As American Jews speak out on Israel, some see rifts in their communities : Code Switch In the wake of October 7, and the bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli government, many American Jews have found themselves questioning something that had long felt like a given: that if you were Jewish, you would support Israel, and that was that. But as more Jews speak out against Israel's actions in Gaza, it's exposing deep rifts within Jewish communities – including ones that are threatening to break apart friendships, families, and institutions.

As American Jews speak out on Israel, some see rifts in their communities

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Just a heads up, y'all - the episode you're about to hear contains some strong language.

What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby, and joining me in the co-host chair today is CODE SWITCH's senior editor, Leah Donnella. Leah, what's good with you?


DEMBY: All right. So let's get right into it. Where are we going? Where are we going?

DONNELLA: OK, so let me ask you something, Gene. Have you ever sat shiva?

DEMBY: I have not. But I know it's a Jewish mourning ritual, right? And you go...


DEMBY: ...Over to somebody's house after a loved one has died, and you sit with them, and you share memories. Is that right?

DONNELLA: Yeah. That's exactly it. There's often a lot of food around - at least when my family does it. And, you know, different people have different traditions. But generally, it's observed for seven days. Shiva means seven.


DONNELLA: And in my experience, it's a really comforting ritual that's kind of both communal and very intimate.

DEMBY: Huh. It sounds like it can be kind of intense for the grieving family, too, maybe?

DONNELLA: Oh, yeah, it can be very intense. And earlier this year, I went to a shiva that was intense.


DONNELLA: But besides that, it was kind of unlike any other that I had experienced before.

DEMBY: How so?

DONNELLA: Well, a big thing was that it involved a lot more chanting than the shivas I'm used to.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do we want?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When do we want it?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do we want?



DONNELLA: Yeah. So this shiva was organized by IfNotNow, which is a group that tries to organize American Jews around issues of justice and equality for Palestinians and Israelis. And the shiva was meant to be a space where people could publicly mourn the lives of the tens of thousands of people who had been killed in Gaza and Israel since October 7. It took place outside of Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff's LA residence. So that day, out in the pouring rain, we said the Mourner's Kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer for the dead.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking non-English language).

DONNELLA: But also Muslim and Christian mourning prayers as well, each led by Palestinian women who were there as allies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: In your hands, O Lord, we humbly entrust our brothers and sisters. In this life...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing in non-English language).

DONNELLA: And Gene, I don't know if you know this, but it's actually illegal for Jews to get together and not sing. Like, it simply isn't done.

DEMBY: Wait, are you joking? Is that for real? I did not know that.

DONNELLA: I'm dead serious (laughter).


DONNELLA: You know, so throughout the day, there was a lot of singing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Singing) Cease-fire now.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Singing) Cease-fire now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Singing) Not in our name.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Singing) Not in our name.

DONNELLA: And a huge part of the shiva was focused on the idea that there are a lot of Jews who are horrified with Israel's bombardment of Gaza and want to reclaim space as Jews to protest what's going on.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Unfortunately, our culture has really been captured by this sort of politics around unconditional support for Israel, and it's created a sort of litmus test where you can only be "Jewish," quote-unquote, if you're willing to support Israel in that way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Our Jewish tradition was formed through thousands of years of telling and retelling stories of our persecution and liberation.

WILL ALDEN: Our identity as Jews, our Jewish pain and our history of persecution are actually the basis for solidarity with other marginalized peoples.

DONNELLA: That last voice you heard was Will Alden. And his speech stood out to me because I thought it really captured some major points of tension. He talked about the fear that gets passed down in so many Jewish families from one generation to the next.


ALDEN: One of my earliest memories is of my mother, her horrified face after I drew what she thought was a Swastika on my school notebook. It was not a Swastika. I was trying to draw the Stussy symbol, or the Cool S. It was the early '90s in LA.


ALDEN: But the fear I saw in her eyes is something I so carry deep inside me. We carry our people's trauma in our bodies.

DONNELLA: But Will also talked about the way that trauma can be channeled into meaning and action. He said that, for a long time, he felt resigned to the state of the world. But when his son was born, Will said his heart expanded and so did his sense of his own obligations.


