Members of IfNotNow sing during a protest outside the Los Angeles home of Vice President Kamala Harris calling "on those in power to oppose any policies that privilege one group of people over another, in Israel/Palestine and in the U.S," Oct. 19, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Irfan Khan-Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Members of IfNotNow sing during a protest outside the Los Angeles home of Vice President Kamala Harris calling "on those in power to oppose any policies that privilege one group of people over another, in Israel/Palestine and in the U.S," Oct. 19, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Irfan Khan-Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

More than 700 staffers of Jewish groups, most of them progressive, appeal to Biden for ceasefire in Israel-Hamas war

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Hundreds of staffers for 140 Jewish organizations, most of them progressive, signed a letter to President Joe Biden and Congress urging them to press Israel to agree to a ceasefire in its war with Hamas, citing their work “building thriving Jewish communities.”

Bay Area organizations whose staff are represented on the letter include mainstream entities such as the Jewish Community Center East Bay, JCCSF, San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, Jewish LearningWorks, Jewish Film Institute, Camp Tawonga and Jewish Family & Children’s Services East Bay; congregations including Kehilla Community Synagogue (Renewal) in Piedmont, Chochmat HaLev (Renewal) in Berkeley, Or Shalom Jewish Community (Reconstructionist) in San Francisco, Temple Beth El (Reform) in Aptos and The Kitchen (independent) in San Francisco; and progressive-leaning groups like Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah, Jewish Studio Project, Northern California Workers Circle and Jewish Youth for Community Action.

The letter, which does not necessarily reflect the views of the signatories’ employers, is the latest sign that differences among American Jews regarding Israel’s response to Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 invasion are becoming more public and pronounced. A number of Jewish Congress members now back a ceasefire, after having initially presented a unanimous voice in support of Biden’s backing for Israel.

“We are individuals who work for a wide array of Jewish organizations across the United States, coming together across the broad range of beliefs, practices, backgrounds and identities that make up the rich fabric of the American Jewish community,” said the letter, first reported Thursday by NBC.

“We are uniting together in this moment to call for a ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and a commitment towards a long-term political solution that ensures the freedom and collective safety of Israelis and Palestinians,” the letter said.

The letter comes just weeks after a mass pro-Israel rally on the National Mall, during which speakers enthusiastically endorsed Israel’s refusal to halt its military campaign until Hamas is dismantled and all the hostages it abducted on Oct. 7 are returned home. Hamas released more than 100 hostages in exchange for hundreds of security prisoners during a seven-day ceasefire that ended last week

The letter suggests to the president that the vocal Jewish groups that have opposed the war are also representative of a wide swath of American Jews. Biden prides himself on being attuned to Jewish sensibilities; he has cited his decades of closeness to Israel and to the American Jewish community in resisting calls from the left to press Israel into a ceasefire.

“As a group of professionals from a wide spectrum of Jewish organizations, many of us have devoted our life’s work to building thriving Jewish communities,” said the letter. “Our organizations may or may not join the call for a ceasefire themselves, but we feel moved to speak as individuals to demonstrate broad support within the Jewish community for a ceasefire.”

Most of the organizations listed as affiliates of the signatories are on the left of the political spectrum, among them Bend the Arc, Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, and Workers Circle and its affiliates, all of them social justice advocacy groups. Some of the social justice groups themselves have not endorsed a ceasefire, in part because their focus is on domestic issues. (A Boston spinoff of Workers Circle is an exception, and so is JFREJ.)

There are also staffers from the two leading groups that have mobilized Jewish opposition to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and backed a ceasefire: IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which is anti-Zionist. Left-wing activists point to the visible presence of activists for these groups at antiwar protests to assert that there is Jewish backing for a ceasefire.

But some of the signatories come from groups focused on Israel that have opposed a ceasefire, including J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group. But in another sign of shifting sentiments, J Street said in a press release Thursday that it was reconsidering its position on the war.

There are also staffers for synagogues, some but not all known for their liberal outlook, that have not taken a position on a ceasefire.

More than 80 of the staffers signing asked for anonymity but listed their employers, which include mainstream groups that have backed Israel’s war effort, among them the Reform and Conservative movements. The list includes three anonymous staffers for UJA-Federation of New York, which has raised millions for Israel during the war.

“I signed this letter because all decisions at this fragile moment must be made with lasting peace and safety in mind for all people in the region,” the group’s press release quoted one of the unnamed UJA staffers as saying. “I call on President Biden to take immediate action for a permanent ceasefire, release of all hostages, and a just resolution to this brutal war.”

Heather Booth, a consultant for Jewish groups who did not sign the letter, urged the mainstream Jewish groups employing some of the signatories not to retaliate.

“Those who have signed the letter are responding to their values,” Booth told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We may or may not agree with what they’re signing and saying and I didn’t sign this myself for many reasons. But I support their right to share their passionate commitment to their values.And it’s a sign of these times at some on the list fear retribution for signing.”

In a press release, a Boston-area rabbi said her support for a ceasefire stemmed in part from her revulsion from Hamas.

“For the sake of defeating the insidious ideology of Hamas, for the sake of returning all of the hostages to their homes, for the sake of the wellbeing of all of the Israelis and Palestinians caught up in this war, I urge the Biden administration to do all it can to bring about a ceasefire as a first step to a lasting, political solution to the conflict,” said Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Newton.

The letter comes as a number of Jewish Democrats in Congress have in recent days called for a ceasefire, or have called for restrictions on emergency aid Biden has requested for Israel that has yet to be approved. One of the Democrats, Rep. Becca Balint of Vermont, made a statement in support of the letter.

“Thousands of Palestinians, including thousands of children, have been killed. Many more have been displaced, without water, food, medical supplies, and fuel,” she said. “This is inhumane. What is needed is a negotiated bilateral ceasefire that ensures the release of all hostages and paves a path toward peace, security and safety for Israelis and Palestinians.”

Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and wounded thousands on Oct. 7, most of them civilians. Since Israel launched counterstrikes and a ground invasion of Gaza, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry has reported that some 17,000 people have been killed, including thousands of children. What portion of that number are combatants, and what portion were killed by misfired rockets aimed at Israel, is not known. Israel has estimated that twice as many civilians as militants have died in its counteroffensive.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.