LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Hadar Cohen spent the first 10 years of her life in Jerusalem, where she grew up with a lot of liturgy and prayer as her family managed a synagogue. Cohen is a Mizrahi Jew, a community whose roots in the Middle East extend beyond the founding of Israel.
But as the current crisis in Israel began earlier this month, she found it necessary to speak up against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and shed light on the evictions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem neighborhoods aimed at enabling Jews to move in.
Finally, while visiting Jerusalem, Cohen on May 12 live-broadcasted a few updates for her friends about the situation in the city on Instagram and mustered the courage to speak about the escalating violence and publicly stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
She was shocked when her video attracted nearly 400,000 views. She got hateful comments, including claims she was a Muslim using a fake identity, but she also received encouraging messages from Palestinians and others from others across the world.
What baffled Cohen was just how hard it was for people to “fathom a Jewish person speaking in solidarity with Palestinians.
“Part of the sad truth is that the world is more receptive to hearing Jewish voices,” said Cohen, 29, a former fellow at the interfaith Abrahamic House in Los Angeles, told Religion News Service. “Jewish people speaking out has a lot of weight and a lot of power. More and more people are realizing that responsibility.”
Younger Jews in and around the U.S. are using social media to openly question their relationship to Israel and Zionism in the face of the violence that killed at least a dozen people in Israel and hundreds in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. They assert that they can be Jewish and speak on behalf of Palestinian freedoms and are finding ways to cope with what they refer to as “intergenerational Jewish trauma.”
“We desperately want a safe place for jews. we know they tried to wipe us out so recently. but why does a safe homeland for us mean the subjugation of another?” she said on Twitter.
More than 100 American rabbinical and cantorial students recently signed a letter condemning the Israeli government, declaring: “For those of us for whom Israel has represented hope and justice we need to give ourselves permission to watch, to acknowledge what we see, to mourn, and to cry.”
Leah Rose Gallegos, a Chicana from Los Angeles, said in an Instagram post that it was important to pay tribute to her Jewish lineage while staying true to her social justice values. She spoke of a great-grandmother who “escaped Russia during the Czar to escape a violence that she hoped to never, ever, ever spew onto others.”
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For Jews like Gallegos, there is no contradiction in their criticism of Israeli policy, even if there is blowback on social media. “I can be against the Israeli government and be for Palestinian liberation without being Anti-Semitic,” she wrote on Instagram. “I can be for Palestine liberation and also care about the safety and humanity of Israeli citizens.
“I can risk popularity to share what I believe,” she added.
Since the violence erupted, Mira Stern, 33, an Ashkenazi Jew from San Francisco, has made it her mission to help her social media followers and her community understand that there’s a difference between Judaism and Zionism.
She refers to herself as a “recovering Zionist,” recalling trips to Israel as a teen, and how upon landing, she would kiss the ground “as we were taught to do.” Stern, a former world history teacher, said she embodied the belief that there was a place on Earth meant for her and that Zionism “attached me to a larger collective.”
But she came to see Israel as at odds with her broader view of history. She said she began to ask, “How can any colonizer create a home on top of others’ remains?”
She’s now spearheading “Undoing Zionism,” an online class that “centers showing up for Palestinian liberation while being centered in the wisdom & strength of our Judaism.” Even without much promotion about, 100 have signed up, she told RNS, adding that she has also gotten hate messages calling her a “self-hating Jew” or accusing her of being “responsible for the second Holocaust.”
“We have to build the skills to dig deeper because we are losing our humanity,” she said. “We are losing our ability to be in solidarity with all global oppressed people.”
Stern said that her response to Israel’s behavior grows out of her Judaism, which she calls religious, ceremonial and cultural. “My connection to Jewishness is who I am entirely as a person,” Stern said.
“If you look at the values of our people … It’s about helping the people who are suffering. It’s about righteousness. It’s about reverence for God. It’s about togetherness,” Stern said. “To me, nothing about Zionism is reflective of that.”
She added: “That search for home is often spiritual and theoretical. We can create home anywhere.”
Cohen said that many Jews’ connection to Israel is associated with trauma — “feeling like we don’t belong in the world as Jewish people, like there isn’t a space for us, that the world doesn’t recognize us as people,” she said.
Cohen said she’d like to shift this narrative.
“With every kind of oppression, it takes a long time to shift the mentality. For me, it always has to come from solidarity,” Cohen said.
“The world hasn’t been safe for Jewish people so we need to work with the world to find our safety in it,” she added. “I believe that there’s a lot of people in the world who care for Jews’ safety.”