On Saturday the New School hosted a conversation on “The Jewish American Relationship with Israel at the Crossroads.” Anna Baltzer sent along her opening remarks.
Thank you so much to OR Books, Vera List Center, Adam Shatz, and the others who organized this event. It’s an honor to be here. I’m excited to be here and by the topic of this event because I believe we are at a crossroads, not just in terms of Jewish American feelings towards Israel — as Dr. Finkelstein has meticulously documented in his book — but also the place of Jewish voices in the movement.
There is no question that there is a monumental shift happening among American Jews, with increasing numbers coming out against Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies against the Palestinian people. This is largely a generational shift, driven by young people, who have become allies to the cause even as their parents repeat the same tired arguments they did decades ago about Israel’s moral superiority and lack of a partner for peace.
People like Dr. Finkelstein, Dr. Chomsky, and many other deserve credit for decades of speaking out against Israel’s abuses of Palestinians when so few Jewish — or other — Americans did. Palestinians, of course, have always been speaking out as long as they have been oppressed, though nobody listened. The courage of all these voices in the dark paved the way for many of us today.
Today, many synagogues can no longer even talk about this issue because it is so divisive. The traditional gatekeepers of the conversation are in crisis. For example, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was living the past year, is suffering a very clear downward trajectory. More than 90% of its donors are over 40 years old. The organization says it represents the Jewish community but won’t publish the list of synagogues because, in fact, the number is very few.
Meanwhile, organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace are growing in leaps and bounds. Its mailing list now boasts more than 125,000 subscribers. There are explicitly anti-Zionist organizations like the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Young, Jewish, and Proud, the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace, is growing particularly quickly with more and more young Jewish Americans reclaiming American Jewish identity as rooted in support for equality and justice rather than unconditional support for a state across the world that does not represent them.
Along with the growth of Jewish support for Palestinian rights, however, comes a dangerous phenomenon; that is, Jewish voices eclipsing Palestinian ones. Palestinian voices have long been dismissed as angry, irrational, and biased. Even people supporting justice for Palestinians often say they’d rather have a Jewish speaker come to their community because our voices are more “credible.” They would rather have me telling Palestinian stories than a Palestinian — the expert — telling her or his own stories. Events like today’s draw larger crowds than a panel of Palestinians speaking about their own struggle would.
Intentional or not, what happens is that just as we are trying to break down the imbalance of power and privilege in Israel/Palestine, we are recreating the same power imbalance in the U.S. context. We must challenge not only Israel’s abuse of Palestinians but the underlying racism at its core that somehow Jews are more important than Palestinians. We must acknowledge that privileging Jewish American voices rather than featuring and listening to Palestinian voices is rooted in racism.
Let’s take an analogy. Imagine an all-male speaking tour in the late 1960s promoting the feminist movement. Imagine people inviting panels of men to speak about feminism because, well, women are so angry and irrational — they won’t be heard as credible. Any half-politicized person would rightly have called this out for what it is: misogynistic. Because the feminist movement was not and is not just about an end goal of getting women certain rights; it’s about empowering women, women being able to speak for ourselves; it’s about transforming society overall.
Speaking for myself, the same goes for this movement. As we speak about freedom and justice for Palestinians, their voices must be at the center. And I’ll talk about what that means in practice a little later.
But meanwhile, what is the role of Jewish Americans on this issue? I would argue that an honest analysis of the situation shows that mainstream Jewish American institutions are among the traditional gatekeepers on this issue, and Jewish voices are uniquely placed to challenge and disrupt those institutions’ hegemony. We must be present in coalitions challenging those institutions, defending allies from claims of anti-Semitism that are used to stifle legitimate discussion about Israel and to suppress action. The more of us that speak out, the harder it becomes for pro-occupation Jewish institutions to claim to be in any way representative. By showing that the Jewish community is not monolithic, we show that this is not an identity-based struggle between Jews and Palestinians but a struggle for human rights like any other.
To put it another way: It’s not about Jews leading the way; it’s about stepping out of the way.
I’ll give you an example: This past summer in the Bay Area, I was part of a hearing by the Sonoma County Commission on Human Rights regarding an upcoming local bus contract renewal with Veolia, a company that is also deeply implicated in the Israeli occupation. It was standing room only, with testifiers overflowing out the door waiting to speak. Defending the local bus contract were representatives of Veolia Corporation and some members of the Jewish community. On the other side were a diverse group of community members and others from the Jewish community. In other words, it was only the Jewish community that was divided.
