by Mitchell Plitnick
Rebecca Vilkomerson has been a member of Jewish Voice for Peace since 2001 and the group’s Executive Director since 2009. She lived with her family in Israel from 2006-2009. In 2010 she was named one of the 50 most influential Jewish American leaders by the Forward, and was named one of “14 Women to Watch” in 2014.
FMEP: Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has, in some ways, been a lightning rod for the global movement for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel (BDS). Many people can’t reconcile the idea of a Jewish organization advocating a boycott of Israel. Obviously, this is especially true for those who see BDS as unfairly anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. As the Executive Director of JVP, how do you respond to those charges? And, perhaps a parallel question, what would you say are the major differences between the public perception of the BDS movement and its reality?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: From a personal perspective, I don’t think that endorsing BDS is anti-Israel in the least. The demands of BDS are about transformation. Just as ending apartheid in South Africa did not destroy it, addressing the three demands of the BDS movement would change Israel fundamentally–ideally in ways that would bring equality and freedom for all people in the region, something I would hope would be of interest to most people.
I do want to de-couple the concepts of “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic.” As JVP’s statement on anti-Semitism says, in part, “Definitions of anti-Semitism that treat criticism of Israel or of Zionism as inherently anti-Semitic are inaccurate and harmful. The majority of Jews are not Israeli, and not all citizens of Israel are Jewish. Israel is a state; Zionism is a political ideology; Judaism and Jewish identity encompass a diversity of religious and secular expressions and a robust, varied set of traditions, cultures, and lived experiences.”
And that being said, I want to make a case for the legitimacy of “anti-Israel” as a category. It’s often used as an accusation, as a way to end discussion and almost always linked to or tainted by anti-Semitism. But Palestinians, whether in Israel or under Occupation or in diaspora, have experienced unbearable loss–of home, property, rights and life–at the hands of Israel. They may be deeply angry or hate the state of Israel based on their direct experiences with violence at its hands. To demand that they fight for their rights while loving or caring for Israel as a Jewish state, defined by their exclusion or subordination, is not just absurd but cruel. For those of us doing this work in part because we want to see Israel become a better place, it is incumbent upon us to understand and defend those who are struggling simply for the sake of their basic rights with no love lost for the state that oppresses them.
In terms of the second half of the question, I think there are numerous misconceptions about BDS. The reality is that the three core demands of BDS are actually a quite moderate call for basic internationally recognized rights: full equality for all, the end of occupation and the Palestinian right of return. While Jewish communities often react strongly in particular to this last demand, it is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, my own children have the right to a German passport under the same principle.
BDS does not require a one state solution; in fact, many Palestinian groups that endorsed the BDS call actually endorse two states.
The BDS movement is a Palestinian-led movement originating from a call by a broad coalition of civil society institutions. Its global network of supporters is inclusive, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-faith, including many Jews from around the world among the individual and organizational supporters. I have always found that the Boycott National Committee, the leadership body of the BDS movement, conducts itself with the highest ethical and anti-racist standards, contrary to common accusations in Jewish communities.
Finally, I think it is important to remember that BDS is a set of tactics and demands, not an end unto itself. I recommend that those who have questions go to the BDS website and look around. I am always astonished by how many people have criticisms who haven’t gone to the primary source.
FMEP: In 2010, the Jewish weekly newspaper, The Forward, listed you as one of the 50 “most influential Jewish leaders.” In 2013, the Anti-Defamation League listed JVP as one of the top 10 “anti-Israel groups” in the country. That seems like a really good illustration of the sharp divisions among American Jews that you and JVP more broadly provoke. How do you see your relationship to the Jewish community, including, but not limited to, the major Jewish institutions?
RV: Years ago, when JVP was much smaller, we made some effort to get a “place at the table” at some local Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Relations Councils, Hillels, etc., with the assumption that we belonged in any umbrella group of the Jewish community. Our hope was to challenge the bigger institutions’ positions on Israel/Palestine from the inside, especially once they knew that significant numbers of their community shared our position. However, we were never successful, and in recent years, specific guidelines have been put in place in many of these institutions to exclude JVP or others who share our views.
More recently, as we’ve continued to grow and the red lines that prevent honest debate about Israel/Palestine and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) have hardened in establishment Jewish institutions, we have evolved a somewhat different approach. JVP is a vibrant Jewish community to which people can connect through chapters in their hometowns, or as Rabbis, academics, students, labor activists, or health workers. Our members are showing up together to support other justice struggles like the Movement for Black Lives and the fight against the Dakota Pipeline because they see JVP as their political home. This year, for the first time we are livestreaming High Holiday services from four synagogues and chavurot (communally organized Jewish practice communities) from around the country for members who don’t have access to spiritual spaces where they can bring their full political selves to Jewish practice.
In other words, we are creating our own alternative Jewish institution that doesn’t need approval from or inclusion in the self-identified “major” Jewish institutions. We are creating a new model for Jewish communal life, one that welcomes and centers the multiplicities of Jewish experiences and histories and does not insist on a separation between justice for Palestinians and Jewish identity. It feels good that other organizations like IfNotNow, Open Hillel and the Center for Jewish Non-Violence are also emerging. We may not share the exact same approach or focus, but we have enough in common that it feels like a new universe of Jewish space is opening.
Ultimately I really believe that it is to the detriment of the mainstream Jewish communities that they are excluding a vibrant, engaged, and growing segment of the Jewish community in the U.S.
FMEP: With many thousands of members and more than 60 chapters across the country, JVP has certainly magnified its impact from its humble beginnings twenty years ago. But you face the same question all of us working on this issue face: in that time, the Israeli occupation has only tightened, US policy has become even more entrenched, and Palestinian despair has grown. Given that troubling reality, what is the path to success that you see, in both the short and long term?
Also, more than any President before him, Barack Obama came into office with the announced intention of finally ending the Israeli occupation and reaching a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Eight years later, Obama will leave office with the situation considerably worse than when he came in, and it seems clear that the next administration, whether Clinton or Trump, is going to be much less concerned about the occupation than Obama. What do you expect going into the next administration, and how do you think it will affect JVP’s efforts?
RV: Your framing is really important and a reminder to all of us of how we have to ground our work in a feeling of urgency given the realities on the ground. But that feeling of urgency also has to be tempered with the reality of what we’re up against–the biggest U.S. aid package to Israel ever just being approved is one reminder. I’ve combined my answers to your last two questions because I think that JVP is playing a longer game than just the next administration.
We see the U.S. as the linchpin that allows Israel to continue its destructive policies, through the military, economic and diplomatic aid and cover the U.S. offers. And we (and by “we” here I mean JVP and all the other groups doing this work) know we need to build a seriously strong grassroots movement, as other movements have done at other moments in our history, in order to bring about a profound change in the U.S. approach to Israel. That is the only power that can go up against the Israel lobby, which includes Christian Zionist organizations, Jewish organizations like AIPAC, and the US arms industry which profits directly from military aid packages to Israel.
Public opinion is demonstrably changing. To offer just one example, 49% of Democrats now support economic sanctions on Israel over settlement construction, according to a Brookings Institution poll from last year. It is clear that the bipartisan consensus around Israel is crumbling, and a new coalition of women, young people, and people of color are emerging that see Palestinians and Israelis as peoples that deserve equal rights and freedom and are willing to take action in support of that belief. Palestinian rights are becoming an integral part of the progressive agenda, like racial, economic and climate justice. So while I don’t have immediate hopes (and do have a lot of fears) for the next administration, I also have a lot of optimism about where this movement is going to take us in the long term.
Republished, with permission, from Foundation for Middle East Peace blog. Photo: Rebecca Vilkomerson