As the death toll from the Israeli assault on Gaze rises to horrifying levels, with bombing attacks on even hospitals and refugee camps, protests against those policies have also increased, both in the US and around the world. Many of the critical voices in the US have been Jewish.
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.
Young people have been the most critical. In response, apologists for the Israeli actions, spearheaded by a group known as StandWithUs, have targeted the campus protests, urging university authorities to crack down on the protests.
IN FRONT OF Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library, seven infant-sized bundles of white cloth rested on the steps, splattered with red paint. Behind the swaddles, plywood boards read “10,600 lives slaughtered,” “4,412 children,” and “let Gaza live,” alongside images of Palestinian flags and olive trees.
This was the scene where Columbia students gathered last Thursday for a “peaceful protest art installation” and demonstration organized by the campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. Hundreds of students demanded that Columbia publicly call for a ceasefire in Gaza, divest its endowment from corporations complicit in Israeli apartheid, and end its academic programs in Tel Aviv.
The next day, Gerald Rosberg, chair of the Special Committee on Campus Safety, announced Columbia had suspended its chapters of JVP and SJP through the end of the semester, citing an “unauthorized event” that “included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” The announcement quickly drew widespread criticism, including from hundreds of Jewish faculty who denounced the “vague allegations” that served as grounds for the suspensions.
Earlier this month, StandWithUs sent an open letter to thousands of universities addressed to the general counsel and vice president of student affairs, outlining actions colleges could take to ensure compliance with Title VI. The group’s recommendations include requiring student identification cards at protests, monitoring university communication channels for “biased statements about Israel,” and investigating student groups for ties to Hamas. The group has also sent a surge of direct letters urging administrators to clamp down on specific Palestine solidarity campus events.
According to Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, the groups tend to target “pretty mundane examples of pro-Palestine expression … because that’s precisely what these organizations are trying to get rid of.” But as Israel’s military assault over the past month has become “increasingly indefensible for the pro-Israel forces,” it’s spurred a new wave of Title VI threats.
“That’s what’s motivating the strategy to try to raise the stakes of Palestinian expression and organizing by getting universities to try to crack down on it,” said Saba. “If you can’t win the debate because the facts aren’t in your favor, it’s pretty sensible to try to stop it altogether.”
Meanwhile, many members of the Jewish community are resisting these groups’ efforts to conflate Judaism and Zionism, noting that their faith inspires resistance to injustice, not blanket support for a regime.
“A lot of institutions across the country, and also at the university, have pushed this idea of a hegemonic Jewish community that all shares the same political beliefs,” said Rafi Ash, a Brown University sophomore who was one of 20 Jewish students arrested during a November sit-in at an administrative building organized by BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now. “We all have been kind of disturbed by the ways in which a Jewish identity has been twisted in a way that makes it political.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has begun to take legal action over the First Amendment rights of Palestinian solidarity protesters.
“We are in touch with many, many, many student groups across the country, and we are seeing a pattern of heightened scrutiny and suppression,” said Saba. “Fortunately, despite the mass suppressive effort, students are continuing to organize, continuing to speak out, and are refusing to be silenced. We’re seeing one of the largest upsurges in pro-Palestine organizing and demonstration that we’ve ever seen.”
There has been increasing international condemnation as well, especially in Latin America.
Bolivia’s move comes after the former president Evo Morales called for his country to sever ties with Israel because of the “horrific situation facing the Palestinian people”. Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, earlier this month, Morales demanded Israel be classified as a “terrorist state” and for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and “his accomplices” be denounced to the international criminal court for genocide and war crimes.
Bolivia previously broke off relations with Israel in 2009 after the county’s invasion of the Gaza Strip but re-established ties in 2020 under the rightwing president Jeanine Áñez.
That is not all.
Colombia’s leftwing president, Gustavo Petro, recently likened Israel’s actions to those of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, drawing a rebuke from Israel’s foreign ministry, which accused him of putting Jewish lives in danger and encouraging “the horrific acts of Hamas terrorists” with his “hostile and antisemitic statements”.
The Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, last week criticised what he called “the insanity of the prime minister of Israel [in] wanting to destroy the Gaza Strip but forgetting that there aren’t just Hamas soldiers there but also women and children who are the big victims of this war”.
“Just because Hamas committed a terrorist act against Israel, it doesn’t mean Israel has to kill millions of innocent people,” Lula added in another interview.
On Tuesday evening, after reports that dozens had been killed by Israeli airstrikes at a refugee camp in northern Gaza, Lula tweeted: “For the first time, we are witnessing a war in which the majority of the dead are children … Stop! For the love of God, stop!”
Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric, announced he had recalled his country’s ambassador in Tel Aviv to discuss the “unacceptable violations of international humanitarian law” he said Israel was committing in the Gaza Strip. Boric said the more than 8,000 civilian victims of Israel’s offensive – most of them women and children – demonstrated that the military operation represented the “collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza”.
Kurt Hackbarth explains why Latin America has been in the forefront.
Rather than an innate attraction to terrorism, as this clumsy bombast would have one believe, sympathy for the Palestinian cause in Latin America can be explained by two fundamental reasons: a historical sympathy for oppressed and colonized peoples, along with Israel’s own history in the region as a proxy for US interests.
Israel has supported a laundry list of the worst names in recent Latin American history, including Rafael Trujillo, Augusto Pinochet, Luis García Meza, Efraín Ríos Montt, Anastasio Somoza, and Jorge Rafael Videla. In effect, it has acted as a convenient wrap-around for inconvenient restrictions, as when it trained, armed, and provided intelligence to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile — in the process, becoming its largest arms supplier — during a time of US embargo. It also kept the arms flowing to Nicaragua and El Salvador during similar embargoes there, and in the case of Honduras during the military regimes of the ’70s, provided advanced American weaponry despite US laws banning third-country transfers of military equipment.
It provided “counterinsurgency” training to Costa Rican police at a time when that was also banned in the United States, provided arms and other materiel to the military junta in Argentina despite the fact that a substantial number of its victims were Jewish, assisted in the “Palestiniazation” of the Maya population in Guatemala, and armed both the army and right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia. With memories of dictatorships and state-sponsored massacres still fresh in the region, these interventions are not easily forgotten.
For at a critical moment in the history of this century, it is Latin America — and not the United Nations, European Union, or any other international organization that purports to act in the interests of peace — that is taking the humanitarian lead on the world stage.
The US is increasingly isolated because of its refusal to take effective steps to stop the widespread killing of Palestinians, even though it is the one country that has sufficient clout to do something.