On October 26, I resigned from my position as Chicago Program Director for AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Each day I have spent in this job has been a blessing, but I have no choice in light of AVODAH’s decision to co-sponsor a 10-day “service-learning” trip to Israel with the American Jewish World Service through their joint initiative Pursue: Action for a Just World.
AVODAH and AJWS agreed to this trip as a grant stipulation for funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a prominent donor in the Jewish nonprofit world, major supporter of pro-Israel causes, and Pursue’s principal funder.
I believe it is irresponsible for social justice organizations to organize a trip that focuses on “diversity, poverty and social integration” without meaningfully, and publicly, addressing Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land, systematic oppression of Palestinians across “Israel proper” and the Occupied Territories, and enforced exile of Palestinian refugees.
I believe doing so contributes to the “normalization” of a deeply abnormal oppressive situation – presenting Israel as a liberal democracy with nothing more than the usual challenges rather than a state which imposes an ethnicity-based military regime on millions of people. It perpetuates the idea that it is acceptable to ignore Israel’s daily abuses of Palestinians in the pursuit of cultural, religious, financial or other interests.
Similar Jewish “social justice”, artistic, LGBTQ and environmental trips are often used to mount a facade of democracy over Israel’s state-sponsored human rights abuses. It is well known that Israeli government ministries and American Jewish organizations have been collaborating on an extravagantly funded “Brand Israel” project designed to improve the country’s image abroad by “avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians.” Arye Mekel, former Deputy Director-General for Cultural Affairs with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, has described this strategy as a way to “show Israel’s prettier face.” I have no doubt that the Schusterman Foundation has a similar agenda for this Pursue trip.
Through this trip, AVODAH and AJWS become active participants in covering up oppression, whether that is their intention or not. They publicly lend their organizations’ names and reputations to injustice, violating the social justice principles enshrined in their missions which inspired me to join AVODAH’s staff in the first place.
My decision to resign is informed by my support of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Initiated in 2005, BDS is a call endorsed by the great majority of Palestinian civil society groups as a nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel into ceasing its systematic oppression of Palestinians.
I believe in listening to people fighting their own oppression when they lay out a strategy to achieve their human rights. For the overwhelming number of Palestinians, BDS is that strategy. Being strong allies and taking our lead from people directly impacted by oppression is, in fact, a philosophy deeply held by organizations such as AVODAH and AJWS.
I decided to write about my decision in the spirit of Tokhecha, or sacred rebuke, a central value of Torah:
“Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him” (Leviticus 19:17)
Rashi’s interpretation of “incur not guilt” is “Do not embarrass [them] in public.” My goal is not to embarrass or shame AVODAH or AJWS. I love and respect AVODAH, which is staffed by dedicated and thoughtful individuals, and which remains committed to open discussion on this and other issues among its participants and alums.
However, this trip communicates a public message – that these organizations are willing to overlook Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in exchange for funding. It therefore requires a public response.
My understanding of Tokhecha is that it includes the responsibility to help those to whom it is directed make amends. I echo the call put out by AVODAH alums and current Corps members that AVODAH and AJWS commit publicly to “never sponsor an Israel trip in this way again.”
We in the Jewish social justice community have a choice. On the one hand, we can stay silent and try to avoid provoking the ire of powerful donors like the Schusterman Foundation. On the other hand, we can publicly oppose, or at least not cover up, the oppression Israel commits directly in our name.
I have faith that our community, increasingly, will choose the latter, and that as BDS continues to gain traction among young Jews, there will be a growing cost in staff and participants for organizations that allow themselves to be used as cover for the oppression of Palestinians.
Michael Deheeger has worked as a community and political organizer in Chicago for the past few years. After witnessing the JVP/YJP action at the New Orleans GA, he decided it was time to get active in the area of Israel/Palestine. After participating in his synagogue's trip to the West Bank he became further politicized around this issue. He has been active with Jewish Voice for Peace.