Gaza Delenda Est: The Palestine Protests, Antisemitism, and the American Jewish Establishment

Gaza Delenda Est: The Palestine Protests, Antisemitism, and the American Jewish Establishment

Jennifer Loewenstein discusses her experiences of life as a US based anti-Zionist Jewish activist in the context of the current genocide in Gaza.  While things are dire, not least the state of civil society, she looks for and finds glimmers of hope in the mobilisations world-wide.

As Israel’s war on Gaza continues day after day, I have begun to wonder if it will ever end. Like many activists, I follow the news closely, even obsessively. I cannot escape it; I will not escape it. I know my taxes are paying for the death and destruction being visited upon an entire people, for the grotesque weaponry of mass murder, the arms of a psychotic military. I won’t turn on American news channels, the ones telling me that this is a justifiable price for the terrible events of October 7th; the ones insisting that 2.4 million people deserve to suffer unspeakable horror until 130 hostages are released. I will not believe the lies, the equivocation, the craven ‘objections’ of diplomats and politicians claiming they want a lower death toll. I will not be complicit in this human travesty. I will not go about my daily life as if it is acceptable to ignore a catastrophe my country is underwriting.

Instead, I put on Al Jazeera English or Democracy Now! read the alternative press, read reports from international aid and human rights organizations, read what the pundits would rather ignore. I demonstrate, speak, protest, boycott, write, and talk about what’s happening to everyone I can. A solidarity movement is growing, and this alone gives me hope, but it is still a tiny flame in an abyss of darkness.

Hudia, a friend in Rafah, writes to me regularly about the situation in her hometown:

People sleep in tents and in the streets or in the shadows of shuttered businesses. The sounds of drones, artillery, air and sea bombardments, and tank shells echo across the Gaza Strip from Rafah to Beit Hanoun. It’s a constant rush in your ears. There is no escape. No sermon about steadfastness from leaders and media are going to help us right now. We are ghosts and we should go and haunt the world revealing what has happened to us.

Exhausted refugees are wearing filthy clothing (where can we wash dirty laundry?) Wood burning stoves fill the main streets. Everything is cooked on wood fires now and they fill the air with smoke.  The ground around them is blackened and people’s faces are blackened. This is a preview of the apocalypse: yes, right here in Gaza you can witness what the end of the world will look like.

As you walk, you pass faces of those who used to be proud and generous but are now humiliated and betrayed. They half-whisper, brokenly, in your ear: “I swear, I am not a beggar. But I was displaced from my home here and here. My family and children have nothing to eat. If you give me five shekels…”

This is only part of the picture, which is getting darker, more unbearable, and more painful every day with the siege and death. I do not know if death is worse than what people are experiencing now. What new, unthinkable circumstance will be thrown our way tomorrow? It’s too horrible to contemplate. I want to run away…

Is it any wonder that, after 7 months of this carnage, student protests are springing up across the country and around the world? I only wish they had begun earlier. Yet, as pro-Palestinian Gaza encampments proliferate, much of the mainstream media is focused on rising antisemitism. An Al-Jazeera article reports, for example, that “…a prominent rabbi linked to Columbia University and its affiliated Barnard College, Elie Buechler, urged Jewish students at the institution to stay home due to ‘extreme anti-Semitism’ on campus.” In an Axios article noting that all in-person classes have been cancelled we read, “Members of Congress flocked to the Columbia University campus on Monday amidst raucous protests over the Israel-Hamas war and concerns about the safety of Jewish students and faculty,” and a Vanity Fair article notes that “President Joe Biden marked the Passover holiday by condemning antisemitism on college campuses amid the pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University that have reverberated across the nation.”

Then, there is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carping all the way from Tel Aviv about the ‘horrific’ and 1930s-style ‘antisemitic mobs’ taking over college campuses across the country and demanding that it be stopped. Reading the news, one would think we are embarking on a dark age in which the rise of neo-Nazi antisemitism was threatening the foundations of enlightenment thought at our institutions of higher learning.

Meanwhile, our political and media elites are attempting to impose an increasingly shrill and intolerant right wing pro-Israel agenda upon the institutions and people who oppose it. A key element of this agenda is unconditional support for Israel, which is synonymous with US hegemonic interests in the Middle East. One of the tools used to advance this agenda and silence its critics is the charge of ‘antisemitism’ each time one calls into question Israel’s actions especially regarding the Palestinians. In many cases, these charges and – to some extent – the focus on the student uprisings on university and college campuses across the country, have taken the spotlight off the butchery and massive destruction taking place in the Gaza Strip.

