‘We’re not waiting for consensus’ — Rebecca Vilkomerson

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
on 24 Comments

Two nights ago in Westchester at an event called Getting to the Tipping Point, Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace described two important organizing lessons she learned in her work for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

De-privilege Jews.

The first lesson came after a failed effort to get the Berkeley student senate to pass a divestment resolution in 2010. The debate went on for many hours, and it devolved into a “Jews versus Jews situation,” Vilkomerson said– the Jews who are uncomfortable with divestment and the Jews who aren’t, talking to each other. The JVP team that was organizing during that campaign realized that Jews have a privileged voice in this debate and that was inappropriate.

“The Palestinian voice needs to be kept at the center of the conversation.”

During the recent failed Methodist divestment initiative in Tampa in April, Palestinian voices were far more central. And Jews played a vital role by clearing the space, Vilkomerson said. One thing Jews are very important for is certifying that it is not anti-Semitic to have such a debate. To make it kosher.

We’re not trying to get everyone to agree with us.

The second lesson involves the issue of consensus. Today no one is for apartheid in South Africa, and people will brag about when they worked against it. But gaining that consensus actually took forever. The African National Congress was founded in 1912. The boycott movement in South Africa was 30 years in the making.

The lesson holds for Israel and Palestine. “We’re not waiting for consensus,” Vilkomerson said. The fight for civil rights in South Africa was contested, and it is being contested now in Palestine. “People did not agree” and the people who opposed the status quo sometimes died for doing so.

“We’re not looking to turn everyone. We’re looking to turn a few people.” She cited the case of Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, who went from opposing church divestment to supporting it. He was one of about three dozen rabbis to sign a letter supporting divestment in Tampa. That letter was up against a letter of 1200 rabbis opposing divestment. But the fewer rabbis somehow neutralized the more popular letter, just by holding their ground. It wasn’t about numbers.

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24 Responses

  1. seafoid
    May 31, 2012, 10:37 am

    Getting sucked into acknowledging a framework that says there are 2 sides to the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is a waste of time. It’s equivalent to saying that there is a Jewish/Zionist narrative of the oppression that is valid. There isn’t. The other great intellectual crock is that there are 2 narratives with which to look at the land -“Jews say it is disputed, palestinians say it is occupied”. There is no room for discussion on this. The land is occupied and what Israel is doing constitutes a total moral collapse. There is no nuance. No formula of words that can justify the occupation.

    • Pamela Olson
      May 31, 2012, 12:47 pm

      To paraphrase Orwell: “[Zionist] language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

    • Abu Malia
      May 31, 2012, 12:53 pm

      Exactly Sefoid, there aren’t two sides to a rape story!

      • seafoid
        May 31, 2012, 2:04 pm

        The settlers depend on the double narrative. YESHA is all based on the “if you build it they will come” logic so beloved of Zionism. And the idea that if you lie for 40 years straight everyone will forget what happened.

        When the notion that there are 2 sides to “the most intractable of conflicts ” collapses Israel will have approx 1 millon people, many of them armed, to relocate.

        I am really looking forward to watching the meltdown.

  2. OlegR
    May 31, 2012, 12:16 pm

    /One thing Jews are very important for is certifying that it is not anti-Semitic to have such a debate./
    That’s called being a fig leaf.

    • seafoid
      May 31, 2012, 2:40 pm

      Oleg

      Saying “Jews who torture Palestinians for the sake of greater Israel are morally repugnant” is not antisemitic. It is a fact.

    • sardelapasti
      May 31, 2012, 4:11 pm

      Remind me how the Propaganda-Abteilung can justify using the “Antisemitic” word (a ridiculous word anyway) about people who not only identify themselves as Jewish but can document it, too?

    • ToivoS
      May 31, 2012, 6:55 pm

      That’s called being a fig leaf.

      Not at all. This is called protecting one flank against assault. The fig leaf metaphor is a thin cover to hide the truth. In this case the truth is what is being protected.

