Jewish Americans Opposing Israeli Occupation Face Tensions Closer to Home

They gathered on a recent evening outside of the offices of both New York senators, huddling around cardboard coffins symbolizing Palestinians recently killed at the Gaza border.

They sang popular protest songs and religious hymns.

Eventually one of the protesters, Eliana Fishman, stepped forward to address the two dozen or so people crowding the busy Midtown sidewalk.

“We are calling on Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to speak out against the violence that Israel has perpetuated against Palestinian protesters,” said Ms. Fishman, 29, who recently completed a master’s degree program at Columbia. “It’s completely unacceptable that you have stayed silent.”

Ms. Fishman does not fit the typical profile of an activist who believes the state of Israel has been systemically oppressing Palestinians with hostile policies.

She was raised by Jewish parents, who taught her that Israel was their homeland. She attended Jewish Day Schools for 13 years, spent 10 of her summers at Orthodox Jewish camps and speaks fluent Hebrew.

Ms. Fishman is among a growing number of young American Jews actively seeking to persuade others in the Jewish community to end their support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

While there have long been American Jews who have argued against the occupation, activist groups and academics said their numbers have increased with the election of President Trump, and more recently, with the relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

As American officials attended a celebration at the embassy opening in mid-May, more than 100 Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli soldiers opened fire at the Gaza border, pouring fuel on the fire for critics of the occupation.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been a complicated ordeal for advocates on both sides. It has been particularly challenging for people like Ms. Fishman, who must navigate the tensions within their own families and communities.

When Ms. Fishman first took a stance against the occupation, family members mocked her, she said. She has had tense discussions with her father and at times has felt out of place at her own synagogue.

“Finding community with people who share my politics has been very crucial, and has made me braver to confront my community,” Ms. Fishman said. “It’s always a risk. I know that with one comment I can have a room full of people thinking I’m the enemy, and it has happened before.”

Ms. Fishman’s father, David Fishman, 67, said he aligned himself with more mainstream Jewish political views, which assert that Israel should maintain control of its territories as a Jewish homeland. Yet he also believes Israel should proactively work to address social inequality, he said.

“I am very proud of her,” Mr. Fishman said of his daughter. “But I think that she is not sensitized to the needs that Jews have felt and still feel, with the exception of the younger generation, about their basic insecurity in the world.”

Ms. Fishman said she grew up believing that the state of Israel was central to the Jewish identity. Her education was often tinged with anti-Arab racism, she said.

“The narrative that I was taught about Palestinians, if I was taught about them at all, was that they are all violent and wanted to kill Jews,” Ms. Fishman said. “Everything that the Israeli military did — and of course the Israeli military was the most moral army in the world — was for security.”

Ms. Fishman’s politics changed over time. An important turning point, she said, was when she was in college and studied the works of Sahar Khalifeh, a Palestinian feminist writer, and learned that the manuscript of Ms. Khalifeh’s first book had been confiscated by the Israeli authorities in the 1970s.

With books such an important part of Jewish culture, she said she was shocked by “the idea that the Israeli military acted in the name of the Jewish people and seized someone’s book.”

For Ms. Fishman, the last straw came when she was studying abroad in Morocco a few years ago and she asserted to a friend that Israel had a right to exist. The friend asked her what it meant for a country to have “a right to exist,” she said, and she did not have an answer. The moment solidified her belief that she could not personally justify Israel’s existence.

She has since spent time with Palestinians in the West Bank and joined IfNotNow, a national organization of Jewish Americans opposed to Israeli occupation.

The organization, which was founded in 2014, said its national membership tripled to about 1,700 people in the first four months after Mr. Trump was elected. The violence at the Gaza border in mid-May extended the organization’s online reach by 20 percent, said Yonah Lieberman, a co-founder.

Although groups like IfNotNow may be growing, they remain dwarfed in size and influence by powerful mainstream Jewish institutions like The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The committee, which believes that it is in the best interests of the United States to support the state of Israel, holds an annual policy conference that has drawn influential speakers such as Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Traditional Jewish groups like the committee have expressed their concern that Jews advocating for the rights of Palestinians are not firmly rooted in Jewish-American communities, said David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California-Los Angeles.

“There’s a lot of toxicity in the community about what’s legitimate in Israel discourse today,” said Mr. Myers, who is also the director of the Center for Jewish History in New York. “We’re in a very polarizing time. It’s a reflection, I think, both of the political culture of Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu, and in the United States in the Trump era.”

Differences between American Jews on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often generational. Mr. Fishman, for instance, comes from a generation with painful memories of the Holocaust and of other anti-Semitic atrocities.

“I respect the Palestinian desire for independent territory,” Mr. Fishman said. “I know that they feel like they’ve gotten a bad deal through the Zionist enterprise. But history isn’t always fair. There are many Arab states and only one Jewish state, and I’m not about to contemplate giving that up in favor of a bi-national state, or at least one that is not a Jewish state.”

About four years ago, on Israel Independence Day, Mr. Fishman said, Eliana wanted to organize a minyan, a Jewish prayer quorum, at the family’s home. Ms. Fishman told him that as part of the prayer, she wanted to mention the Nakba, a term that refers to the Palestinian expulsion from territories they once had occupied.

Mr. Fishman said he would not object if she wanted to commemorate the Nakba on any other day of the year. But he would not allow her to do so on the day they celebrated Israeli Independence in their home, he said.

Moments like these have left Ms. Fishman feeling conflicted.

She said she has walked out of her synagogue when a prayer was being said for the state of Israel. When people offer Hebrew greetings on Israel Independence Day, she said it makes her uncomfortable because she does not feel it is a holiday to celebrate.

“I can’t imagine separating my life from the American-Jewish community,” she said. “But right now, there’s nowhere for me.”

This post has been updated to correct the name of a protester, Eliana Fishman. She is 29, not 27.