An important and necessary conversation about Zionism is taking place in a St. Louis Jewish newspaper. It is important because we haven’t ever seen a Jewish newspaper make so much room for Jewish Voice for Peace members to answer the challenge that they seek to “eliminate” Israel.
JVP has 200,000 supporters in the U.S., but it was pointedly excluded from the hoe-down that Haaretz and the New Israel Fund had in New York last weekend; Peter Beinart misstated its name there, as he often has, as Jewish Voices for Peace. And at the Brookings Institution last week in Washington, Jeffrey Goldberg, a former corporal in the Israeli army, smeared JVP by stating that while it is now the “largest Jewish organization” at his daughter’s New England college, JVP is “an Orwellian name for a group that opposes Israeli’s existence.”
The following dialogue between a pro-Israel group and a group from JVP was published in the St. Louis Jewish Light. It concerns JVP’s letter to a local rabbi, Susan Talve, an outspoken supporter of Israel.
First, here is the open letter to Jewish Voice for Peace written by 25 St. Louis area Israel supporters (links are mine, not theirs):
As Jewish progressive activists, we write to you with deep concern about your open letter to Rabbi Susan Talve. We are extremely disappointed in your letter and believe that it betrays the movement for peace and justice to which we, too, belong.
Rabbi Talve is certainly capable of eloquently responding if she chooses, but we are speaking up independently of her to register our concern about your letter.
We are not angry because you disagree with Rabbi Talve on issues, methods, or actions. We are angry because you have chosen to be silent in the face of an ugly personal attack by a group with which you are aligned, against a leader in our community whom we greatly respect.
Your letter was written in the aftermath of the controversy generated by the group Hands Up United, who posted to their Facebook page a meme with a photograph of Rabbi Talve, calling her the vicious slurs of “a terrorist” who “supports genocide.” Political disagreements with her are no excuse for demonizing her with those libelous words.
The silence of your organization when your ally publicly refers to Rabbi Talve this way is appalling. You wrote no such open letter to Hands Up United condemning their choice of words. We can only assume that your failure to condemn these lies means you are in agreement with them. This is unacceptable for an organization that seeks to be a “voice” in our community. No serious Jewish organization should sink to such depths of false personal attack.
We are also troubled by your opposition to Zionism, and your demand that Rabbi Talve unilaterally oppose it. Zionism is the support for the existence of the State of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. We stand united in our belief that Israel has the right to exist. Expecting Jewish people and Jewish leaders to do otherwise, especially as a condition for being in a coalition, is wrong. Your absolute opposition to Zionism leaves us to wonder whether you believe Israel should be eliminated.
Make no mistake; we oppose much about the current Israeli government, its policies in the occupied territories, and its treatment of Palestinians. We support a two–state solution and believe that Israel’s current policies are an obstacle to its achievement. We also know that any fair and truthful reading of history will conclude that all sides have missed opportunities for peace. We hope that leadership in Israel and also among Palestinians and Arab states will take the necessary steps to achieve peace.
We share with you a commitment to seek peace and fight racism, and institutional oppression. We yield to no one in our opposition to oppression whether it be in Ferguson or Israel. We are advocates against genocide, apartheid, and racism. We will speak out against violence and the murder of innocents wherever it happens.
Your organization of course has the right to take whatever positions and choose whatever allies you wish. But it is our belief that if you want to strengthen a progressive movement and build a coalition– by definition a tent under which not everyone will agree on every issue—it is not constructive to call another progressive fighter for justice a “terrorist” who “supports genocide.”
Your open letter to Rabbi Talve asks her to commit to several actions. We ask some of you: Will you denounce the labeling of Rabbi Talve as a terrorist? Will you explicitly recognize Israel and its right to exist, and ask your allies in Hands Up United to do the same? Will you speak out against the continued misplaced opposition to Zionism?
We call on you to engage in the same personal struggle you ask of Rabbi Talve: honest self-examination of how your hopes and dreams collide with brutal realities.
— Steve Sorkin, Jeane Vogel, Michael Davenport, Kathy Davenport, Jennifer Bernstein, Ed Reggi, Joan Lipkin, Carol Wofsey, Phil Miller, Barbara L. Finch, Lise Bernstein, Stephen W. Skrainka, Fran Milsk, Nancy Weigley, Joel Frankel, Margy Weisman, David Sweeney, Michelle Shanker, Scott Emanuel, Mel Goldman, Scott Levine, Lori Becker, Bill Sitzer, Jane Grady and Joy Lieberman
Jewish Voice for Peace members have now responded, and the St. Louis Light has published their deeply moving letter.
It was not easy to write this response to the recent open letter to St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace. While many may see us as inflexible and dogmatic, we are actually a group of Jewish Americans and Israelis with diverse perspectives, which we see as a strength that helps us grow, learn, and struggle together authentically. We wish to offer such a space to others in the St. Louis Jewish community grappling with the painful realities of what is happening in Israel/Palestine.
It may not come as a surprise that we ourselves have found local Jewish institutions to be inflexible on this topic, and we have suffered exclusion and negative professional repercussions for how our beliefs are perceived. Surely if we are all progressives and we all — yourselves included — feel that we have been demonized, then something has gone wrong. We are not communicating.