  3. JohnAdamTurnbull
    May 31, 2012, 12:48 pm

    “The Law in These Parts” (http://www.thelawfilm.com/eng ) shows clearly that the original Israeli legal term for the post-’67 West Bank and Gaza was “occupied territory”, which was changed a few years later to “held territory”, and subsequently to “disputed territory”.

    Yes, seafoid is right, of course. While we dithered, Israel shifted the term from “occupy”, which has a clear sense of a asymmetric agency, to “dispute”, which has an equally clear sense of symmetry. The term is still shifting.

    The speakers are a step ahead of the listeners. They’re focused. We’re just starting to see it.

  4. ritzl
    May 31, 2012, 2:09 pm

    The Palestinian lady in the picture is a tireless advocate for her people’s rights. She posts here sometimes. It would be interesting to have her share her take (if she was willing to do so) on the whole “Jews discussing how much of a role Palestinians should have in this effort” conversation (FTR, that is not a sarcastic characterization.).

    There’s also a counter discussion starting to percolate on “Palestinians discussing how much of a role Jews should have in this effort” as observed by Jeff Halper. This is based on the inherent contradiction between the need to have Jewish allies to solve this problem and the very limiting effect that has on the intensity, “polarity,” and therefore the effectiveness of the advocacy.

    It is solely Jews (though absolutely not all Jews) who are routinely depriving Palestinians of their life and livelihood. But when this is pointed out, angrily, Palestinians are told to “tone it down.” Similarly, and practically, when full-Israel BDS efforts are advocated (there can be little doubt at this point that Israel and the Occupation are seamless, see UNICEF entertaining the notion of using Israeli companies to rebuild Gaza), a lot of the active Jewish support goes tepid (I’ve seen this play out privately).

    I guess my question is can even well meaning and otherwise resilient Jews (to their own community’s insults) handle the anger directed at their community (but not at them personally) from outside and still support the people voicing that anger? Halper implied that it would be difficult. Given his tireless work at ICAHD, that has to be taken seriously.

    Jeff Halper (h/t Talkback):

    The Palestinian Left is pulling back from working with groups like ours, even the anti-Zionists like ourselves. You see it, for example, in the global march to Jerusalem. It’s always phrased as “this is a Palestinian and international struggle”. Where are we? Even non-Zionist? Where are we? The answer that I got from a few people was “we put you with internationals”. Which is wow, that means something.

    My problem is that I cannot obviously be part of a struggle which is not inclusive. It deserves to be addressed in-house, in the movement, not in public. I was forced to bring it up in the global march to Jerusalem. I was pressed to endorse the march publicly but they said not as the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions because we can’t use the word Israeli. You have to endorse the march as the head of the committee against house demolitions. I said no and that set up a whole discussion. An organiser of the march wrote that this whole issue of inclusivity was a western preoccupation.

    We are at a very crucial stage here where first of all the Palestinians have to take over and second of all, there has to be an end goal. If in fact the left is starting to say “it’s colonialism” and we are not working with you guys anymore, this has tremendous implications.

    http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/04/2012428124445821996.html

    I don’t know The Answer.

    • Shmuel
      May 31, 2012, 2:33 pm

      Thanks, ritzl. Very interesting.

    • maggielorraine
      May 31, 2012, 5:19 pm

      The ideas at play here are something I’ve had to wrestle with as a white American trying to become involved in anti-racist or anti-zionist work. I have to understand that as a white person my involvement in the struggle is and should be limited. It is my sense of entitlement and belief that I should be able to access anything and everything (in other words, my privilege) that makes me feel uncomfortable and somehow wronged when I am told I have overstepped by bounds. There are certain meetings I should not be a part of, certain groups I can defend but certainly not speak for, certain actions I can support but not call for myself. Because *shock* this isn’t my battle to fight. The same goes for Jewish anti-zionists.

