Gold being arrested by the Israeli military in 2015. (FOR/Hamdi Abu Rahma)

On the fierceness of nonviolence — a conversation with Ariel Gold

FOR’s new executive director discusses her upbringing, Palestine and the role the interfaith organization has in tackling the biggest issues facing humanity.
Gold being arrested by the Israeli military in 2015. (FOR/Hamdi Abu Rahma)

Ariel Gold is the first Jewish executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In the long history of Jewish peacemaking and pacifism, Gold represents a new iteration of Jewish peace activist.

After World War I, some American Jews were moved to join the then-novel non-sectarian pacifist organizations such as the War Resisters League, the various left-wing groups, and, of course, the FOR — where Jews have served on the National Council for decades.

Organized American Jewish pacifism got a boost with the establishment of the Jewish Peace Fellowship in 1941, co-founded by a rabbi-professor, Abraham Cronbach, who, quixotically, sought to stave off the coming world war, and then, once war struck, sought fellowship and reconciliation with German POWs in nearby detention centers.

From the 1940s through the 1990s, American Jews on the left, including the pacifist left, were often, though not always, committed to some form of humanistic Zionism. The Arab-Israeli wars were widely understood as tragic conflicts between a peaceable Israel and a belligerent Arab World.

By the end of the 1970s, in Israel, power shifted from the social democratic Labour Party to the nationalist right, and besides a few precious years in the 1990s, Labour never fully recovered its earlier idealism. Since the rise of Netanyahu and the Palestinian organization Hamas in the mid-1990s, the violence of the Israeli state against an increasingly beleaguered Palestinian population has produced a new generation of American Jews disillusioned with the state of Israel, even having second thoughts on the Zionist project itself. As small sectors of American Jews have become more anti-Zionist, the Jewish Israeli population has grown increasingly undemocratic, chauvinistic and militaristic toward the Palestinian people, including rising open hostility to the Arab citizens of Israel, who make up over 20 percent of the population.

As is the case for many American Jews today, Ariel Gold’s pro-Palestinian commitment emerged out of horror at the violence of the Israeli state towards Palestinians in its punishing assaults on the Gaza strip, as well as firsthand observation of Israel’s stranglehold over Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank through what activist Jeff Halper has called a “matrix of control.” Gold comes to FOR from years of anti-occupation activism. She is so much an agitator that, because of her activism, she has been denied entry to the state of Israel.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In your testimony “My Jewish Story” in the edited collection “Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism” you mentioned that you came to Israel/ Palestine activism relatively late in your career. Before then, what kind of activism had you been involved with?

I grew up in the anti-nuclear and antiwar movement of the 1980s. My parents had met in college during the Vietnam war and were very active. They divorced, and my mother stayed very engaged in street activism. We lived in Gainesville, Florida, not too far from Cape Canaveral. So I spent a lot of my childhood at the military base, and was probably marching alongside FOR people then — there were a lot of faith-based activists. I would ask my mom: “Why is it always the priest or the nun that goes first in civil disobedience?”

I did my first civil disobedience when I was 15, at a Nevada nuclear test site. I would like to say that I was always politically minded, but really, at 15, I just wanted to play around.

You were surrounded by Christian activists, but what was your experience with Jews and Judaism?

I grew up so secular — which is a little bit confusing, because on my father’s side we were long-time Zionists before it was popular. Early in the 1900s in Utica, New York, my maternal grandmother’s family formed an early chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, raising money for the state of Israel. But I didn’t go to Hebrew school, I wasn’t bat mitzvah’ed, I was very secular. So my knowledge was very minimal.

I knew lots of us got made fun of, being Jewish, on Christmas. I didn’t have any of those experiences. I remember in the fourth grade, it was very exciting, because there was one other Jewish kid in the class who was very popular and cute; everyone thought he was great. During Christmas we were sectioned off to our own table, with blue construction paper, and told to “do your thing.”

I didn’t have much real religious consciousness. My father remarried a Protestant. My mother was very culturally Jewish, but not religious. In Ithaca, New York, there’s not a huge Jewish population. I was raised with a lot of internal antisemitism, that came through the general culture. I remember thinking about how my family was seen by others: that we were really gross, and that when we all ate, we interrupted each other. We can all talk at once and all know what each other is saying. I grew up with a lot of inner hatred about that. I thought I had this giant nose! It’s really not that big, and now I really like it.

My grandmother is still alive — she’s 102. She was a huge part of my childhood and is still part of my adulthood. She is culturally Jewish in every way that you can think of — ethnic, loud and just Jewish; Yiddish was her first language.

