December 14, 2023 FAIR.org
Janine Jackson interviewed Jewish Voice for Peace’s Sonya Meyerson-Knox for the December 8, 2023, episode of CounterSpin, about Jewish opposition to Israel’s siege of Gaza. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Despite the official contention that civilian deaths in the Gaza strip are in keeping with those of other military campaigns, a recent New York Times report acknowledged that, actually, “Israel’s assault is different.”
“Even a conservative estimate” of the reported Gaza casualty figures, the Times said, shows that the rate of death during Israel’s assault has “few precedents in this century.”
Listeners know that the response to the current violence on Gaza—the massive killings and displacement—what response you believe in has to do with your understanding of what’s happening and why. And that depends on who you’re hearing from, who you’re told to believe.
Who gets to speak is always a key question about US news media coverage of what we call foreign policy, but that doesn’t just mean which officially credentialed policy experts, but which human beings, which communities, get to, not just be quoted, but shape the conversation.
And now, as always, US corporate media’s insistence that power speaks—and those affected get to comment, maybe—is trying to win the day. But if that insistence is failing, it’s to do with the work of our guest and, I’m sure she would say, many others.
Sonya Meyerson-Knox is communications director of Jewish Voice for Peace. She joins us now by phone from Philadelphia. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sonya Meyerson-Knox.
Sonya Meyerson-Knox: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here.
JJ: I don’t think New York Times columnist Bret Stephens is himself especially worthy of respectful consideration here. Ten years ago, he was saying, “The Palestinian saga has gotten awfully boring, hasn’t it?” Everyone else in the region is changing; “only the Palestinians remain trapped in ideological amber. How long can the world be expected to keep staring at this 4-million-year-old mosquito?” OK.
But the Times op-ed page is still looked to as a measure of kind of the range of acceptable opinion. So it’s meaningful what Stephens does in this recent piece where he states, “On October 8, Jews woke up to discover who our friends are not.” He cites Jewish Voice for Peace as being used as “Jewish beards”—interesting language—“for aggressive antisemites.” And he essentially suggests that we can maybe dismiss the views of Black Lives Matter, because one of them didn’t immediately denounce Hamas, and we should side-eye academic and corporate diversity efforts, because they’re also sites of antisemitism.
We’ve seen it elsewhere, this notion that, well, Jewish people put out lawn signs after George Floyd’s murder, so it’s unfair and it’s revealingly biased that all Black people don’t support Israel’s assault on Gaza, and indeed the occupation itself.
It reflects a sad and cynical view of coalitional social movements as transactional, as favor-trading. Your work represents a different vision and understanding. Can you talk about that and how you engage, or if you engage, that transactional view of justice movements?
SM: The thing about Bret Stephens and so much, unfortunately, of the New York Times opinion pages, is that, in fact, they are the ones who I would argue are historical anomalies stuck in amber. What we are seeing yet again, as we have seen so many times in recent history, is that people who are believing in progressive causes, who want the world to be a better place, are already understanding and committed to a vision of the world that is intersectional, where our struggles are absolutely connected.
The belief that none of us are free unless all of us are free, it’s not just a slogan. It’s absolutely, I think, the only way that any of us are going to have the future that we’re trying to build.
And so to have the paper of record continually disparage some movements, and I would put Jewish Voice for Peace’s work as anti-Zionist Jews, along with the much, much larger and rapidly growing Palestine solidarity movement globally—to put all of that somehow always on the exception, and to castigate anybody who chooses to stand with an incredibly moral and just cause, simply because one prefers to defend the actions of the State of Israel and a government which is advocating for genocide, is just utterly appalling.
I am astounded every time the New York Times and most of corporate media does this, the way that some causes are allowed to be lifted up and progressive, and other causes are not, not because they’re not presented as cleanly or as well-behaved, but literally because they are pointing out the inconsistencies of US foreign policy, and the extent to which the US government and our elected officials are out of step with what the US population wants.
