JVP – Standing in the Jewish Tradition of Opposition to ALL Racism
JVP – Standing in the Jewish Tradition of Opposition to ALL Racism
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
At a Jewish Voice For Peace Conference: This Is What Solidarity Looks
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Yes it has been. But not any more.
Israel Boycott, Jewish Voice For Peace Insists on Its Jewish Identity
Group Now Has More Facebook Followers Than AIPAC and
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
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
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
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
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.