In the past weeks, St. Louis JVP has been portrayed as seeking destruction, dissolution, and non-existence of a place that many of us hold dear; in fact, our vision is quite the opposite. Our hope for the future lies in an Israel/Palestine — and a world — where nobody is oppressed or excluded because of their racial, ethnic, or religious background. We want life, not the destruction that we have witnessed in Israel/Palestine. We want freedom for all peoples of that land to exist and thrive as full human beings — including Jews, Palestinians, migrant workers, and African refugees.
Tragically, the Israel that was created in 1948 and exists today is nothing like that vision. The creation of a Jewish state — which we were taught to hold dear — has necessitated a Jewish majority that has required the forced removal of most of the indigenous Palestinian population and the ongoing, perpetual killing, ghettoization, incarceration, and deportation of that non-Jewish population in order to maintain an artificial Jewish majority. As American Jews, we are welcomed and encouraged to take part in that majority while our Palestinian friends, including those here in St. Louis who may even still hold the keys and titles to their homes and lands, are excluded simply because of their ethnic and religious background. In fact, the horrifyingly racist words of Donald Trump over the past week calling for a ban on Muslims coming to the United States are not dissimilar from the immigration policies Israel has had in place since its creation.
We reject the notion that Israel ensures our security because our security can never come at the expense of another’s. In fact, we do not believe that Israel makes Jews safer. We are horrified by the notion that our diaspora should find refuge by creating an entire new, forced diaspora. We believe that security for Jews is intertwined with security for Palestinians and that right now is a moment for Jews to stand against Israel’s oppressive policies and in solidarity with the Palestinian people who are struggling for their most basic rights in the face of a U.S.-backed military superpower.
Our choice to act from love rather than fear has been deeply liberating and we invite you to join us in it, in seeing Palestinians as partners and in fact leaders in our collective liberation.
We know well how heartbreaking and scary this can be. A connection with Israel has become fundamental to many Jews’ identities. It can be hard to endure criticism, accept present realities, and work for uncertain change. It means risking what for many of us has lain at the core of who we are. As progressives, we take on this work with extra vigilance in order to ensure that our own comfort and privilege does not get in the way of our desire for justice.
The Movement for Black Lives has shown us that, to be truly in the movement, you must stand against the patriarchy and for the full participation of the LGBTQ+ community, and leadership of trans folks and other oppressed people. The Black Lives Matter protesters who disrupted Bernie Sanders forever changed the meaning of “progressive”: today, you cannot call yourself a progressive without having a racial justice lens. Similarly, we have now reached a point where you cannot be seen as universally anti-oppression while condoning the oppressive practices and policies perpetrated against Palestinians in the name of Jews everywhere by Israel.
We appreciated Rabbi Talve’s choice to use the word “justice” for Palestinians in her recent speech at the White House. We welcome any shift from a discourse of peace to active pursuit of justice in Israel/Palestine through the dismantling of all present discriminatory systems, which we believe is the only true path to reconciliation. We cannot ignore the hypocrisy of any leaders who speak of peace and reconciliation and at the same time actively support AIPAC, an organization devoted to promoting state violence and ongoing colonization of Palestinian lands while shielding Israel from accountability for those practices. It is not enough to say that one believes in peace while doing nothing to interrupt the injustices that have been fundamental to Israel since its inception. And the Israelis among us feel particularly strongly that to defend and stand in solidarity with today’s Israeli government is to support a regime we would never want for ourselves, and to betray not only Palestinians but also progressive Israelis, who are struggling within Israeli society for change. In fact, Ha’aretz editor Aluf Ben’s recent editorial in the Daily Beast calls on progressives in the U.S. to take up this fight.
We hear your demands for an answer about Hands Up United’s choice to use provocative memes to call out local leaders including Rabbi Talve. We had no knowledge of the memes until they were posted and they are not our words, our collective position, nor the conversation we wish to have. We lament that the term “terrorist” is used every day against innocent Arabs and Muslims, eliciting none of the same outrage. Because most of us are white Jews with unearned privilege, we do seek to understand the lived experience behind the choice to use that heinous word to describe the daily attacks on Black and brown bodies from Ferguson to Palestine, and to disrupt the dominant narrative that all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists but those justifying state terror against them and Black communities are not. We are progressive Jews with differing opinions around even this one word and we are appealing to you to talk to us about what is happening in Israel/Palestine without focusing the conversation on this episode in which we were not involved.
We need each other. We are not “seeking to be a ‘voice’” in the Jewish community, as your letter states; we are a voice in the Jewish community, and a growing one. We are reassured by your stated commitment to opposing apartheid and racism in all its forms, and we believe we have important work to do together in agitating our shared community to come out on the side of justice for all. After all, if not now, then when? If not us, then who?
We need not be afraid. Our Judaism is too expansive and too rich to be threatened by taking a stand against the ways Israel oppresses Palestinians. Our Judaism comprises so much more than a relationship with a political state, which is finite and temporary by nature. We are bound to a long history and future of near infinite complexity and potential.
We know these are dynamic times. We see the agitation at home and in Israel/Palestine. Many of us and many of you have lost friends and been criticized over our adamant support of the Ferguson movement. Yet we are excited about this opportunity for transformation at the other end in both places. The possibility of intertwined justice leaves us with deep optimism and hope. Our world is changing and, if we all do our parts, could one day soon be headed toward liberation for all.
— Anna Baltzer, Michael Berg, Hedy Epstein, Lara Jennings, and Jeff Ordower, on behalf of St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace