Scenes from a Protest
On Wednesday, October 18, a reported five thousand people attended a demonstration held by progressive Jewish anti-Zionist groups Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow in Washington, D.C. They marched from the National Mall to the Capitol to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and to voice their opposition to U.S. complicity in Israeli war crimes. The action reportedly drew the largest Jewish-led pro-Palestinian crowd in history; demonstrators were addressed by Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, as well as writers Sumaya Awad and Naomi Klein and the actor Mo Amer. When they reached the Capitol complex, five hundred individuals, including over twenty rabbis, entered the rotunda of the Cannon Building to participate in a sit-in. This civil disobedience resulted in around three hundred people being arrested by the police.
Below is a compilation of reflections from one organizer and three attendees involved in last Wednesday’s historic action. They discussed their experiences and their impressions of the political strategy—or lack thereof—in Jewish-led Palestine activism, as well as the actual substance of the Jewishness espoused and how it might strengthen or impede global efforts toward a free Palestine. Their reflections provided insight about how Jewish Palestine activism might adapt to the new landscape and unique pressures of a post-October 7 anti-Zionist movement. The following conversations have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jay Saper, organizer
AI: Tell me what it was like to organize during the lead up to the JVP action on Wednesday.
JS: While it was organized in just a few days, it’s imperative to acknowledge that Wednesday’s action, the biggest ever gathering of Jews for Palestine in history, was the product of years and years of organizing together and building relationships and skills. It also came out of other actions we’d organized before, like last Friday’s [October 13], when we organized a protest of Jews in Brooklyn that marched to Senator Schumer’s home just before he headed on a plane to Israel to pledge his support to Netanyahu. We had over fifty people arrested that evening; hundreds of cops came and filled up city buses to take us to One Police Plaza. Over the past week, we’ve also been holding online power hours every day, and over a thousand people have called in to learn more about what’s happening and the actions that they can take, such as taking to the streets in massive mobilizations and also driving calls to Congress.
The morning after [the protest at Schumer’s home], I immediately got into planning the historic protest that happened this week. While what we saw on Friday was at the time the largest protest and the biggest number of Jews arrested in support of Palestinians, we knew that we had to build from there. We knew that we had to get bigger, that we had to come to D.C. to call on Congress for a ceasefire. We also knew that we needed to address the root causes of this violence: the 750,000 Palestinians forcibly displaced from their homes in the 1948 Nakba, and the people who have been subjected to occupation and apartheid every day since. So we came to D.C. because Congress has the power to pass a resolution for a ceasefire and to ultimately stop money and arms being given to the Israeli military. Congresswomen Cori Bush and Rashida Tlaib have just introduced a ceasefire resolution, and I truly believe all of the organizing and pushing that we’ve done over the past week helped create the conditions where that resolution could be introduced.
We had thousands of people come from all over the country to the National Mall to make our collective voices heard, and to call on Congress to enact a ceasefire. Naomi Klein addressed the crowd, as well as Representatives Bush and Tlaib. We also had Sumaya Awad, a Palestinian writer who has partnered with [JVP] before, come speak to us. The media has weaponized our grief and trauma, both past and present, against other people, so we gathered in unprecedented numbers to refuse that, and to say not in our name. And then we marched to the congressional offices, and there were five hundred people inside of the rotunda [of the Cannon Building]. This was led by twenty-two rabbis, who also led us in song and chant and read testimonies from people in Gaza. We made it very clear with our signs and our chanting that we were sitting in Congress until they passed this ceasefire. That message was spreading so much that even a Congressional staffer came down to join the sit-in, and to connect to a Jewishness that was deeply rooted in a commitment to justice.
Hundreds of arrests were made while thousands of people gathered outside the congressional building to cheer us on, to show the world that we will not stand idly by while a genocide occurs in real time. The same evening that the cops were hauling us off in handcuffs, more members of Congress had already started to sign on to the ceasefire resolution, and today we’re seeing a member of the State Department resigning over its support of Israel. That made it clear that transforming our grief into action has never mattered more than in this precise moment. We made it clear that our safety can never come at the cost of Palestinian freedom. And we made it clear to Palestinians, who are at the front and center of this struggle, that we are with you, and you are not alone. And we will do everything we possibly can to show up for you.
Keyian Vafai, attendee
AI: Tell me about Wednesday’s action. Why did you go?
KV: I had cascading reasons. The first demand of the protest, and the most immediate and urgent—which was visible on most signs and heard in most chants—was ceasefire. To stop dropping bombs on Gaza immediately. People have no access to food, water, power, or medicine. People are dying in the streets. It’s my belief that ceasefire is a very majoritarian popular opinion. A further reason I went is the ongoing treatment of all Palestinian people, including the causes of the military operation, like the blockade of Gaza.
AI: Is there any reason you attended a Jewish action?
KV: The main reason is logistical—Jewish Voice for Peace seemed really organized in making these [ceasefire] demands. And my girlfriend is Jewish, she’s in JVP. I’m Muslim, actually. My main organizing background is with [Students for Justice in Palestine] and New York City DSA. But I think JVP is a great org, and I wanted to go to the action as a goy.
AI: What was the action like?
KV: One of the things I noticed was the Jewish character of many of the chants. “Never again is now,” for example, is a chant specifically connected a history of Jewish genocide. There were many chants like that which were specific to being a Jewish person, and this genocide going against Jewish spiritual values. There were also interactions with congresspeople. Rashida Tlaib gave a speech which I thought was amazing and riveting. At one point, we marched to the congressional building to chant and support the people who were inside, and there were these Arab congressional aides who had gathered on the balcony who were cheering the protest on, and shouting supportive things, which made everyone go crazy. They were then escorted out by congressional security and police.
And then out comes Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is just filming and jeering and laughing. The crowd was screaming at her. There were also other congressional aides who came out of different balconies who were jeering and taunting the crowd, even some who dropped a banner out of a building that said “Let’s Go Brandon.” The police reacted very quickly to make them remove that—I think the police were afraid of opening up another “front.”
I want to say that I was very moved by the amount of people who wanted to participate in civil disobedience. I think getting arrested for a protest is a very big ask, and you’re often in jail for eight or nine hours. Even if you just get a slap on the wrist, it’s a huge commitment. I thought it was a very powerful image for America to see twenty rabbis in the rotunda [of the Cannon Building].
AI: It sounds like you had a positive experience.
KV: I would definitely say so. It can be tough to know what you’re getting into when you’re protesting, and it’s helped by there being such a clear demand: ceasefire. It’s such a basic demand. I mean, it was a victory to hear yesterday that Israel is letting in aid. And then you hear yourself saying that: that it’s a victory for Israel to have opened a corridor for aid. It’s insane, it’s dystopian. But I think the basic level of the ceasefire demand really gave us a sense of purpose and unity, and kept people going at it for five or six hours. That’s something I really took home with me, for any future protest: just how powerful a clear demand is.
AI: Did it feel significant, politically, that that demand was being spearheaded by a Jewish organization and by Jewish people who were willing to engage in civil disobedience over it?
KV: It did feel significant, and I think the slogan not in our name really captures that. I mean, Jewish people are used so cynically in this country, in an abhorrent way, to say, “Look, Israel is for these people. If you don’t support Israel, you don’t support Jewish people.” And for the biggest crowd of Jewish people in history to come out for Palestine is a huge thing. You can now point to this event, and that’s a big deal, because a lot of being a supporter of Palestine feels like—for lack of a better term—being gaslit. And now, you can point to this event and say: What about these ten thousand people that say not in my name? That is my cursory understanding of JVP’s mission; it’s really using Judaism as an identity so people can’t say that Jews think one way across the board. I don’t think it gets to the level of forming its politics from a specifically Jewish feeling, or approach. Though there is a great history of socialists using Judaism that way, and [JVP] employing it wouldn’t be a bad thing by any means.
AI: Anything else you’d like to share?