What was the effect? Our voices countering those from the JCRC helped the commissioners — and all the media and witnesses there — to see plainly the situation for what it really was: a struggle of people vs. power and corporate impunity.
We made space for others to be heard. As Jews, we can use our voices particularly to help lift up the voices of Palestinians that have been silenced for so long.
By the way, and I’m speaking for myself here, this does not mean we give people permission to listen to Palestinian voices. Historically, the role of Jewish American allies has been to show that it’s okay to criticize Israel, to support boycott and divestment, etc. But what’s really needed is a complete paradigm shift; it’s the concept that you, whoever you are, do not need permission from Jews — or anyone else for that matter — to do what you believe is the right thing to do.
It’s not that we do not participate — we should, of course… we must, enthusiastically! — but we must also make sure that Jewish American voices are not, as they have in the past, regulating the terms of the discussion, including when it comes to the vision of the future of Israel/Palestine and the means of their freedom struggle. Our particular mandate to challenge U.S. institutional support for Israel — most notably the roughly $3 billion dollars in military aid awarded Israel with tax-payer dollars annually — is clear and always has been. Meanwhile, we must carry an extra sense of humility when it comes to an indigenous movement, particularly when we come from the oppressing group — in this case both as Jews and as Americans. And that means listening when we are given the opportunity to support the oppressed.
In 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and (1) ends its illegal occupation, (2) implements full equality for Palestinians inside Israel, and (3) promotes the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Behind this call stands the largest breadth and broadest consensus of Palestinian voices to my knowledge. It has been signed by more than 170 organizations representing all segments of Palestinian civil society, including unions, all major political parties, human rights organizations, and more.
The growing global BDS movement is a thriving, diverse, and inclusive movement. It is strategic in nature, empowering groups around the world to choose targets and tactics that are appropriate within each particular context. It stands on three pillars — freedom, equality, and justice, representing the three rights articulated in the call, the three minimal components to fulfilling Palestinians’ must fundamental rights.
The movement has had tremendous success thus far, with victories announced weekly or sometimes daily from around the world, growing in size and significance. Most recently in the U.S., for example, the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation, which manages investments for more than 250 Quaker institutions around this country, decided to divest from Caterpillar, Veolia, and Hewlett Packard corporations following concerns expressed by a Palestine Israel Action Group and their local Friends meeting. Earlier this year, Morgan Stanley Capital Investment (MSCI) delisted Caterpillar from its list of socially responsible investments, prompting financial giant TIAA-CREF to divest close to $73 million from their Social Choice Fund. These are just two of the most recent examples.
But the greatest success of the BDS movement is its effect on the discourse. Here in the U.S., campaigns playing out in mainstream churches, shopping centers, university campuses, and city councils have fundamentally shifted the question from whether or not Israel is committing crimes to what are we going to do about it. The gatekeepers of the occupation are suddenly on the defensive where they never were before. And more than any book or speaker (and I am speaking as an author and a public speaker) ever could before, BDS campaigns — whether they win or lose — are changing the way people think about Israel and the Palestinians. I believe the success of BDS is behind some of the exciting phenomena that
Dr. Finkelstein writes about in this book. This shift in discourse will also be key to forcing an end to U.S. military aid and other U.S. institutional — including corporate – support that enables Israel’s abuses.
In part through BDS, the Palestine solidarity movement has transformed from talking about Palestinian self-determination to manifesting it. Palestinians are no longer relegated to the margins of their own liberation struggle, but are in fact the leaders of it. This, of course, makes speakers like myself much less important, and that’s okay with me, in fact, I’m happy about it.
Freed from the old paradigm, the result is quite beautiful: “It’s clear what the future looks like” — to quote Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace in her article written after the first night of the University of California at Berkeley hearings on divestment. She noted — and I have seen as well from Sonoma County to the United Methodist and Presbyterian churches’ recent divestment hearings to the many others playing out on campuses from New York City to San Diego — that while on the one side you had a small group of isolated Jewish students and leaders, holding onto each other fearfully; on the other you saw a diverse group of Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Israelis, Arabs, African Americans, Latina and Latino community members, queer allies, feminists, and others; interconnected, holding hands in friendship, solidarity, and anticipation. As a young Jewish American, this is what I want my community and place in the movement to look like. Thank you.
Special thanks to Jewish Voice for Peace for their contributions to these remarks.