ALDEN: How can the experience of Jewish parenthood not cause your heart to ache for Palestine? I feel there's pain in my body, and all I can think about every day is the children of Gaza.

DONNELLA: And, you know, Will ended his speech with a pretty intense thought. He said that the soul of the Jewish people is being poisoned by the idea that Jewish safety requires unconditionally supporting the Israeli government and military.


ALDEN: The question is whether we accept this poison or stand up in our fury and demand a different way. All of us together, saying not in our name.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Not in our name.

ALDEN: Not in our name.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: Not in our name.

DEMBY: So Leah, you and I have talked offline about the ways that Jewish American identity has been tied to the state of Israel for a long time. So I imagine for the people, you know, observing the shiva, that this is a very fraught place for them to be in.

DONNELLA: For a lot of people, it was. And that's why this shiva - this very unusual shiva - to me, felt like a small window into something much broader that's been happening for a while now. There's a generation of Jews who are trying to break away from what used to be a given in many Jewish spaces - that if you were Jewish, you would support Israel, and that was that.

DEMBY: And that's what we're talking about today on the show.

DONNELLA: That's right. In the wake of October 7, it's clear that that mainstream consensus no longer exists and probably hasn't for a long time. Jewish belief ranges from the staunchest support of Israel to the most blistering critique of the state. And as more and more Jews speak out against the actions of the Israeli government and military, it's exposing deep rifts within Jewish communities, including ones that are threatening to break friendships, families and institutions apart.

DEMBY: Wow. OK. That's coming up. Stay with us, y'all.

DONNELLA: Gene, part of the reason I wanted to do this episode, and also part of the reason that I was very nervous about doing this episode, is that, almost immediately, in the days following October 7, I started to realize that there was a divide within my own family when it came to Israel. Different people had really different perceptions of what was going on, who was to blame and what was at stake.

DEMBY: Hmm. I'm sure. Did that surprise you?

DONNELLA: The positions, no, but the intensity, yes - and it did make me curious about how this was going down in other Jewish families since I did not want to interview my own family for the show.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Understandably, yeah.

DONNELLA: And I was particularly curious about what this was like for the growing number of Jewish people who were going against the grain and questioning the actions of Israel.


DONNELLA: So I started asking people if they had stories they were willing to share about how all of this was affecting their relationships, friendships and communities. And even though the people I spoke to had a wide variety of life circumstances, there were definitely some consistencies in what they told me.

DEMBY: What kind of stuff did they have in common?

DONNELLA: Well, for one, they were all devastated by what Israel is doing to Gaza, and they all felt implicated in it to a certain degree. Almost everyone brought up the word complicit. They've all been in the midst of really painful, intense arguments with friends and family, some of which have led to severing relationships, and they are all trying really hard to figure out what to do as human beings, as Americans and, again, as Jews specifically.

DEMBY: OK, so tell me a little bit more about each of these people you spoke to.

DONNELLA: OK. I'll start with Eli Klein (ph), the youngest of the bunch. They are 26, trans, from Texas, and this is what they wrote to me in an email.

ELI KLEIN: Most members of my queer community are not Jewish and are loudly and proudly pro-Palestine. I also consider myself a loud and proud pro-Palestinian. The difference, though, is that I do see the nuance, and yet I feel like I am not allowed to point out these nuances or else I will be labeled as complicit in genocide.


DONNELLA: I called Eli up to get a little bit more of their backstory, and they told me that, growing up, they learned to love Israel.

KLEIN: I can still recite the Israeli national anthem from memory and even went there twice. Growing up, I was only ever around Zionist Jews. I didn't even know it was possible to be Jewish and not love Israel.

DONNELLA: That all changed around the time they went to college. They moved to a new city, started meeting people who were openly critical of Israel and eventually took a class by a Palestinian professor, which gave a fuller perspective of the creation of Israel, and that was kind of a turning point.

DEMBY: Ah, so the classic college bubble-bursting experience.

DONNELLA: Classic, yes. So now, Eli is a vocal critic of the war in Gaza and a supporter of Palestinian rights. But as you heard them say earlier, they've kind of been taken aback by a lack of nuance that they've experienced in some places.

