The demonstrators who gathered in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 18, 2023, brought a scene unfamiliar to American politics.
Their occupation of a main hall in a Congressional building drew comparisons to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when supporters of President Trump stormed Capitol Hill. However, this protest differed significantly from what President Trump and his loyalists advocated.
Most of these protesters were Jewish and held liberal political beliefs. They were politically active and used various media platforms to promote their messages. Despite these differences, their political slogans were focused on stopping the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
This has left many political commentators perplexed, as it marks a departure from the typical strong support for Israel among American Jews following events like Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7.
These protesters are now challenging both the Biden administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in their military campaign against the Gaza Strip and its Palestinian inhabitants.
Palestinian Lives Matter
Several explanations have been offered to understand why these protesters have taken this stance. Some suggest they may be experiencing an identity crisis, not strongly adhering to their Jewish religion. However, it’s important to note that in America, religious beliefs are often considered a very personal matter, and many people choose to keep their religion as a private experience.
Some Jewish protesters have gone further, denouncing the Israeli occupation and showing support by modifying the slogan “Black Lives Matter” into “Palestinian Lives Matter.” Some even justify the Palestinian resistance in its various forms. They argue that Israel’s retaliation against the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 should not be unrestrained, challenging what they see as an unwavering pro-Israel stance among American Jews.
These views may signal a broader shift within the Jewish American community. A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 60% of American Jews surveyed believed there could be a peaceful coexistence between Israel and an independent Palestinian state.
Some American Jews feel genuine concern and sympathy for the Palestinians, which was evident in the statements of Jewish activists during the Capitol Hill demonstration. They believe it is their duty to speak up when they perceive acts of oppression, much as they wish others had done during historical instances of Jewish persecution. Some even criticise what they see as fearmongering among Jews, emphasising concerns like Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian sentiment.
Biden's endorsement of Israel’s actions
A prominent organisation representing these dissenting voices is known as Jewish Voice for Peace, which released a statement asserting that “Israeli apartheid and occupation — and United States complicity in that oppression — are the source of all this violence.”
However, it’s worth noting that not all Jewish organisations or individuals within these organisations oppose Israel’s policies towards Gaza, and there is criticism directed at the anti-Israel groups.
Changes are occurring within the American Jewish community, including a shift in the degree of attachment to Israel, particularly among younger American Jews. According to a Pew survey, only 48% of American Jewish adults under 30 reported having an emotional attachment to Israel, a decrease from 60% in 2013.
Regarding the current crisis in Gaza, it remains uncertain how far these Jewish American organisations will go in opposing Israel’s policies should the Netanyahu government launch a Ground offensive against the Strip. However, it’s clear that they oppose the Biden administration’s wholehearted endorsement of Israel’s actions in Gaza and could become a significant opposition movement against the Gaza War.
Political analysts have noted a lack of harmony in the relationship between President Joe Biden and the growing and strong Progressive wing within the Democratic Party. Disagreements between Biden and some American Jews who traditionally vote Democratic are part of a larger issue encompassing various conflicting perspectives between Biden and the Progressives, including on matters such as Medicare, oil drilling, and budgetary allocations.
The Gaza War is one manifestation of these disagreements. While Jewish progressives have not been able to change Biden’s position on the war in Gaza thus far, only time will reveal whether they can succeed in doing so.
Maria Maalouf is a journalist, broadcaster of the Capitol Talkshow from Washington DC, Founder of Capitolinstitute.org, media fellow of the Gold institute, board member of Gusi peace Prize, Ambassasor of people Authorised foundation for peace NY. She holds an MA in Political Sociology from the University of Lyon. X: @bilarakib