Since launching its surprise attack from Gaza on Saturday, Hamas has killed at least 1,200 Israelis, including members of kibbutzim and young people attending the Supernova trance music festival, injured thousands, and terrorized an untold number of civilians. And we know Hamas also has hostages—by some accounts up to 150. On Sunday, Israel declared war and began what portends to be a long and brutal retaliatory response; according to the Gaza health ministry, as of Wednesday, 1,055 Gazans had died and some 5,184 had been wounded.
Across from the White House, a pro-Palestinian speaker called out, “How is everybody feeling today?” to which the crowd cheered, “Woo-hoo!!”
On Saturday, as Americans watched the shocking events of the attack unfold from afar, newscasters and social media posts alike repeatedly described the events as “Israel’s 9/11.” While there are many differences between the two terrorist attacks, comparisons are also being made between the way Americans came together in the immediate aftermath of the worst-ever attack on U.S. soil and the way Israelis—who have been bitterly divided for months in response to proposed judicial overhauls—are unifying in solidarity after this attack, which caused more Jewish death in any single day since the Holocaust. America’s allies rallied around the red, white and blue back then, just as the U.S. government is offering unequivocal support for Israel today.
The American public has also turned out to bear witness and express their reactions to the attack—but they are not speaking as one. Voices include those who have family throughout Israel as well as those with ties to the Palestinian territories.
“I’m still trying to grasp in my head that 900 people were killed in a modern-day slaughter in the State of Israel that was aimed at killing Jews,” Ron Halper, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told local news station DC News Now at a vigil held at Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC on Monday night.
Solidarity rallies have seen many thousands of Americans turn out coast to coast at vigils held in public spaces, synagogues and Jewish community centers, while major landmarks, including the White House and the Empire State Building in New York have been lit up in blue and white. According to the Israeli American Council, events under the banner “Stand Up Against Terror. Stand With Israel,” have happened in multiple cities in Texas, California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and in Washington, DC, and more are planned.
In addition to such expressions, we’ve also seen sober criticisms of Israel, emboldened protests against its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and even celebrations of the horror Hamas wrought on Israeli civilians.
On Sunday in Washington, DC, across from the White House (as seen in video footage posted on YouTube by the Indian media platform News9), a speaker at a pro-Palestinian demonstration called out enthusiastically, “How is everybody feeling today?” to which the crowd cheered, “Woo-hoo!!” They played drums and waved signs bearing messages like “Stand with Palestinian People’s Resistance!” “Stop U.S. Funding of Israeli Apartheid” and “Resistance Against Occupation Is a Human Right.” A woman in a tracksuit and athletic shoes holding a bullhorn led the crowd in chants of: “We want ’48! We don’t want no two-state!” “Long live the intifada” and “Palestine is our demand! No peace on stolen land!”
The DC demonstration was sponsored by Palestinian Youth Movement, Maryland 2 Palestine, ANSWER Coalition, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
A social media post advertising the event, dubbed “All Out for Palestine,” featured a photo of young men in street clothes covering every inch of a military vehicle, smiling and raising fists in the air. MD 2 Palestine’s Facebook page featured the post, with their logo along with PYM’s at the bottom and an enthusiastic invitation: “!!Pop out DC!!” On Monday the group posted images of a march that followed the demonstration, noting that it had taken to the streets of DC “in celebration…and to honor our glorious martyrs.” After initial interest in being interviewed, the group declined further comment but did note no further demonstrations were planned.
Another “All Out for Palestine” demonstration held Sunday, this one in New York’s Times Square and organized by Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), has come under heavy criticism for its celebratory and antagonistic postures toward Jewish New Yorkers and Israelis who amassed nearby to grieve and mourn the terrorist attack in Israel. It also gained attention when it was promoted on social media by the New York branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Pro-Palestinian groups rallying in U.S. cities and expressing excitement for what had occurred the day before, when Israeli citizens were pulled from their homes and gathering places, brutalized and slaughtered, was certainly jarring for those who may have seen it. Why were American socialists taking part?
“The DSA of which I was a proud lifetime member, has lost me forever,” comedian Sarah Silverman wrote on Instagram Monday.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation’s stated mission is “to link the everyday struggles of oppressed and exploited people to the fight for a new world.” In a statement on PSL’s website, they accuse corporate media and politicians of lying to the public that “Israel is simply defending itself from ‘terrorism’” and affirm that “The actions of the resistance over the course of the last day is a morally and legally legitimate response to occupation.”
