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Hanging by a Thread

Feeling abandoned by their community after the Hamas attack, Jewish knitters close ranks

Courtney Hazlett
Tanya Singer
November 09, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
See the full collection →︎

In case you haven’t noticed, knitting is cool now. The craft is not a senior citizens-only subculture, churning out oversize afghans in itchy wool. The fiber arts community has cachet—and enthusiasts including Hollywood A-listers, Brooklyn hipsters, women of Washington, and everyone in between. As the community grew, so did the shared politics among knitters. While fiber arts was the activity that brought so many strangers together, social activism—or craftivism—formed the fabric of the community.

Perhaps the best known wave of craftivism is the bright pink Pussyhat design created after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win. The hats topped the heads of millions of participants at Women’s Marches around the world, starting in Washington, D.C., in what was likely the largest single protest in U.S. history. The hats were irreverent, oddly powerful beacons that represented not just women’s rights, but the unifying power of craft. We aren’t just hobbyists or victims of misogyny or sexual violence, the hats seemed to say, we are a movement, a powerful front that stands for what is good and just. Knitters created the pattern, or instructions, for the most visible symbol of #MeToo, a crowning achievement.

Crafters proudly viewed themselves as part of the knitting community, unified via social media and the website Ravelry, a hub for knitting patterns, forums, and connection. After the marches, knitting gained more momentum during the pandemic, when online knit-alongs became de rigueur. Knitters who once knew each other only through likes and DMs bonded across Zoom and formed friendships that might have never happened otherwise. By June 2019, in response to President Trump describing “very fine people on both sides” at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his reelection bid, Ravelry’s leaders determined that the site could not be inclusive if it allowed “open white supremacy”; they banned any discussion of Trump, Trump-related patterns, and Trump-supporting usernames. Once again, knitters stood for what was good and just. After the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the community was better situated than ever for a cause.

In this case, knitters heard the rallying cry. Overnight, knitters showed their support—offering encouraging words, supporting a yarn shop that fell on hard times, and donating to one designer’s dental work. When knitters asked, “Can’t we just knit?,” the community shamed those who didn’t make space for the understandable grief and anger BIPOC makers felt. Knit Collage, a high-profile yarn company, created a DEI committee and published a list of unacceptable terms including words like kimono and fuzzy wuzzy, which were deemed racially insensitive. The online publication Mason Dixon Knitting was renamed Modern Daily Knitting. Knitters went to great lengths to be inclusive and showed their right sides: empathy, generosity, a willingness to learn and do better.

And the same was true when the war in Ukraine began in February 2022. Ravelry was flooded with blue and yellow-gold designs and fundraisers, patterned with everything from sunflowers to intricate patterns depicting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself. Knitters were desperate to help.

So what was the response when the barbaric Hamas attack on Oct. 7 took place? How did the knitting community support Jewish members after the single largest mass murder of Jewish people since the Holocaust? There certainly were no patterns and no fundraisers in the days that followed. At best, the response was silence from non-Jews. At worst, Jewish designers, store owners, and knitters faced an endless stream of “Free Palestine” posts, and too often, horrendous hate-filled DMs like the one in which Karen Posniak, owner of Do Ewe Knit, a New Jersey-based yarn shop, was told that Jews “came as homeless and fugitives and … you will return as corpses.” Return to where, we wonder? No matter, the rant ended with calling Jews “homeless people and the trash of Palestine.” The same women who once knitted pink hats in abundance now didn’t “believe women” and weren’t posting in support of Jews grieving for the countless women brutally raped and mutilated by Hamas, even after a stream of testimonial confessions confirmed the rapes.

Jewish knitters have found themselves in a spot that is all too familiar, where intersectionality stops at Jewish allyship. Knitters with large followings have posted messages that attempt to justify the attack and parrot antisemitic tropes about “colonization.” And there is no room for discourse: “Unfollow me if you must” is the response to Jews who feel abandoned by knitters they thought were friends. And that’s the least of it; the anti-Israel vitriol became so extreme in the days leading up to a popular annual event, the New York State Sheep & Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, many were fearful of attending at all.

