Several times in the last year this site has mentioned a speech on messaging by Cecilie Surasky at the Jewish Voice for Peace conference in Philadelphia because it was so inclusive, aimed at growing a movement by helping people to change their positions on the conflict, even Zionists. Phil Weiss asked her for the speech, and she passed along the notes she'd made for her powerpoint presentation. Surasky has added an introductory paragraph, and a postscript.
How you use language should be driven entirely by your strategy of change. Jewish Voice for Peace's strategy for change requires growth and building a movement so we can pressure gatekeepers. My talk below reflects that approach. But other groups have a different approach to change. Growth may not matter at all to you, for example. Aggressively using language to challenge the Israel lobby, for example, might be your key strategy. So this talk may not apply. The important thing is that you have a clear strategy for your role in making change and that your use of language backs that up rather than sabotages it.
Who in this room is not in process? Who has not changed and is not changing all the time? We all are. We're grappling with so many deep questions about identity, ideology, history, the law, morality, politics and activism. New information and experiences impact us regularly.
I'd much rather do that work inside of a community where we trust each other enough to have these deep debates. That's one of the reasons Jewish Voice for Peace doesn't have an ideological litmus test to join it. What we all share in common is a belief that all human beings are born equal-- that my child deserves no more and no less than my Palestinian friends' children.
The rest--how to get there--is in process, and we need to recognize that everyone we talk to is in process as well. It might have taken me five years and two trips to the West Bank to get to where I am. How can i expect someone else to get there in a moment, from reading, or from a conversation? We have to understand communication as a catalytic act- a moment in which we can help the wheels to start turning in someone's head and heart.
Some people look on personal communication as a mini-battle, to be won or lost. an interaction with another in which you get to prove you are right and they are wrong. That's not often particularly helpful. There are public debates or political forums where that kind of interaction makes sense. But not in our lives or in personal interactions—and not if our goal is to grow a movement.
We have found that the most effective way to trigger the process of change, for us, is speaking in terms of core values: equality, human rights, fairness, opportunity, self determination. The right to live, to eat, to protect one’s family, to go to school. These ideas are all so powerful, they have the potential to cut through all of the trigger language and surface political differences, and forge connections with people who seem like the opposition.
We must not forget that many (though not all) of the people who support Israel do so within a framework of universal fairness and equality. They were raised on myths of an ideal and just Israel. In fact, they often become its most vociferous critics once they realize that the reality of Israel is not that myth they were presented. That would describe many people in JVP: we have a special anger of the betrayed. Our love of humanity and trust in the collective was abused. And now we have to take action.
There are two liberation movements. There is a Palestinian led liberation movement that we support as allies. And there is a Jewish liberation movement that we are leading. We have to liberate our own community from growing bigotry and empty nationalism and Jewish exceptionalism. Jewishness contains many threads and traditions-both good and bad—but we are voting with our feet for the tradition we cherish, universal justice.
JVP views the current injustice and the solution to the conflict through the lens of international law. It's the legal framework through which we express a universal value and non-exclusive Jewish value: that all life is created equal, regardless of skin color or religion or ethnicity or language. We all have the same rights and deserve the same opportunity for self determination.
We find this framework to be much more compelling than the frame of Zionism, which is one we don't use. The problem is that when you ask 100 people how they define Zionism, you get 150 answers. So it's counter-productive and it can turn into a distracting debate if you start there. Like Judaism, there has never been one Zionism, only Zionisms. Some people think of a Zionist as literally the person who holds a gun to someone's head at a checkpoint, or takes a family’s home, or ethnically cleanses Palestinians. Others think of Zionism as the liberation movement of the Jewish people-- and the oppression of Palestinians as a violation of that spirit of Jewish liberation.
Besides, fewer and fewer young Jews even use the word Zionist. It's becoming an extinct and increasingly unuseful term. Polls show that fewer people identify with the word and so it generates an increasingly alien discourse. (We have colleagues who did focus groups with voters and found that the word Zionism for most people registered as a big HUH? There was no good messaging to build off of the word.) And In fact, increasingly, Jewish identity doesn't pivot on Zionism one way or the other.
Two other ideals for us about language and ideology. First, it's important to us that we maintain a welcoming space where people can debate these issues and become life-long learners but don't feel they have to pass an ideological litmus test for entry or will be called names because they aren't sufficiently pure, one way or the other. That closed ideological tent is precisely what we’re fighting in the institutional Jewish world, and it doesn't look that much prettier when it’s embraced by the left. In JVP's idea of a movement for justice and equality, there is room for Richard Goldstone, who calls himself a Zionist, and Omar Barghouti, who clearly isn't. They both have taken actions that honor the sanctity of human life and core values of democracy and equality for all people. [Note to reader: This speech was given before Goldstone's reconsideration of his landmark report in the Washington Post in April 2011, as well as his October 2011 op-ed in the New York Times of last fall saying it was a “slander” to accuse Israel of apartheid. ]
Secondly, It's critical if we want to grow the movement and catalyze change that we find a way to talk to people not by starting with trigger words that have all sorts of emotional resonances and meanings, but with core values of equality, democracy, opportunity and self-determination. We've seen over and over again how this language resonates powerfully with Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, liberal Jews in the US, Christians and everybody in between. It's the universal language of values. That is how we build a movement for a truly just peace for Palestinians and Israelis.
We never ever shy away from the terrible truths. We are morally bound not to sugar coat the Nakba, ethnic cleansing, the torture of Palestinians- whatever the conditions.
If you think it's apartheid, then call it that. But unpack the phrase. don't just use it as a weapon. Be very specific about the separate and unequal societies: 96% of land reserved for Jewish use only, unequal distribution of resources, and so forth. If you start by using apartheid as a hammer word, without context, people who don't share that understanding but could be your allies just become defensive and angry. If you spell out exactly what is factually separate and unequal, point by point, and ground it in a commitment to fairness, then by the end of your talk, the chances are good that the person you are talking to will think of apartheid on his or her own.
JVP's political analysis involves growing the movement, and that means constantly bringing in people just to our right. Who among us is in the same place they were on this issue five years ago?
P.S. Try this exercise someone in one of my workshops shared with me: Write down on a piece of paper everything you are fighting against: racism, apartheid, torture etc.. On a separate piece of paper, write down everything you aspire to: peace, freedom, justice, laughter etc.. Now look at the two pieces of paper. How do those clusters of words make you feel? What happens to your body with each group? Next time you make signs for a protest, try drawing from the cluster of words that make you feel good. They may connect to something deep in the audience of people you are trying to reach. There is a reason that militant pro-settler groups like standwithus have appropriated the language of peace to the point where we can't use it without saying justice.