A Long History of Antifascism Is Driving the Jewish Demand for Gaza Cease-Fire

Crystallizing the deep history of antifascist Jewish resistance, progressive Jews across the United States marked the final night of Chanukah by shutting down bridges in at least eight cities.

Sarah Jaffe

More than 300 Jews and allies blocked the Washington Street bridge in Chicago on Thursday night. It was one of at least seven other similar actions across the United States. Paul Goyette

Last night was the eighth and final night of Chanukah, and progressive Jews in the United States spent it locking arms to shut down eight bridges in eight different cities to demand an immediate and permanent cease-fire in Gaza.

“We will not allow the narrative of Jewish liberation, which is only possible with the liberation of all oppressed people, to be co-opted by the extreme right wing that dominates American political discourse.”—Nate Cohen

More than 300 protesters shut down the Washington Street bridge in Chicago and about a dozen who stood their ground were arrested. The action was replicated in Seattle, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington D.C., Minneapolis and Atlanta, with protesters bringing massive Chanukah menorahs and candles to turn the festival of light into a nationwide demand for peace. 

In Washington, D.C. their banner read NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE”; in the Twin Cities the banners declared From the Jordan River to the Mississippi, Land Back”; in Seattle the old cry from the alter-globalization movement turned to new meaning: The Whole World is Watching.”

As American Jews, we refuse to allow business to continue as usual while bombs are still falling on the innocent civilians of Gaza,” says Nate Cohen of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). We will not allow the narrative of Jewish liberation, which is only possible with the liberation of all oppressed people, to be co-opted by the extreme right wing that dominates American political discourse.”

The Chicago action was organized by Jews and allies with Jewish Fast for Gaza, IfNotNow and JVP, and along with the other cities on Thursday night, they were the latest of what may be hundreds of Jewish-led actions for peace in the past months as Israeli bombs (many made in and funded by the United States) continue to level homes, schools, mosques and hospitals in Gaza.

A Thursday night Chanukah vigil was held in Chicago by Jewish Voice for Peace, Jewish Fast for Gaza and IfNotNow. Following the vigil, hundreds of Jews and allies shut down the Washington Street bridge. Paul Goyette

The demand for an immediate cease-fire comes as more than 18,000 Palestinians, including at least 6,600 children, have been killed in the relentless bombing — and Israeli leadership, backed by the U.S. government, tells us this is necessary, that this is happening in order to keep Jewish people safe. At President Joe Biden’s own White House Chanukah party days ago, he declared Were there no Israel, there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world that is safe.”

They have also been part of an even longer Jewish tradition of antiracism and antifascism, one that spans continents and decades, even a century.

Yet even as Biden spoke, Jewish activists outside his doors had chained themselves to the fence demanding an end to the violence. The 18 elders arrested that day, the hundreds protesting last night, were just some of the thousands of Jews, in the United States and across the world, who have taken action and stood with Palestinians, declaring that their safety is bound together, that justice cannot be built on the back of injustice. They have been a node in a broad anti-racist coalition, built in the last decade, challenging state violence from Palestine to Minneapolis, Cop City to the border wall, and fighting the growth of far-right and fascist politics in country after country.

They have also been part of an even longer Jewish tradition of antiracism and antifascism, one that spans continents and decades, even a century. Yet, in addition to being abused by police and state authorities, political leaders across the board have all too often erased them from the conversation, saying that the pro-peace, pro-Palestine protests are antisemitic,” hate marches.” The White House has joined in on this front, with Biden spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre invoking neo-Nazis who were part of the 2017 Unite the Right” weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, when asked about the Palestine marches.

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In response, Charlottesville activists who were there the night white supremacists marched, carrying torches and chanting Jews will not replace us,” issued a statement: We were horrified to see President Biden’s spokesperson draw a false comparison between the Nazis who attacked us, and the millions of people protesting in the streets for a cease-fire and Palestinian liberation,” and We must be clear: We who stood against hate in Charlottesville are also vehemently against the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people. We refuse to have our experiences exploited to delegitimize protesters calling for a cease-fire.”