This is unacceptable especially as pictures and reports of mass graves come in: Nearly 400 bodies have been discovered in Khan Younis at the Nasser hospital complex alone and the number is growing; bodies of people whose hands were zip-tied behind their backs and who were shot in the head in summary executions; bodies of people whose organs are missing; bodies of up to 20 people buried alive. Why isn’t this news in bold headlines across our major national newspapers? The silence is as suspicious as it is disquieting. What are you hiding, you sorry excuse for a “Fourth Estate”?

No, instead we are regaled with stories of rising ‘antisemitism’ and the need for Jewish students to feel ‘safe’. We are reminded that “Hamas started this war” (Did it? Really??)  Instead, students and teachers are arrested in the hundreds for protesting a ‘plausible genocide’. (Wait – What?  When do the weapons’ manufacturers go to prison? When do the officials and lobbyists and masters of war get their day in court?)

Antisemitism and ‘Antisemitism’

Real antisemitism – the hatred of Jews because they are Jews – has acquired a well-deserved stigma. The Nazi holocaust and European fascism have been forever and correctly tainted by the virulent, murderous brand of antisemitism that led millions to their death. Like all forms of prejudice, antisemitism has been rightfully excoriated and pushed to the margins of our society as an unacceptable expression of irrational hatred. But evidence of genuine antisemitism still exists and must be combatted.

In the wake of Israel’s rise as a regional superpower and client of the United States, however, ‘antisemitism’ has taken on entirely new meanings. For many, the status of Israel and its close relationship to the United States tempered the kind of residual antisemitism that I and others experienced both as children and adults. Israel is now seen as an important ally and friend. Being genuinely antisemitic seemed to some almost unpatriotic. Those who have called into question Israel’s role both as an arm of US power and as an independent, expansionist state built and consolidated at the expense of another people have had to fend off different charges of ‘antisemitism’ as a matter of course, however.

This is a political tactic; a political (and arguably social) way of shaming anyone who fails to support Israel unconditionally. Unsurprisingly, it has become routine for people championing the self determination of the Palestinians to be labeled ‘antisemitic’ whether their views are anti-Jewish or not. As a result, we are today faced with a newfangled ‘antisemitism’ that not only threatens to undo basic civil liberties but that also jeopardizes a whole constellation of political and ethical values at the heart of any democracy.

Searching for a Precedent

As Israel’s obliteration of Gaza enters its seventh month, I have watched in horror as the scale and scope of destruction takes on greater and more terrible dimensions. At least 35,000 people, approximately 25,000 of them women and children, have been slaughtered under ‘precision’ guided- and ‘dumb’ bombs, tank shells, and gunfire. More have died and are dying because of the draconian siege imposed by the Netanyahu war cabinet. Disease and malnutrition are rampant; famine is spreading as humanitarian aid trucks are unable to deliver desperately needed goods, including food, clean water, medicines and medical supplies.

Domicide, the destruction of dwelling places and the rendering of whole areas of land uninhabitable, and ecocide, the destruction of the environment by humans, together with mass murder, starvation, torture, detention, imprisonment, targeted assassinations, the erasure of Gaza’s universities, the bombing of schools, businesses, and mosques, and the systematic violation and ruination of the healthcare system across the Strip defy accepted wartime boundaries and challenge many of us to seek historical precedents.

One that caught my eye was the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BC during the Third Punic War. In an act of sheer vengeance and after a three-year siege, Roman warriors burned, looted, and razed the ancient city of Carthage to the ground. Cato the Elder of Rome, known for his slogan “Carthage must be destroyed!” [Carthago delenda est!], attempted to convince members of the Roman Senate that Carthage was a threat to the supremacy of Rome and must be annihilated. Some historians have cited this as early support for genocide.

In his report, “The First Genocide: Carthage, 146 BC,” Yale historian Ben Kiernan writes,

[W]hat ideology demanded the disappearance of a disarmed mercantile city? Whatever the military reasons for pursuing the siege after 149, the socio-political motivation of the destruction’s leading proponent is significant. Cato ultimately won a Senate majority, but the depth of his personal preoccupation was unusual. … Cato’s broader thinking … shared more modern features with recent tragedies such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Cambodian and Rwandan catastrophes. The perpetrators of these 20th century crimes, like Cato, were preoccupied with militaristic expansionism, the idealization of cultivation, notions of gender and social hierarchy, and racial or cultural prejudices.

