to safety in Israel. There are elements of truth and there are grave inaccuracies. It is a story that has been manipulated and propagandized. The claim is, if you’re Jewish, you support Israel because it’s the only place you’ll ever be safe. But more and more people are questioning this sort of false logic. AIPAC claims that if AIPAC had existed, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. That was never the case.
Lori: Moving to how things have been shifting, I’m curious how you date the shift away from a homogenous narrative about Israel. Where has that come from and when?
Sonya: My thoughts on this reflect my own story. By the time the second intifada began in Palestine, which was September 2000, there was already intentional intersectionality between social justice movements. I remember very clearly the protests that were happening against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and in DC and globally. They included Palestinians marching, and people in support of Palestinian liberation. There was this understanding that if you were going to be anti-globalization then you also had to support environmental rights, workers’ rights, and indigenous rights and eventually, also Palestinian rights. I think that was an early shift. It was not a broader Jewish American shift, although there’s always been a large portion of American Jews involved.
Another indicator of that shift is the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). We really grew in membership and impact during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2014, which followed Israel’s earlier attacks in 2009 and 2012. This was also during the growth of social media use and the development of citizen journalism. Leading up to the Israeli military’s onslaught on Gaza in 2014, we had the Arab Spring. You had all of these journalists and an audience that was used to thinking about this part of the world in a way they never had before. Then we see this stark disparity of power by the Israeli military and the reprehensible killing of civilians. And it’s all being transmitted almost live.
Mainstream media had done a very good job of telling only one side of the story. Ten Palestinians may have died, but the lede was about the one Israeli. It became much harder to do that when you had so much media attention from different sources. Especially social media accounts that don’t adhere to mainstream media narratives. It was Palestinians with their phones in front of their building that has just been destroyed, unfiltered.
I think that was shocking for quite a lot of American Jews. A shocking challenge to the story that they had been told and had clung to for all of these years—the line of Israel as the most moral army in the world, defending itself and hated for no good reason. That’s when JVP numbers shift from a dozen chapters to become really national. Other organizations doing incredibly important work like IfNotNow also began. That’s when a lot of Jewish organizations that didn’t want to talk about Palestine, but did want to work on social justice, were forced to start recognizing that you can’t do one without the other.
Lori: I was reading an essay by Rabbi Michael Davis, who sees the old tropes of the Holocaust and “Israel, right or wrong,” as becoming increasingly irrelevant to young Jews, and I wonder if you have also observed a similar kind of shift.
Sonya: Broadly I agree with this, but I would take it one step further. The same generations that are more than 60 years removed from the Holocaust are also the ones that are now facing increasingly prevalent anti-Semitism, which is taking violent forms. We had a president who used anti-Semitic tropes and dog whistles with regularity, who brought white nationalists to the White House and defended the people that were in Charlottesville chanting with their tiki torches, “Jews will not replace us.” And yet we have Israel. Something doesn’t add up. The mainstream Jewish institution doctrine that “the next Holocaust could be around the corner, and we’re going to protect you, and Israel is the reason we can”—none of that’s holding water anymore. If the argument is that Israel will protect us from the Holocaust, how is Israel protecting us from antisemitism right now? It’s always been a false argument, and the hollowness of that claim is being brought home to all of these young Jews who at the same time are becoming more politically active. Once they start questioning that, they also start asking about the way the state of Israel treats Palestinians, about apartheid, about the real history of Zionism, about the Nakba. And then they start listening to Palestinians.
We are also seeing Netanyahu becoming best friends with anti-Semites like Viktor Orbán in Hungary. And when the attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh happened, this was white nationalism enabled, emboldened and encouraged by then-President Trump.
We saw the “Never Again” protests a couple of summers ago, in which young Jews were getting arrested, protesting the way that ICE and Border Patrol were rounding up and separating refugee and immigrant families on the border. “Never again.” What is that referring to? The Holocaust. They’re defending other people who aren’t Jewish and not through their synagogue, but through other organizations.
Lori: So, you’re noticing an awakening to the politics of Israel? Is this part of what is allowing younger generations to take a different attitude, both towards Judaism and towards Israel?
Sonya: Yes that, but I think it’s also the way that the left is shaping itself now, the attention to intersectionality of movements. Every progressive movement that is happening right now emphasizes safety through solidarity. I am not free if you are not free. And, certainly, young progressive American Jews are not isolated from that. American Jews are three times more likely to be liberal and progressive than the rest of the American population—until recently, except for Palestine. But even that is changing somewhat. They want to be part of the movements that are connected to social justice. It’s hard to hold the double think: “Black lives matter and you’re not safe from cops if I’m not safe from cops” and “I’m never safe unless Israel protects me.” The equation doesn’t add up.
