The continued success of Jewish Voices for Peace in the United States gives the lie to those who argue that it is a ‘Jewish Lobby’ or the Number of Jewish Voters who are responsible for US support of Israel and Zionism. Republicans and Christian Zionists don’t support Israel because they like Jews but because it is in their material interest.
As Jewish opposition to Zionism grows so the Zionists become more and more manic in their reaction. ‘Self-hater’ is their favourite term. Most of them are too stupid to realise that this was the same accusation that the Nazis levelled at German anti-fascists.
At a Jewish Voice For Peace Conference: This Is What Solidarity Looks Like
Whena Palestinian woman went to this Jewish group’s annual conference, she found agrowing movement of Jews and other allies.
March 20, 2015
Angela Davis speaks at the Jewish Voice for Peace's National Membership Meeting, March 2015. (Photo from Jewish Voice for Peace)
The victory of Benjamin Netanyahu and the extreme right in the Israeli elections sorely disappointed those who had pinned their hopes on the Labor-led Zionist Camp so they could resume the peace process.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Obama administration and the European Union (EU) now have to face the fact that the Palestinians have no partner for peace. They will have to take actions they had hoped to avoid and ramp up outside pressure on Israel to reach a just and lasting agreement.
|Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and Reverend John Anderson protest Hewlett-Packard's shareholder meeting, March 2014.|
Yet Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory are not the only battleground where the future of Palestinians and Israelis is being decided. The United States is also an important sphere. And, coincidentally, two major—and very different—American Jewish conferences bookended the Israeli elections. The Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) National Membership Meeting was held in Baltimore from March 13 to 15, and the J Street National Conference is being held this week in Washington, DC, from March 21 to 24.
J Street is the larger and better-funded organization, but JVP is proving to be a real magnet for American Jews who are outraged by Israel’s policies and even more by Netanyahu’s claim to be speaking in their name, and who want to take action, including boycotts. JVP’s roughly 204,000 Facebook “likes” are more than seven times that of J Street’s, and its 41,800 Twitter followers are well over three times those of J Street’s.
J Street, does not support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, defining itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and as part of the American Jewish establishment. JVP, which has supported BDS for years, issued a statement earlier this year fully endorsing the BDS call. It positions itself as pro-justice and universal human rights and says the mainstream Jewish community does not speak for it.
Despite, indeed because, of these out-of-the-box positions, JVP is growing fast. In recent months, the number of chapters across the United States increased from forty-one to seventy-two; the number of members has shot up to 9,000, and online supporters have nearly hit the 200,000 mark. Significantly, much of this growth happened after Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” against the besieged Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, pushing thousands off the fence of inaction.
JVP’S burgeoning energy and maturity drew hundreds to its conference, which sold out at 600 participants six weeks early; nearly 200 additional video passes were also issued. The theme of the weekend was “We’re Not Waiting,” and participants came from as far as England and California to compare notes, strategize, mourn the lives lost over the summer and celebrate their growing strength. There was a striking number of young people as well as grandparents, long-time activists and newcomers to the cause. And this year, this Palestinian went to the conference, too.
Why would a Palestinian even want to participate in an American Jewish conference? For one thing, JVP is a key player in what is now a fast-growing US movement for Palestinian human rights and equality between Palestinians and Israelis. As a co-founder of another key player—the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (though no longer directly engaged in its work)—I can sense that this movement has come of age.
Within the last generation, several major national organizations have grown out of the efforts of handfuls of volunteers working out of people’s homes, their personal resources stretched to the limit. These organizations are now managing real money and staff out of offices based in DC and all over the US. More important, they are now collaborating effectively both within the movement and across other movements.
For example, several organizations—JVP, the US Campaign, Code Pink, American Muslims for Palestine and others—pooled efforts around the #SkipTheSpeech drive to convince Members of Congress to turn their backs on Netanyahu’s meddlesome foray into US foreign policy. This generated more than a hundred thousand letters, calls and visits, and helped encourage the nearly sixty members who ended up skipping the speech, emboldening them to be critical.
Another example is the way groups in the movement for Palestinian rights are also deeply engaged in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and related campaigns for the rights of individuals and communities violated right here at home.
The mix and vitality of the movement was reflected in the mix of speakers at the JVP national meeting: legendary activist Angela Davis, Rabbi Brant Rosen, feminist and anti-violence crusader Andrea Smith and Dream Defender Ahmad Abuznaid, among others. The vast majority of participants were Jews, but, ironically, almost the first people I met at the conference were three other Palestinians, including one who had trekked in from California. “We wanted to be here,” they told me, “to speak about the work we’re doing and to learn from others.”
