The five young Jewish activists after disrupting Netanyahu.
Being young and Jewish and realizing what Israel’s occupation is really like, contrary to what we may have been taught in our religious schools or high school trips to the holy land, can be a lonely journey. It can be compared to a “coming out” experience, where sharing your perceptions with friends and family, let alone a room full of over 4,000 Jews, can be a daunting task. While more American Jews—and particularly young American Jews—are growing disillusioned with Israeli policies implemented in the name of all Jews with the support of old-guard groups such as AIPAC, it is still often a scary thing to publicly criticize Israel within the broader community.
In New Orleans during the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly (GA), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) created a safe space for young Jews, like myself, whose stomachs are still churning from the bombings in Gaza nearly two years ago, and whose eyes can no longer be averted from the daily reality of oppression for Palestinians. We came together to organize effectively and from the heart. And if we have faith in our generation’s capacity to transform politics and create peace, then we can believe in JVP’s mission as possible in the face of all odds.
On Monday morning, the GA plenary began with Oscar the Grouch — seriously, the Sesame Street puppet opened the plenary with a satire about how gross it was that Israelis were so friendly, always sharing, caring and helping each other out. Next, New Orleans Mayor Landrieu stressed a belief in tikkun olam, the Jewish principle of “repairing the world”, and almost in the same breath, an unending support for Israel. Contradiction? We think so. Our well-orchestrated protest began with the bold voice of local New Orleans resident Emily Ratner, who stood up after applause for Netanyahu and proclaimed, “The Loyalty Oath delegitimizes Israel!” as she unfurled a banner with the same message. (The protest was captured on video by AP here) As Emily was removed from the room she continued shouting, and Netanyahu commented from the podium, “If they came to delegitimize Israel, they came to the wrong address.” We believe we were knocking on exactly the right door, with a message to the Jews in attendance: Israel’s occupation and oppressive policies delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world.
Eitan Isaacson protesting Netanyahu (Photo: Matthew Hinton, The Times-Picayune)
The second protester was Israeli resident Eitan Isaacson who unfurled a banner stating, “Silencing Dissent Delegitimizes Israel.” He was forcefully removed from the building while chanting in English and Hebrew. Isaacson stated that the purpose of the action was as follows: “We’re here to call out the elephant in the room. Israel continues to expropriate Palestinian land for Jewish-only communities, passes increasingly racist laws in the Knesset, the foreign minister wants to strip Palestinian citizens of their citizenship — these are the reasons Israel is becoming a pariah in the world.”
After Netanyahu continued to decry delegitimization, Matthew Taylor of Berkeley, CA, arose, unfurled a banner reading “Occupation Delegitimizes Israel” and spoke the slogan loudly. Taylor was pushed to the ground, his button-down shirt ripped open, and his shoe flung from his foot (he lost the shoe during the protest). (Photo: attached) Meanwhile, an enraged rabbi grabbed Taylor’s banner and proceeded to rip it to pieces with his teeth and fists.
Several minutes later, Israeli activist Matan Cohen stood up on his chair to unfurl yet another banner while shouting, “The siege on Gaza delegitimizes Israel!” Matan is the founder of Anarchists Against the Wall in Israel and has been a prominent organizer at Hampshire College. Cohen explained his reasoning for demonstrating: “Right now, the choice for those of us who care about the future of Israel and Palestine is between the status quo–which includes continued settlement expansion, the siege of Gaza, and the racist Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman–or Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions. Given that choice, Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions will win every time.”
And finally, after Netanyahu summarized the two “greatest threats” to Israel – a nuclear Iran and “delegitimizers”– I stood up and unfurled a pink banner that read, “The settlements betray Jewish values” and in Hebrew: “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” a verse from Deuteronomy. The crowd had grown increasingly hostile with each disruption, and I was instantly attacked from all sides. A man in the row in front of me pulled the El Al seat cover off his chair and tried to gag me with it. Another man came up from the side and grabbed me by the throat. I fell into a pile of chairs until two female sheriffs buoyed me up and hustled me out of the room. The police later confided that they were trying to protect me from the angry mob and get me out of there in one piece.
The JTA reported: “Jeff Shapiro from San Antonio grabbed her from behind and put her in a choke hold, dragging her backwards towards the floor. When asked later if he had ever put a woman in a chokehold, he replied, ‘Not really. No. I really did not know what was going to happen, I wanted to keep her in check. I was trying to help.’” Jeff Shapiro, according to an Internet search is the president of the synagogue brotherhood and a 7th grade teacher at Temple Beth-El, and is the chair of the Federation’s San Antonio Association for Jewish Education.
Some in the audience chanted “Am Yisrael Chai” and later “Bibi! Bibi!” to try to drown out our voices. Others tackled us or shouted obscenities. But not all were outraged by our actions and words. We heard later about the many Jewish students who were brought to tears seeing the visual display of an internal conflict of values they themselves felt.
