A perspective on the Jewish Federation General Assembly from its only Palestinian attendee

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My name is Shereen Naser, I am a young Palestinian-American woman, and I attended the 79th General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. Don’t ask me why, I’m still not entirely sure. I think when I first made the decision to go, I did so confident I would be turned away from registering for the conference. With this confidence I entered the New Orleans hotel hosting the General Assembly and began going through the motions. Step one, find the registration booth and hand over your identification for registration. The young man entering my information into the computer looked at my ID card, marked my last name with his index finger, lifted his eyes to get a good look at me, glanced down at my ID again, and looked back at me perplexed. He asked, not even attempting to curb the confusion in his voice “your LAST name is Naser?” Yes, my last name is Naser, it comes right after my first name, Shereen. This was strangely familiar. He was buying time to size me up- young Iranian Jew maybe? Mizrahim? I agree, man, it is rather confusing, I do not know what mad impulse drove me here either. The night before I had vigorously pumped out signs to protest this very event with the New Orleans Palestine Solidarity group (NOLAPS), filled with every intention to lead chants and march determinedly for a free Palestine alongside my fellow NOLAPS members. However in the morning I found myself actually inside the JFNA General Assembly, estimated to have over 3,000 attendees, of which I feel comfortable saying only one was Palestinian – me.

After I confirmed my last name, my middle name and first name for a third time, I was told there was nothing he could do and was sent somewhere else to try and register. After 45 minutes in the student line, the organizers took one look at me and told me they were sold out and there was nothing they could do. Of course I had heard that they had given out student tickets just that morning but no matter, I could be patient. I would employ the same tactics I have used every time I have attempted to enter Israel. Let them look you over, let them try to guess where you are from, why you are here, and just smile. Hands in front so they can see them. Nod and thank them profusely for sparing you a precious minute. Look, I’m friendly, I might look like all those crazy terrorists on TV but I’m one of the good ones! Only got me so far though. I went through 3 more folks who looked at me funny and sent me back to the first organizer I had talked to. She finally got sick of seeing me and directed me back to the booth where I had originally gone to register. A wave of nostalgia hit me. Add a few more Arabs standing in lines clutching their ID cards, a dash of crying mothers telling harrowing stories of children they have not seen in months as an Israeli officer explains why they have to go to the other line again, and a measure of folks sleeping on the ground for hours waiting to hear if they would be let through and this could be the Allenby bridge crossing from Jordan into the West Bank. An hour and a half later of direction and redirection I was given a pass as a resident of New Orleans. Hey, better than the seven hours it took me to get through Ben Gurion last time I traveled to Israel so I really shouldn’t complain. And I did get in, always a cause for celebration.

Next step, deep breath, time to plunge into the conference. As I entered the exhibition hall I was greeted almost immediately by signs claiming to provide attendees with the truth about Israel, the land of milk, honey and great beach spots. Beach spots my cousins in the West Bank would never enjoy because of the less sunny truths about Israel ignored by these very signs. I picked up pamphlets for later reading, not needing any further provocation at the moment, and plowed my way through the crowd. It became a little more difficult to breathe as I walked by banners touting Israel as a beacon of light in a sea of backward Middle Eastern countries. Smile, Shereen, and move forward. Despite my morning trepidation, I did come here with a focused mission. The night before, post sign making, I had the pleasure of dining with members of Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based grassroots organization fighting for equality of Palestinians and Israelis. Members had traveled to the GA to make sure that another Jewish voice was heard, a voice critical of Israel. My new friends mentioned that they were planning on attending events during the conference that would explain the rationale for the new Israel Action Network, a $6 million joint initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs aimed at silencing a serious thorn in Israel’s side – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Campaign. Started in 2005, the BDS campaign has continually challenged Israel’s racist and apartheid policies through boycotting Israeli goods. The GA conference program guides advertised for sessions that would provide tactics for confronting this “global initiative of NGOs and anti-Israel activists seeking to delegitimize and demonize Israel.” Of course Israel is doing a fairly good job of all that itself. However, I was curious as to what exactly would be presented in these panel discussions, so I planned to attend them and find out.