KLEIN: Many of my non-Jewish friends who only have learned about the history of the region in the last few months have shared calls for a total dismantlement of the state of Israel, some even calling for all the Jews to go back to whatever country they came from. It's as if they think the state of Israel was created in a vacuum.

DONNELLA: But Eli still remembers well what they learned about Israel growing up - that, in the years following the Holocaust, it was a place that many Jewish refugees went when they felt there was nowhere else for them to go, no home country to return to. So now, Eli is kind of in a fraught position, attending protests and events in support of Palestinian rights, but, in some personal conversations, feeling a pretty constant vigilance to try and bring context and push back on some of the things that they find problematic.

KLEIN: On one hand, I am not anti-Zionist enough. On the other hand, I am too anti-Zionist.

DONNELLA: That's the position that Matt Kopans (ph), from upstate New York, finds himself in, too - only, for Matt, the fault lines are around age more than anything else.

MATT KOPANS: I think there's a clear generational divide among American Jews, at least in my family.


DONNELLA: Matt is 43, and he's way more critical of Israel than his parents' generation, who he says think Israel can basically do no wrong. But he's way more sympathetic to Israel than his kids' generation, who he says are at the far other end of the spectrum, which he says all kind of came to a head at Thanksgiving last year.

KOPANS: We all knew we were going to discuss it 'cause, you know, we're a large Jewish family. We talk about everything. We talk loudly about everything. And at some point, like, you know, is anyone not discussing Gaza?

DONNELLA: There were about 50 people at this dinner, ranging in ages from, you know, mid-90s to young kids. Matt felt pulled in different directions during what became an intense night of arguing, and it's something that's still keeping him up at night.

KOPANS: When you know something bad is happening, but you don't know what you can do about it, and it feels like it's - especially since it feels like it reflects on you personally or you're somehow complicit in it - it's awful. It's not like, well, Matt, if you think about this long enough, you can actually create peace in the Middle East. Like, so it just - it - I just - I'm just agonizing over it because I'm Jewish and, like, we agonize over things, I guess.


DEMBY: All right. So we just heard from a Gen Zer and a Gen Xer. But you spoke to an older person, too, right?

DONNELLA: I did. Yeah. Her name is Eva Hutt (ph).


DONNELLA: She's 71. And she's a retired physician who lives in Denver. And she also describes herself as mixed-race.

DEMBY: And is Eva stuck in the middle somewhere, too?

DONNELLA: Yes and no. Here's how she described her situation to me.

EVA HUTT: My kids in Israel are as opposed to what the current regimes are doing as I am. I have a son in the U.S. whose reaction is more Zionist than mine. He's visibly Jewish and so much more aware of antisemitism in his daily and work life than I am.

DONNELLA: She said she works hard to keep lines of communication open about Israel with her son and two of her brothers. But...

HUTT: My third brother is a settler in the West Bank. Israel-Palestine has not been open for discussion between us for more than 30 years.


DONNELLA: So Eva is navigating a lot within her family, but she's pretty clear about what she believes herself. She's been involved in antiwar activism and protesting Israel for more than 50 years now - from the time she was, you know, a mouthy teen getting into fights with her rabbi at her confirmation classes.

DEMBY: OK. So Eva's been a rabble-rouser for a long time.

DONNELLA: She has. And she said she's seen how things wax and wane.

HUTT: I'm thinking about - the first time I took a very public stance in Denver was during the massacre in Lebanon at Sabra and Shatila.

DONNELLA: That was in 1982, and it was just one of the many times that Eva would see tensions around Israel's action spike. And right after October 7, Eva said, suddenly, all of the arguments and raw nerves of the past were right at the surface again.


HUTT: You know, Jews just go from - they just go to that scared place, which is such an ugly place. You know, it's like your limbic system just kicks in automatically. And that's what makes it so difficult.


DONNELLA: Despite the difficulty, Eva has kept trying to push the conversation forward. Most recently, she organized a dialogue series at her shul to get people with different views to start listening to each other. She says it was heated at times but still powerful.

HUTT: So some of it is an act of will. You know the Gramsci expression, pessimism of the mind (ph), optimism of the will? That's where I'm at. And that despair is really not an option.

DONNELLA: And since October 7, she said she's heartened by seeing more Jews call for limits on the U.S.'s military support of Israel, from everyday people to powerful politicians like Chuck Schumer.

