On January 29th, along with several friends and activists, I took the opportunity of the scheduled public comments time at the public meeting of the trustees of the California State University to voice my support of the resolution passed by American Studies Association to hold Israeli institutions accountable for their participation in human rights abuses.
During that time Stand With Us (SWU) Research and Education Director, Roberta Seid and Tammi Benjamin of AMCHA Initiative also made statements rehashing old and settled accusations against mathematics professor David Klein of (California State University at Northridge) and in support of Chancellor Timothy White for, “standing up against an assault on academic freedom” which Ms. Seid claimed to have just witnessed.
In spite of the fact that Ms. Seid spoke before I did and introduced the topic of Israel and Palestinian solidarity activism on college and university campuses, she and Roz Rothstein, CEO of SWU, published an opinion piece which accused me and others of interjecting “the subject of Jews and Israel,” going so far as to admonish several speakers for proudly self identifying as Jews. I wrote this response to set the record straight.
Stand With Us (SWU) Research and Education Director, Roberta Seid and CEO Roz Rothstein’s opinion piece published in San Diego Jewish World under the title, Israel foes, defenders spar before CSU Trustees; and on jns.org under the title Boycotters of Israel attempt to monopolize a meeting, again was an interesting read. But in the end, it gives me several reasons to be hopeful.
They start out by pointing out that nearly one third of the people who came to the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees bimonthly meeting to offer public comments were there, as I was, to encourage the board to continue to protect the free speech and academic freedom of students, faculty and all who engage in public debates on CSU campuses. I didn’t keep track of the number of people who addressed each of the several issues spoken to, but it gives me hope that so many spoke directly in support of free speech and academic freedom. Applause from union workers and others who were there to address various issues reinforced that message to the trustees.
Ms. Seid and Ms. Rothstein found it “an odd turn” that I and others would come out to make public statements in support of the recent passage of a resolution by the American Studies Association (ASA) to hold Israeli institutions accountable for their participation in human rights violations; which brings into sharp focus Israeli policies which severely limit the academic freedoms of Palestinians within the occupied Palestinian territories and inside Israel. They don’t seem to find it odd that they were there speaking about the same resolution. They claim the “academic boycott of Israel is designed to ensure that in any debate, Israel’s voice won’t be heard” and yet there they were freely expressing it, as they do quite often both on and off of California campuses.
If anything is odd, I would say it was that Ms. Seid was there, along with Tammi Benjamin of the Amcha Initiative, to yet again, assert that CSUN Professor David Klein is misusing public university resources in an ongoing attempt to stifle debate about Israel and Palestine on college campuses. And once again falsely claim that critical discussion about the policies and practices of the Israeli government are inherently anti-Semitic. Of course, there is nothing anti-Semitic in questioning or opposing the policies of the state of Israel. They have already made the same claims several times before that very board and their claims have been summarily and consistently rejected. They have also made similar claims and objections, which have likewise been rejected by the US department of Education, the California Attorney General and various University of California campuses.
There is another oddity. Seid and Rothstein complain that some speakers proudly self-identified as being Jewish. As a proud Jewish American myself, I don’t find it at all odd that people take pride in their heritage, faith, culture or religion. What I do find odd is that anyone would take offense to that or hope to suppress such expressions.
Seid and Rothstein charge that there is “an organized, orchestrated campaign with its own catechism.” Indeed there is. In 2005 Palestinian civil society asked the world to engage in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS against the state of Israel. People of conscience around the globe have responded. The goals of BDS are to achieve freedom, justice and equality for all people in Israel/Palestine. JVP supports the growth of BDS through divestment from companies that profit from the occupation. My organization also supports nonviolent efforts here and in Israel- Palestine to end Israel’s Occupation, expand human and civil rights, and implement a US policy based on international law and democracy.
I would like to thank the women of SWU for pointing out that JVP has many non- Jewish members. We are proud of that. The 90-second time slot I was allotted for my public comments was too short for me to say that, so I’ll say it now. I am very proud that JVP’s work, platform and mission attract people of all backgrounds, cultures and faiths to become members and supporters. That diversity along with our active Rabbinical council, our fabulous staff, and our creative young adult wing, Young Jewish Voice for Peace, is all part of what makes our fast growing organization so vibrant and strong. Jewish Voice for Peace is the only national Jewish organization that provides a voice for Jews and allies who believe that peace in the Middle East will be achieved through justice and full equality for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Ms. Benjamin has for a long time argued that there is a “new anti-Semitism.” In a speech she gave last summer at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, she went one step further and declared the existence of a “new new anti-Semitism.” She accuses two groups of anti-Jewish sentiment on college campuses. The first group consists of student organizations like the Muslim Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine, and “the second significant force of anti Jewish sentiment on CA campuses are of course anti-Zionist faculty, many of whom unfortunately are Jewish.” As someone who spends a fair amount of time on campuses and with members of all of those groups, I couldn’t disagree more. But what concerns me most is that her fabricated claims of anti-Semitism, “new anti-Semitism,” and now her even more dubious “new new anti-Semitism” insult the many real victims of anti-Semitism, and engender a numbing effect making it harder for people to see and understand when actual anti-Semitic acts occur or statements are made.
The women of SWU accuse me, and others at the meeting of being “anti-Israel.” I can only speak for myself, but those women don’t know me. They have never spoken with me. They don’t know anything about me, my family, or my feelings about the land that my family in Israel calls home. My guess is that they don’t know any of the other speakers they also characterized as “anti-Israel”. What does “anti-Israel” really mean?
Is the vision of an Israel with equal justice, full equality, security and self- determination for all its citizens anti-Israel? Or instead is defending Israeli policies that give rights and privileges to Jews, but which oppress and dispossess non Jews the real and ominous version of the term, “anti-Israel”?
But I am hopeful. I am hopeful because Seid and Rothstein worried that the Trustees “may also have been uncomfortable.” I didn’t witness discomfort by the trustees, but this new concern for discomfort in others gives me hope. Seid and Rothstein were previously remiss in expressing concern for discomfort when a dozen or so members of San Francisco Voice for Israel and Stand With Us disrupted a Bay Area Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) meeting in November 2010 and pepper sprayed two JVP members in the face and eyes. Police had to intervene. Seid and Rothstein also neglected to express concern for the discomfort of activists earlier that year when JVP and Women in Black members were intimidated, video taped and threatened by known SWU supporters with taunts including, “Nazi, Nazi, Nazi” and “Kapo, Kapo, Kapo.” The widely viewed video of the incident includes footage of a SFVI/SWU supporter threatening peaceful activists as they took part in a silent peace vigil, chanting, “You’re all being identified, every last one of you…we will find out where you live. We’re going to make your lives difficult. We will disrupt your families…”
I am sensitive to those kinds of threats. In February of 2011, less than four months after I helped launch JVP Los Angeles, a wanted poster appeared on the porch of my home, labeling me a “suspect” and accusing me of using my “own presumed Jewishness as a weapon against the Jewish People and the Jewish State of Israel while conspiring with other well-known anti-Israel groups to assist in Israel’s destruction and to otherwise engender hatred and incite further violence against the Jewish People and the Jewish State of Israel.” The poster also identified young children in my family by name, which understandably made many, many people “uncomfortable.”