Sophie Schectman is one of the people who stood against the fascist presence in Charlottesville that night, and to her, it is outrageous” that the White House would make such a comparison. I spoke with Sophie, her sister Rebecca Schectman, and Caroline Bray, all of whom faced down antisemitic, white supremacist protesters as part of a broad antifascist coalition in Charlottesville, and all of whom attended the national march for Palestine in Washington D.C. on November 42023

“We had to stand up and be present in the streets. And it's the same thing right now. I think particularly as Jews, we have to call out violence, apartheid and genocide that's happening in the name of Jews and American Jews.”—Rebecca Schectman

Their reasons for doing so, they tell me, were the same reasons they stood against the fascists who came to their hometown in 2017: a commitment to fight white supremacy, wherever it shows up.

In 2017, Rebecca says, many people suggested that they stay home, ignore the Right’s incursion into their town, but they refused; instead, they put their bodies on the line and faced down the fascists. We had to stand up and be present in the streets. And it’s the same thing right now. I think particularly as Jews, we have to call out violence, apartheid and genocide that’s happening in the name of Jews and American Jews.”

Elder activists with Jewish Voice for Peace chain themselves to the fence of the White House to protest the genocide in Gaza on December 11, 2023. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Laura Goldblatt, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and also one of the organizers of the anti-racist protests against Unite the Right, tells me that the degree to which antisemitism is bound up in lots of other identity-based hate” became clear to her in that moment in 2017. That antisemitism is rising still, alongside Islamophobia — or, she notes, people’s willingness to voice feelings that they perhaps have harbored for a long time” is increasing — speaks to the ways that the fates of Jewish and Muslim people are intertwined rather than opposed.

That the Biden administration is so eager to align itself with the antifascists in Charlottesville as long as it serves to denounce protesters for Palestine speaks to its misunderstanding of today’s political alliances. As historian Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, explains, the existence of anti-Zionist Jews, or even just Jewish critics of the Israeli government, seems impossible for them to fathom, despite a long tradition of complicated relations to the idea and reality of Israel among Jewish communities. Even the administration’s understanding of Charlottesville, he notes, is a very depoliticized, sanitized one-dimensional version” of what the Schectmans, Goldblatt, Caroline Bray, and so many others were resisting.

The presence of a vocal, proudly Jewish, action-oriented movement for justice for Palestinians is not new in this moment, but it is larger than ever, precisely because of the organizing of the Donald Trump years, from the early inauguration protests through Charlottesville and the George Floyd uprising. IfNotNow, one of those Jewish organizations, was founded a few years before Trump’s election with a mission to transform the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation into a call for freedom and dignity for all,” according to Eva Borgwardt, the organization’s current political director. The organization’s philosophy was centered in Hillel’s three questions: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

What this means to them, Borgwardt says, is that a Jewish liberation movement must also be a Palestinian liberation movement. We need to end the occupation also to liberate Jews. And then If not now, when?’ means the way to hold Jewish and Palestinian liberation together is through taking direct action in the streets.”

What this means to IfNotNow, political director Eva Borgwardt says, is that a Jewish liberation movement must also be a Palestinian liberation movement.

The first question took on new meaning for many Jewish activists after Unite the Right because for many younger, white, secular-presenting American Jews, it was the first time that they felt materially threatened in the United States as Jews. (The Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, a year later, reinforced this threat.) A new level of solidarity with other marginalized and racialized peoples grew in the streets in places like Charlottesville — a new level of trust that others would show up to fight violent antisemitism, and that, in turn, Jews had a real stake in fighting racism and fascism everywhere. While Trump was attempting to designate Antifa” a domestic terrorist organization, police were harassing Jewish activists for their political activities. As Ari Paul noted in the last days of the Trump administration, Any attempt to vilify antifascism by nature defends fascism as a positive thing. But picking on antifascists as the scapegoat and hidden hand of the ongoing unrest is inherently antisemitic.”

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Indeed, Borgwardt notes, A really crucial way that white supremacy and white Christian nationalism plays out in this country is that it’s extremely Zionist and pro-Israel and uses a fervent support for Israel as a way to deflect and cover up its deep antisemitism. And so Jews who had been organizing for Palestinian and Jewish liberation were particularly well suited to respond in that moment.”

The Right, Rebecca Schectman notes, in fact look to Israel as an example of a state that they would like to see.” It is an ethnostate, Sophie Schectman adds, within which even Jews of color are marginalized. People like Richard Spencer, who marched in Charlottesville and openly advocates for a white ethnostate, call themselves Zionists. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a QAnon believer who previously implied that Jewish space lasers were igniting wildfires in California and has shared other antisemitic conspiracy theories, is the one who introduced the measure to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only member of Congress of Palestinian descent, claiming to defend our great friend and ally, Israel.” And Pastor John Hagee, who has a history of antisemitic remarks and writings that led John McCain to reject his endorsement in his presidential bid, can nevertheless lead an organization called Christians United for Israel and be a headliner at the recent March for Israel in Washington, D.C. These relationships aren’t one-way, either: Israeli diplomats showed up at Hagee’s megachurch after the October 7 attacks, and he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a relationship that dates back years.

