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What on Earth Has Happened to the Israeli Peace Movement?

Some groups are trying to draw attention to the carnage in Gaza. But after October 7, most Israelis don’t want to be bothered.

Members of the "Peace Now" movement arrive at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1983
Bettmann/Getty Images
Members of the “Peace Now” movement arrive at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1983.

It’s not hard to find Israelis opposed to the manner in which Bibi Netanyahu’s government is conducting its war in Gaza. Tens of thousands of people march against it every Saturday evening in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in the country. Families of people believed to be held hostage by Hamas protest outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence and even his vacation home in Cesaria. Members of his coalition and war Cabinet are threatening to leave the government over his stiff-necked refusal to even consider a postwar plan for Gaza (thereby leaving open not only the likelihood of endless war but also a new Israeli occupation of Gaza). Other opponents call attention to Israel’s diplomatic isolation, the price the country is paying economically, and the mass displacement of citizens from towns and villages on both its southern and northern borders.

What barely rises above a whisper, however, is the issue that is causing so much anger and anguish in most of the world, in the United States, on college campuses, and among wide swathes of American Jews: the horrific humanitarian costs of the manner in which Israel has chosen to wage this war and the innocent lives that are being destroyed as a result; the very reasons that the International Criminal Court just went ahead with its warrants for the arrest of Benjamin Netanyahu, together with the leaders of Hamas, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the conduct of the current war.

More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed and 80,000 wounded in response to the terrorist attack that killed about 1,200 Israelis and resulted in the kidnapping of perhaps 120 more. It’s not just the numbers, though these are maddeningly high. It’s no exaggeration to say that virtually every day, we read of some new horrific story of hundreds of innocents killed in carelessly targeted bombing raids, shot on the basis of faulty intelligence, of families forced to evacuate one no-man’s land to another, lacking not only food but medicine and potable water. These supplies, donated from the United States and Europe, are routinely refused passage by the Israel Defense Forces at checkpoints. And when they are not, more than a few blind eyes are turned as Israeli right-wing thugs destroy them with apparent impunity.

In search of explanations for this apparent silence, I contacted a number of friends and colleagues in Israel whom I knew to have devoted much of their lives to the cause of peace with the Palestinians to ask about the apparent disappearance of the peace movement just when its influence is most intensely needed.

After all, once upon a time there was a strong and vibrant Israeli peace movement; one strong enough to help elect prime ministers and Knesset majorities. True, it has spent most of its time in opposition since Likud started winning elections in 1977, but it still got things done. In 1982, a massive protest of 400,000 people in Tel Aviv, some one in 10 Jewish Israelis at the time, flooded into a protest meeting following the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon, which led to a commission of inquiry, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s resignation, and the massive growth of the soldier-led Peace Now movement. Decades later, the Four Mothers movement helped sway public opinion in support of a unilateral military withdrawal from southern Lebanon: a remnant of that same, disastrous Israeli invasion.

But that was a different Israel. As the Israeli American pollster and political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin explains it, the number of Israeli Jews who defined themselves as members of the left fell by 50 percent, from 30 percent to just 15 percent in the early 2000s, the other half immediately shifting to the self-defined center, as the right wing’s popularity began to climb, reaching 60 percent of Jewish Israelis by 2019.

There are multiple factors contributing to this transformation. As Scheindlin sees it, “Some of this shift can be explained by demographics, mainly the growth of the religious Jewish population, who are characterized by stalwart right-wing attitudes toward the conflict. But historical events were just as crucial in reshaping Israeli views, specifically, the violence during the Oslo peace process in the 1990s and during the second Intifada in the early 2000s, followed by a series of escalations with Hamas in Gaza in the next decade and the fact that the peace process had vanished. By the next decade, Netanyahu’s long rule via ultranationalist right-wing governments had moved society decisively to the right, and most young people had no memory even of the hope for peace.”

Meanwhile the Israeli left that proved so important to Yitzhak Rabin’s willingness to embrace the Oslo process (and far more reluctantly, the hated leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yassir Arafat), dwindled to close to just 10 percent of Israelis. The so-called “separation wall,” the West Bank barrier built by Israel in the early 2000s, put an end to the terrorist threat from the West Bank and took everyday Israelis’ minds off the fact that an occupation existed at all. Most saw no need to concern themselves with the lives of the people who wanted to take their land away from them and were not altogether opposed to treatment that the increasingly lawless settlers and the IDF meted out to them. In the five consecutive elections conducted over just four years ending in 2022, it was almost impossible to get a mainstream candidate to mention the Palestinians at all. The only two parties to address even a completely hypothetical two-state solution to the conflict did not call for any specific concessions on the part of Israel, and one of them, Meretz, did not even reach the 3.5 percent threshold needed to gain a single seat in the Knesset.