Look at all the polls, including the ones that are coming out right now. A majority of US voters, and the vast majority of Democratic voters, are all demanding a lasting ceasefire, and most of them want to see US military aid to the Israeli government conditioned, if not stopped entirely.
And yet none of that actually appears on the pages of the New York Times. It treats the Palestine movement, and those of us who stand for Palestinian freedom and liberation, as though we are somehow an anomaly, when in fact we are the vastly growing majority.
JJ: And another thing, I think it also suggests that Jewish Americans have been corrupted, essentially, by “wokeness” or by critical race theory or something. And as I’ve seen you point out elsewhere, that’s a misunderstanding of history. That’s a misunderstanding of the role that Jewish Americans have played in progressive movements, to say that, all of a sudden, folks are critical of the State of Israel.
SM: Oh, absolutely. As long as there’s been the concept of a State of Israel, there have been Jews that have been leading opposition to it. The American Jewish population, let alone the global Jewish population, is not a monolith, and it never was and it never will be.
And that’s one of the things I think that makes the Jewish community so strong, is our long cultural and historical understanding of ourselves as a place that values debate and introspection and proving your sources, and then doubting them and challenging them and researching them, and coming back to the discussion and teasing things out, over and over again, along with, and this is especially important to the younger generation, I would argue, that are coming up now as young adults, the idea of social justice, of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
When I was growing up, as a kid, I thought being Jewish meant that my grandparents were union supporters and Communist activists, and I thought that’s what being Jewish was. And not everyone has that particular background, but so many of us have absolutely been raised to the idea that part of what it means to be a Jew and to practice Judaism, not just once a week or twice a week, but every day, constantly, is this commitment to trying to make the world a better place. And increasingly, like we’re seeing right now, that has to include Palestine, that has to include what’s happening to Palestinians.
But that, to some extent, has always been the case. Jewish Voice for Peace’s membership ranges from people who are in their first year of college to people who are in their eighties and nineties, and who have been lifelong committed anti-Zionists. And if you look back over the history of progressive movements in the United States, there have always been people as part of them who are also Jewish.
And so this insistence that all Jews support the actions of the State of Israel, right or wrong, I don’t think it ever existed. That was never the fact. And it’s increasingly not. But it’s only now that we’re even allowed to exist as a group, according to the New York Times. Like, the New York Times spent decades not mentioning our organization’s name, using our quotes, but not attributing us as Jewish Voice for Peace members.
Mainstream media treats anti-Zionists, and especially Jewish anti-Zionists, as though we’re some tiny little percentage of the population. But at the same time, even as far back as polls from 2012, 25% of US Jews thought that Israel was operating as an apartheid state. That was 2012.
Again, there’s a need of corporate media to simplify stories down, but then there’s also the intentional silencing of voices. And certainly Palestinians have been continually, appallingly silenced in corporate media. And the next up, I would argue, are the anti-Zionist Jews, who have also been so extensively silenced.
JJ: And just to add to it, I thought it was interesting that Stephens cites Jewish Voice for Peace as having organized, or having helped organize, a “much photographed protest” at Grand Central Terminal. That’s a funny way of dismissing, as merely performative, what is in fact a monumental, incredible, powerful action.
And I think it reads a little bit as desperate, that intention to dismiss, because things have changed, things are changing, in terms of the relationship of Jewish Americans and Israel. That Grand Central Terminal action was incredibly powerful and moving, and I find it interesting that folks would try to dismiss it by saying people took pictures of it.
SM: Especially given that that’s one of over 80 actions that JVP has organized or co-sponsored in the past seven weeks. That was certainly one of the most iconic, and was very, of course, intentionally organized in homage to one of ACT UP’s most famous AIDS awareness protests. And, you know, thousands and thousands of people, and then thousands and thousands of people who couldn’t even make it inside, were protesting outside in solidarity.
Chicago had a thousand Jews protesting in their train station. Every city across the US has seen protests led by Jews calling for ceasefire. They’ve also seen dozens more protests by Palestinians, often together with Jews, calling for ceasefire. But the numbers are not going down. They’re only getting bigger.
