I have never seen violence like this before.
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On March 26 I stood with IfNotNow and around 1,000 other young Jews to #ResistAIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. We were there to voice dissent on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, now entering its 50th year, and AIPAC’s role in perpetuating it. During the protest, I was assigned to be a marshal, meaning that it was my job -- along with the other marshals -- to keep everyone at the protest safe.
Our plan for the action was to shut down two of the major entrances to the convention center where the conference was held; the entrances were about block away from each other. The march was to split in two when we arrived at the primary entrance to the convention center on Mt Vernon Street, with the second half rounding the corner and blocking the second entrance, on L Street.
As we approached the convention center, I noticed a small group, waving large yellow and black flags. As we passed, they shouted “Kapo” at us and swung their flags high, which featured a Star of David with a clenched fist in the center. I would later learn they were members of the Jewish Defense League - and organization that the SPLC considers a hate group and that the FBI labeled a terrorist organization in 2001 - but as I walked past them, I had no idea who they were. I wasn’t scared of them; if anything, I felt emboldened by their epithets - our program during the action would be proof enough of the fact that we were stewards of the Jewish moral tradition.
I was assigned to the second entrance, so I followed the march past the JDL members, around the corner to L Street. Shortly after I arrived, an action coordinator with a concerned look on her face came up to me and asked me to lead a group of marshals to the primary entrance. Apparently something had happened there, and they wanted reinforcements.
When I and about twenty other people arrived, there were more JDL members, about two dozen of them, waving the same flag, along with American and Israeli flags. Most were men who were large and burly. A number of police officers stood outside their cars on the sidelines, seemingly watching the situation but not intervening.
The marshals I led walked past the flag-carrying men and into the crowd. We stood on the perimeter of the protest, between the IfNotNow protest the line of flag-bearing JDL members. A marshal who had been at this entrance the whole time came over to tell us what had happened. Before he could explain the situation to us, the JDL rushed us.
At first I didn’t know what was happening. After a moment of confusion, though, it was clear that we were being attacked. The flags that the JDL members had been waving earlier were tilted down, the butt of the flagpoles pointed towards us. I - along with the other marshals - put my body in between the JDL and the rest of the crowd. We held them off, preventing them from rushing into the crowd for minutes; eventually, police officers came and pulled the JDL away from us.
Somehow, miraculously, we prevented them from causing mass injuries to protesters in the IfNotNow crowd, though the JDL flagpoles later gave one of our members a concussion and sent a Palestinian professor to the hospital.
Once the police pulled the JDL off of us, they continued to harass us. Though a police line separated us, one JDL member stood across from me and stared, yelling “You’re worse than a Nazi” and other epithets directly at me. I stood, holding hands with IfNotNow members on either side of me, and smiled. We sang traditional Jewish songs and prayers, as well as songs from current and historical Jewish social justice struggles. I was - and am - proud to be part of a movement that makes joyousness central to its mission. While the JDL expressed violence and rage, I and the rest of IfNotNow expressed ourselves through joy and love for each other, our Jewish heritage, and the moral community we are building that centers freedom and dignity over occupation and division.
A few minutes later, men wearing AIPAC lanyards came out to join the JDL protesters. They joked with them and slapped them on the back. When the JDL chanted “Kapos” at us, the AIPAC members joined them. One JDL member tried to burn a Koran. When she couldn’t get it to light, she ripped the pages out and stomped them into the ground; her JDL comrades and the AIPAC participants cheered her on.
AIPAC spokespeople have claimed that they condemn “the violence that occurred” outside the conference, but have ignored the fact that attendees of their own conference cheered it on, rather than attempt to stop it.
This, of course, is unsurprising: AIPAC routinely advocates for violent policies that uphold the occupation. Though the attacks outside of the AIPAC conference were committed by the JDL, they were done in defense of AIPAC and were entirely consistent with AIPAC’s ideology: that Jews must defend Israel at all costs. Most often, this is structural, occurring via Israeli policies that incite conflict with Palestinians through the building of settlements and illegal land grabs. In this case, though, it was personal: through a group of Jews attempting to beat up others Jews for the public expression of their beliefs. The violence committed by the JDL outside the AIPAC conference was merely a small manifestation for us, as American Jews, of what the consequences of AIPAC’s actions are for Palestinians every day.
I have a message to the JDL and AIPAC.
To the members of the JDL: you thought your violence would intimidate us. Instead, it made us stronger. Your violence only demonstrated the extent to which Jews will seek to attack and bully others for speaking their conscience about Israel and Palestine.
And to AIPAC: your complicity and silence speaks just as loudly as the JDL’s violence. It is outrageous that you have refused to condemn the JDL’s violence on your doorstep.
As the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories enters its 50th year, we must reject the JDL, AIPAC and all that they stand for. In place of a Judaism built upon and expressed through violence, hatred, and unchecked nationalism, we must reclaim and reimagine our Judaism to be one that stands for joy, dignity, and freedom for all people.
Benjamin Bernard-Herman is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is an active member of IfNotNow Chicago. Follow him on Twitter: @bbernardherman.