During the 11-day barrage of rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel in May 2021, there were dozens of orchestrated attacks against Jews in the United States and around the world by supporters of the Palestinian cause. These attacks included college students in Naperville, Illinois, Iranian American Jews and their Christian friends in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jews in New York City, and a rabbi in Boston among others. In response, on July 11 three thousand American Jews and their allies attended the “No Fear” Rally, intended to build solidarity between Jews around the principle that antisemitism in the United States is a growing concern that must be forcefully rejected. But the rally’s significance is as complicated as the politics of polarization surrounding Israel and Zionism.
The rally was initially conceived of by educator and activist Dr. Melissa Landa, Executive Director of Alliance for Israel. She had spearheaded an earlier rally in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. At that first rally, Landa realized that many attendees needed and wanted American Jews and their allies to resist the atmosphere of fear created by anti-Zionists and antisemites. That realization was reinforced when members of the Alliance for Israel contacted her from across the country and asked her to take action.
To promote solidarity among Jewish groups and to urge Jews to stand up and be vocal against antisemitism, Landa decided another, larger rally must be held, and a grassroots movement was created. Landa was eventually contacted by Elisha Wiesel, a philanthropist and son of the beloved Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Together they expanded the number of Jewish groups that sponsored the rally to more than one hundred. Some of these included the American Jewish Committee—Washington, the Anti-Defamation League—Washington, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, Combat Antisemitism, End Jew Hatred, B’nai Brith International, Zioness, the member organizations of the Reform and Conservative movements, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Community Relations Councils of Greater Washington, Jewish Federations of North America, StandWithUs, Jewish National Fund, American Zionist Movement, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Alums for Campus Fairness, Birthright Israel, and the Israel Forever Foundation.
One of the criteria both Landa and Wiesel agreed upon for co-sponsorship of the rally was that groups signing on could not hold a position that denied Israel the right to exist as a Jewish state. In other words, anti-Zionists could not co-sponsor the rally. In their view, much of the antisemitism that has recently emerged is directly related to Israel, and the “No Fear” concept includes the right of Jews to demonstrate their love and support for Israel without condemnation or fear. As such, the message during the rally included addressing anti-Zionism, or the denial of collective self-determination for the Jewish people, as a new form of antisemitism.
Groups such as Americans for Peace Now and J Street objected vehemently to the rally and denounced it publicly. Hadar Susskind, President of Americans for Peace Now, stated, “This rally looks like it will conflate criticism of the occupation and criticism of Israeli actions with anti-Zionism, and will say anti-Zionism is antisemitic, and we want no part of that.”
The rally was conceived to impart the message that anti-Zionism—not criticism of Israeli policies—is in fact antisemitism. As actor and writer Noa Tishby stated at the rally, “Today’s Jew haters simply attribute all the evil tropes, lies and libels used for centuries to justify the worse horrors against the Jewish people, to the Jewish state.” No longer will the denial of the collective rights of Jews to exist in their ancestral homeland be acceptable. No longer will supporters of Israel (or, Zionists) be demonized by academics, congresspersons or people on the streets. No longer will it be acceptable to hold Israel to a standard to which no other country in the world is ever held.
The rally was conceived to impart the message that anti-Zionism—not criticism of Israeli policies—is in fact antisemitism.
Daniel Raab, a university student from Naperville Illinois, stated that he and his sister received dozens of death threats and were ultimately attacked in a pro-Israel rally they had organized in their hometown. Their flags were burned and their cars were damaged as their assailants shouted, “Kill the Jews!” Raab stated, “Our persecutors wish to pry us from supporting our homeland, and fear is their weapon of choice, but now is the time for courage.” Dr. Andrew Pessin mentioned the hundreds of academics—the ones who are educating our children—who signed vehemently ant-Zionist petitions. Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Sen. John McCain remarked, “Anyone who’s trying to pollute and distort Zionism as some kind of dirty word, is antisemitic.” Arizona State Representative Alma Hernandez (D) said, “I am damn proud to be a Zionist. I am a Democrat, and I will not allow anyone to ever make me choose one of my identities!” Ron Halber, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, an organization with over 300,000 members, stated, “It doesn’t matter whether you cloak your hatred against Jews in white supremacy or in double standards against Israel … we will unapologetically support the state of Israel.”
There was no clearer example of the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, however, than that of first-generation Iranian American Jew Matthew Haverim, the victim of the antisemitic attack in Los Angeles, California on May 18, 2021. That evening, his assailants were marching with keffiyah masks and Palestinian flags to show support for Palestine as the conflict between Hamas and Israel raged. They were angered when their demands to cheer for Palestine were ignored by Haverim and his friends. They then asked, “Are you Jewish?”—to which Haverim immediately said, “Yes, we are.” One of their assailants then taunted, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” and then beat the men to the point that they required urgent medical care. Haverim closed his speech with a poignant statement about his parents fleeing Iran in 1979 to escape the Ayatollah Khomeini’s anti-Zionist antisemitism: “Within a generation, the shameful poison of antisemitism that corrupted the soil they left has now crept up on our doorposts here in the United States.” Haverim reminded listeners that the antisemitism his parents experienced came in the form of anti-Zionism.
Another recurrent theme was the insistence that antisemitism in the U.S. comes from both sides of the political spectrum, a fact finally realized by the many centrists cosponsoring the rally. In Congress, members on both sides of the aisle have made antisemitic remarks. To their credit, both Democrat and Republican Jewish organizations attended the rally to drive home this point.
Many references were made about public servants on both sides of the aisle who have trafficked in antisemitism. Landa opened the rally with an exhortation to the crowd that the antisemitic statements of politicians such as Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Marjorie Taylor Green desecrate their oaths of office and erode public trust. McCain stated, “It’s important to call out white supremacists on the far right as it is people on the far left … people like Ilhan Omar who think they are the only voices in this space are damn sure wrong.” McCain urged members of Congress to call out antisemitism in their own parties. Rep. Hernandez (D-Az) stated, “We need to call out hate and bigotry regardless of what side of the aisle it is on … it happens on both.” JCRCGW’s Halber said, “We will hold both of our political parties and their elected officials responsible and accountable.”
Finally, Haverim ended his speech with a statement about politicians in both parties: “We are gathered here because we now face persecution from our fellow Americans on our streets, on our campuses, on social media, and from some right here in D.C. If our leaders can’t call out antisemitism in Congress, how can we expect them to keep us safe on the street?”
Jessica Emami, PhD, is an Iranian American sociologist and Middle East expert living in Washington, D.C.