So it was a decidedly dispirited and divided remnant of the peace camp that found itself responding to what has accurately been called the worst attack on Jews anywhere since the Holocaust. All of my correspondents pointed to a similar set of circumstances that explain their fellow citizens’ refusal to question the manner in which their army is fighting this war, regardless of the price it exacts from the Palestinian citizens of Gaza, together with their relative silence in the face of the campaign of violence currently underway on the West Bank, carried out by increasingly radicalized settlers and supported, oftentimes, by both the government and the IDF.

Today, as Yoav Frommer, who teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University, accurately notes, “it is difficult if not delusional to speak anymore of a peace camp on the Israeli left. Yes, there is a very small minority of Jews and Arabs who, admirably one should say, remain committed to this painfully anachronistic ideal, but in all practical terms that ship has sailed years ago, with any remaining lifeboats from it sinking on October 7.”

Yael Sternhell, also a historian at Tel Aviv and board member of the New Israel Fund, an organization that promotes and advances liberal democracy in Israel, notes—like everyone with whom I wrote or spoke—that “the mainstream Israeli media, with the exception of Haaretz, is hiding the truth from the public. It’s bad for ratings, and it’s an opening for a fight with right-wing politicians. Israeli Jews who consume only mainstream media simply have no idea what’s happening down there.” No less important was the factor that she—and again, everyone with whom I wrote or spoke—described as the Israelis’ “deep-seated hatred and suspicion of Palestinians, [which] has been greatly exacerbated by October 7. Many are simply incapable of making the distinction between Hamas and ordinary Palestinians. All are considered either terrorists or potential terrorists. Other Israelis are oblivious. They don’t support starvation or the denial of humanitarian aid, but they also don’t care enough to do anything about it, and the fact that the Israeli media intentionally avoids showing images of human suffering in Gaza enables their callous avoidance of reality.”

Hillel Schenker, who co-edits the excellent Palestine-Israel Journal with the Palestinian attorney and columnist Ziad AbuZayyad, also notes a specific focus among Israelis on “the hostages, the young soldiers who are dying almost daily, and the over 150,000 people from the kibbutzim and villages near the Gaza Strip and near the Lebanese border who are displaced from their homes. The average Israeli doesn’t see, the mainstream electronic media doesn’t show it, or doesn’t want to see, the humanitarian catastrophe that is happening in Gaza.”

Haggai Matar, executive director at the left-wing +972 Magazine, adds that “there are some protests taking place with a focus on what Israel is doing to Gazans, but these get no more than a few hundred participants each, a couple of thousand at the very best.” Owing to October 7, “Israelis feel afraid, their sense of security shattered, seeing not only what Hamas did, but how poor the army’s response was. Considering statements by some in Hamas saying that this was just the first round, and we will be seeing more like it, people see Hamas as an existential threat and buy into the narrative that it can and should be utterly destroyed if we are to live in peace one day.” The result, Mattar observes, is that “even people who still support a two-state solution on the Zionist left” have proven willing to see the army “starve Gazans to death if that’s what it takes to win the war.” These Israelis, in Frommer’s estimation, see the war as “as an existential struggle for survival.”

All of my correspondents wanted to make sure I understood that there are those among Jewish (and Palestinian) Israelis who have not given up on the values that inspired them in the first place, even if news of their efforts does not usually reach the wider world (again, except people who read Haaretz). This past Memorial Day, for instance, Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants and the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families who work together for reconciliation, organized a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial service. It had to be recorded in advance and held online because the government would not allow any Palestinians to attend.

Standing Together, which its website describes as a movement dedicated to “mobilizing Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in pursuit of peace, equality, and social and climate justice,” claims 5,000 dues-paying members. Sternhell tells me the group “has embarked on a massive campaign on choosing life.” They are also in the process of organizing a group of Jewish Israelis to try to protect food and medicine shipments to Gaza from settler/terrorists who have been attacking them of late and dumping the food and medicine—something one would have expected the IDF to be doing. Other organizations Sternhell notes are also working in this space include Zazim, a community action organization comprised of “Jewish and Arab Israelis working together for democracy and equality,” which is sending food trucks to the border. The New Israel Fund has also raised money for José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen. And then Breaking the Silence and B’Teselem are doing the work of documenting and exposing human rights offenses by Israeli soldiers.

One cannot but admire both the bravery and tenacity of these people, whom so many Israelis treat as traitors, somehow sympathetic to Hamas. Some have been physically beaten by both police and West Bank settler/terrorists. They show up at demonstrations to bring the hostages home, to resist Netanyahu’s judicial coup, and to call for new elections—positions endorsed by a majority of Israelis—but are generally ignored at best by those who in the past would have been allies. But will they make a difference? Will their voices even echo beyond their still small numbers at their meetings and demonstrations?

According to Hillel Schenker, the overarching problem is that “we have two highly traumatized societies, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, each immersed in their own pain, with little emotional energy to have empathy for the other side.” He signs off by quoting the Israeli standup comic and peace activist Noam Shuster Eliasi: “From the river to the sea/We all need therapy.”