‘I, Too, Am The Jewish Community’: Rift Among US Jews Widens Over Gaza War

AFTER years of searching for the right fit, Jackie Goldman was thrilled to finally join a synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island, last August. Goldman, who uses they/them pronouns, grew up in a conservative Jewish household, attended a Jewish private school as a child, and was active with Hillel, the Jewish student group, in college. As an adult, they kept kosher, but missed the rituals that accompanied being part of an organized community. “I was so excited to join,” Goldman said.

Protesters gather at New York's Grand Central to demand ceasefire in Gaza.

Those feelings quickly dissipated following Hamas’s attacks in southern Israel on 7 October and Israeli reprisals in the Gaza Strip. The violence has killed 1,400 Israelis and 9,000 Palestinians – including more than 3,000 Palestinian children – according to officials from both sides.

Goldman wanted to grieve Israeli and Palestinian deaths alike and was stunned by what they felt was a lack of empathy for Palestinian casualties on the part of their congregation. In the synagogue listserv, members characterized protests in solidarity with Palestine as violently anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, a fundraising effort for the Israeli Defense Force garnered widespread support.

With a heavy heart, Goldman left the congregation. “What now? What am I going to do for Jewish holidays in the future?” they lamented.

Across the US, Jews are facing complex emotions as they grapple with the escalating war in Israel and Gaza. Within families and congregations, on campuses, at protests and online, fissures within Jewish communities are deepening, reflecting broader divisions in public opinion over the war.

Even before 7 October, support for Israel among American Jews – who constitute the world’s second largest Jewish population after Israel – was shifting. One poll showed that while most Jews see caring about Israel as important to their Jewish identity, more than half disapprove of the country’s rightwing government. Another found that a quarter of American Jews agree Israel is an “apartheid state”, and one-fifth of those under 40 do not think the Jewish state has a right to exist.

These shifts have come with a surge in Jewish organizing on the left, with groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which have long condemned Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, at the forefront of calls for a ceasefire and an end to US support of Israel’s war on Gaza. Since the war started, Jewish activists have shut down New York’s Grand Central station and been arrested for actions like occupying the halls of Congress and rallying in front of the home of the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who is also Jewish.

Rabbi Anna Levin Rosen, who oversees the University of Chicago’s Hillel Center, says such actions are isolating to Jewish students who feel they leave little space for their grief over violence against Israeli civilians. “That horror … being embraced as a justified form of resistance, felt shocking to so many of us,” Rosen said, pointing to an incident on campus in which a rally in support of massacred Israelis was drowned out by a protest led by Students for Justice in Palestine.

“It feels even more lonely when even Jews don’t see the right for Israelis to live in peace in our homeland,” Rosen said, emphasizing that she holds an “open heart” for Jews whose primary concern is for civilians in Gaza.

He says he thinks worshipers have found the sessions productive, but also suspects that his middle-ground approach has upset some congregants on both the left and the right.

Rising incidents of both antisemitism and Islamophobia are intensifying divisions. Max Lazar, who teaches high school social studies at a Jewish day school on New York’s Upper East Side, said his students are struggling to understand how violence against Israeli citizens has led to the targeting of American Jewish neighborhoods. “Our students find it hard to understand that so many people marching for a ceasefire are not also calling for the release of Israeli hostages,” he said.

Near his apartment, also on the Upper East Side, Lazar has seen swastikas drawn on buildings, including one on the window of a historic Jewish deli.

To Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of Manhattan’s Stephen Wise free synagogue, calls for ceasefire are themselves antisemitic – he believes they hold Israel to a different standard than other countries. “The idea that of all nations in the world, Israel alone doesn’t have the right to respond in self-defense, causes many of us to pause and say, ‘What’s really going on here?’” he said

“We’ve always had in our community Jews who have forcefully disagreed with one another,” he continued. Of Jewish Voice for Peace, he said: “Many of them aren’t Jewish, by the way, and they certainly aren’t for peace.”

Jewish Voice for Peace describes itself as a “grassroots, multiracial, cross-class, intergenerational movement of US Jews”.For others, support for Palestine is deeply entwined with their Judaism.

Jay Saper, a leader with Jewish Voice for Peace, grew up hearing an aunt’s stories about living in Jim Crow Mississippi. Even after the local synagogue and rabbi’s home were bombed, the Jewish community continued its support for the civil rights movement, Saper said.

Today, that legacy inspires Saper, who studies and translates Yiddish literature, to protest in solidarity with Palestine. “My Jewishness is connected to a commitment to taking action for justice for all people,” Saper added.

Michelle Fine, a professor in psychology and urban education at the City University of New York graduate center, expresses a similar sentiment. “It’s painful for me to see censorship and silence as a Jewish practice,” she said, in reference to a crackdown on speech in support of Palestinian rights around the country. “That is not my experience of Judaism.”

Fine said that on a recent call, a university donor told her that many Jews are “very upset” about students standing with Palestine.

“The Jewish community is very diverse,” she said. “I, too, am the Jewish community.”

 This article was amended on 4 November 2023 to clarify that the death tolls cited have been reported by the relevant authorities in Israel and Gaza.