The farmlands and fields of Carthage were plowed up and sown with salt; its homes destroyed one by one; its buildings set on fire; its roads destroyed, and its inhabitants massacred or sold into slavery. Some reports say only 50,000 Carthaginians, or one fifth of the population of 250,000 survived. Otherwise, the city simply ceased to exist.

This, I believe, may be the closest we have to what Israel hopes to do to Gaza, displacing its population outside the borders of Gaza permanently rather than enslaving it. While the genocidal policies taking place in Gaza are neither a replica of what happened in Carthage nor an excuse to indict an entire people, the similarities in genocidal thinking should not be dismissed lightly. This is especially true when examining a society in which the supremacy of one people over another has been incorporated into both the secular and religious education of the general population.

A Nation State of the Jewish People

How exactly is exposing the desolation of Gaza ‘antisemitic’?  How are the words of its own leaders, politicians, and officials –used by the International Court of Justice to rule that a plausible genocide is underway – antisemitic?

For many, anything critical of Israel is antisemitic because Israel is considered the state of the Jewish people. The 2018 Nation State Law codified this in a number of ways, but primarily by asserting that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” It designates Hebrew as the only official language, downgrading Arabic to a “special status,” and it makes the settlement or ‘redemption’ of all the land of historic Palestine by Jews a national value. In other words, this law established what many have considered fact for generations, and what Israeli laws have legislated for decades. Arabs and other gentiles cannot belong to such a polity as equal citizens.

For me, this law also codifies apartheid. Palestinian Arabs, who make up one-fifth of the population of Israel ‘proper,’ are excluded by definition from such a state. They are outsiders and are treated as such. Meanwhile, Palestinian Arabs living in the occupied Palestinian territories are governed by military law and suffer discrimination of every imaginable kind. Again and again, however, I have come across people insisting that because the Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel can vote, they live in an egalitarian democracy. Such claims bewilder those who have spent any length of time in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Gaza Strip.  On every street and in every alleyway; in cities, towns, and refugee camps; in fields and orchards; at checkpoints and borders; and in the graffiti on the separation wall, the burden of an ever-encroaching, immiserating, and sadistic military occupation stifles the very breath of the land.

Under the circumstances, we must ask ourselves if it is so far-fetched that so many people demanding Palestinian liberation in Europe and the United States regard Jews with a certain amount of suspicion and hostility. It is a false equivalency, one that must be vocally opposed, but it is also one that has been encouraged by the very people and organizations screaming “antisemitism!” the loudest.

A Jewish Education

In 2003, after my daughter was born, I fought with my husband to prevent her from getting a Jewish education – not out of any dislike for mainstream Judaism, but because it is nearly impossible to give an American Jewish child such an education without Israel being its central feature. In almost every synagogue, at nearly every wedding, at Bar- or Bat-Mitzvahs, at funerals, on holidays and regular services, the blue and white flag of Israel flies front and center usually, but not always, accompanied by an American flag. When any major national development, such as the October 7th Hamas massacre of approximately 1100 Israelis, occurs American Jews head to their synagogues for solidarity and soul-searching. When Israeli national holidays take place, there are celebrations within (and often outside of) the American Jewish communities from coast to coast.

When major Israeli events or political figures are in the news, one will often hear Jewish congregations in the United States singing the Hatikvah and organizing actions and conversations around that news. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1994, every major synagogue in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin filled with its congregants to commemorate his life and wring their hands over the circumstances of his death.  Similar gatherings, discussions, and shows of solidarity occurred when the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed; and again and again during the Second Intifada and when Israel launched its wars on Gaza in 2008-9, 2014, and 2023. What other ethnic group in America expresses this much solidarity with the nation of its heritage? Why should we be surprised that there is a nearly universal identification of Jews with Israel?

What other national, ethnic, or religious group in the United States offers its citizens regular “birthright” tours to the homeland? What other national, ethnic, or religious group praises its members for “making Aliyah” (returning to Israel and becoming a citizen)? What other national, ethnic, or religious group practically excommunicates its members for refusing to identify with the nation of their heritage?

