‘JVP’ takes on the ‘epic battle’ inside the Jewish community

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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The other night I went to a fundraiser for Jewish Voice for Peace that left me so charged that when I walked out of the apartment and on to a downtown New York street I heard myself singing an old Woody Guthrie tune. What was the song– and why did it pop into my head?

The first thing to be said about the evening was that many Jews were gathered who are unapologetic in support for BDS. While the hosts explicitly granted room to those who do not believe in BDS, the spirit was, Look, we are guided in life by a sense of being Jewish, and the only way we can be Jewish now is by having Palestinian solidarity; they want BDS, so we are for BDS. Naomi Klein said she had been "privately" for BDS before Gaza, but Gaza was the gamechanger, and after Gaza she could hold her tongue no longer. While Rebecca Vilkomerson of JVP sought to explain BDS to the party by saying that the situation on the ground has just gotten worse and worse through the peace process and "we look at other tactics and actions that have worked in previous struggles"–BDS.

Then using the Yiddish interjection Nu that means Well/but, Vilkomerson said, “You can’t just say, ‘Nu nu nu, stop doing this, Israel, this is bad;’ there have to be consequences.”

And then there was Udi Aloni, an Israeli filmmaker, who said, "I don’t have to speak as a Jew, but I want to speak as a Jew. And the only way for me to speak as a Jew is to fight for Palestine. There is no other way."

Aloni referred to his mother, Shulamit Aloni, an Israeli politician, saying that he has promised her that so long as she is alive, he won’t call himself an anti-Zionist– and this brings up my second strong impression of the evening, it was matriarchal. There were three forceful male speakers, but the overall mood was one of female strength and moral rootedness, beginning with Deborah Eisenberg expressing disdain for power politics in the name of JVP’s grassroots network of students and retirees, artists and scholars, lawyers and community organizers. For me, personally, this is a hugely important fact. I grew up in a matriarchy, I took my political lead in life from my mother’s values; if I can point to one act that shaped me, it was that when I was 10 and she crossed social, geographic and ethnic lines to go to the Quaker meeting in Baltimore remembering Norman Morrison, who had burned himself alive the week before outside Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office in protest of the Vietnam War. But on the Israel/Palestine issue my mother isn’t there, and this has been unanchoring. The JVP event was filled with Jewish women who are not strident or shrill or abstract (arguing about the two-state solution). 

I was not the only one in whom the event stirred feelings of Jewish liberation. "I really do feel a sense of community in this room," Naomi Klein said, as she stood on a table to speak. People had found one another at last, and we were going to express ourselves. We were overcoming intimidation.

Cecilie Surasky of JVP also spoke of the fears. "It’s very painful to do this work and it’s very hard… I do not use the word McCarthyite lightly. That’s exactly what’s going on… There’s an attempt to rewrite human rights laws…. It is a battle, an epic battle, and again, we have incredible privilege." (She meant by comparison to Palestinians.)

Klein told two stories that capture the intimidation that so many of us have experienced inside the Jewish community. During the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Klein signed the Toronto Declaration— which didn’t even call for boycott; it was about protesting the film festival working with the Israeli consulate in an Israeli branding campaign–and so did 11 Israeli filmmakers. Still "we were called Ahmadinejad’s fifth column," Klein said. "The strategy is to shame, to embarrass and to extremize us when we say perfectly reasonable things."

Klein brought up "Rachel," the Rachel Corrie movie that was sponsored by JVP at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last year, leading to the usual outrage, forced "context," and attempted suppression. Well now Klein has seen the movie, and she couldn’t believe how balanced it is. The film quotes Israeli authorities at length. And this is what the Israel lobby was so afraid of?

"What this whole uproar was about is a fear of the truth, a fear of telling the truth."

Cecilie Surasky echoed the point, saying that Jewish organizations in San Francisco have "banned us [JVP] from the Jewish public square," because of JVP’s support for BDS. Jews in the Bay Area have been instructed to "drop a dime if they see us on a panel," so that the local Jewish Federation can then seek to break up the panel. (So much for our intellectual traditions.)

The understanding of opposition stoked defiance inside the gathering. Michael Ratner said that he was so shocked and devastated by his first trip back to Israel in 50 years this year that after a lifetime of work focused on US policy in El Salvador and Bolivia and other third world countries, he feels called to "step out" of his work to address this situation. "This has got to end… the situation just cries out. …  you can’t be a human being… you can’t be a Jew, you can’t be a humanitarian, and allow that situation to exist." While Klein said that the struggle is winnable, if you will only give money, and scoffed at the charge that we are trying to "delegitimize" Israel–"whatever the hell that means." 

She brought up Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, and Abdallah Abu Rahman too, the Palestinian protest leader who is still in jail because he collected the tear gas canisters and stun grenades that were hurled at him and made them into a peace sign, and Udi Aloni said that this was Alabama and the freedom riders all over again, and that is why I went out of the party humming, This train is bound for glory, this train.

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