John Hagee of CUFI speaking at the March for Israel in Washington D.C. on November 14, 2023. Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images

Christian Zionists believe that Jews must return to Israel in order to bring about the end times and the coming of the Messiah (Hagee suggests, in fact, that the antichrist will be partly Jewish,” as, he says, was Hitler). Understanding this connection has underscored for them that Jews must be part of a broad fight against white supremacy while understanding the specific role that antisemitism plays.

Antisemitism scholars, Borgwardt says, talk about antisemitism as part of the machine of white nationalism: It serves a specific purpose in terms of obscuring the actual sources of power.” Jews are allowed to be conditionally white when it is useful, but that whiteness can always be yanked away: the desire on the part of so many non-Jewish Zionists to evict us all and push us to Israel is not for our benefit. Jews can either cling to that conditional whiteness and hope it will serve to protect us, or stand in solidarity with everyone else targeted by the far right. After Charlottesville and the George Floyd uprising, Caroline Bray says, the choice has been made much clearer.

Jewish antifascism predates the creation of the State of Israel. Indeed, if we count the self-defense activities of the Bund, the socialist and later anti-Zionist Jewish organization founded in what is now Lithuania in 1897, as proto-antifa, it is nearly as old as political Zionism. The Bund fought pogroms across Eastern Europe while organizing labor unions, printing radical newspapers in Yiddish, and agitating for socialism. They helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Bundists scattered across the world before and after World War II; U.S. labor leader Sidney Hillman cut his organizing teeth in the Bund.

The International Brigades, who flooded to Spain to fight Franco, had many Jewish members from the United States and across Europe. Clarence Kailin, one of those volunteers, died in 2009 at age 95; he told John Nichols at The Nation, We knew who Hitler was, we knew what fascism was. We knew what antisemitism was; I’m Jewish. Here was a chance to go over there and fight back.” Kailin, like others of the International Brigades, faced police harassment when they returned home. He said, We knew that if we didn’t fight the fascists in Spain, they would keep grabbing other countries. And, of course, they did. It led to World War II. But even when we were proven right, the politicians in Washington never admitted it; they called us premature antifascists.’ Well, you know what? I can’t think of a more honorable name [than] that one.”

Jewish antifascism is a long tradition, Mark Bray explains, that has involved Jewish people who had a variety of attitudes toward Zionism. He pointed to the 43 Group as an example: Jewish World War II veterans from Britain who returned home to find antisemitism alive and well in their cities. They organized to shut down English politician Oswald Mosley’s organization, a successor to his British Union of Fascists (BUF), rebranded after the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. 

"A wide range of anti-fascists 'from bearded Orthodox Jews' to 'rough-and-ready Irish Catholic dockers' defended the barricades with paving stones that had been dislodged with pickaxes."

Part of the antisemitism they faced was fueled by British outrage at Zionist attacks on the British presence in Palestine leading up to the creation of Israel in 1948,” Bray explains. Some members of the group considered themselves Zionists, others did not, but they all fought antisemitism in the neighborhoods where they lived, in East London and elsewhere. East London had long been the site of organizing against Mosley and his ilk, and was the site of the famous Battle of Cable Street” in October of 1936, where the Jewish community and its neighbors rose up to prevent the BUF from marching in their community. Police reported 100,000 demonstrators turned out to stop the fascists; in Antifa, Bray described it thus:

The antifascists on Cable Street turned over a lorry to block the road, while others raided a nearby construction site for materials to add to a mass of mattresses and furniture. A wide range of antifascists from bearded Orthodox Jews” to rough-and-ready Irish Catholic dockers” defended the barricades with paving stones that had been dislodged with pickaxes.

The Jewish tradition, Laura Goldblatt notes, is deeply concerned with justice as an ideal. Religious and non-religious Jews alike feel drawn to this tradition, which is precisely why Jewish people have fought fascism and white supremacy on their own behalf and on behalf of others. If I am only for myself, what am I?” is such a concern for justice, Goldblatt continues; it means that Israel should not be held to a different standard because its leaders are Jewish and the soldiers invading Gaza are Jewish.