In order to get myself through the rest of the day, I pretended to be an undercover reporter furiously jotting down notes and juggling a notepad and recorder as I listened to the panelists. One of the first things I noticed in my place as an undercover reporter was that Israel’s beef with the BDS campaign comes from a place of fear. In an article handed out during one of the sessions the BDS campaign was noted as “the second most dangerous threat to Israel, after Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.” Now, the panelists made it very clear that they were not afraid of the BDS campaigns impact on the economic state of Israel. They laughed at mention of the boycotts ability to cause any damage to companies creating or investing in Israeli goods. However there is one power BDS wields that Israel can no longer ignore and which the panelists made every effort to skirt around. BDS gives the (and I quote) “ordinary person” a way to show their concern for the Palestinian people. But it does much more than that, dear panelists. It provides a voice to the voiceless and alludes to similarities between the struggle of the Palestinians and those of other oppressed groups and blatant violation of their rights. The BDS campaign is more than only, as another panelist put it, “the ignorant led by the malevolent.” The BDS campaign reminds people that just like during the civil rights movement in the United States, or during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, there is an oppressor balking at the traditional avenues that protect individual human rights and making every effort to undermine them. The protection of democracy has failed the Palestinians. Arab-Israelis do not enjoy full equal rights and Israel continues to impose racist policies. Palestinian-Americans have no voice, as a U.S. politician that dares question Israeli policy is quickly undermined by accusations of being an anti-Semite. International avenues for justice are powerless, Israel continues to violate and ignore hundreds of U.N. resolutions condemning their colonial and discriminatory policies. Palestinians are powerless. They are trapped behind a wall snaking into their cities, unpredictable checkpoint procedures, incarceration procedures, and never knowing when Israel might pull out the white phosphorous again. As I write this, Tamer Nafar of the Palestinian rap group DAM rhymes into my ear the words from his song “Born Free;”

“We’ve been like this more than 50 years
Living as prisoners behind the bars of paragraphs
Of agreements that change nothing
We haven’t seen any light, and if we peek between the bars
We see a blue sky and white clouds
In the center a star reminds me that I’m limited”

As a Palestinian I feel hopeless. As an American I feel hopeless. As an individual who cares about social justice and human rights, I feel hopeless. However, the BDS campaign reminds me that no matter how hopeless I feel, this has been done before. People have successfully fought oppression before. This is what is scary to Israel. The campaign’s rapid growth speaks to the fact people are no longer buying Israel’s false rhetoric of distorted and polluted peace.

At many points during the different sessions I had to shake off a surreal sense of déjà vu. I sat in on sessions titled “Confronting Israel’s Delegitimizers,” and “The Global Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” listening to panelists’ concern about the BDS organized agenda giving voice to people who disagree with Israeli policy. This felt strangely like the middle of a dystopian novel plot line. I listened with a measure of awe as panelists presented ways to appeal to “moderates” who are concerned for those poor Palestinians by forging personal relationships with them, and swaying them over to a more civil discourse that includes warm and fluffy statements acknowledging that Israel has its flaws, but what country doesn’t? The entire tone of the panel reeked of condescension towards those idiots thinking that they know anything about the conflict. I think I may have had some bile rise in my throat as panelists hailed the organizers of a counter statement during BDS efforts to protest the 2009 Toronto Film Festival and its cooperation with the Israeli government’s Brand Israel marketing push playing a role in Tel Aviv being chosen in the festivals City-to-City Spotlight. The strategy then is to silence the BDS campaign by blinding people with names of stars like Jerry Seinfeld and Natalie Portman? My favorite part was when the Presbyterian Reverend Katherine Henderson told the audience that instead of boycotting Israeli businesses, the Presbyterian Church should be showing their support of Israel by investing with them, and that anyone in the audience with business proposals should contact her.

It became harder to sit as an undercover reporter, just as when traveling to Israel this method of dissociation only lasts so long. I listened in shock as panelists scrambled to paint a picture of BDS as an extremist organization that manipulated individuals into joining their efforts, while encouraging their own tactics of manipulation. But this will not stand. The people have spoken. They spoke in New Orleans when Jewish Voice for Peace refused to be silent during Netanyahu’s speech, and the New Orleans Palestine Solidarity group protested outside the conference. In fact, BDS represents the uniting of thousands of voices around the world Palestinian, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and everything around and in between saying that Israel’s actions can no longer be tolerated.

Tamer goes on to say;

“My feet are the roots of the olive tree
Keep on prospering, fathering and renewing branches
Every branch
Grown for peace
Every branch
Under the pressure of occupation
Refusing to give up”

I wish the Israel Action Network much luck, because try as you might we are not going anywhere and we will not be silent.

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