When I reached adulthood I felt like a huge part of me was missing; that I didn’t even have the option to reject Judaism! So I started to explore being Jewish in every way: I enrolled in Hebrew classes, took classes in college, I read every Holocaust book I could find. I started dipping a toe into showing up to services — but feeling very shy about it.

Had you been attentive to Israel/Palestine issues then?

As an adult I heard about the occupation and I was very opposed to it. It sounded dreadful, terrible, but I still thought somewhere, “We must be really confused, because Jews are really good people, and we mean well.” I remember I had a poster that said something like “I love Israel, I hate the occupation” — a liberal Zionist slogan that hung on my walls for years. But Israel wasn’t my main focus. I did a lot of local politics, and anti-Iraq War politics, and then I was raising my kids.

What was your “road to Damascus” moment?

It was the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza that really tripped me out. My kids were old enough that I could drag them out to the protest, so we went, and I cried, a lot. But I went back to life, my kids were still young (five, seven), I was a single mom. Then in 2012, a short war happened, a week long. Again, I was just horrified, and I said to myself: “I will never want to wonder, where I was when this was happening. To be asked, what was I doing when these things were happening, when my people killed children?” And I haven’t really stopped since.

I had just finished my graduate degree (my Master’s is in social work) but I wasn’t working yet. I wanted to do macro-level work and community organizing rather than personal one-on-one or family therapy. So I was looking around. I worked for awhile at the Friends of Sabeel North America, a Christian Palestine rights organization: I designed a BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] campaign for them. That wound down; it was a temporary position.

CODEPINK was organizing civil disobedience against Netanyahu, who was in town for the AIPAC convention. I had always been a fan of their bold and colorful tactics. I met Medea Benjamin and was arrested in that action. It was its own challenge, as most arrests are; there’s a negotiation with the police and wanting to get your message across so it’s not just a stunt, but that you’re telling a story. After that, CODEPINK was looking for a temporary intern to lead a delegation to the West Bank. By then I had already been going to the West Bank, so I said to the co-director at the time that I would be interested in doing this, in between things. Can I send you my resume? Medea said, “Your resume is when you were arrested at AIPAC!” So I never actually applied to work at CODEPINK. There I worked on the war on Ukraine, Venezuela and a lot of parts of the Middle East. But my specialty is Israel-Palestine, and that, naturally, is what I read in the morning.

So in more than a dozen years of really intense work on Palestinian solidarity and the issues of the Middle East, what has worked?

I don’t want to discount any part of the activism, but BDS has. But not in the same way that it did in the South African struggle: It’s a different country, a different time. BDS has made only the tiniest dent in Israel’s economy. But we have raised the issue, and brought awareness — sometimes good, sometimes backfiring. What I’m really impressed by in terms of that movement are two things. One: young Palestinian diaspora, and young Arab Americans, taking power and raising up their struggle and telling their story, eventually moving into having their voices heard. For a long time, when a journalist wanted to record a story, they would look to Jewish voices or Christian voices, and not Palestinian voices. So there’s been a lot of work that’s been done there. Two: Jewish youth. We have moved the needle in our own community in the last five years.

For so long, it was those of us who were anti-occupation organizers — and I did a lot of work that I’m very proud of, before I got banned from Israel: on the ground, living in the West Bank, and working one-to-one with Palestinian families and activist groups engaging in nonviolent direct action. I was much older when I reached an age to say, “This is really ugly and awful and this is not the Judaism I love.” Jewish youth of my children’s generation are finding out much younger about what is happening. This is the shift in young Jewish opinion. I saw it in my own kids.

Tell me about your own family’s relationship to Judaism.

Gold at her son’s bar mitzvah. (Ariel Gold)

I raised my kids in a very Reform, URJ [Union for Reform Judaism], environment. They went to Hebrew school, they were bar and bat mitzvah’ed, and most importantly Jewish summer camp, which was the basis of their whole friendship groups. They started at age seven. While my son was there, only two grade-years above my daughter, he was very badly bullied because of me — because my politics were known, because I had pulled some stunts with CODEPINK. And both of my kids, at their bar and bat mizvahs, talked about Palestinian human rights. He was teased and called “little Hamas.”