HUTT: Like, you know, before the war, that would not have happened. It needed to happen, but the only people who were talking about that were Jewish voices for peace, and now lots of people are talking about it. That energizes me.

DONNELLA: Gene, one of the people who's talking about this stuff now, who wasn't always, is Will Alden.


ALDEN: Hey, Leah. How are you?

DONNELLA: Good. How are you doing?

ALDEN: Good, thanks. Thanks for coming over.

DONNELLA: Oh, thanks for having me.

DEMBY: OK, so Will Alden - he's the dude we heard at the shiva.

DONNELLA: Yeah. I met him at his house on his lovely little back patio in LA because, following that powerful speech he had made, I wanted to know if he had the secret to talking to other Jews about his beliefs. And I was a little surprised to find that he was actually somewhat new to activism. The first time he attended an IfNotNow event was actually only in the spring of 2023. It was a workshop called Unpacking Antisemitism.

ALDEN: I remember driving home from that event and feeling almost euphoric. I felt - which is kind of strange for an event about antisemitism.


DONNELLA: He said he felt like he'd finally found a community.

DEMBY: Which had been hard for him to find until that point, I take it.

DONNELLA: Exactly - in part because he didn't totally know what to look for. Growing up, Will had a lot of Jewish friends and family and celebrated Jewish holidays, but the biggest part of his Judaism, he said, came from his mother.

ALDEN: Who, you know, when I was very young, instilled in me a fear of antisemitism and a fear particularly around the Holocaust.

DEMBY: Yeah, we heard him talk during the rally about that Stussy S example.

DONNELLA: Mmm hmm. And Will wasn't sure what to do with this fear. On the one hand, he didn't feel like his mom's fears were really mapping onto his life as a relatively privileged white kid growing up in Santa Monica. But then, when he becomes a young adult, Donald Trump is elected. And then shortly after, Charlottesville happens.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Chanting) ...Will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.

ALDEN: That event sort of gave me a new awareness of myself as Jewish. And what was interesting about that is it kind of corresponded to the way I'd been taught to think about Jewishness when I was young.

DONNELLA: But as Will kept engaging with Judaism over the years, his perspective changed. He started reading and writing about Jewish identity - you know, trying to form his own adult relationship with this ancient religion with thousands of years of culture and practice that go far beyond antisemitism. And when Will's son was born in 2022...

ALDEN: I wanted him to have at least some kind of Jewish community growing up. And - but I also wanted him to have a Jewish community that I could feel really excited about and proud of.

DEMBY: Yeah, man. Having a kid - it forces you to really think hard about which parts of your life you want to pass on and which stuff you really need to get a handle on and figure out real quick, especially around these issues of identity. But Leah, I'm curious - how does Israel factor into all this?

DONNELLA: As Will is learning more about Judaism, Israel is coming up quite a lot, and it actually becomes a big point of discussion between Will and one of his good friends because they're both really concerned with the question of Jewish safety, but that leads them to having kind of opposite perspectives on Israel.

DEMBY: Huh. OK. Say more about that.


DONNELLA: Yeah. So Will's friend thinks that a highly militarized Israel is necessary as a safeguard against global antisemitism, and Will is starting to believe the opposite - that the actions of the Israeli government are directly making the world less safe for Jews everywhere. And then October 7 happens.

DEMBY: And that, of course, is a cataclysm.

DONNELLA: Yep. And what these two friends had been talking about somewhat distantly was now playing out in real time, and Will said his friend was getting increasingly upset about the antisemitism that he was starting to see on social media and in the news.

ALDEN: And yeah, I was also upset by that, but that wasn't foremost in my mind. I was more thinking about the stuff Israel was already doing, which was dropping bombs on Gaza.


DEMBY: So yeah, October 7, I imagine, could be seen as evidence by either of them - right? - to make their point.

DONNELLA: Right. And the more time that passes after October 7, the more Israel's response escalates, which makes Will even more confident that he needs to fight against Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

ALDEN: I'm not going to accept actual oppression of another group of people in the name of some hypothetical future security for our people.