      The point of solidarity is not to lead. The point of solidarity is not to dominate. The point of solidarity is not to save anyone. The point of solidarity is to empower people to save themselves and to clear space for them to do so. To be effective in our solidarity we must be willing to weather any and all valid criticism of the larger group to which we belong. Otherwise what are we doing here?

      With reference to the excerpt you pulled from the Halper article, it is my understanding that he’s talking about a slightly different topic. The excerpt falls into a section wherein is talking about the final status of Palestine, asking if BDS were successful what would happen next? He compares the situations of Algeria and South Africa. In Algeria the country was purged of its Frenchmen, whereas in South Africa that was not the case. What he is essentially saying is because of the nature of the conflict, that is, because it is protracted over a period of time in which 2-3 generations of Jews have now been born in Israel, whatever entity is left at the end of this struggle will have to address the reality of this group’s existence, just as South Africa did. That’s what he means by “inclusive.”

      • American
        May 31, 2012, 6:58 pm

        ”The point of solidarity is to empower people to save themselves and to clear space for them to do so. To be effective in our solidarity we must be willing to weather any and all valid criticism of the larger group to which we belong. Otherwise what are we doing here?”…maggielorraine

        Excellent point.

      • ritzl
        May 31, 2012, 8:27 pm

        I agree with the first part of what you said, but the “inclusive” to me means overlaying an operative construct on the Palestinian side that is not reciprocated or even contemplated by their adversaries. That’s a limiting condition and what I meant by shifting the “polarity.” It is counsel to “play nice” rhetorically as a condition of support, while the other side lies, steals, subjugates and worse. I think that’s true whether he meant it the way I took it, or the way you took it (rereading the interview, he probably meant it in both senses).

        Having said this, this tension may be an alloying one in the long run. There was a more or less successful resolution to MLK’s “white moderate” observation, I suspect largely along the lines you describe. The same can be the case here.

    • American
      May 31, 2012, 6:32 pm

      “”My problem is that I cannot obviously be part of a struggle which is not inclusive. It deserves to be addressed in-house, in the movement, not in public. I was forced to bring it up in the global march to Jerusalem. I was pressed to endorse the march publicly but they said not as the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions because we can’t use the word Israeli.”..Halper

      I think Halper is wrong.

      Although the Israeli peace acvitist are or have been very helpful I can see where Palestine would want to detach the Israeli tags from their efforts….it muddies the waters in some regards. The Palestine do have to draw a big line between themselves and Israel (therefore Israeli activist tags) for the world at large to really see it as Palestine vr. Israel…oppressed against oppressor. Too much Israeliness might give the impression the whole struggle is something less or about less than what it is and only dependent on Palestines and Israelis coming together. And we know that isn’t going to happen any time soon if ever.

      People are going to have to “”choose sides”” in this for it to end, no way around that. And it not feasible to expect an Israeli to choose Palestine when it comes right down to it.

      • maggielorraine
        May 31, 2012, 7:17 pm

        Except, in context, my impression was Halper is just talking about a post-BDS failure of the Israeli state and what kind of society will form in its wake, whether that entity will include Israelis or not. And his idea seems to be that if Palestinian groups are separating from Israeli-led solidarity groups now, how does that inform the future? I think your analysis above is correct, but that Halper is just concerned about whether it’s going to negatively impact the future, that is, whether it sets up for reconciliation or repudiation.

      • American
        June 1, 2012, 10:23 am

        Maggie,

        Maybe, but it seems like putting the cart before the horse….can’t have any real reconciliation until it’s ended.

    • ToivoS
      May 31, 2012, 7:02 pm

      This debate reminds me of the debate inside the the civil rights movement starting in 1966 and blowing publicly open in 1968 with the emergence of the Black Power movement. It is only a natural progression.

      • ritzl
        May 31, 2012, 8:35 pm

        Agree.

