The first Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) meeting Mitchell Plitnick attended was in 1999, in a living room alongside fifteen people. The latest JVP meeting he went to was last weekend, where over five hundred people took over the second floor of the Baltimore Hyatt. Hundreds more wanted to attend, but it was sold out.
Plitnick, program director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former director of policy at JVP, told me the conference was impressive.
It was a sentiment shared by many of the attendees. JVP has transformed from a scrappy California-based group to a national force in the American Jewish community and in the Palestine solidarity movement. Held from March 13-15, JVP’s latest national membership meeting was filled with Jewish prayer, a memorial service for those killed in Israel/Palestine last summer, and countless talks on dozens of different topics. The meeting, like JVP itself, was intergenerational and interdenominational, with young and old Jews and non-Jews holding discussions on the future of JVP. Some attendees were there for their first JVP gathering.
It was not nearly as slick as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference, but there was a real sense that JVP was growing into a force that holds real power at the grassroots level.
JVP has grown alongside other Palestine solidarity groups, whose ranks have been swelled by those watching frequent assaults on Gaza. Young Jews and liberal Democrats are increasingly voicing criticism of Israel, a trend JVP is seeking to capitalize on. A February Gallup poll revealed that 48 percent of Democrats sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians–a drop of ten points from last year.
“It is the end of the era of ‘progressive except for Palestine,’” said Cecilie Surasky, JVP’s deputy director.
It’s a bold statement to make. The political landscape has not yet seen the extinction of progressives who triangulate between pro-Israel politics and social justice work.
But many liberals are increasingly being forced to choose between progressivism and support for Israel. And JVP is one of the leading groups seeking to force the end of the era of “progressives except for Palestine.” One of their newest hires is Rabbi Joseph Berman, now JVP’s federal policy organizer. He’s tasked with working on Capitol Hill to further the work of JVP. The coming years will see JVP trying to impact federal policy–a monumental task, though one that doesn’t seem impossible after 60 lawmakers boycotted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress.
The Baltimore meeting was the biggest JVP national gathering yet. The growth stems from a source all the attendees want to see end: the worsening situation on the ground in the region. Last summer’s assault on Gaza lead to a boom in JVP membership and donations, and a shift to the left among some liberal Zionists who decided to join JVP. The Gaza war last summer lead to 30 new chapters being formed. 60,000 new people signed up to be online supporters, according to JVP executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson.
One person representative of the leftward pull liberal Jews feel is Seth Morrison, a former board member of J Street’s Washington, D.C. chapter. This was Morrison’s first JVP national gathering, but he threw himself fully into the group: he helped plan the JVP meeting.
Morrison’s frustration with J Street grew during 2013, in part because J Street refused to support the Palestinian Authority’s bid for United Nations recognition. Morrison said he thought J Street was not using the political power it had accumulated, and he eventually became a supporter of BDS, which J Street opposes.
“What I’ve realized about Israel–which I still love and support and have good feelings about–is that Israel is addicted to the occupation,” Morrison told me. “I’ve come to believe that BDS is tough love.” Morrison said “tough love” is important to combating addiction.
The national membership meeting was the first get-together since JVP changed its position on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement from one of support for targeted boycotts and divestments to full endorsement of the BDS call. When JVP staffers reminded the audience of that change, the overwhelming majority of people applauded.
Cecilie Surasky told me the change in position meant JVP could now fully endorse academic and cultural boycotts, the two most controversial aspects of the BDS movement. JVP’s support could be crucial in the coming year, as academic associations like the American Anthropological Association consider endorsing the academic boycott.
In addition to discussions about BDS, the right of return and many other topics, the JVP meeting was filled with discussions and panels about connections between Palestine and other struggles for justice. There was a panel on the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration rights. The Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by police killings of unarmed Black people in Ferguson and elsewhere, was also central to this year’s gathering. One of the most packed panels was one featuring poet Aja Monet and activist Ahmed Abuznaid, who discussed the recent Black Lives Matter delegation to Palestine.
Connecting the dots between Black Lives Matter and Palestine, and how anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism has become just as institutionalized as anti-Black racism in the U.S., was Angela Davis, the famed scholar who delivered the closing address.
“Speaking out against the militarization of the police requires us to understand how deeply the state of Israel is implicated in this process, of the trainings of US police officers,” said Davis. “The Israeli military police in occupied Palestine have emerged as a model of how protesters should be dealt with everywhere. And this is why it appears as if we are witnessing the replication of their behavior in a small town called Ferguson, Missouri, and all over the country.”
The end of her speech was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Davis was followed out by dozens of JVP members hoping for a picture with one of the most famous Black intellectuals alive today.