Since the eruption of horrific violence in Israel/Palestine in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israeli communities enveloping Gaza, American Jews have mobilized, raising a voice against weaponizing their grief and the legacy of the Holocaust.
Last Friday, they disrupted the evening rush in Grand Central Station in New York City. Hundreds of Jews flooded the station with an impressive performance of civil disobedience, unfurling signs that read “Ceasefire Now,” “Not in Our Name,” and “Never Again for Anyone.” This was the latest action in a concentrated mobilization, strategized mainly by Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. And on Oct. 18, at least 300 activists were arrested in a Jewish-led rally in the U.S. Capitol that called for an immediate ceasefire.
Such organizing is noteworthy for disrupting how the Holocaust can be deployed to rationalize and spin offense and revenge as defense and “humanitarian” assault on military targets, a spin contradicted by reports and images emerging from Gaza. The American Jewish activists acknowledge the pain, horror and mourning we all feel about Hamas’s murderous spree. However, we understand that the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not start on that day.
My in-depth interviews with Jewish critics of Israeli policies have shown a long process of unlearning a narrative about how tanks and bombs would make them safe and shield them against another Holocaust. Many of them became acutely aware of the realities of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the devastation of Gaza throughout the prolonged blockade and cyclical wars. They were ethically outraged. They refuse that such acts of structural and direct violence be done in their name. Therefore, they underscore “Not in Our Name” while reimagining what it means to be Jewish.
American Jewish critics mobilized both as Americans, whose tax dollars underwrite the military escalation, and as Jewish people, whose own genocide during WWII was summoned in the representation by the president of the United States and his secretary of State, echoing Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric. Biden said emphatically, “Hamas’ sole purpose is to kill Jews.” This statement, in conjunction with the horrors depicted in clips taken on Oct. 7, is certainly triggering, especially when combined with the Islamophobic tropes of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, replete with references to a “clash of civilizations” and “axis of evil.”
Like the “war on terror” paradigm, the “war on Hamas” argument relies on cultural and religious reductionism devoid of historical and geopolitical analyses — i.e., reducing the question of causality (why did Oct. 7 happen?) to Hamas’s identity. Like in 2001, such a culturalist argument is profoundly ahistorical and simplistic and, in its dualistic simplicity, generates catastrophic militaristic Manichean responses rather than political negotiations, reassessments and interrogations of root causes — namely, turning Gaza into prison, a prolonged occupation, and the original event of the Nakba, which is what Palestinians call the catastrophic uprooting in 1948 that created the first wave of 750,000 refugees, many of which ended up in Gaza.
Hamas’s assault and its framing through the Nazi analogy, calling Hamas Nazis who want to kill Jews-qua-Jews, allowed Netanyahu and the messianic members of his coalition to reset the definitional use of the Holocaust as a justification for another Nakba, which some of them actively promoted prior to the attack. American Jewish critics of the war disrupt binaries. They refuse Israel’s claims that it represents them and that their U.S.-backed assault on civilians in Gaza, combined with an intensification of settlers’ violence in the West Bank, makes them safer as Jews.
The American Jewish critics who engage in ferocious acts of civil disobedience refuse what they interpret as an exclusionary valuing of human life. This, they say, is the wrong lesson of the Holocaust. Jews will not be free and safe until everyone else who struggles is free and safe. As their slogan reads, “Never Again for Anyone.”
Atalia Omer is a professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of “Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians” (The University of Chicago Press, 2019).
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