JVP has always invited Palestinian voices to speak on its panels; indeed, I spoke at its 2011 conference. But there had been few other Palestinians then; now there were many, alongside participants from several Christian denominations and representatives of other national organizations. JVP provided a safe and embracing space for all those present, allowing the most difficult discussions to take place with heat but without rancor, including around anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
Beyond taking the pulse of the movement, it was important to be at the JVP conference in order to gain insights into the changing discourse around Israel-Palestine in America. In a sense, the Israel-Palestine battleground in the United States is all about shaping the discourse. How are Palestinian rights defined these days? What are the goals of the movement? How and in what form can/will Jews and Palestinians live together? When does joint Palestinian-Jewish activism tip over into normalization of the brutal status quo?
National and local grassroots organizations have been engaged in changing the discourse for years, alongside professional media organizations such as the redoubtable Institute for Middle East Understanding. And the BDS campaigns that so many groups are now working on do help to provide some of the answers. But much of the discourse still needs framing. Moreover, there has been a tendency to see BDS as a goal in itself, overlooking the fact that the Palestinian civil society call for BDS specifically spells out the goals as the achievement of freedom from occupation, justice for the Palestinian refugees and equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Israel and its US allies are only too well aware of the importance of shaping the discourse. They have been trying hard to clamp down on criticism of Israel, seeking to conflate such criticism with anti-Semitism. Israel’s supporters have successfully driven resolutions at student associations describing legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies as anti-Semitism.
JVP is among the groups pushing back against this conflation. It is vital for the larger movement that Jewish voices consistently reaffirm that criticism of Israel’s occupation and denial of rights to generations of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; it is a stand against policies and practices that are just plain wrong.
But JVP is also joining other groups in pushing the boundaries of the discourse, in imagining how to resolve the conflict and shape a different future. As a Palestinian, I never imagined I would witness such a thoughtful—and brave—discussion of the Palestinian right of return in a public American space, let alone an American Jewish space. But here it was. Liat Rosenberg of Zochrot (“Remembering”) and Basem Sbaih of Badil (“Alternative”) were invited to keynote a plenary titled “Reclaiming the Past in Order to Realize the Future” that was moderated by Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, an emeritus professor at New York’s Baruch College and a longtime activist.
One of my fondest memories of the conference was when Rosenberg pointed out how much land would be available for returning Palestinian refugees given that most Israeli Jews are still concentrated around the Tel Aviv area. “Oh, a land without a people,” was Neimark’s riposte, quick as a flash.
So many players in the American Jewish establishment have for decades deployed their skills and energies in the service of Israel’s illegal colonial enterprise. And here, at this conference, were a multitude of Jews, at their most savvy and strategic, working in favor of Palestinian rights and equality for all.
The last person I saw at the conference was a freshly minted attorney, a thoughtful young Muslim American woman of South Asian heritage who had also flown in from California. “Why did you want to be here?” I wondered. “We need to show JVP that they have allies,” was her moving response. “It’s a lonely battle.”
Yes it has been. But not any more.
Embracing Israel Boycott, Jewish Voice For Peace Insists on Its Jewish Identity
Group Now Has More Facebook Followers Than AIPAC and J Street
By Evan Serpick
Published March 28, 2015, issue of April 03, 2015.
At the opening plenary of Jewish Voice for Peace’s recent national conference, Rabbi Alissa Wise, JVP’s co-director of organizing, asked the crowd of some 600 how many were attending their first such gathering; about three-quarters of the room shot up their hands.
For the group whose advocacy of boycotting, sanctioning and divesting from Israel makes it a pariah in most of the rest of the Jewish community, these have been boom times. And for many of its members, the reason appears to be a continuing desire to assert their opposition to Israel’s fundamental policies in a Jewish context rather than abandon their Jewish identity altogether.
One of those raising his hand was Noah Knowlton-Latkin of California’s Claremont Colleges. Like many of those in attendance, Knowlton-Latkin, a sophomore, was involved earlier in Students for Justice in Palestine, a campus group devoted to organizing students to oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza. The group also pushes college administrations to cut their economic and academic ties to Israel.
But last summer, Knowlton-Latkin reached out to JVP to express his concerns in a Jewish context. “It was great to find out that this existed,” said Knowlton-Latkin, who came to the conference with two other Jewish Claremont students, both members of SJP.
JVP’s recent conference, which took place in Baltimore from March 13 to 15, was notable for several new developments. Two weeks earlier, after a lengthy process that included study committees and membership surveys, JVP’s board of directors voted to fully support the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, or BDS, as it is popularly known. JVP’s call for a full economic boycott of Israel comes after years of supporting a more limited boycott of only companies that operated in the occupied territories.
JVP’s full embrace of BDS includes endorsing a right of return for Arabs and for descendants of Arabs who fled or who were expelled by Israel’s army in the 1948 war that established the state. That population, most of whom remain stateless refugees, now numbers more than 5.2 million. Israel and its supporters, including even dovish Zionist parties such as Meretz, argue that full implementation of the United Nations resolution calling for their return would render Jews a minority in their own state. It would mean, they say, the end of Zionism.