The Democratic Socialists of America’s National Committee likewise put out a statement expressing its total support for Palestine and condemning Israel, “a regime that receives billions in funding from the United States.” DSA did make clear that its members “unequivocally condemn the killing of all civilians,” stressing the imperative to respect human rights laws.
The group’s political platform, laid out on their website, is extensive. The section titled “International Solidarity, Anti-Imperialism, and Anti-Militarism” characterizes the United States as the heart of a global capitalist empire responsible for the suffering of billions of people and dangerous environmental degradation. Included in the long list of democratic socialist positions on immigration, labor, journalism, international relations, militarism, climate and more, is the DSA’s call to: “Stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against apartheid, colonialism, and military occupation, and for equality, human rights, and self-determination…” This includes supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; discontinuing US military aid to Israel; and “resisting the ‘normalization’ of relations between the Israeli government and other governments.”
In response to the DSA statement on the Hamas attack, comedian Sarah Silverman, a well-known progressive, wrote on Instagram Monday, “The DSA of which I was a proud lifetime member, has lost me forever.”
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Up until a few days ago, there appeared to be six members of the U.S. Congress, all in the House, who belonged to the Democratic Socialists of America: Rashida Tlaib and Shri Thanedar, of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri and Greg Casar of Texas. In statements, Tlaib and Bush grieved the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives while also calling for an end to the occupation. Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman, Thanedar and Casar strongly condemned the Hamas attack. On Wednesday, Thanedar quit the DSA for promoting the Times Square rally, and it’s now being reported that Bowman let his membership lapse last year.
On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez, arguably the most famous member of the DSA’s New York chapter, responded to the Times Square demonstration, where, according to the Times of Israel, pro-Palestinian demonstrators taunted those who were there to grieve by chanting “700,” holding up seven fingers or running a single index finger across their throat, evoking the number of dead Israelis being reported at that time.
“It should not be hard to shut down hatred and antisemitism where we see it. That is a core tenet of solidarity,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement to Politico on Monday, adding, “The bigotry and callousness expressed in Times Square on Sunday were unacceptable and harmful in this devastating moment. It also did not speak for the thousands of New Yorkers who are capable of rejecting both Hamas’s horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation.”
Occupying that kind of nuanced space as news of events in Israel were reaching Americans on Saturday were groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), IfNotNow, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JREJ). Their members are progressive Jews committed to Palestinian freedom and to ending U.S. support for Israel, which they feel contributes to the oppression of Palestinians living under occupation.
Jay Saper (they/them) is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace in New York (JVP has over 440,000 members nationwide) and at an unaffiliated congregation in Park Slope that normally celebrates the Simchat Torah holiday, which fell on Saturday this year, with 19 other Brooklyn congregations. They described it as a celebration of ancient ritual and dancing with the Torah in the streets. On Saturday it was announced the event would shift to include a “stand with Israel” rally. Saper and other members of their congregation felt they could not participate with a clear conscience and instead joined IfNotNow and JREJ for an alternative Simchat Torah nearby the rally at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. Afterward, JVP led 50 participants on a march to New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s residence.
“We prepared those who showed up to march solemnly and not engage those who would want to escalate a confrontation,” Saper says. “That isn’t what we were there for. We were there to grieve, to honor the lives that were lost and take our message to the person with the power to actually take action to stop $3.8 billion in U.S military funding for Israel.”
When asked what the appropriate response for Israel to take against Hamas would be, with or without U.S. funding, Saper responded, “It’s so important for us to make sure this moment isn’t used to further entrench Islamophobia and racist calls that sound like calls for ethnic cleansing. To be clear how much we value the dignity of all lives and address the daily indignities suffered by Palestinians at the hand of the most extreme Israeli government in its 75-year history.”
Today, as Jews and their allies remain in anguish over Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel, as war is waged and forces in the Middle East and beyond plot next moves, the discourse on the American left is varied, as it is in Jewish American circles.
Jay Saper remembers going to a vigil with their mother on the evening of September 11, 2001, in East Lansing, Michigan, where they grew up. The Islamic center there had been shot at, and people gathered to make clear they wouldn’t allow violence against Muslims in their community. Today they feel it’s vitally important to have the many voices in the Jewish community heard. “It’s actually kind of an illusion when we say everybody’s together, whether it’s 9/11, whether it’s now. Maybe we can come together in our sense of wanting violence to end, but we have different understandings of what leads to that and different paths forward.”
Top image: Rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sunday, October 8, organized by the Israeli-American Council. Photo credit: Tonya Harvey.