Not Every Jew is a Zionist but Their Voices are Being Silenced

09Jul13

9 June DemoMuch of the world may not know this, but there are many tens of thousands of opponents of the State of Israel living in and around New York City. And although they are vocal, their voices are being silenced.

While many of us are aware of the existence of numerous solidarity movements that regularly organize important events and demonstrations in support of Palestine in New York City and the surrounding areas, especially at universities and to coincide with annual commemorations of well-known historical crimes against the Palestinian people like Land Day and the Nakba, many of us do not know that there is also a huge community of Orthodox Jews living in and around New York City who strongly oppose Zionism and often mobilize to demand the liberation of Palestine.

But why is it that we do not know about this immense grassroots opposition to Zionism and support for Palestine among the New York area’s Jewish Community? Looking at America’s mainstream media coverage of a recent mass rally in New York City that was staged by Orthodox Jews helps us to understand how our ignorance is possible.

On 9th June, between 20,000 to 30,000 Jews held a mass rally in Foley Square in Lower Manhattan to formally oppose draft legislation approved by the Israeli Knesset that would require most Orthodox Jews to serve in the Israeli army. Speakers at the rally communicated strong opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as illustrated by this video. The first speaker makes clear that religious Jews believe that Zionists have rebelled “against G-d, who imposed on [Jews] severe oaths, not to take over the Land of Israel before the coming of the messiah. For all these years, religious Jews have been hurting and bleeding over the desecration of the holiest sites in the world.” Another speaker argues that, “there is no other army in the world as immoral as the Israeli army.” Yet another speaker decries the “evil government in the Holy Land,” while another asserts that the “mere existence of the state itself” is against both Jewish law and values, and expresses hope that their prayer for its dismantlement will soon be fulfilled.

Israeli media covered the protest and focused on the anti-Zionist message, but in a reactionary manner. The Jerusalem Post reported that “the crowd had a simple message” against the conscription of Orthodox Jews into the Israeli army, but argued that this “savvy” message obscured “the anti-Zionism that is at the heart of the protest.” And Haaretz carried a US-based report claiming that posters advertising the rally employed “highly inflammatory language against Israel and the Israeli army.”

The independent news site Mondoweiss published an accurate account of the rally arguing that, “there were strong anti-Zionist strains in the demonstration.” The report included photographs of posters that stated, “the Israeli army undermines fundamental Jewish values,” and “Orthodox Jews will proudly go to jail rather than joining the Zionist army,” as well as a flyer confirming that “the Orthodox community lived peacefully alongside the Palestinians in the 1800s. It was Zionism that gave rise to the current conflict, so they should not expect the Orthodox to deal with the problem they created.”

Unfortunately, this important article in Mondoweiss was not shared by anybody on social media, and only recommended by two readers. This is all the more disappointing because most of the mainstream media did not cover the mass rally at all, including The New York Times. And those media outlets that did cover the rally portrayed a picture of the demonstrators that is contrary to the live footage.

The New York Observer, a local newspaper viewed as liberal, quotes the World Jewish Congress, a pro-Israel organization with headquarters in New York City, which claimed that “formal speeches attempted to steer away from anti-Zionist sentiment, and protesters were asked to put away signs bearing messages against the State of Israel.” Of course the live footage and photographs prove otherwise. Furthermore, the article does not comment upon the heinous effort to restrict Jews’ freedom of speech, nor does it make the connection between the clearly expressed anti-Zionism and the demonstrators’ opposition to the draft law. Instead the article includes a strange criticism from one Jewish passerby, who remarks that, “If they don’t like Israel, don’t live there,” possibly forgetting that she and the demonstrators are living in New York City and not Tel Aviv.

And mainstream media coverage of the event was even worse.

Newsday ran a short article on the rally that was republished by The Huffington Post, however the report only mentions in passing that the demonstrators came from “two factions of Satmar Hasidim, an anti-Zionist sect,” rather than covering at length the specifically anti-Zionist content of the demonstration.

The New York Post also published a short article but without any reference to anti-Zionism.

And finally, a CNN iReport did not mention anti-Zionism either and the Israeli filmmaker who submitted the report only focused on the religious message of one of the demonstrators, obscuring the political message of the larger rally. The report features an interview with an Orthodox Jew who condemned the Israeli state for being secular, but portrays him as a religious fundamentalist who promotes violence without providing any context for his beliefs. Also unmentioned is the fact that Israel itself claims to be a “Jewish state,” as confirmed this week after coalition parties in Israel demanded that this status become law, a move that also politicizes any protest of Israel based on religious grounds. If Israel is claiming to be the State of the Jewish people, those Jews who disagree with Israeli occupation and apartheid based on religious grounds are also making a political argument. Furthermore these crimes are being committed in their name.

But how come the mainstream media so obviously silenced the Anti-Zionist Jewish community in New York City by not covering this mass rally, or by obscuring their political message when outlets did report on the demonstration?

It is not because the message was not clear. The press release announcing the demonstration clearly communicates anti-Israeli sentiment when stating that religious leaders believe “it is forbidden to assist the State of Israel in any way, including fighting in its wars,” and that “the Israeli army is known to be an environment of immorality and negligence of Jewish law, in utter contrast to the high standards of modesty and observance with which the ultra-Orthodox meticulously raise their children.”

So the question must be asked again: how is it that tens of thousands of Jews gathering for a peaceful demonstration against the State of Israel in New York City is not news?

Rabbi Yisroel Feldman from Neturei Karta International, a Jewish organization that was also part of the rally, explained to me that pro-Israel groups like the World Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League pressure mainstream media outlets to either exclude any criticism of Israel or face an advertising boycott from pro-Israel corporations. He recounted how he was once interviewed by a reporter from a major newspaper for an article about a Jewish protest against a Christian Zionist Conference in Washington DC, but the editor cut out his interview and any mention of the protest, almost as if anti-Zionist Jews were being ethnically cleansed from the news.

Rabbi Feldman told me that this pressure also extends to his own community, which makes it difficult for Jews to speak out against Zionism. Because when they do, they can be psychologically threatened, physically accosted, or economically boycotted by pro-Israel groups. Furthermore, even though they suffer for speaking out the media still completely ignores them, and this is one reason why rabbis from Neturei Karta frequently travel around the world to participate in solidarity rallies for Palestine. This takes immense time, effort and is costly, but at least their voices will definitely be heard.

However, the very fact that there is this climate of fear among Jews ought to make the event on 9th June even more newsworthy, because despite the extreme Zionist effort to silence them, tens of thousands of Jews still came out into the streets to protest against the State of Israel and to denounce Zionism. Actually, this makes both the rally and its Jewish participants quite extraordinary – even inspirational.

Perhaps the main problem is that the existence of so many religious Jews who oppose the State of Israel challenges the normative view in the mainstream media, as well as in American politics more generally, that the hostility between Israel and Palestine is based on a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. But if there are Anti-Zionist Jews, then this proves that the conflict is not about religion and instead about the occupation. And if you think about it, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a crime that most Americans would probably object to if only they really knew about it, which probably helps to explain why anti-Zionist Jews in New York City are being silenced.

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