But JVP’s president, Rebecca Vilkomerson, told the Forward: “For there to be a sustainable and just peace, that is one of the issues that we have to grapple with. We believe that there can be a homeland for Jewish people that is not based on the systematic denial of rights of Palestinians.”
JVP does not offer details on how that could be if such a return indeed took place.
Most striking at this conference was the way Israel’s hard-right turns, and particularly last year’s war in Gaza, have fueled JVP’s growth among a cohort of mostly young people who find the response of other Jewish groups, including the dovish group J Street, simply inadequate. JVP’s leaders anticipate that this trend will only quicken following the recent election victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They point to his election eve disavowal of a two-state solution and his election day warning about Arabs voting, plus the prospect that he will soon lead an even more right-wing government.
There are now 65 JVP chapters, up from 40 a year ago. Vilkomerson says JVP now has 9,000 dues-paying members, compared with 600 when the Forward last profiled the group in 2011. In the tax year that ended in June 2013, JVP had $1.1 million in donations. Vilkomerson said she expects this year’s total to top $2 million, almost all of it from individuals. The group has more than 204,000 Facebook followers, more than twice as many as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and about eight times as many as J Street.
For all their alienation from the mainstream community, JVP members seem to share an urgent need to voice their angst in a Jewish context, and to project it outward to the world, also citing their status as Jews. Critics condemn this as mere exploitation of their Jewishness in order to gain a hearing the group would otherwise be denied.
But many JVP members do come from backgrounds of serious Jewish engagement. The conference itself opened on a Friday night, with the group celebrating Kabbalat Shabbat, and included a memorial service for those killed in the war in Gaza, during which members chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish and the prayer for the dead, El Maleh Rachamim. JVP says the group offers the members a place to be their “whole selves.”
“21yrs in many jewish spaces & I’ve never felt so at home,” one participant, Talia Bauer, wrote on the group’s Facebook page after the conference.
Another participant wrote, “For three days, I was immersed in a Jewish community unlike I have ever been a part of, one rooted in justice that welcomed all of me.” She wrote anonymously, she said, to avoid her family learning of her involvement with JVP.
In Vilkomerson’s view, “the mainstream Jewish community should be thanking us. We are bringing many people back into a Jewish community. There’s so much angst in the Jewish community about the loss of community, and losing the young people, and what is going to happen, and the apathy. Nobody here is apathetic; nobody here is unconnected. To the contrary.”
Some in the mainstream grant them this point. “Any sort of Jewish engagement by young people is a positive thing,” said Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who studies the American Jewish community. He said that JVP, along with anti-democratic far-right groups and “any group that represents lots of Jews,” should be invited to be members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and similar mainstream organizations. “JVP doesn’t show concern for the security of the State of Israel and doesn’t care if there is a Jewish State of Israel or not,” he added. Nevertheless, he said, “We should not exclude JVP from conversations — we should engage them.”
That view is unthinkable to many Jewish community standard-bearers.
“The positions and actions taken by Jewish Voice for Peace are anathema to mainstream Jewish organizations,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement to the Forward. “The group’s activities, which include partnerships with anti-Israel organizations that deny Israel’s fundamental right to exist, put them at the farthest fringe of the Jewish community and would certainly preclude their participation among mainstream organizations.”
JVP, he said, “uses its Jewish identity to provide the anti-Israel movement with a veneer of legitimacy and to shield the movement’s most demagogic supporters from allegations of anti-Semitism.”
For many, the decision to join JVP was a painful, personal one, reflecting a lost faith in the State of Israel. Rabbi Brant Rosen, a co-chair of JVP’s rabbinical council, who served as a congregational rabbi in suburban Chicago for 17 years, joined in 2009, after Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its military campaign into Gaza, with numerous reports — contested by Israel — of high civilian deaths rates.
Michael Davis, a congregational cantor in the Reform movement and a member of JVP’s rabbinical council, grew up Orthodox in Israel. He said that his own worldview changed after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at a fateful Tel Aviv peace rally in November 1995. “That was the end of the dream for me,” he told the Forward.
For Vilkomerson, it was the second intifada, starting in 2000. “There are these moments of cracking open, where people sort of make the leap,” she said.
Rosen added, “Historically, that’s how JVP has grown, unfortunately, tragically.”
Speaking after the Israeli election, Vilkomerson says she now expects another wave of people to come into the JVP fold. “Given that the American Jewish community is generally interested in peace and democratic values, we expect a lot of self-reflection about how to support a true peace in the days to come,” she said.
Contact Evan Serpick at email@example.com