But only two years later, my daughter, she didn’t have the same experience. By the time she was coming of age at camp, many in the Jewish world were familiar with [the Jewish organization] J Street, with liberal Zionism, and questioning what was taking place. So we’ve seen this shift, and I very much believe this is only the beginning of the changes that the next generation of Jewish youth are going to bring. I think we are already seeing it: We see the state of Israel not relying on the American Jewish community for support, but relying on the Evangelical Christian community. And they said as much — that “American Jews have given up on us.” Jewish youth did that: They shifted [the positions of] their parents and grandparents.

FOR was founded in Europe in 1914, and in the U.S. the next year. It has taken on some of the most important questions of that last century. What do you see as the role for FOR going forward within a larger institutional activist ecosystem? How do you see its mission?

One of the things I think is very important is that FOR already has been, in name, interfaith: committed to the diversity of religion. It’s one of the reasons I’m really proud to be its first Jewish director, bringing my own faith-based perspective to finding the commonalities between the three Abrahamic faiths and beyond. Because there is that commonality of humanity and love and nonviolence.

What really attracted me to FOR is a reflection of where we are in this ecosystem.

We’re not going to be leading the Palestine work in FOR. There are credible organizations of young Palestinians, Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and others who are leading that. FOR made a decision a few years ago to focus on national issues, to look at what’s going on here in the U.S., because we all know our country is a mess.

FOR-USA’s domestic focus takes a bite out of the larger picture. We are part of the work towards a less fascist, less racist, less military-budgeted, more human needs-focused world. And for us to make an impact worldwide, we have to clean up what’s going on here at home.

Taking that on, and considering what’s unique about FOR, our niche — in a time when we are shrunken in organizational size — is our interfaith approach. That we can come from a faith-based position, coming from multiple faiths, and being part of this larger peace-and-justice ecosystem. To transform ourselves here domestically and to let that shine outward.

When we look at the field of religious organizations and advocacy groups on the move, where do you see FOR fitting in in terms of issues?

I’m glad the FOR is going to focus on domestic issues because we are a hot spot, and not just of imperialism. We’re becoming a multipolar world. We — the U.S. — are just not the singular power we once were. I’m a campaigner, so I think in terms of campaigning: What can we collectively and strategically and measurably contribute? If you want to get your message out you need to be in the conversation in our country, addressing the economic and racial injustices which are so deeply embedded in our systems. And the intersecting issues which have long been FOR’s work, specifically concerning white nationalism and white supremacy — these are also Jewish issues.

What is the nonviolent approach to the far right?

We often think of nonviolence and pacifism as “passive” but they are absolutely the opposite. When we look at the teachings of some of the great leaders, Martin Luther King to Medea Benjamin, it’s not at all about being passive, but about reflecting a mirror on the systemic violence, the racism … and creating friction at that point.

Gold arrested at a Senate confirmation hearing. (Code Pink/Ariel Gold)

You can have many different goals in an action, and those goals can range from capturing the media, when they are pointing cameras on you in a Congressional hearing — or on your sign! — to disrupting daily life. It’s really about friction, about showing the contrast. Systemic violence: racism, gun violence, white nationalism and fascism; from India to Israel to Hungary and Brazil to here in the U.S. — it’s rising everywhere. Showing that absolute difference, that contrast, is where faith comes in as I practice it, as we at FOR since 1914 practice it: love and nonviolence.

What do you see as the biggest issues confronting humanity?

We can’t get away from the environmental crisis, the climate crisis bearing down on us. On my children. But we’re not at the 11th hour, and so I want to look at the intersections of how this is all so much one issue. What we have to face in the long term are the structures of capitalism, and corporations and consumerism, and resource wars, and it’s a very large picture, and we can see it going on in Ukraine right now, and I’m watching in horror. But as long as we are doing what we can — and that’s all we can do — we can all take on a piece of the problem. It doesn’t matter which piece you take up. That’s the only hope we have. Lest we abandon hope, in this cataclysmic situation that we’re in, both climate-wise and war-wise.

How then do you deal with possible ideological conflict, or different priorities, within the circles of people you are working with? With FOR trying to bring in different religious communities or individuals, there are inevitably going to be conflicts underneath us all saying “We are all for love and justice and peace!” That stance can produce a blurring of differences actually existing on the ground, for example, around reproductive rights. What’s your strategy for navigating those differences?

I am a very strong advocate for reproductive rights. We have to look at the larger forms of structural violence, and at what it means to address the needs and health of the mother, regardless of our religious beliefs. Because if we are committed to building a better, more loving, more just world, then it isn’t simply a question of destroying a fetus, but a question of structural violence and structural inequality, and the ways they play out on women and LGBT+ folks and people of color, and the impoverished, and so many issues.