The Jewish Federations

While in the past decade we have seen the establishment of anti-Zionist synagogues and a growing popularity of anti-Zionist organizations such as the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) they are regarded with contempt and animosity by Jewish mainstream organizations. Indeed, JVP was listed by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as one of the top ten anti-Israel groups in the United States in October 2023 and is described on its website as a group of radical fanatics unrepresentative of Jewish society in the United States and elsewhere, partly responsible for the rise of ‘antisemitism’. Indeed, Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the ADL recently condemned JVP (and other pro-Palestinian student groups) as ‘campus proxies of Iran’. Rather than engage critically with ideas set forth by JVP, the ADL and other Jewish organizations simply list them as warning signs; as part of a ‘woke’ ideology to be regarded with fear and trepidation.

Jewish Voice for Peace is a radical anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activist group that advocates for the boycott of Israel and eradication of Zionism. JVP does not represent the mainstream Jewish community [and its] staunch anti-Zionist positions place it squarely in opposition to mainstream American Jews and Jews worldwide, most of whom view a connection with Israel as an integral part of their social, cultural or religious Jewish identities. JVP promulgates the view that Jews who identify even tangentially with Israel are motivated by white supremacy, Jewish racial chauvinism and religious supremacism. The spread of JVP’s most inflammatory ideas can help give rise to antisemitism.

Locally, I and other members of JVP-Tucson were met with social isolation from the mainstream Jewish community when we tried to find a venue to host the orthodox Jewish journalist and university professor Peter Beinart to come and speak on the current crisis in Gaza. The Assistant Director at the University of Arizona Hillel, Kelsey Jannerson, informed me that “Hillel International’s policies include a clause about not working with anti-Zionist organizations,” and when another member secured a venue at the local Tucson Jewish Community Center in January 2024, she received a letter in early February informing us that we’d have to find someplace else. “The J does not host anti-Zionist groups, so therefore we won’t be able to accommodate JVP,” Noah Osten, the Special Programs and Events Specialist, wrote on stationery with the big words, “Everyone Belongs” emblazoned on it. The irony apparently escaped him.

The Tucson Jewish Community Center, like many such community centers across the country is loosely controlled by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) which is affiliated with a branch of the over 400 Jewish Federations, themselves represented by the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA). The JFNA boasts that it is “one of the top 10 charities on the continent” listing lobbying in Washington DC as among its primary activities and noting that it partners “with the government of Israel and a variety of agencies to secure the Jewish State.”

As a charitable organization for the benefit of local and national Jewish communities, the JFNA’s activities in North America should be commended. As a partner with the government of Israel and agencies whose job is “to secure the Jewish State” its actions and policies should be closely examined and seriously questioned. What exactly does this mean? How would Americans feel knowing, for example, that a Chinese American organization was partnered with the Chinese government and worked with agencies to “Secure the Chinese State,” or that a Venezuelan American organization was partnered with the Venezuelan government and agencies to “secure the Venezuelan State.” Are Israel’s alleged interests really the same as the United States’?  Even if they were, would that make it all right for a major American Jewish organization to be working separately with the Israeli government?

It is both wrong and dangerous to assume that Jewish individuals are somehow agents of Israel, approving of its policies and supporting it unconditionally. I wouldn’t want to be the target of anti-Israel protesters simply because I am Jewish any more than I would wish to be the target of anti-Americanism overseas simply because I hold an American passport. I have been a vocal critic of US foreign policy for decades.

I have also been an anti-Zionist and vocal critic of Israel and of its illegal occupation and treatment of the Palestinians since the early 1980s. So far, however, while the American government hasn’t blacklisted me or revoked my citizenship for speaking out against its actions, I cannot say the same about the established American Jewish community or the Israeli government, and there are many American Jewish critics of Israel who have experienced far worse than anything I have ever undergone. But whose fault is it that many people see non-Israeli Jews as representatives of Israel when organizations such as the JFNA, the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish National Fund do everything possible to reinforce that bond?

We must also not forget the giant lobby group, AIPAC, whose control over Israel policy has been almost sacrosanct for years. Claiming to want to encourage bipartisan support “to strengthen and expand the US-Israel relationship,” AIPAC has begun spending millions of dollars on US domestic elections to unseat any candidate who does not support Israel. In 2021, AIPAC set up a super PAC (political action campaign), the United Democracy Project, that pours money into primaries in order to try to block any candidate it deems insufficiently supportive of Israel from getting into office. It will often promote information critical of a candidate (on any topic) that might be seen as hurting that candidate’s chances of being elected.