And whether it’s been inside of the halls of Congress, or taking over train stations or taking over bridges, or just outside of the district offices of our members of Congress every other day, week in and week out, demanding that our elected officials actually represent what their voters want.
We have been on the streets, and we have been organizing. And it’s seven, eight weeks now, and we are not flagging. People call us all the time, saying: “I live in this city. When’s the next action?” Our members are coming to us—because JVP is a grassroots organization that is very much member-led—coming to us, saying: “What about this location? Can we do something for this? How about that?”
The energy, it’s not flagging, even though seven weeks is a long time in the news cycle. If anything, people are more committed to it.
Sonya Meyerson-Knox: “As US Jews, we know what it means when a government uses genocidal rhetoric and then attacks civilians. We know where that leads.”
Of course, the fact of the matter is that the Israeli government is still bombing civilians that are captive in Gaza, and, if anything, that is going to get worse in the coming days. So we are very much aware of the scale of what is at stake, and I think that also drives us, but the numbers are not flagging. The numbers are only growing.
We know, I think especially as US Jews, we know what it means when a government uses genocidal rhetoric and then attacks civilians. We know where that leads. And that’s, of course, why we are committed to saying, “Never again means never again for anyone,” and that includes Palestinians.
JJ: And it sounds like a deflection, but it’s not, because one of the worries, of course, of conflating—vigorously conflating, life-alteringly conflating—anti-Zionism with antisemitism, it obscures the real antisemitism that exists, and makes it harder to fight that.
SM: Oh, absolutely. It’s devastating right now, watching as real antisemitism is absolutely on the rise, because white supremacy is absolutely on the rise, and the number of attacks that we have seen on Muslims and on Palestinians in this country is unequivocally on the rise. The attack on the three Palestinian students in Vermont is atrocious.
But instead of leading Jewish organizations that claim to work on civil rights actually addressing that, they’re focusing all of their attention on defending the government of the State of Israel, so that it can’t be held accountable for the war crimes it’s committing. It’s incredibly worrisome.
And as part of the larger movement committed to being anti-racist and defending all of our communities and being in deep relationship with them, we have been saying for a while now that the rise of white nationalism is really, really worrisome, and that the US government has, under certain presidents, certainly embraced it, and under the current president is not doing enough to fight it, just like we’d argue college campuses have platformed white supremacists numerous times, and create incredibly unsafe spaces.
And one of the results of that is absolutely the rise of this incredibly terrifying, horrific white nationalist movement that certainly uses antisemitism as one of its tools in its toolbox. We can and we will dismantle that, and we do that in solidarity with everybody from the other communities we work with, with our Muslim allies and our Palestinian allies and our Black allies and everybody else that is committed to being in solidarity against white supremacy.
But we can’t do that nearly as effectively if at the same time we’re being continually accused ourselves of something that we’re not doing. If these organizations that claim to worry about antisemitism really did, then they would stop defending the Israeli government, and protecting it from being held accountable for bombing hospitals, and instead allow us all to focus on what we need to do to dismantle white supremacy, and the antisemitism that white supremacy uses.
JJ: I would love you to talk about what you’d like to see more or less of from reporting, but I want to just reference, as I do that, an interview that I often refer to with Ellen Schrecker, who is an expert in McCarthyism, who says, there’s an idea that we went through this period and it was difficult, but we all lived through it. We made it through, we made it out the other side.
And what she says is, you know what? We didn’t all make it through. We didn’t all survive. It’s not only that people lost their jobs and their livelihoods and their friends, but certain coalitions didn’t survive. Certain ideas that were being put into action didn’t survive, and we were set back by that McCarthyism in unknowable ways.
And I think it’s relevant here. There are costs being made here, not just that people are being fired for having the wrong opinion or for putting something on Facebook, but people are being cowed. People who would’ve marched are not marching, because they see the harms. What would you say to folks who are maybe a little bit scared about the costs of speaking out at this time?