DONNELLA: So Gene, Will leans into this new role for him of being an activist and speaking out against Israel. And when we come back, we're going to talk about how that role fits into a long and sometimes tortured history of American Jewish critics of the Jewish state.

DEMBY: All right. Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.


DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. So Leah, before the break, we were talking about these tense, painful divisions that are coming to the surface in Jewish communities over the question of Israel. But obviously, this isn't brand new, right? So I'm curious - like, do we know where these divides begin?

MARJORIE FELD: The truth of it is that as early as Jewish nationalism was on the scene in American Jewish life, so were questions about the role that that might play in American Jewish life.

DEMBY: Oh, OK. So who is that we're hearing?

DONNELLA: That is a woman named Marjorie Feld.

FELD: I'm a professor of history at Babson College, and I just wrote a book that's coming out in May called "Threshold Of Dissent: A History Of American Jewish Critics Of Zionism."

DEMBY: Damn. So she's, like, the perfect person to talk to. And her book is not even out yet?

DONNELLA: I know. That's why you have to read the press release email chain.

DEMBY: Right. Right.

DONNELLA: Anyway, I wanted to get a scope of how these discussions have played out over time, so I asked Marjorie how common it was for American Jews to be critical of Israel throughout history.

FELD: Oh, it's always a very marginal population - a very marginal number of American Jews - especially in the early 20th century and, obviously, especially in the mid-20th century - right? - after the Holocaust.

DONNELLA: There have always been vocal anti-Zionist Jews, she said, but they haven't had a really prominent voice in mainstream Judaism until more recently, which is one of the reasons why she says every generation of Jews that speaks out against Israel thinks it's the first.

DEMBY: Mmm. Wow. OK. I know we're going to get into this. But because you just used the phrase anti-Zionist, I feel like now is probably a good time to get some definitions out the way since different people use the term Zionism and anti-Zionism really, really differently.


DONNELLA: Yes, good point. OK. In her book, Marjorie really talks about three different groups, Zionists, anti-Zionists and non-Zionists. So Zionists, super broadly, are people who believe in the need for a Jewish nation-state in the land of Israel. Non-Zionists believe that Israel is an important cultural and religious center for Jews, but that it doesn't need to be a country.


DONNELLA: And anti-Zionists are specifically against the idea of a Jewish nation-state. And as you just heard her say, those last two groups have always been fairly small.

DEMBY: OK, so where does the history of anti- and non-Zionist Jewish thought begin in the United States?

DONNELLA: Well, in her book, Marjorie really starts the story in 1885, with something called the Pittsburgh Platform.

FELD: The Pittsburgh Platform was one of those central platforms to American Reform Judaism, which is one denomination within American Judaism, and it was an antinationalist platform that really saw American Jewish peoplehood as grounded in religious life.

DONNELLA: In other words, they were arguing Judaism is a religion, not a race or a nation, and that idea is then championed by this group called the American Council for Judaism. And they're one of the groups in the U.S. that's consistently vocally critical of the idea of Zionism. Marjorie says this is all happening in the early 20th century, in the context of xenophobia and Jim Crow and state-sanctioned antisemitism.

FELD: So this is, you know, a perilous time. And this was a group of relatively elite Jews who rejected Zionism as it was emerging so central to American Jewish life because they felt that it would make Jews vulnerable to accusations of dual loyalty, which has been a long-standing, you know, sort of antisemitic accusation - that Jews aren't loyal to the United States.

DONNELLA: So actually, assimilation was a huge factor that shaped a lot of anti-Zionist thought amongst American Jewish communities. A lot of Jews wanted to really stake a firmer claim in whiteness, and they thought that focusing on Israel would be counterproductive. It might, as Marjorie writes, serve as a racializing force, separating them as a people and preventing them from the security of full integration. It might even make them seem - gasp - more Middle Eastern.

DEMBY: Mmm. So obviously, we've done a lot of episodes about immigration and immigrant populations and the way people form their identities, and this comes up all the time - right? - leaning into Americanness as, like, an avenue into whiteness. OK. So today, it seems like the leftiest (ph) Jews are the most likely to be anti-Zionist, but what Marjorie is saying is that was kind of reversed in the early 1900s. It was, like, a respectability thing - a more - small C - conservative impulse.