A protester at the Chicago vigil and action on Thursday, December 14, 2023 the last night of Chanukah. They are holding a sign that says "Never again to anyone." Paul Goyette

It might have been easier to bracket the issue of Zionism before the existence of the State of Israel, but in recent years, Jewish people have had a harder time ignoring it. Israeli leaders tend to speak as if they represent all Jews, and politicians in the United States encourage this. Like it or not, American Jews often feel compelled to address it. And many have, by the hundreds, in T-shirts printed by JVP that declare NOT IN OUR NAME,” sitting in at the base of the Statue of Liberty, blocking the Manhattan and Bay Bridges in New York and San Francisco and intersections in Los Angeles, praying for peace outside Congress and hunger striking outside of the White House.

Basically there are two visions, especially post-Holocaust, of what keeps Jews safe,” Borgwardt says. One is the vision of Israeli and Jewish safety where Jews can only be safe through militarization, walls, police and the caging of people who might be a threat — which is also how white Christian supremacy operates and how the United States of America approaches the question of safety.” Such a vision did not keep Jewish people or anyone else safe in Charlottesville: the police, Sophie Schectman notes, seemed to side with the Unite the Right marchers, not the antiracists. The connections are not just theoretical, they are material, Caroline Bray adds: many American police officers have been trained in Israel as part of publicly and privately funded exchange programs, and Israeli security officers have also been brought to the United States. Police, military and border patrol tactics and equipment flow both ways. Virginia’s Attorney General (AG) has recently begun collecting surplus body armor, protective gear and tactical equipment from more than 100 sheriffs’ offices across the state” to send to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The AG has also compared pro-Palestine protesters to the Unite the Right Rally.

The vision of IfNotNow, JVP, and the Charlottesville coalition is different. They are allying with and building movements with other marginalized people who are targeted by white supremacy. What that boils down to is, can we get Jewish safety directly at the expense of other people?” Borgwardt asks. Or is Jewish safety intertwined with the safety of all other people?”

“What that boils down to is, can we get Jewish safety directly at the expense of other people?” asks Eva Borgwardt of IfNotNow. “Or is Jewish safety intertwined with the safety of all other people?”

This is a vision of safety that wants to spend billions not on military aid but on affordable housing, to put money into public health rather than prisons. It is a vision of safety that goes beyond a cease-fire, beyond pushing neo-Nazis out of Charlottesville. It is built on ending displacement, whether at the point of a gun or by a bomb dropped on your home or rising rents. It is in keeping with the traditions of the Bund, as Molly Crabapple, who is writing a book on the Bund, notes: The diaspora was home, the Bund argued. Jews could never escape their problems by the dispossession of others. Instead, Bundists adhered to the doctrine of do’ikayt or Hereness.’ Jews had the right to live in freedom and dignity wherever it was they stood.” And so does everyone else.

Reflecting on those days in Charlottesville, it felt like this invasion of violent strangers into our town, who murdered somebody and injured many, many people, and then they left the next day,” Caroline Bray says. And I cannot fathom how devastating it would be to have your home invaded on such a large scale and then be displaced, to not be able to return to that place.” Palestinians who live with such unsafety, Sophie Schectman adds, have inspired her mutual aid work in the years since 2017.

The attacks on October 7 in Israel, Borgwardt says, shattered the idea that Jewish safety can ever be secured at the expense of Palestinian safety or through Palestinian suffering.” But in response, the two approaches continue to play out: a call for revenge, for the leveling of Gaza, or a call for peace, which has come not only from Palestinians or American Jews but indeed from some of the families of Israeli Jews taken hostage or killed that day.

Too many arguments for the Israeli state treat antisemitism as an eternal condition, one that cannot be defeated; as Mark Bray notes, Zionism relies on the idea that Jews can never live safely with non-Jews. This is an abdication, Borgwardt says, of the responsibility to fight antisemitism wherever it is. But Charlottesville offered another way forward. 

The way that we combat antisemitism is through community,” Goldblatt says. I think that the goal of antisemitism and anti-Islam sentiment and white supremacy is to divide groups up and to make them feel afraid and alone. And I think that when we allow ourselves to be divided, we are afraid and alone. But when we are together, when we fight for each other, when we fight with each other, we’re very powerful.”

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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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