As the Israel-Hamas war rages in Gaza, there’s a bitter battle for public opinion flaring in the United States, with angry rallies on many college campuses and disruptive protests at prominent venues in several major cities.
Among the catalysts are Palestinian and Jewish-led groups that have been active for years in opposing Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and who now demand a cease-fire in Gaza. They have clashed with pro-Israel groups in the past, and are again now.
The groups have roots in a movement known as BDS, which calls for the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel.
That campaign generated heated rhetoric long before Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel launched its counteroffensive. Advocates wrote op-eds for campus newspapers with appeals to protect Palestinian human rights, often accusing Israel of colonialism and racism.
Now groups involved in those earlier efforts are playing a key role protesting the latest fighting, with actions on campuses and beyond. Protests have led to disruptions on Capitol Hill, at a major train station in Chicago and New York City’s Grand Central Station.
They also helped organize a demonstration Wednesday night outside Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington which led to clashes between police and protesters.
Who are the groups involved?
JEWISH VOICE FOR PEACE
Jewish Voice for Peace, founded in 1996, describes itself as “the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world.”
“We’re organizing a grassroots, multiracial, cross-class, intergenerational movement of U.S. Jews in solidarity with the Palestinian freedom struggle, guided by a vision of justice, equality, and dignity for all people,” the group says on its website.
It claims more than 300,000 supporters, has 1 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, and maintains chapters on many U.S. college campuses. Its Columbia University chapter was suspended Friday for allegedly violating university policies on holding campus events.
After the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Chicago-based Rabbi Brant Rosen, co-founder of JVP’s Rabbinical Council, said he grieved for fellow Jews who were killed, yet maintained solidarity with Palestinians.
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group that frequently speaks out against antisemitism and extremism, assails JVP as “a radical anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activist group that advocates for the boycott of Israel and eradication of Zionism.”
In its 2021 federal tax returns, JVP reported revenue of nearly $2.9 million; it says the vast bulk of its income is from individual contributions.
IfNotNow was founded during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, when more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed as Israeli forces launched airstrikes and a ground invasion in response to rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
“Young Jews angered by the overwhelmingly hawkish response of American Jewish institutions came together under the banner of IfNotNow,” the group says on its website. Its stated goal: “Organizing our community to end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving future for all Palestinians and Israelis.”
In the early days of the current Israel-Hamas war, IfNotNow condemned the killings of civilians on both sides, while reiterating its criticisms of Israeli policy.
“We cannot and will not say today’s actions by Palestinian militants are unprovoked,” the group said on Oct. 7. “The strangling siege on Gaza is a provocation. Settlers terrorizing entire Palestinian villages, soldiers raiding and demolishing Palestinian homes. … These are the provocations of the most extreme right-wing government in Israel’s history.”
Eva Borgwardt, IfNotNow’s political director, said the group organized prayer services in some cities for Jews who wanted to mourn both Jews and Palestinians killed in the conflict.
The Anti-Defamation League has accused IfNotNow of “extreme” criticism of the Israeli government and “divisive rhetoric, some of which may be offensive to members of the mainstream Jewish community.”
IfNotNow claims tens of thousands of members and supporters. According to tax forms, its total revenue in 2021 was just under $397,000.
STUDENTS FOR JUSTICE IN PALESTINE
Students for Justice in Palestine has been on U.S. campuses for decades, with frequent protests urging the liberation of Palestinians and boycotts against Israel.
The loosely connected network, known as SJP, says it has more than 200 chapters across the U.S. and Canada. On its website it says its mission is “to empower, unify, and support student organizers as they push forward demands for Palestinian liberation & self-determination on their campuses.” Last month, it joined calls for a national student walkout on college campuses.
The Anti-Defamation League accuses it of anti-Israel propaganda “laced with inflammatory and at times combative rhetoric.”
Increasingly SJP has run afoul of college administrators, including at George Washington University, Arizona State University and Brandeis University.
Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz said last week that the secular college, founded by the American Jewish community in 1948, no longer recognized SJP’s chapter because of its support for Hamas and “call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people.” Several student were arrested during an ensuing protest, leading to a walkout on Monday.
In a statement after Hamas attacked Israel, SJP said it was a “moral imperative” to support the resilience of the Palestinian people who “have endured 75 years of oppression, displacement, and the denial of their basic rights,” and said that includes “armed resistance.”
The Brandeis move came after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration ordered state universities to ban the group, saying it illegally backs Hamas militants who attacked Israel. That effort is stalled amid legal wrangling.
Paul Moore, a former U.S. Department of Education official from the Trump administration, wrote an op-ed this week calling on all colleges to ban the group.
Meanwhile, attorneys general from 20 states wrote a letter this month mentioning SJP and calling on federal officials to investigate and remove foreign students who have “espoused terrorist activity.”
Multiple offshoots also are involved in protests.
American Muslims for Palestine, which has coordinated protest activities over the years with IfNotNow, organized a “die-in” over the weekend in downtown Toledo, Ohio.
Last month, the Virginia Attorney General’s office announced an investigation into the group over allegations it used funds raised for “impermissible purposes under state law, including benefitting or providing support to terrorist organizations.”
Queens College in Brooklyn is investigating the Muslim Student Association over some of its social media posts.
At Brown University this month, 20 students with the group BrownU Jews for Ceasefire Now were arrested after refusing to leave a campus building during a sit-in. The group posted on X that they were calling on the university to promote an “immediate cease-fire and a lasting peace” as well as the divestment of its endowment from companies that “enable war crimes in Gaza.”
Even groups like UNICEF and Amnesty International have faced scrutiny. In Scottsdale, Arizona, a presentation by a high school student group about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza prompted state public education chief Tom Horne to urge schools to kick the two international groups off campus.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom demanded in a letter this month that university leaders do more to protect students. And the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a Jewish legal rights advocacy group, filed federal complaints alleging the University of Pennsylvania and Wellesley College failed to keep Jewish students safe.
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Crary reported from New York. Anita Snow contributed from Phoenix and Collin Binkley from Washington, D.C.
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