On Nov. 2, Jewish activists gathered outside of Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office after being refused entry inside. In front of a banner reading “Ohio Jews Say Ceasefire Now,” Isaiah Back-Gaal’s voice rose above nearby traffic: “We are in deep pain and mourning,” shouted Back-Gaal, a member of the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and a student at Ohio State University, “and we must fight like hell for the living!”
JVP Central Ohio has seen its membership grow in recent months since becoming the first Jewish group in Columbus to join the community calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Launched by Israel following the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, the ongoing invasion and bombardment of Gaza has resulted in the deaths of more than 21,000 Palestinian civilians and has been described as a genocide by human rights experts.
Jewish Voice for Peace is the largest progressive anti-Zionist Jewish organization in the world. Originally founded in the 1990s, the organization utilizes nonviolent means to work toward ending Israel’s expansionism and militarism. One of these methods is the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement, which has led numerous campaigns against companies and political bodies that fund apartheid and the displacement of Palestinians in occupied territories. In the organization’s 2023 annual report, JVP highlighted a divestment campaign related to products and businesses owned by the Florida-based Falic family – one of the largest U.S.-based funders of illegal Israeli settlements. In the report, JVP Executive Director Stefanie Fox also emphasized the importance of “breaking the cultural bonds between Jewishness and Zionism.”
This has become a greater challenge in recent weeks. In early December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” and the White House announced actions to combat antisemitism on college campuses, which by definition now includes anti-Zionist protests.
“Because I don’t support Israel, I have been labeled a ‘self-hating Jew’ and a ‘terrorist lover,’” Josh Hollman said on Dec. 6 at a protest outside of the Franklin County Government Center. “I need people to know that Zionism is not Judaism. … In fact, Zionism is heretic according to the Talmud, as Jews are not supposed ‘to ascend to Eretz Israel using force.’”
As a member of JVP, Hollman identifies with the long tradition of 20th century Jewish leftists who opposed Zionism. Many socialists and Communists throughout history were Jewish. In 1947, the Jewish socialist Bundist movement spoke out against the partition of Palestine, arguing that the “peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs must be brought about by the renunciation of the Zionist goal of an independent Jewish state.”
Zionism began as a small movement in Europe calling for a Jewish nation. One of the founders of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, saw an “emptiness and futility of efforts to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.” Instead of fighting for equality for the Jewish people across the world, Zionists called for a retreat to a Jewish nation, the location of which was initially irrelevant (Argentina and Uganda were debated, in addition to Palestine).
“But it was not an ancient longing to return to Zion that gave the impulse to political Zionism; this idea had long existed only as an ossified religious ritual,” the Jewish leftist Hyman Lumer argued in his 1971 book, Zionism: Its Role in World Politics. It was instead, as many Zionists insisted, the rise of antisemitism and pogroms (ethnic massacres) in Europe. The British, who originally offered territory in Uganda, handed over Palestine to the Zionists with the 1917 Balfour Declaration. After the Holocaust in 1947, the United Nations partitioned Palestine and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced in the following year, more than half the Arab Palestinian population.
With antisemitism and Islamophobia on the rise across the U.S., progressive Jewish community members locally are speaking out against both antisemitic attacks and the dangers of equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. After two OSU students were attacked for being perceived as Jewish and a different individual entered the OSU Hillel Jewish student center and removed its Israeli flags, JVP’s Central Ohio chapter released a statement condemning the acts. “To the Jewish members of our community, we affirm your unequivocal right to bodily integrity, a principle we assert with the same conviction we extend to the people of Gaza,” the statement read.
But JVP also called on OSU Hillel to speak out against the Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza. The student center, a part of Hillel International, prohibits collaboration with groups advocating for the nonviolent BDS movement. In 2017, OSU Hillel defunded the Jewish LGBTQ organization B’nai Keshet for co-sponsoring an event with JVP. “We propose that OSU Hillel explore alternatives, such as severing ties with Hillel International and aligning with the Open Hillel movement,” the group wrote. “Without this change, Jews who support BDS and anti-Zionist Jews remain without a cultural center on campus.”
“I don’t feel comfortable in Zionist communities,” Hollman said in an early December interview. “And that’s a significant portion of the Jewish community.” But with the recent wave of organizing from local Jewish progressives, he said that he’s found a new community. “I don’t want to have to compromise my values for my religion, and connecting with other Jewish people through JVP has made it so I don’t have to.”