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War in Gaza Causes Surprising Rift Within Japanese American Group

In the 1970s, leaders at the Japanese American Citizens League, one of the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organizations, felt the prospect of reparations for their wartime incarceration was out of reach.

Many Americans knew little about how the government had imprisoned more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens, during World War II. Large civil rights organizations were preoccupied with the broader fight for gender and racial equality, and even other Asian American groups were reluctant to support reparations.

Then came a surprising endorsement from the American Jewish Committee. It was the start of a decades-long bond between two of the country’s most established Jewish and Japanese American civil rights groups — a relationship cherished by both of their communities.

But a new generation of Japanese Americans is now pushing to sever ties with two prominent Jewish American organizations. In a recent letter, a group of mostly young activists calling themselves Nikkei4Palestine urged the Japanese American Citizens League to take a stronger stance in support of Palestinians by calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and renouncing affiliations with Jewish groups they labeled “Zionist.”

It was the latest example of how the Israel-Hamas war has roiled cultural and political institutions far beyond the Middle East, and not just among groups with direct ties to the region. While most Japanese Americans vote Democratic, an increasingly vocal generation of young activists is trying to push their parents’ and grandparents’ civil rights group further to the left.

The Nikkei4Palestine leaders wrote in late December that the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League had promoted human rights “while consciously omitting calls for equal and fair treatment of Palestinians” and conflating any criticism of Israeli government policies with antisemitism. They argued that Japanese Americans were being complicit with the Israeli military attacks in Gaza by standing with those organizations and not denouncing U.S. financial support for Israel.

“I think it is important to help build bridges,” Riki Eijima, 26, one of the letter’s organizers, said in an interview last month. “I think you can also hold your colleagues accountable.”

In the letter, the activists called Israel’s actions in Gaza — which have killed more than 33,000 people, according to Gazan health authorities — a “genocidal campaign.” They drew a comparison between the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans and the dire living conditions that Palestinians in Gaza experienced before the war.

“In our community, we often say ‘never again,’” they wrote in the letter, which has been signed by more than 360 people, including many young J.A.C.L. members. “But we must ask, ‘never again’ for whom?”

Many older members believe the situation is more complex. They reasoned in meetings that Japanese Americans had a unique understanding of what it was like to be blamed for the actions of a country that was not their own. Denouncing Israel, they worried, would only inflame the hatred amid reports of rising antisemitism and Islamophobia across the United States.

And, they argued, the American Jewish Committee’s unexpected support helped to change the tide of their movement and paved the way for the Japanese American community to secure redress in 1988, which gave $20,000 in reparations and a formal apology to those who were incarcerated during World War II. The Anti-Defamation League, another prominent Jewish organization, had also provided crucial backing.

How could the Japanese American community turn its back on those same groups now?

“There’s no reason the A.J.C. or the Jewish community had to be concerned about the redress campaign,” recalled John Tateishi, 84, an incarceration camp survivor and community leader who helped spearhead the effort and the author of “Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations.” “I think they felt a kind of obligation because they understood our experience.”

Community leaders are as mindful of the political arithmetic as they are about values. Japanese Americans constitute only 0.4 percent of the country’s population and has to build coalitions to have influence, leaders said.

“The reality is that Asian Americans remain a very small part of this country, and it’s only by working with members from these other communities that we can truly make progress on things,” David Inoue, the league’s executive director, said.

The Nikkei4Palestine activists urged their community to seek partnerships with Palestinian American and Muslim American groups, along with Jewish organizations calling for a cease-fire, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. The activists accused the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee of hurting marginalized communities and falsely labeling any critic of Israel as an antisemite.

In separate statements, the two prominent Jewish groups rejected the accusations, citing their decades-long efforts fighting antisemitism and all forms of hate and bigotry. The American Jewish Committee called the activists “a fringe minority” that was “seeking to sever relationships while oversimplifying extremely complex issues rather than engaging in thoughtful discussion.”

Jewish American organizations have long said they believed their fate as a minority group was tied to that of other communities of color. Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said that organizations should be able to work together without being aligned on every issue.

“I don’t say, ‘Let me sit back and review all the particular policy decisions of all the organizations we work with,’” Mr. Greenblatt said in an interview.

The Israel-Hamas war has widened divisions in other Asian American communities, with members likewise viewing the Middle East crisis through their own experiences. In the South Asian community, for example, pro-Palestinian progressive organizations have drawn parallels between the ideology of a Jewish state and Hindutva, a Hindu nationalist agenda espoused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Other groups have taken a more pro-Israel stance, seeing a connection between antisemitism and anti-Hindu sentiment.

Founded in 1929 as an advocacy organization for Japanese Americans, the Japanese American Citizens League has been a hub to connect and learn about the community’s culture and history. Today, the San Francisco-based group has more than 8,000 members, with 99 local chapters across the country as well as offices in Washington.

Over the years, the league has supported other vulnerable communities. It was one of the first organizations to condemn bigotry against Muslim Americans and Sikhs after the Sept. 11 attacks, speaking with the authority of Americans who had unfairly been demonized during World War II.

It spoke out again when former President Donald J. Trump banned immigration from a group of Muslim-majority countries, recalling the nation’s history of exclusionary acts against immigrants from Japan and China. And it has been active in helping the Black community seek reparations for slavery and Jim Crow.

Activists said the league’s outsize influence was precisely why they were pressing the group to do more.

“We were talking about all the ways that large Japanese American organizations that very much do have a lot of power have not been saying anything, most prominently, the J.A.C.L.,” said KC Mukai, 24, a young Japanese American and third-generation group member who helped draft the open letter. The letter has prompted discussions in several of the group’s meetings, with the divide mostly falling along generational lines.

In presenting their case, the younger members reminded leaders that the Japanese American Citizens League had been on the “wrong side of history” at least once before. During World War II, the organization’s leaders — after failing to prevent the government’s incarceration order — felt they had no choice but to advise the community to cooperate. They also ostracized draft resisters of conscience and feared that resistance could result in even harsher conditions for the larger Japanese American community. (The league later issued a formal apology to the resisters.)

“I think our community sometimes forgets that we have that history of resistance to incarceration as well,” Ms. Mukai said.

The issue will most likely be hashed out at the group’s annual convention in Philadelphia in July. In the meantime, the activists have vowed to keep up the pressure campaign.

Mr. Inoue, the executive director, said that the membership was more divided than it had been in decades.

“It’s been upsetting,” Mr. Inoue said.

Then he paused. “Actually, I take that back,” he said.

While the conversations had been difficult and, at times, confrontational, there seemed to be a genuine desire among members to listen actively and understand where others were coming from, Mr. Inoue said.

“It’s important,” he said. “It’s why we value democracy in this country.”

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