      • ritzl
        May 31, 2012, 11:53 pm

        @ToivoS Agree (sorry to be redundant), with a caveat. Without some noticeable and articulated dialectic in the tactical pursuit of justice on this issue, there can’t be the progression, “natural” or otherwise, you point out. It doesn’t happen.

        That’s why this site is important. It seeks that progression and fosters (probably flawed, as in my case above) explorations of how that can come to be realized.

        The problem, dialectically and “progressionally”speaking, is that diminishingly few Palestinians will ever publicly assert aggressive leadership on their own issue out of “respect” for the damage (and resulting pile on) the antisemitism charge brings. Particularly if one is Arab/Muslim/different. I think that’s categorically different from the civil rights movement. “N-lover” could be, and was, seen as a badge of courage/support for justice (among some allies), where “antisemite” has never been that, and never will be.

        Point being, it’s hard to lead/force a change on this issue when your core and needed allies are so heavily influenced by unfounded, yet deeply-affecting and wanton accusations. So while I agree that this tension is part of a natural progression, it is very much, imvho, outside modern precedent.

    • Avi_G.
      June 1, 2012, 12:10 am

      My problem is that I cannot obviously be part of a struggle which is not inclusive. It deserves to be addressed in-house, in the movement, not in public. I was forced to bring it up in the global march to Jerusalem. I was pressed to endorse the march publicly but they said not as the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions because we can’t use the word Israeli. You have to endorse the march as the head of the committee against house demolitions.

      Professor Jeff Halper is missing the point on several levels.

      It’s not that Palestinian organizations are saying to him We don’t want you. Instead, they are saying to him, We appreciate your work and effort, but the minute you start describing yourself and identifying yourself as an Israeli, then you immediately do two things:

      (1) You put yourself in a position where you are the de facto representative of a segment of Israeli society, a society that remains largely apathetic to our (Palestinian) plight and struggle for rights. Thus, you unintentionally end up perpetuating the notion that Israeli society is democratic and diverse.

      (2) Instead of this struggle being ‘OUR’ struggle, your describing yourself as an Israeli makes this into a struggle where a segment of the benevolent occupier is doing us a favor to clear its conscience.

      On another level, professor Halper is contradicting himself. On the one hand he claims to be a non-Zionist, yet on the other hand he seeks to identify as an Israeli, an identity and a concept that which would not have existed if it were not for Zionism. In addition, it is an identity and a label that carries with it all the ugly realities of Ethnocracy.

      Now I’m not saying that Halper needs to renounce his Israeli citizenship. Instead, he should formulate for himself a position that is born of a future reality, a concept of how he views Jew and non-Jews as living in a future state of all its citizens.

      In other words, if one claims to be a non-Zionist, then one must also transform one’s identity and move past the anachronistic “Israeli” identity, with its Ethnocratic stain and Ethnic Cleansing history in tow.

      Until Halper crosses that conceptual bridge, he will continue to perpetuate the overlord image, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

      Again, Palestinians are looking for equals, not for benevolent occupiers.

      • seafoid
        June 1, 2012, 9:40 am

        Avi

        Very well put. I read Halper’s “an Israeli in Palestine” and the name of the book really annoyed me. What does “Israeli” mean ?
        I always thought he should have called it ” a Jew in Palestine”

        Here it is in maths form

        Israeli = Jew/Palestinian

        an Israeli : palestine = A Jew/Palestinian : palestine
        Palestinian divides into palestine leaving

        A Jew : Palestine

      • American
        June 1, 2012, 10:36 am

        Avi,

        Yes, well put.

  5. American
    May 31, 2012, 6:55 pm

    I really, really, really like Vilkomerson.
    And this is dead right ……’One thing Jews are very important for is certifying that it is not anti-Semitic to have such a debate. To make it kosher”
    There is now a treasure trove of various Jew’s statements on I/P….so it’s hard to say non Jewish critics just want Israeli destroyed if they say the same thing.

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