As Rob Eshman’s blog in the Jewish Journal summarized:
“What were they against?” one Israeli journalist in the audience asked rhetorically. “The loyalty oath? The occupation? Gaza? Most Jews would agree with them.”
Why did we feel the need to take such a bold, direct action that some might view as rude or inappropriate? We would have been content to stand silently holding up our banners, revealing the truth in a more subtle, somber way, but the instant violence projected at us meant that our banners were ripped from our hands within seconds of unfurling them. Giving voice to the cause of justice seemed the moral thing to do. We also would have been happy to participate in dialogue, had the GA created a comprehensive program that encouraged a multiplicity of views and opinions. Rather, the GA was a propaganda grounds for furthering a narrative about the state of Israel that simply does not stand up to the facts as we have witnessed them. When the traditional routes of civic engagement fail us, we turn to nonviolent direct action, and the time-honored tactics that secured women the right to vote, an eight-hour day for workers, and civil rights protections for people of color.
By staging this loud disruption of Netanyahu’s speech, we inserted an alternative narrative into the GA and into the media in Israel and the US. The Israeli occupation and the oppression of Palestinians in Israel cannot be ignored. We made visible the unsettling disconnect between Jewish values of social justice and current Israeli policies. Instead of the single-sided story Netanyahu and his supporters hoped to present, we were able to create a dynamic conversation that reverberated through the papers, radio stations (including the Israeli Army Radio), blogs, twitter, and among the delegates. Our disruption has been picked up by AP, the New York Times, Haaretz, The Jersualem Post, NPR, Democracy Now!, The Jewish Forward, Ynet News, and many more outlets. We heard from many students who said the protest sparked discussions about Israel’s policies and emotional exchanges. A group of rabbinic students met to discuss the occupation. With our actions, we opened up the possibility for people to have genuine dialogue about these issues, and we are part of a seismic generational shift in the Jewish community that Peter Beinart outlined in his groundbreaking piece in the New York Review of Books entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” (Incidentally, Beinart tweeted after our action, “Expect more of this.”) We are not willing to leave our Jewish and democratic values at the door, which means we must stand up and criticize Israeli policies.
The shift is also evident in blogger comments about the actions we took at the GA, which include remarks such as: “I think the use of force in this instance against people peaceably holding banners is more than a bit ridiculous.” Rabbi Moshe Waldoks commented, “These protests would not have been necessary if the American Jewish leadership at the GA had created an open opportunity to ask the questions that need to be asked about the loyalty oath…”
A new website launched November 8, www.YoungJewishProud.org, presents our group’s Young Jewish Declaration, a compelling vision of collective identity, purpose and values written as an invitation and call to action for peers who care about Israel and Palestine. It is also a strong challenge to elders. The declaration includes these words: “We are your children, your nieces and nephews, your grandchildren… We refuse to knowingly oppress others, and we refuse to oppress each other. We won’t be won over by free vacations and scholarship money. We won’t buy the logic that slaughter means safety. We will not quietly witness the violation of human rights in Palestine.”
The actions are in part a protest of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and Jewish Public Affairs Council (JCPA) newly announced $6 million dollar program to target campus, church, peace and human rights groups that are working to end Israel’s human rights violations through nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions pressure campaigns. The Federations and JCPA are calling this initiative the “Israel Action Network.” Critics say it is a “Shoot the Messenger” approach.
We also announced the creation of a spoof Birthright Trip called Taglit-Lekulanu, Birthright for All, open to Palestinian and Jewish-Americans, which was followed up with a spoof denial. The goal of the spoof was to highlight the one-sided narrative that Birthright presents, the ways it renders Palestinians invisible. The rebuttal laid bare the problematic assumptions underlying Birthright trips, such as the emphasis on marrying Jews and procreating. The spoof was picked up Tuesday, November 9 by Haaretz in a piece that sheds a glaring light on the Birthright agenda.
Perhaps the most inspiring voice of the day came from the youngest member of the JVP delegation, 17-year-old Hanna King, a freshman at Swarthmore College, who was quoted in the Jewish Daily Forward as saying, “I think I’m very much succeeding in practicing tikkun olam and derech eretz by standing up for the rights for all people. It such hypocrisy for these Jewish leaders that I grew up learning to say that, you know, that the Holocaust was a tragedy but what we’re doing to [the Palestinians] is fine.” In an article in Haaretz, King continued to say, “We believe that the actions that Israel is taking, like settlements, like the occupation, like the loyalty oath, are contrary to the Jewish values that we learnt in Jewish day school. This is not Tikkun Olam. Oppressing people in refugee camps is not Tikkun Olam. And it is a hypocrisy that I cannot abide. We must be tough on all countries that abuse human rights but I care about Israel because for me it’s personal. “
Rae Abileah is a 28-year-old Jewish-American of Israeli descent and is a national organizer with CODEPINK Women for Peace and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. She lives in San Francisco, CA and can be reached at [email protected].