The Jewish left is grappling, sometimes painfully, with how to respond to Hamas’ attack
Israel at warProgressives in 'precarious position'

The Jewish left is grappling, sometimes painfully, with how to respond to Hamas’ attack

Some Jewish leftists have mourned the slaughter by Hamas while placing the blame squarely on Israel. 

A house where forty Israeli civilians were held hostage in Kibbutz Be’eri, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
A house where forty Israeli civilians were held hostage in Kibbutz Be’eri, October 11, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

(JTA) — In his first posts about Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians, progressive writer Joshua Leifer expressed horror at the accounts of atrocities that were emerging from southern Israel. 

He also lamented the range of progressive organizations and figures who appeared to condone or even celebrate the attack — leaving him with “a deep sense that the left abroad has lost the values it was supposed to stand for.”

“I thought we were leftists because we wanted a world without war, torture, the killing of families & children in their beds,” Leifer posted on X. “Self-professed human rights defenders, even would-be colleagues are celebrating and glorifying unspeakable acts that violate the most basic elements of human life. I feel sick.”

The thread of posts — which Leifer later expanded into an article for the left-wing journal Dissent — struck a chord among other Jews on the left. The progressive Jewish writer Peter Beinart shared Leifer’s thread, saying it “captures my feelings exactly.”

Some progressive figures and organizations, from local Black Lives Matter chapters to the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, have appeared to condone or even celebrate the massacre — which killed 1,300 people, largely civilians — as an act of resistance against an illegal occupation. Some Jewish leftists have mourned the slaughter while placing the blame squarely on Israel. 

And others who have also spent their careers opposing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory are now decrying their ideological allies’ refusal to condemn the killing of civilians — in some cases their friends or relatives.

“For the people who are most connected to people in Israel, this is a really, really hard and disheartening time,” said Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of the progressive magazine Jewish Currents. “Because what they see is people totally dismissing the value of the lives of people that they know and that they think should not be considered collateral damage.” 

At the same time, Angel said, Jewish leftists are confronting another tension: They are reckoning with the mass killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas — and also continue to oppose Israel’s occupation and airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, which the terror group governs. 

“I think this is a new moment,” she said. “If you’re talking to American Jewish leftists, there’s a split in terms of where their energy is going right now.”

She added later, “I’m very scared about the future of the left in this moment.” 

Some on the left, including at least one Jewish writer, openly celebrated the attack shortly after it began. 

On Saturday, as Hamas attackers were still in Israel, Rivkah Brown, a journalist for the U.K.’s Novara Media, posted on X that the assault should mark “a day of celebration for supporters of democracy and human rights worldwide, as Gazans break out of their open-air prison.” The New York City Democratic Socialists of America promoted a rally expressing “solidarity with the Palestinian people and their right to resist 75 years of occupation and apartheid.”

And in the immediate wake of the massacre, some left-wing Jewish organizations said blame lay with Israel. IfNotNow, which opposes Israel’s occupation, said of the murdered Israelis that “their blood is on the hands of the Israeli government, the US government which funds and excuses their recklessness, and every international leader who continues to turn a blind eye to decades of Palestinian oppression.” 

Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group, acknowledged the “unprecedented assault” and the hundreds of Israeli casualties in an Oct. 7 statement that did not mention Hamas. 

“Israeli apartheid and occupation — and United States complicity in that oppression — are the source of all this violence,” the statement said. “Inevitably, oppressed people everywhere will seek — and gain — their freedom.”

Other groups such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice tread a middle ground, saying, “We recognize that attacks on civilians by Hamas are neither justifiable nor unprovoked.”

Several days later, as the scale of the atrocities became clear, some of those activists walked back or qualified their statements. On Tuesday, New York City’s DSA said it mourned “the loss of life in the region” and apologized “for the confusion our post caused and for not making our values explicit.” It deleted its original tweet.

Brown also deleted her tweet and apologized on Wednesday. “I responded too quickly and in a moment of heightened emotion,” she said. “Witnessing Palestinians defy decades of oppression hardened me to the suffering of Israeli civilians, including my friends and family, and I regret that. I’m sorry.”

On the same day, Jewish Voice for Peace released another statement saying that it “mourns deeply for the over 1200 Israelis killed, the families destroyed, including many of our own, and fears for the lives of Israelis taken hostage.”

The group added, “the massacres committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians are horrific war crimes. There is no justification in international law for the indiscriminate killing of civilians or the holding of civilian hostages.”

On Wednesday, JVP spokesperson Sonya Meyerson-Knox said the group felt it was caught in a precarious position — fearing that public expressions of grief for Israeli civilians would fuel a harsher military response against Gaza. 

“We were feeling the incredible pressure of needing to say something that we hope addresses both our fear and our grief and our sorrow and our anger, and that doesn’t allow any of that to be used as fodder for the Israeli government and the United States government warmongering,” Meyerson-Knox said. “Many of us are feeling compelled to process our grief through a hard pivot to a prevention of a scale of death that is utterly inconceivable.”

The Israel Defense Forces has repeatedly said it abides by international law and takes measures to prevent civilian casualties, including by risking its own troops to reduce collateral damage. Human rights organizations and the United Nations have cast doubt on those claims and harshly criticized the conduct of Israel’s military, while other bodies — in addition to the United States and other allies — have defended Israeli actions. 

Angel said other activists on the Jewish left shared concerns similar to the ones expressed by Meyerson-Knox. 

“Even people who are not expressing grief right now are grieving, and it’s a question of whether they think that that grief is the most important thing, and what they think that public expression of grief is going to do,” Angel said. “People are afraid that there’s going to be a Palestinian genocide.”

The high death toll among Israelis on Saturday had forced a reckoning for some on the Jewish left, since in previous conflicts more Palestinians were killed, Angel said, though she added that the balance of casualties was shifting as Israel carried out airstrikes in Gaza.

“We have never seen Israeli casualties, at least in one event, that exceeded Palestinian casualties,” she said, stressing that she still believed the conflict is rooted in Israel’s occupation despite the death toll. “We have become practiced at answering that and at trying to help people see that. We are not practiced at a situation like this.” PJC

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