As an interfaith organization it is necessary that we respect all faiths. To deny women abortion rights is a violation of religious freedom, certainly in the Jewish case. So we may all have our own opinions, but as a faith-based organization, having freedom of religion must take priority.

What motivates you to do the work you do?

I think of the Pete Seeger lyrics to “My Name is Lisa Kalvelage”: “The day of our protest/Put a small balance weight on the other side/Hopefully, someday my contribution to peace/Will help just a bit to turn the tide.”

When my children or grandchildren will ask me, I want to answer that our work made some impact, that I placed some weight on the balance scales for justice. Where was I in effecting change for my people? Where was I in trying to turn this tide?

Sounds a lot like the Christian idea of “the witness,” when awareness comes, and things are shown, and consciousness is changed, but the world doesn’t change. I think of — call it Jewish activism — as one that gets things done, that passes laws, that mobilizes institutions.

Sometimes it is just awareness. Sometimes it’s passing bills and making laws. In Palestinian activism, we were out there on our own, just standing on a rainy street corner with signs and umbrellas. It was not an easy path to take. People in my synagogue were offended by my advocacy. But we don’t know that change is going to take place. And then it comes: Suddenly there will be laws, we have bills in Congress, something unheard of 10 years ago.

Pacifists are facing a difficult dilemma with Ukraine. What are your thoughts and analysis?

I am a pacifist, but both growing up, and more recently, I’ve had to question it. The recent Russia-Ukraine war has been a challenge, because there’s an instinctual “Yes, Ukraine should win this!” And it feels good. But I had to go back and take stock of what I believe.

I’m against all fighting here — but it’s almost an easy way out. So we have to work in coalition, and we have to find commonalities with our coalition partners. I have friends on very different sides of this. Some are very apologetic for Russia because of U.S. imperialism, and others are gung-ho that Ukraine should not give an inch, and deserve the arms they are getting. But what do we all agree on? That what is happening over there is not sustainable, and could likely explode. Think of damage to that nuclear power plant! I grew up around anti-nuclear activism, and I wake up at night terrified what might happen.

So what do we agree on? We know this war has got to stop, so we can agree on that; and that we have to find a way to negotiations, we have to find a cease-fire. As FOR, we only get to take a small bite out of this. But we can support pacifists in Russia, refusers in Russia, the peace movement in Russia — those people we can reach out and support. There are pacifists in Ukraine, too. We know more about them because they can get their voices out better. We can support civil society; we can support people on the ground who demand an end to this fighting. We need to be first in exporting diplomacy to Ukraine; we can offer an off-ramp.

But keep in mind that the U.S is not innocent in this equation at all. I’ve worked with people in Ukraine that say it’s the U.S.’s fault, because of NATO expansion, and U.S. involvement in the 2014 uprising that took place in Ukraine. So we have to build as big a tent as we can, in order to show what pacifists bring to the table.

Pacifism is now a voice in the wilderness, especially among the vast majority of liberal- minded religious communities in the U.S. Will FOR be that voice in the wilderness?

We, FOR-USA, we lift up that piece of it. In the U.S., we do whatever work we can to bring nonviolence into the conversation. Certainly FOR in Europe is dealing with all this, including the expansion of NATO. Pacifism may be a voice in the wilderness for us, but the war is on their doorstep.

Pacifism doesn’t have much appeal to my students, who oppose state violence but are not horrified by the violence of the resistance, whether that be aggressive antifa violence toward racists and white nationalists or those in the Global South opposing colonization and occupation.

This is nothing new. FOR has been dealing with this since its founding. Pacifists in FOR went on record as such in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. We were always met with pushback from other activists. I think it’s our job as long-time pacifists, long-time nonviolence activists, to educate and show and lead by example with the fierceness of nonviolence. That is something CODEPINK does very well, and I was proud to do it with them. And that is what FOR has done throughout its history. We can show people that nonviolence is about getting at the meat of the conflict. It’s about building as big a tension as we can.

How are we going to achieve degrees of justice and hold on to that justice? There is an old saying that the day after the revolution, the revolutionaries become the oppressors. We’ve seen it in many places. We’ve seen it in the generation following the Holocaust. So to achieve our part of the movement for a better world, we have to act as a part of that better world. It’s up to pacifists to model the fierceness of nonviolence as the heart of the struggle. This is not a drop in the bucket. This is a fierceness that we bring as we go up against white nationalists, against a military-industrial world. It’s fierceness that we bring.

This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.

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