Photo by Kamal Moon

Sandy Pasch of Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee (second from left) called for a ceasefire in Gaza at a protest in Milwaukee in October. She is joined by Islamic Society Executive Director Othman Atta,  Ala Ismail of  American Muslims for Palestine-Milwaukee and Sha Harvey of JVP Milwaukee.

“We state unequivocally the loss of Israeli lives cannot justify the genocide of Palestinian lives,” said Lorraine Halinka Malcoe, Ph.D., co-coordinator and co-founder of Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee said at a press conference in October held by the newly formed Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine. “We call on all people of conscience to stop the imminent genocide of Palestinians. We demand our government work towards de-escalation and that it immediately stop sending weapons to the Israeli military.”

At the press conference, Malcoe also stated, “Israel does not represent all Jewish people. It is a colonial settler state and it does not represent me as a Jewish person or my Judaism.”

For Malcoe and other members of Jewish Voice for Peace, support for Palestinians is not mere lip service. Chicago police arrested Malcoe and 105 more protesters Nov. 13 for her participation in shutting down access to the Israeli consulate office in the Ogilvie Station in what organizers told WBEZ Chicago was “the largest Midwest gathering of Jews in solidarity with Palestinians.” 

A Fox 32 Chicago report shows Malcoe in a tee-shirt with the message, “Not in my name” on the front and “Ceasefire Now” on the back, hands zip-tied behind her back, waiting to board a paddy wagon.

“Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish individuals in this community have been important allies in calling for an end to Israel’s brutal colonialist occupation of Palestine,” said Janan Najeeb, founder of the coalition of diverse organizations calling for the United States government to end its support of Israeli military attacks on unarmed civilians in Gaza and for fair and accurate media coverage of the war. About 60 diverse Wisconsin-based organizations have joined the coalition. 

“The voice of JVP is very important because Jewish supremacist organizations, like the Jewish Federation, function as mouthpieces for the Israeli government and present themselves as the only credible voice of the Jewish community,” Najeeb told the Wisconsin Muslim Journal. “What has become extremely apparent during the current genocide in Gaza is that hundreds of thousands of Jews are willing to protest and even be beaten and arrested rather than be silent as Israel, armed with U.S. weapons, ethnically cleanses the indigenous Palestinian people.

The JVP Milwaukee chapter is affiliated with the national Jewish Voice for Peace, “the largest progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization in the world,” its website says. It organizes “a grassroots, multiracial, cross-class, intergenerational movement of U.S. Jews in solidarity with the Palestinian freedom struggle, guided by a vision of justice, equality and dignity for all people.”

Photo by Cherrie Hanson

Lorraine Halinka Malcoe, Ph.D., co-founder of Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee denounced Israel’s assault on Gaza at the Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine’s first press conference, Oct. 12, at the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

The Anti-Defamation League sees JVP as “squarely in opposition to mainstream American Jews and Jews worldwide,” its website states. It calls JVP “a radical anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activist group that advocates for the boycott of Israel and eradication of Zionism.” 

WMJ interviewed two of the three co-founders of the JVP Milwaukee chapter to ask about why they do what they do: Professors Rachel Buff, Ph.D., and Jodi Melamed, Ph.D. (WMJ requested an interview from the third co-founder, Professor Lorraine Halinka Malcoe, Ph.D., but she could not be available before publication.) Here are the highlights below:

Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee co-founders Rachel Ida Buff (third from left) and Jodi Melamed (fourth from left) help carry a banner at the Oct. 11 rally for a ceasefire in Gaza in Zeidler Square, Milwaukee.

On the Wisconsin Coalition for Justice in Palestine

Buff: In such difficult times, it is a good thing we have this beautiful coalition in Milwaukee. We’ve been working with Janan Najeeb (founder of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition) and others in the Arab, Muslim, Palestinian community for a long time. 

What is going on in Milwaukee is unique. We are lucky to have this multi-faith, multi-ideological, young left, older left folks coming together. It’s really beautiful and powerful.

Melamed: JVP is committed to being in the coalition not just to call for a ceasefire but to call for full liberation for Palestinians. We want an end to apartheid and military occupation. We want a democratic situation with full rights and equality for everyone. We don’t think Israelis are safe without rights, freedom and safety for Palestinians.

On JVP’s unique role

Buff: We are called to remind both non-Jews and our co-religionists that it is not anti-Semitic to be anti-Zionist. Jews have a specific role here to say the bombing of Gaza is not about Jewish safety. This is not justifiable in our names at all. 

In these times, JVP members are in action everywhere—blocking the Manhattan Bridge, shutting down Grand Central Station. And our action at the Israeli consulate in Chicago. Lorraine came home early from a trip. I was in New York and canceled a dinner with a dear friend. I had to be there.

I’m a historian and I have this theory that there are times in your life where you’re in History with an uppercase H. That’s what this time is like. I’m blown away by what people do and what they risk, watching Lorraine who is in her early 60s, my age, get arrested in Chicago. She was not going to leave without getting arrested! She didn’t get out until 4 a.m. Some people didn’t get out until the next day.

Melamed: As professors, speaking is something we can do. We have people who organize and teach. We want to maintain a presence to educate, to write, to speak in solidarity as progressive Jews of conscience against the incredible state violence in Israel.

You need somebody to stand up and say, “I’m a Jew against Israeli apartheid.” That’s what JVP does. Antisemitism is real and scary and deadly but it has nothing to do with the critique of Israel or caring about Palestinian lives. 