“I’m not going to go into this big group of people and not know who is there, not feel safe, and don’t feel like I belong,” said Shaina Bilow, a prominent knitting teacher and knitwear designer.

Belonging is the entire point of the knitting community, and that has been the case since the invention of the knitting circle. Coming together—different generations, different skill sets, different backgrounds—to engage in their shared passion for the craft and build relationships that might not have otherwise existed was the point.

But what has become clear since Oct. 7 is that whatever allyship existed in the community before the attack was being scripted by knitters with a binary sense of empathy, one that excluded the Jewish knitters among them. And given the responses from mostly liberal-leaning Jewish knitters to others during truly difficult times, the sting is devastating.

“A lot of the Jewish knitters were among the first to fully stand in support of other causes, to call out racism or bias,” said Beth Abrams, an avid knitter from Los Angeles known for test-knitting many patterns from prominent designers. “The way I’m looking at it, the world of being pro-Palestinian has turned into eradicating all Jews from the face of the earth and there’s no middle ground.”

I stood up for the other communities. I can count on one hand the number of people who have reached out to me.

Abrams says the anti-Zionists in knitting circles are of the “from the river to the sea” variety: “I considered myself pro-Palestinian, in that I’m pro freeing Palestinians from Hamas, pro a safe two-state solution. That middle ground has been taken from us and every time I see [knitters] calling themselves pro-Palestine, it’s like a slap in the face.”

Rebecca Kevelson, the owner of yarn company Clinton Hill Cashmere in New York City, is feeling this abandonment. “I stood up for the other communities,” she said. “I can count on one hand the number of people who have reached out to me.”

Like many knitters, Kevelson has had a hard time with what she’s encountered on Instagram, where many knitting businesses make their sales and many enthusiasts engage with the wider community. Encountering fellow knitters’ Instagram accounts that display Palestinian flags, images of known antisemite Roger Waters, and disbelief about the stories of murder, rape, and kidnap of Israelis, has been extremely difficult for Kevelson to square.

“I don’t expect these people to say ‘I stand with Israel’ or ‘I stand with the Jewish people,’ but there is no denying the antisemitism that is happening,” she said. “I stood up for those other communities. The hardest part is seeing a lack of standing up with the Jewish community.”

One knitter who has made her anti-Israel stance well known recently posted “I don’t owe you my activism” on her Instagram, a sentiment that outraged Bilow, who has also stood up for other groups over the years.

“I didn’t expect anybody to ‘give back’ the support,” she said. “What I think is unforgivable is using your platform to say specifically ‘I will not help you,’ and giving all of your followers the comfort in knowing they don’t need to help either. And if they were on the fence? It’s showing they don’t have to stand up either.”

What has resulted is a splintering: there are the Jewish knitters who are scared, disappointed, and angry by what they see and their few allies—and then there’s what seems like everyone else. Where does it go from here? It’s a troubling thought without a satisfying answer now.

“I feel like sometimes people have unrealistic expectations of what to expect from a community that’s not centered around political issues,” Abrams said. “But the knitting community is representative of the rest of our society, where being antisemitic has been considered less horrible than other isms.”

For now, Abrams is not returning to the larger community. For her that means no more knitting retreats, large festivals, or Zooms. And she has the luxury of not having to attend those things. As for Bilow and Kevelson, their work, like many others’, depends on it. They’ll continue to host knit-alongs, as Kevelson is doing in tribute to her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor—and Bilow is teaching classes and selling a Hanukkah-themed yarn set, from which some proceeds will be donated to Magen David Adom. But they’re doing it knowing that they have to be on high alert, and as Bilow put it, “with eyes wide open.”

Courtney Hazlett is the showrunner for Tablet Podcast Studios, in addition to being a TV/film producer and writer. She and her family live in Los Angeles.

Tanya Singer is the general manager of Tablet Studios and a co-host of Beautifully Jewish.