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.
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.