We’d like to think the U.S. government might hear us. In this moment, the visibility of JVP in the Grand Central Terminal takeover, the Statue of Liberty action, shutting down the Israeli consulate in Chicago and other JVP actions show the world Israel’s manipulation and weaponization of Jewish grief and Jewish trauma. We show the world there is Judaism beyond Zionism. Zionism is less than 200 years old. Judaism is long and demands justice and care for the world that is antithetical to what Zionism was from the beginning.

On your motivation

Buff: We watch the Jewish state, founded as a result of the European Holocaust of Ashkenazi Jews and others, commit the act of genocide. We are watching people who mouth “Never again” do the same thing they are talking about never happening again. 

I do not celebrate the murder of civilians by anyone ever. I am sad about what happened on Oct. 7. But I’m appalled and speechless about the lies the Israeli government perpetuates to bomb children and innocent people. 

The fear and Islamophobia they stir culminate in what we saw in Burlington this weekend (when three Palestinian American college students were shot) and the little boy murdered earlier by his landlord in Chicagoland. 

Melamed: My relationship with Palestinians was a big reason I wanted to do this. When I first moved to Milwaukee in 2004, our strong Palestinian community here taught me a lot of the truth about what was going on in historic Palestine. They told me what it was like to live under military occupation, unable to move freely, not being able to practice their professions, being humiliated, always being at risk from an 18-year-old with a rifle. They shared their commitment to be voices in the diaspora for the Palestinians back home. It was a real education for me.

JVP Milwaukee co-founder Jodi Melamed holds up a photo of Anne Frank she carried to protest former Gov. Scott Walker speaking at the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee because of his anti-immigration stance, “like U.S. anti-refugee policies in Frank’s day.

On joining JVP and founding a chapter

Buff: I grew up in the 70s in a Jewish community around Zionists with the idea that Palestinians and Arabs are scary. I didn’t come into relationships with Arabs and Palestinians till later in my life and, I have to say, I haven’t found them scary.

During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the periodic bombardment in the name of Israeli security led us to decide we couldn’t take it anymore. The Jewish Federation was having “Stand with Israel” events we saw as criminal. The organized, mainstream Zionist Judaism in this country is very powerful and very repressive of descent. Israel and its allies in this country have an intense spin machine. 

Melamed: Operation Protective Edge was a smaller scale of what we are seeing now. The racism we saw (in Israel) was horrific to many of us. That’s when we first met as a chapter to say, “Not in our name!”

I grew up with a culturally Jewish tradition that was always at odds with the supremacist policies of the state of Israel. I grew up with grandparents who were humiliated because they were unable to save their relatives from the Holocaust, unable to convince the U.S. government to provide visas, humanitarian or professional, to get here. They were very focused on social justice. They believed the Jewish experience meant you had to create conditions where everyone could thrive, no exceptions. 

I am also a scholar of race, ethnic and indigenous studies. That has made me very aware.

I was already a member of the national JVP. We decided we needed to have a chapter to see what kind of education we could do and how we could give our solidarity and strength voice to be with Palestinians in this struggle.

Photo by Kamal Moon

On JVP today

Buff: A lot of Jews are coming to Jewish Voice for Peace. We can’t onboard people fast enough. I’m hearing this from other chapters around the country, too. Many young Jews don’t see Israel as central to their identity.

Melamed:  Since we started here, we have had a strong core group. We have once-a-month potluck dinners we call “Shabbat-luck dinners”. After Oct. 7 and 8, people have just been showing up for our rallies. Or someone contacts us and says, “I’ve been looking for JVP.” 

On what lies ahead

Buff: There is so much happening right now. My daughter who lives in town said, “Look, Mom, I’ve seen you be really stressed out and overextended, but now more than ever.” I’m all over the place but I can’t imagine not doing this work—connecting with people, protesting, speaking. I feel deeply this is what I need to be doing.

Jodi and I, and ISM executive director Othman Atta be at a talk tonight at Marquette University called, “Anti-Zionism is not Anti-Semitism.”

We are bringing Rabbi Brant Rosen to Marquette University on Dec. 13. He is a well-known pro-Palestinian rabbi who wrote Wrestling with Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity

We are calling and writing our representatives, showing up at their offices with members of the coalition (WCJP).

Melamed: I recently participated in a panel at Marquette called “Black Bodies, Brown Bodies, White Bodies: Thinking the Colonial Present Through Palestine,” where de-colonial educators provided context (which is almost never provided) for what is going on in Gaza. 

Unfortunately, universities are such repressive places now for discussion about Israel-Palestine for Palestinian educators and Palestinian solidarity movements. When they’ve tried to say anything that is a critique of the state of Israel, it’s labelled antisemitic. We are working against that.

On sacrifice

Buff: I joke that I’m the religious wing of our JVP chapter. I’m not Orthodox but I do observe. I’m actually pretty Jewish. I lost a lot by becoming anti-Zionist but I gained more than I lost. I’ve come into such wonderful relationships and powerful connections, I regret not a second of it. 

Melamed: We have family repercussions, alienation, real hate. I’ve been doing this work for a long time, even before joining JVP. I’ve gotten death threats.  But it’s nothing compared to what Palestinians get. 

Chicago police arrested protesters, including Jewish Voice for Peace-Milwaukee co-founder Lorraine Halinka Malcoe, Ph.D., after they blocked access Nov. 19 to the Israeli consulate in Chicago.