DONNELLA: Mmm hmm.


DONNELLA: Yeah. Meanwhile, the Jews who were talking about a Jewish state in the early 1900s were not generally as concerned with blending in. A lot of them were like, no, we're not the same as white Christian Americans, and we don't want to be.

DEMBY: Fascinating. Huh.

DONNELLA: Now, mind you, this is still decades before the state of Israel would actually be created. So among Zionists, there was a diversity of ideas about what that state could look like. Would people speak Hebrew or Yiddish? Would it be in the Middle East or Europe or the Americas? All the dreaming and debating and politicking around this was still somewhat hypothetical in those days.

DEMBY: Right. And of course, you're talking about the late 1800s to early 1900s, so, relatedly, this is all, obviously, before the Holocaust.

DONNELLA: Yep. And after the Holocaust, the conversation totally changes.

FELD: Almost all organizations really mute the criticism. Maybe mute isn't the right word. I just think they have to see everything through the lens of the tremendous destruction and losses of the Holocaust, and so many anti-Zionist individuals and organizations tend to move toward non-Zionism and an embrace of support for Israel as a safe haven for Jews in a world that has grown incredibly perilous for them.

DEMBY: OK, so how does that change the landscape for Jewish anti-Zionist thought?

DONNELLA: Well, it makes this relatively small group of vocal anti-Zionist Jews even smaller because, Marjorie says, there's this widespread belief...

FELD: That in the face of persecution and oppression and attempted genocide in the Holocaust - right? - that Jewish unity is paramount and that we have to - we, the American Jewish community must appear to be of one mind in order to be strong, in order to fight our enemies.

DONNELLA: She said, along the way, there are always dissenters - people who are saying, hold on. Is this really how we want to be doing things? Is unity really going to make us safer? But the louder, more powerful voices just keep pounding the unity hammer.

DEMBY: So what did that look like in practice? When you say they kept pounding the unity hammer - like, how did this mandate of unity get enforced?


DONNELLA: OK. Here's an example. There was this journalist named William Zukerman. And from 1948 to 1961, he published a newsletter out of New York City called The Jewish Newsletter.

DEMBY: So William clearly spent a lot of time workshopping the name. OK.

DONNELLA: It was brilliant. And that newsletter published some really critical perspectives on Israel. Zukerman at one point writes about how, for example, Arabs are human beings who have a moral right to the land where their ancestors have lived for more than a thousand years, and, he says, isn't it kind of messed up that Jews would treat them like inanimate objects who can just be moved around at will? And some people are really threatened by that, and they try to shut the newsletter down. But Gene, I think this is really important to note - like, this newsletter is never all that huge.


DONNELLA: It only ever has a few thousand subscribers total. But Marjorie said that, even so, William Zukerman is subject to some very real consequences.

FELD: He gets censored by way of having funding removed and losing positions in Jewish journals, Yiddish- and English-speaking. So when Israeli diplomats start corresponding, they would say things like he's confusing American Jews; he doesn't prioritize Israel; this is throwing the safety of American Jews into - you know, it's placing them in unsafe conditions by virtue of questioning Israel's role in American Jewish life.

DONNELLA: So The Jewish Newsletter is over by 1961. And for a time, it's looking like these conversations are going to quiet down a little. But by the '60s, we're knee-deep in the civil rights movement. And by the late '60s, the anti-war movement is about to start ramping up, as well.

DEMBY: So obviously, during that time, there are all these people around the country who are just out protesting. They're questioning the status quo. They're pushing back on the government, on the military. And across the world, obviously, there's, like, all these anticolonial movements that are really gaining steam.

DONNELLA: Exactly. And Jews, like everyone else, are trying to process what's going on and where they stand and whether to get involved. So in the book, Marjorie said she tried to chronicle how Zionism and anti-Zionism were influenced by civil rights and antiwar activists.

FELD: Because I think, among those leaders, especially Black and Arab Americans, we see some of the first lessons in what's happening in Palestine and then Israel. And when American Jews join the Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement, other movements in the '50s, '60s and '70s, they start learning about this - some of them for the first time.

DONNELLA: Now, as we've established, this stuff isn't new for everyone. So for some Jewish people, concern for Palestinian rights went way back.