SM: That’s an incredibly potent point.
JJ: Right? I come back to it all the time, because—we didn’t all make it. It didn’t all work out fine. And I think it’s a point that’s often lost.
SM: And of course, I think the only way that we can make sure that all of us make it, right, that all of us come together and all of us are protected, is if we are truly all in this together. The doxxing of students—particularly Palestinian and Muslim students, but also Jewish anti-Zionist students—the doxxing of students is unacceptable, and we have to come together and call that out.
The response from certain Jewish institutions, legacy institutions in particular, which have silenced and/or fired staff for raising issues about ceasefire, not even necessarily getting into anti-Zionism, all of that has to be called out. And we do it together, and we come out loudly together.
And one of the things that Jewish Voice for Peace has always been committed to is building the Jewish community and Judaism beyond Zionism. So with our rabbis, and with our Havurah Network, and with all of our chapters, we bring in Jewish ritual, we embrace the teachings of our movement elders, in order to offer alternative Jewish communal spaces, so that if speaking up for Palestine, if demanding a lasting ceasefire, if even articulating that Palestinians deserve just as many as human rights as anyone else, if that is too much for the community that you’re currently in—for your family or for your Jewish community or whatever—there are other communities that are waiting and welcoming and would love to have you with us. And we are growing, and we have the full range of Judaism at our fingertips, and we are building a Judaism that is not dependent or in any way, in fact, related to the actions of the State of Israel.
And I always think back to something that Mohammed el-Kurd said a few years ago, which was, do you think it’s hard having these conversations at the dinner table? Imagine actually what it’s like living a day in the life of a Palestinian. And I think that’s something that we all have to hold onto as well, that it doesn’t feel great, initially, to initiate these really hard conversations, and we’re here to help, and it’s what we’re being asked to do. And it’s absolutely, I think, the moment to be doing it.
So Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations that are part of the Palestine solidarity movement, including IfNotNow and others, are offering how to have our conversations, we’re offering the tools, so that when you have these conversations with your friends, and the kid you went to summer camp with, or your kind of grumpy older uncle, you’re not alone in it, and you also know how to do it in a way that we believe leads to everybody actually becoming more informed, more aware and hearing each other.
Obviously, we want to see Palestinian narratives centered more. The fact that there was no Palestinian voice on the op-ed pages of any national US paper in the weeks following October 7 was appalling. I’m very concerned about the fact that so much of mainstream TV seems to find it okay to fire their Muslim and Arab anchors and hosts. We just saw that with Mehdi Hasan most recently.
There’s all sorts of context that’s continually being ignored. Why is the fact that the majority of the population of Palestinians in Gaza are all already refugees—how did that happen? Oh, we don’t need to talk about that; the clock just started on October 7. And of course the clock didn’t start on October 7. It started 75 years earlier, with the Nakba in 1948, at the least.
But also, and this is something that I fundamentally can’t believe is still happening in mainstream press: Corporate media need to stop repeating the Israeli military’s propaganda and talking points, and treating it as though it were fact. It is not fact.
The Israeli military, for example, didn’t tell Palestinians in Gaza to flee from North Gaza to South Gaza “because it was worried about their own safety.” It was not worried about Palestinian safety. The Israeli military is bombing civilians daily.
There’s so many accusations that are made by Israeli officials, who are then invited onto talkshows and quoted in newspaper articles as though they are speaking facts, when in fact they are saying incredibly horrible, racist, genocidal things, and none of that is called out.
There’s a level of accuracy and accountability that corporate media seem to not apply to the Israeli military and to the Israeli government, and it is shocking, and high time, we are well overdue for that to no longer be the case.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sonya Meyerson-Knox of Jewish Voice for Peace, online at JewishVoiceForPeace.org. Sonya Meyerson-Knox, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.
SM: Thank you. It was such a pleasure to be here.
COVER PHOTO: (image of Sonya Meyerson-Knox : Zero Hour)