Last week, overlooking Los Feliz and East Hollywood, Jewish organizers recited the mourner’s kaddish.
In their collective reading of the mourning prayer, those present acknowledged two things: remembrance of the civilian lives lost during the Hamas attack on an Israeli rave on Oct 7th; and Israel’s bombing and killing of Palestinian civilians in the past two weeks.
“We absolutely affirm the sanctity of all life and many in our community are scared for people they know and care about, both in Gaza and other parts of Palestine and within the State of Israel,” said Benjamin Kersten, who leads the UCLA chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace, a group dedicated to organizing with Palestinians for their freedom and “building Judaism and Jewishness beyond Zionism.”
Since October 7, more than 4,000 people in Gaza, about 80 in the West Bank, and 1,400 people in Israel have been killed. But some Jewish organizers in Los Angeles like Kersten want people to understand that the cycle of violence seen on that weekend is not unprecedented, and also that the discourse portraying Jewish people as a monolith is false. Instead many Jews in Los Angeles are trying to help amplify the voices of Palestinians.
“We can understand larger contexts of colonial violence that we also understand to foment the conditions in which these acute escalations of violence take place,” said Kersten. “None of this is easy, and yet we also feel very clear in our conviction that we need a free Palestine, and that our liberation is intertwined.”
A system of apartheid
Unlike most U.S. politicians, major human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and even the Israeli human rights non-profit B’tselem refer to the current system of government in the region as “apartheid,” a reference to the system of extreme racial segregation and oppression that existed in South Africa. Such groups also point out that while Hamas has committed war crimes, Israel, in its indiscriminate bombing of civilians and use of chemical weapons, is also committing war crimes.
The notion that Jewish people have ever held a united stance on Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians, or that all Jewish people are Zionists (support Israel a Jewish state), is false. In 1948, prominent Jews like Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt denounced the visit of one of Israel’s political party leaders, Menachem Begin of the Herut party, to the United States, calling his party “fascist.” Begin would eventually go on to establish Likud, the party of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The U.S. mainstream political establishment — both Republicans and Democrats — rarely acknowledge the diversity of opinion among Jews, instead referring to any criticism of Israel as antisemitic. This is in contrast to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism, which includes this note: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Shortly after the attack by Hamas last week, local politicians stood steadfast in their support of Israel. Progressives were dinged by their colleagues for not putting out statements supportive enough of Israel. Just this morning, Mayor Karen Bass issued a statement of blanket support for the Israeli government. “The President made clear last night what we in Los Angeles have always made clear: we continue to stand unequivocally with Israel,” she said, noting she would increase LAPD patrols.
On Oct.14, members of IfNotNow Los Angeles and Jewish Voice for Peace held a protest outside the office of U.S. Representative Brad Sherman, a fervent supporter of the State of Israel. And on Thursday, the group held a protest in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’ Brentwood home, demanding she join the call for a ceasefire.
“Perhaps no Democratic member of Congress has defined what it means to be ‘pro-Israel’ more than Rep. Brad Sherman,” wrote a Haaretz reporter in a 2023 article, which also pointed out that Sherman is an annual speaker at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. Sherman has been somewhat critical of Netanyahu’s government, particularly his intention to dilute the power of Israel’s judicial system. Recently, Sherman expressed support for a $2 billion military aid package to Israel put forward by the Biden administration.
However, public opinion may be forcing elected officials to shift. This week a candidate for LA City Council District 14, Ysabel Jurado, issued a statement in support of a ceasefire in Gaza. And at Tuesday’s LA County Board of Supervisors meeting, the supes ended up approving a resolution in support of President Biden’s administration providing humanitarian aid to Gaza and Israel.
Last Saturday, thousands of Palestinians, Jews, and others marched in support of liberation of the Palestinian people from Israeli occupation. In a march organized by Palestinian Youth Movement and ANSWER Coalition, activists met on Wilshire Boulevard at the Israeli Consulate.
“The Israeli government may have declared war this week, but its war on Palestinians began 75 years ago … Israel’s apartheid regime,” declared a representative of Jewish Voice for Peace at the protest. “For the past year, the most racist fundamentalist, far-right government in Israeli history has has ruthlessly escalated its military occupation over Palestinians in the name of Jewish supremacy with violent expulsions, home demolitions, mass killings, and military raids on refugee camps, and unrelenting siege and daily humiliation.”
From a pick-up truck, speakers decried “attempts to legitimize colonialism” and called for land to be returned to the Palestinian people. “From the river to the sea,” people chanted. “Palestine is our demand! No peace on stolen land!”
Hassem Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Greater LA, said on the loudspeaker that it was a myth that Hamas’ attack on Israel was “unprovoked.”
“This was 75 years of dispossession,” he said.
There was a moment of levity as activists were asked to move their cars from the middle of the street. “Just because we are in front of the Israeli consulate, doesn’t mean we have to act like the Israelis,” said Ayloush.
The massive crowd marched along Wilshire Blvd. to the Federal Building, with LAPD officers in tow. According to Spectrum1 News, the LAPD shouted orders from a helicopter loudspeaker, telling activists to vacate the section of the 405 Freeway they were standing on. The helicopter flew low above the protest, but the messages from the loudspeaker were inaudible, and by the time protestors crossed the 405, LAPD vehicles and officers blocked off all the exits.
Reporter Vishal Singh captured pro-Israel agitators pepper-spraying pro-Palestine activists. Once protestors arrived at the Federal Building, LAPD officers readied riot munitions and formed a line in front of the entrance to a nearby building, as well as forming a column of vehicles to keep activists from continuing along Wilshire.
Kersten, from Jewish Voice for Peace UCLA, told LA Public Press that although it’s been hard, organizing as a coalition is restorative.
“This week has been incredibly difficult, and also incredibly energizing as we’ve joined with groups across Southern California, including the ANSWER coalition and the Palestinian Youth Movement, IfNotNow LA, and SJP at UCLA, to demand a ceasefire.
“We’re really committed to fostering a very inclusive understanding of Jewishness,” Kersten said.