FELD: A lot of the critics whom I talk about are concerned about the native population starting early in the '40s and '50s. So how can a people - that is the Jewish people - who were made refugees by the Holocaust create another population of refugees in - what we now know of as Palestinians?

DONNELLA: And by the 1970s, it's pretty hard to ignore those questions. This is no longer theoretical. This is real, and it's picking up momentum. People are talking about it and marching about it.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #5: (Chanting, inaudible).

DONNELLA: Groups like Breira and the New Jewish Agenda formed to try to create space for Jews to have a wider set of beliefs around Israel, but many of the people pushing to open up that space faced pretty intense opposition. I think one of the clearest examples is the story of this professor named Marty Blatt.


DONNELLA: And for two years, in 1972 and 1973, he taught a course at Tufts Experimental School (ph) that was a history of American support for Zionism.

FELD: And he was very clear that he wanted to teach that anti-Zionism was not equal to antisemitism, so he had in his class both Zionists and anti-Zionists.

DEMBY: I am already nervous about where this is going.

DONNELLA: As you should be.

FELD: In the middle of his semester, in March of '73, there were members of the Jewish Defense League who disrupted his class, marched into his class, handed out a flyer that said something - it called it an anti-Jewish outrage - and they started making demands that Tufts shut down the class.

DONNELLA: From there, the press got involved. First, it's local Jewish papers in Boston, then it's everywhere, and people are arguing pretty strongly that the class was dangerous for American Jewry. Some of the critics of this class were operating in good faith, of course, but you also see strands of it that are really, really cynical and ugly.

FELD: Blatt's grandfather had died in a Nazi labor camp, and somebody called - prank-called him one night during all of this controversy and said that his parents should not have been saved.


FELD: And the debate just kept erupting outward.

DONNELLA: The newspapers keep blowing up. The Boston Jewish community puts together funds to teach a counter-course. Blatt keeps getting threats, and Marjorie says it actually looked a lot like what we're seeing happen on certain college campuses today.

FELD: Where any criticism of Zionism, even just the invocation of the history of Palestine and Palestinians, is seen as dangerous to American Jewish students or to American Jewish life.

DONNELLA: Marjorie says one of the big differences today, though, is that the facade of unity has been shattered beyond repair. And that's been happening for a while, but it's undeniable right now. She pointed to the protests that are happening in support of Gazans.

FELD: I mean, they're so incredibly powerful and visible that I think any attempt to maintain this idea that Jewish unity is paramount has already been crumbling for quite a while. And these - post October 7, these protests that are happening in our own time in the United States among American Jews - especially, but not only, among young American Jews - really accent - they make us focus on the fact that unity just isn't possible anymore.


DEMBY: That's some of what we heard from people earlier in this episode - right? - that they are feeling the effects of that right now - like, among their loved ones, you know, in their group chats, in their synagogues. They're feeling like, OK, not only is there not unity - in a lot of cases, it sounds like there's not even the possibility of communication.

DONNELLA: Yeah, which is really weird because Jews - like, we actually love arguing and discussing and debating, and that's not just a stereotype.


DONNELLA: Like, the Jewish tradition is iterative. It's literally based on arguing and disagreeing. But this seems, to me, at least, to be the one topic that we can't have productive arguments about. I asked Marjorie what she thought about that.

FELD: Oh, I certainly agree. It's an astute observation. It's - I'm living it almost every day. And I - in one way or another, it's sort of - it's a cloud that's following us all around. I think what I try to convey in the book is the incredibly high stakes of this debate, historically and in contemporary American life.

DONNELLA: That's because, for many people, the stakes have almost always centered around notions of Jewish safety and survival, from pogroms to the Holocaust.

FELD: I always begin with the number of people I knew when I was young who had numbers on their arm because, when I was growing up, in my synagogue in Pennsylvania, there must have been dozens of people I knew who were survivors of the Holocaust, who had been in the camps, who lived to tell about it. You know, their narratives - their brave, courageous narratives were sort of the punctuation marks of my American Jewish life.