Keyian: I want to add that it just feels so good to be able to do anything at this point. Whether it’s futile or not. It’s just so good to be able to do something instead of, you know, arguing over text, or looking at social media for news updates for twelve hours. It feels good to do something with people and know that you’re not alone. Palestinian people are not alone.
Grayson Scott, attendee
AI: Tell me about the action: Why did you go?
GS: I went to the JVP action because it was in D.C., and I oppose [President Biden’s request] for [over] $100 billion in appropriations for Israel and Ukraine. I had a few objections to the ceasefire demand, on the grounds that the language of ceasefire might imply that a return to the status quo antebellum is desirable. I don’t think a ceasefire with a genocidal apartheid state is possible. These are not peer powers engaging in a symmetrical war and committing comparable military acts. I do support the demand that Israel stop aggression against Palestine.
AI: What was the action like?
GS: I got there right before Rashida Tlaib was speaking, and she did call what Israel was doing to Palestine genocide. Apart from that, it was a lot of thoughts and prayers. The chants were corny, like a moderated version of the chants you typically hear at Palestine rallies, and none of them were in Arabic, which I was surprised by, given that people in Gaza or Jenin or Amman might not be able to understand chants in English if they see videos of the action. The chants were in support of ceasefire, and the energy felt a little low until we got to the congressional building, and everyone started chanting and saying that Marjorie Taylor Greene was on the balcony. Yelling at her felt like the energetic high point of the march, which might say something about the lack of an international spirit, or a spirit of real solidarity—it wasn’t clear that we were responding to her remarks about deporting Palestine supporters, as opposed to her remarks about trans people, Ukraine, or Covid.
There was some boilerplate condemnation of both Hamas and Israel, which seemed to obfuscate the systemic devaluing of Palestinian lives, and, in a given context, could even amount to a denial of Palestinian colonization. I’m also not sure I understood the significance of all the talk about Jewish safety. One of the organizers remarked that supporting Israel didn’t make her feel safe as a Jew in America, and there were similar remarks made between the songs and the chants. I don’t want to imply that Jewish people shouldn’t feel safe in America, but it does seem like a bit of a non sequitur if we’re talking the fact that last night there were, I don’t know, like a hundred airstrikes in Gaza. That just doesn’t strike me as a liberatory framework. I guess I don’t know standing around singing songs from summer camp addresses me, a person who is here because I oppose an apartheid state and a bastion of U.S. power in the Middle East. That’s just a part of the protests I didn’t really get any traction on.
AI: Do you think there’s any political efficacy or significance in having there be a distinctly Jewish character to the action?
GS: I think it doesn’t have much strategic efficacy, but it does have tactical efficacy because of how eager people are to conflate Jewishness with Israel. My impulse is that these kinds of actions are attenuated by a lack of coalition and would have a greater appeal if its demands were made in explicit solidarity with Palestinian organizers and activists. For instance, the Bryant Park action I was arrested at was jointly organized by JVP, IfNotNow, and Palestinian groups like Adalah Justice Project, and it felt more confrontational than the action in D.C. I just don’t know that a Jewish identity action does much to contradict that conflation of Jews with Israel, which is present in the messaging we get from Eric Adams, Kathy Hochul, and even Bernie Sanders. Perhaps it is tactically valuable for Jews to say, “Look, I’m Jewish, and Jews living in Israel are doing something bad.” But I’m not sure how much condemnation works in terms of a national movement. I think Jewish identity organizing can work in local contexts: for instance, in New York, Jews for Economic and Racial Justice acting in solidarity with Black New Yorkers does have an active political valence. But the political valence of a national JVP action is ambiguous to me.
AI: Tell me about Wednesday’s action. Why did you go, and what was it like?
K: I was raised in a very strictly Zionist community and household, and I started questioning that at a pretty young age. Then I got radicalized in college by having literally one conversation with an SJP organizer. Things snowballed from there. I ended up on the steering committee of SJP. I got used to really straightforward politics, like, from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free; radical stuff about believing in one state, I got on board with that.
