By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
I recently journeyed to Columbus Circle in Manhattan to savor the atmosphere at two rival demonstrations over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.
On one side, by the entrance to Central Park, and adjacent to the hot dog stands and “I Love NYC” souvenir outlets, I found about 60 or so pro-Israel demonstrators. The sky was gray and leaden, the humidity threatened a thunderstorm, and the news coming out of Israel was pretty bleak, but their mood veered in the joyous direction. They danced and sang, they recited prayers for the IDF’s fallen soldiers, and they held signs that were—dare I say it—almost kumbaya-like in their tone. There was no anger and no hate, but rather a series of appeals to behave rationally and with humanity. “For Real Peace, Gaza Needs Good Education, Not Bombs,” read one message. “Israel Left Gaza For Peace,” declared another, almost imploringly.
As I read these and similar signs, I imagined the response these demonstrators would encounter outside the 59th St. subway station, where pro-Palestinian demonstrators were now gathering. The word “naive” would be the least of it, I reflected. As if on cue, a car whizzed around Columbus Circle, with one of the passengers brandishing a Palestinian flag out of the window. Over the din of the traffic and the songs and chants of the pro-Israel demonstrators, I heard a voice from inside the car boom in our direction, “F**k YOU!”
As the afternoon wore into the evening, I crossed the street to see what was happening on the Palestinian side. The turnout was smaller than I’d expected—600 at most—but there was a tangible feeling of anger. Someone was yelling “Allahu Akhbar!” into a megaphone and plenty of banners with slogans like “End Aid to the RACIST State of Israel” and “Israel is an Apartheid State” were on display. For a few minutes, I spoke to a man holding a sign reading, “Zionism threatens us all.” He was polite and cordial but predictable, his remarks to me peppered with catchphrases like “wealthy Jews” and claims such as “9/11 was chiefly an attack on U.S. support for Israel.”
I surveyed this crowd and saw Arab and south Asian Muslims, solemn-looking Quakers, and younger hipsters wearing what can only be described as terror chic—faces covered with keffiyehs and t-shirts emblazoned with ultra-radical declarations. But most of all I saw my own people. The Jews.
These Jews, I hasten to add, were “good” Jews, unlike me and probably you. That was apparent from their Jewish Voice for Peace stickers and from their signs such as “No war on Palestinians, NOT IN OUR NAME.” In terms of age, they were much older than I’d expected, baby boomers still nostalgic for the days of hippiedom. Once they had Vietnam, I thought to myself. Now they have “Palestine.”
Now, although I’ve been writing about Jewish anti-Zionism for years, there is always something disturbing about encountering it in the flesh. Palestine differs from Vietnam, in the sense that it’s an issue these folks feel a connection to by dint of rejecting the Jewish state as Jews. Indeed, they’ve built an identity around it—their Judaism is expressed in a manner in which they separate themselves from other Jews, like when they say, “NOT IN OUR NAME.”
It’s also important to understand that these demonstrators are not affiliated with J Street or with American Friends of Peace Now or similar groups. Many of them would probably find Peter Beinart, the American Jewish columnist who has reinvented himself as (he thinks) the voice of the decent Jewish conscience, a little too vanilla. What they have embraced is the non-violent (they think) route to ridding the world of its only Jewish state: boycotts, Passover seders dedicated to the Palestinian struggle, endless rhetorical condemnations of Zionism. It is, one might argue, a little like a cult.
And like many of the cults that come and eventually go, this one is apparently in a growth phase. At least that’s what Rebecca Vilkomerson, the head of Jewish Voice for Peace, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in a recent interview. The same report noted that J Street members disillusioned with that organization’s craving of mainstream acceptance are finding a new political home further to the left.
Should this exodus continue, we may find that the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Jewish left, which was all the rage five years ago, is eclipsed and rendered irrelevant. More American Jews are understanding that every time Israel is compelled to defend its own citizens, the cries of “genocide!” will surely follow—and that is a cry they reject decisively. Equally, a smaller but still visible number will continue to organize themselves as the Jewish section of the movement to abolish the Jewish state.
Any debate over how to regard these organizations shouldn’t encourage comparisons with J Street. For all my strong disagreements with J Street, I believe they are committed to a two-state solution. I cannot say the same about Jewish Voice for Peace and those of the same ilk. They are, quite simply, the enemy, and we must guard against them. They have embraced anti-Zionist eliminationism in the name of Judaism. For that reason, while I still—just about—believe that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible, I cannot envisage making peace with the Jewish haters of Israel.
Why do I say that? Because betrayal by a brother always hurts more than the venom of a declared enemy. Whenever they shout “NOT IN OUR NAME,” we should remind them that their name is not our name.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz, and other publications. His book, “Some Of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014), is now available through Amazon.