Lori: Could you talk a little bit more about what you mean by the intentional intersectionality of these movements?
Sonya: America is reckoning with its original sins. We are deep in that reckoning—since Ferguson, since Michael Brown, since the advent of a generalized awareness of Black Lives Matter. Also, with movements like Standing Rock and indigenous rights, and even with the anti-WTO protests of 1999 in Seattle. You had the unions with the environmentalists and workers. There is this growing understanding that how the left used to function doesn’t work anymore. We can’t have civil liberties organizations being led only by white people if they’re talking about black and brown rights. And we can’t have women’s organizations that are not going to be queer- and trans-friendly. If I don’t want to live in a police state, then I have to make sure that the cops are not militarized and attacking my brown and black neighbors. That’s what is meant by intersectionality.
The old-school Jews who espoused “Israel, right or wrong,” the liberal Zionist Jews, who talk about marching on the bridge with Dr. King, they haven’t walked away from caring and believing that Black people deserve to live in dignity and justice. It’s just that their children have a much harder time believing that and not believing that Palestinians also deserve those rights.
Lori: Can you illustrate how you see that happening or becoming mainstream?
Sonya: There is a clear shift among younger Jews, evident in Pew polls. The younger you are, the less likely you are to be anti-Palestinian, the more likely you are to think the US is too supportive of Israel. More than 20 percent of millennial American Jews challenge the very basis of Zionism by supporting the idea of one democratic state in Palestine/Israel. And more than 30 percent of Jews under 40 think Israel is an apartheid state. When you see a poll that says 80 percent of American Jews think Israel should be supported by America, right or wrong, but then you break it down by generation, the numbers go way down.
Lori: What do you think these younger generations have been influenced by?
Sonya: I think social media played a large role because it offers us the opportunity to hear from Palestinians. There is a reason that social media platforms are continually trying to silence Palestinian speech directly at the behest of the Israeli government and its supporters. It can’t be done because social media is still actually a result of people on the ground saying things and showing things. When Shirin Abu Akleh was killed and the New York Times published that horrible story with the headline: “Palestinian journalist, 53 dies,” JVP fixed the headline, pointing out that she was murdered by an Israeli sniper. That post got almost 300,000 likes and well over 1,000 comments.
In May and June 2021, when the Israeli military bombed Gaza, and the Israeli government attempted the mass expulsion of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, and then the Unity Intifada followed, JVP posted on Facebook calling on our members to join the Palestinian protests in the US across the country, carrying signs that were explicitly anti-Zionist. It wasn’t the first time that anti-Zionists have been public, but it was a very intentional leveling up. We’re not just going to say that Jews support Palestine, we’re going to say we’re anti-Zionists doing this. Those posts had a reach of over 8 million people. When Mohammed al-Kurd or Mona al-Kurd were doing livestreams, the numbers were astronomical!
This is a narrative shift, right? There were all sorts of campaigns about the skewed news coverage of Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder. And then what do we see? We see news outlet after news outlet, starting with CNN, reporting on Israel’s killing of a Palestinian journalist. Mainstream media execs realized that, despite all the pressure of the Israeli lobby and the advertisers and all the pressure that comes from an editorial board that’s stacked with people sympathetic toward Zionism, they actually have to tell the truth.
Lori: Do you think that there is some danger in the fact that so much of this progress has relied on social media, given that there’s so much potential for censorship?
Sonya: Absolutely. And not just for the Palestinian liberation movement, but for all social justice movements that have to work around the mainstream media, because mainstream media are companies with advertising interests and political blinders. The Israeli government employs its bots and troll armies and has its large budgets to counter BDS, including on social media. But as long as anybody can open an account, they’re going to keep telling their stories. And we have witnessed very successful campaigns to have accounts unblocked. When Facebook repeatedly shut down the Ministry of Health in Gaza, that was called out successfully. We helped stall the implementation of the very problematic IHRA definition of anti-Semitism becoming part of Facebook’s community standards and launched a campaign around it called “Facebook, we need to talk.”
Lori: Do you have any final thoughts?
Sonya: The American Jewish community that’s progressive and anti-Zionist is learning that it’s not just all about “my pain” and the Holocaust. It’s not all about me feeling betrayed that I was raised to believe Israel’s one thing when it is behaving another way. It’s really: “Now that I know what Israel does to Palestinians, how do I stand in alignment? How do I best support Palestinian rights?” And that means that maybe I don’t get to speak so much. It’s intentionally changing the focus to where the Palestinian liberation movement is going and asking how can we help. And I do think this is a shift that is going to allow the movement to grow and be more successful in the long run.