I found at Friday’s JVP action in New York [October 13], and on Monday night’s IfNotNow action [October 16], there was a lot of, you know, “we’re Jews, and we are grieving, but we still don’t want genocide,” which is good. But I also questioned the utility of the platform, and questioned what white tears do in the face of the ongoing Nakba.
I’ve been really angry over the last couple of weeks, and I decided that the very least I could do was find out what the arrestable action at JVP [in D.C.] would be. That was a thing that actually felt real and meaningful to me as opposed to pure optics. So I signed on, and then as I went to the in-person training for people who were willing to risk arrest, I was very impressed at the number of people that JVP managed to mobilize on short notice. As someone who’s been an organizer for many years in a variety of contexts, I know that you can plan the perfect action. The problem is getting people to show, and JVP got people to show.
On the way to the rally, I asked someone about whether we could do the Intifada, Intifada, long live the Intifada chants when we were marching down, and he kind of chuckled nervously and told me that there are a lot of Palestinian-led actions where that was more the vibe, whereas here we were going into the rotunda, where there were going to be singing rabbis. He said if that isn’t my thing, I don’t have to be a part of this, because they wouldn’t want anyone to derail an event that the organizers put so much work into making happen. As I spoke to this person, it kind of dawned on me that I was being de-escalated. And I understand on the one hand being genuinely concerned that someone is going to make things dangerous or increase the level of risk, but still, don’t de-escalate me. That left a sour taste in my mouth, and it was tough for me to get out of that headspace.
As we were beginning the action, there were singing rabbis. They reminded me less of rabbis and more of Unitarian Universalist nondenominational preachers. They were singing what we in Jewish spaces call devotional music: it’s not really prayer, not really secular, but a sort of in-between thing that draws from both prayer and folk music traditions . . . kind of like kumbaya but in Hebrew. I mean, yeah, we want peace, but situation is dire. We could at least sing some angry songs.
This really got me thinking about what it meant to be a Jewish anti-Zionist, and what it means to name your organization Jewish Voice for Peace, and basically saying that we are the Jews who care about this. Because if you are the Jews who care about this, and if you’re making being Jewish a big part of that, then I would task you to really critically engage with what Jewishness is, and to make it very clear what being Jewish means for an organization in the broader movement for Palestinian Liberation.
I felt no real connection between the Jewishness and the politics that were being espoused. Something that tied into Jewish political thought, Jewish culture, or our long proud history of Jewish revolutionary art would have gone a long way.
AI: I’m curious whether you feel there is political efficacy in the visual aspect of Jewish people putting themselves on the line for Palestine.
K: I guess it would depend on who the target audience is with these actions. In my experience, whenever I have said that I’m a Jew who condemns Israel and the Zionist project, for the most part Jews have told that I am a self-hating Jew and I should kill myself, or whatever. I want to say that I am very grateful for the patience my Palestinian Muslim comrades had with me when I was first getting into Palestine advocacy spaces, and I tried doing that as a Jew thing. They were like, okay that’s great, good for you. I guess I could see a way in which it could appeal to some white, middle-of-the-road Christians, and the majority of Zionists are white Christians. So, I’m not really sure what the political efficacy of [Jewish identity anti-Zionism] is anymore. I mean, it’s always radical to publicly take a stance that goes against the dominant narrative. But I don’t think it holds the same weight that it once did. And I think that means that we have to encourage people to really critically interrogate what their Jewishness brings to the table.
AI: What might that critical interrogation look like?
K: I think it would look like some sort of party line that these groups set up in the broader context of anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist movements. But that would require white American Jews to talk to people who aren’t white American Jews, and a lot of us don’t do that. When you’re only talking to people who look like you and have similar backgrounds, it’s very easy to fall into a mode of pulling the same one or two quotes from Isaiah, singing the same devotional music, and chanting we don’t like genocide. It’s crucial that we talk to people who don’t necessarily look like us. That would make it possible for the Jewish pro-Palestine movement to start defining its Jewishness.