And I think people my age - I'm 53 - and people older and younger feel keenly the loss of that memory. And the very - the success of this mobilization around Israel, this one brand of American Zionism, has been that it equates American Jewish safety with this brand, and I would never challenge the centrality of Holocaust memory in American Jewish life. I think those of us who aren't Zionists want to see it broadened, applied, stretched to think about this idea, and I'm so moved when young activists use this idea of Never Again for Anyone.


DONNELLA: I asked Marjorie what it's like to be someone who feels so deeply the loss of Holocaust memory while also being in this minority of Jews who are openly critical of Israel.

FELD: Painful. It's been painful. And I think we're reaping what we've sowed - that is to say, we've shut off these conversations for so long that, in the face of what's happening right now, it's very painful to not be able to talk about what Israel is perpetrating in Gaza. It's just - it's very painful.

DONNELLA: And Gene, I was kind of ready to end it there because I'm a cynic and pessimist, and pain is where I live.

DEMBY: That is very much your zip code, Leah, yes.


DONNELLA: But Marjorie said it was important to think about some of the positive things that this pain is actually producing.

FELD: Is it OK if I tell you the two most exciting parts? OK.

DONNELLA: One piece of it, she said, is the coalition-building that's coming out of all of this.

FELD: Because a lot of the people I write about, especially in the second half of the 20th century - their anti-Zionism was a means - or non-Zionism was a means to create coalitions with Black Americans, Arab Americans, Palestinians, the Israeli left. And that opens doors rather than closes them. That's the first part that really excites me. These building of coalitions - these things make me feel hope.

DONNELLA: And the second thing is that having more space for a diversity of opinions is actually bringing more people into Judaism.

FELD: And I think that a lot of these young Jews, and Jews of all ages who are involved in these protest movements, are really doing quite amazing work making American Jewish life more inclusive and bringing in people who are entirely apart - you know? - who are really turned off by the American Jewish community, put off by it, who are being pulled in through protests.

DONNELLA: And that all brings me back to Will.

DEMBY: Right - because he's one of those people whose relationship to Judaism became stronger through protests.

DONNELLA: Exactly. And in fact, it was actually through his protesting that he was able to reignite a conversation with his mom about Judaism. It's through protesting that he was able to gain a community. And it's through protesting that he started to feel his Judaism take shape in his life not as a space of fear or pain, but one of justice and truth-telling.

ALDEN: You know, the word tzedek - justice in Hebrew - is something that many Jewish people in America grow up with. I mean, this is a Jewish value. It's a very ancient Jewish value, and I would love to see a Jewish community - a Jewish future in which our ancient values are applied to the situation in which our fellow Jews are oppressing another group of people. That, to me, is really - the only thing that really gives me hope right now is that kind of vision.

DONNELLA: Will said that when he had a kid, the center of his universe shifted. Suddenly, he was in charge of something that was much more precious to him than his own life. But it also changed how he felt about all children, particularly as he watched the news out of Gaza.


ALDEN: It's hard for me to escape the awareness that, you know, all those children are just as beautiful and amazing as my kid, and that allows me to examine my life in a new way. And I feel I have a stake in the future in a new way. I mean, speaking of - you know, of creating a Jewishness for the future, I feel like a custodian of the Jewish tradition in a way that I didn't feel before. I also want to remake it and make it into something that I can feel really proud of and proud to pass down, and I think - I do believe that that vision of Jewishness will prevail in the end.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That is our show. You can follow us on Instagram @nprcodeswitch. If email is more your thing, ours is And subscribe to the podcast on the NPR App or wherever it is you get your podcasts. You can subscribe to the CODE SWITCH newsletter by going to That's a newsletter that Leah writes.

DONNELLA: I do. And another way to support our work here is to sign up for CODE SWITCH+. It's small but really makes a difference for us, and you'll get to listen to every CODE SWITCH episode without any ads. Check it out at, and thanks to everyone who's already signed up.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Xavier Lopez. It was edited by Dalia Mortada. Our audio engineer for this episode was Cena Loffredo. We would be remiss if we did not shout-out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - that's Christina Cala, Jess Kung, Cher Vincent, Schuyler Swenson, Veralyn Williams, B. A. Parker and Lori Lizarraga.

DONNELLA: Special thanks also to Adrian Florido.

DEMBY: As for me, I'm Gene Demby.

DONNELLA: I'm Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.


Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.