Most people have no idea that behind its massive spending campaigns is the singular issue of support for Israel. One wonders how the American public would feel about any PAC, united with a foreign government, spending millions to defeat candidates because they don’t support that foreign government – but keeping that underlying motive hidden.

What does this say about the state of established American Jewry and Israel? If both are guilty of prejudice against me and those who share my anti-Zionist beliefs, are they ‘antisemitic’? Apparently, being an ‘acceptable’ Jew involves sharing a political belief in the centrality of Israel and of the unconditional support it receives from the American political establishment. Are anti-Zionist Jews no longer ‘Jewish’ for objecting to the slaughter of tens of thousands of human beings who wish to live freely on their own land?

At the turn of the 20th century, the Mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, was known for having said, “I decide who is a Jew.” This is the political atmosphere in which pro-Palestinian anti-Zionist Jews are living today; one in which the Jewish Federation of North America and its allies ‘decide’ who is and is not rightfully ‘Jewish’ and ‘antisemitic’. Their motto ought to be “We decide who is an antisemite.” It is a cynical, self-serving and highly opportunistic play for power dictated by narrow – and dangerous – political interests.

“Gaza Must Be Destroyed”

I am setting out for the new encampment at the University of Arizona. I have many reasons for wanting to express my solidarity with it. Pouring over my memories of Gaza, I think back to the many occasions I shared with friends and colleagues there. I remember the first spring I spent there.

On a bright April afternoon in 2002 I left Gaza City for Beit Hanoun, further north, to have dinner at a coworker’s home. Stepping out of a taxi, I had to make the last part of that trip by foot to reach his place. In so doing, I passed through an orchard of orange trees whose white flowers were in full bloom. This memory will never leave me. There were petals falling from the trees, scattering on the ground like snow, and a sweet perfume of orange blossoms filled air like an ethereal liquid. Around me was a beauteous and vivid silence as though one were passing through a patch of paradise. I wanted to capture the moment forever.

Anwar lived in a low, modest pair of rooms with his wife, five children, and elderly mother.  They fed me as if I’d never eaten before, offering me dish after dish of warm, freshly cooked chicken and fish surrounded by spiced vegetables in savory sauces. I ate until I thought I would burst, and stayed until dusk, making my way back (accompanied by the oldest son) to the road where a taxi returned me to my home in the Rimal district of Gaza City.

These memories are especially poignant for me now, for only two years later, in 2004, the orchard had been savaged by Israeli saws, which cut them down to their skinny trunks, claiming the need for better visibility into a ‘nest of terrorists’. Nothing of that swathe of paradise remains.

Ten years later, in 2014, during Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Anwar led his family to a safer place above the offices where he worked in Gaza City. Beit Hanoun, close to the border with Israel, often felt the brunt of these attacks, so many of its inhabitants fled for the duration of this campaign. During an Israeli-declared temporary ceasefire, however, Anwar returned to check on his home and collect any valuables they had left behind. Inside, he noticed the water had stopped running from the faucet of his kitchen sink, and outside a small group of men gathered around a water pipe to try to restore it. Anwar joined them to see if he could help. But a group of men together is an invitation for the US-supplied Israeli death machines to cut them down, and a helicopter gunship fired a missile into the group fatally wounding Anwar, who died an hour later at the Kamal Adwan hospital, the contents of his abdomen spilling out onto a gurney.  Anwar was a simple, apolitical man who had never belonged to any organization or political party.

Ten years passed again, and in 2024 Beit Hanoun is a stronghold of the Israeli military. Farmland, homes, orchards, and shops have been left scorched, bombed, and plundered; devoured by a ravenous beast. Little remains of the place I once visited as a welcomed guest. Further south, Gaza City also lies in ruins. The upscale Rimal district, whose streets I once traversed, has been wiped off the face of the earth. The space it once occupied has turned into a moonscape; a miniature Hiroshima with nothing but the grey wreckage of past life to remind its former inhabitants of their home.

This image is repeated across the Gaza Strip, down to Rafah, which waits in silent agony for a similar fate. Only the sea to the west survives; the sea, where buried history laughs aloud and laps the shores, wondering when it will swallow the carnage whole.

Jennifer Loewenstein is a former associate director of Middle Eastern studies and senior lecturer of Middle Eastern history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



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