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The Jewish Voice at the Heart of the Boycott Israel Movement

March 29, 2017
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Jewish Voice for Peace executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson isn't your typical BDS activist: she spent three years in Israel, is married to an Israeli and has relatives in the West Bank. Despite many critics in the organized Jewish community, she says JVP is thriving in the Trump era and doesn't need the establishment's stamp of approval.

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Rebecca Vilkomerson (right) in July 2016 with Caroline Hunter, who was part of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. Photo Credit: JVP
Rebecca Vilkomerson (right) in July 2016 with Caroline Hunter, who was part of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. Photo Credit: JVP

Israel’s new travel ban forbidding entry for any foreign national who openly calls for a boycott of either Israel or the settlements has evoked a mix of personal regret and professional satisfaction for Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

On the one hand, the Brooklyn-based activist – who famously penned a Washington Post Op-Ed titled “I’m Jewish, and I want people to boycott Israel” – says she feels “really sad. I have aging relatives and people I love there, both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. The idea of not being able to return, even to visit family – I go at least once a year – is really distressing on a personal level.”

At the same time, news of the ban has “felt like a real moment of realization that Israel is truly scared of this movement and understands that it’s growing,” she says. “So as sad as I have felt, I also felt like it’s a vindication of the way the BDS [movement] is growing in strength and power.”

The organization to which Vilkomerson has dedicated the past eight years of her life doesn’t simply endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel: it enthusiastically embraces the tactic, working actively to encourage its spread throughout the United States in a range of institutions. JVP’s local chapters advocate a full-on boycott of all Israeli bodies (commercial, cultural or academic) that, directly or indirectly, contribute to the ongoing occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

The organization also demands the cessation of U.S. military aid to Israel until the occupation ends.

This puts it on the far-left edge of the organized American-Jewish community. To many mainstream, moderate and even left-wing groups – and certainly for the Israeli government – JVP is beyond the pale, aiding and abetting those who would harm, or even eliminate, Israel if it were possible.

Vilkomerson strongly rejects that view and the demonization of her organization. “We see BDS as a critically important, nonviolent tool to bring about change,” she told Haaretz, on the eve of JVP’s biannual conference starting March 31.

She sees BDS as a means to an end: “In our analysis, the United States is playing the key role in allowing Israel to continue its policies of oppression toward the Palestinian people, and the U.S. uses all of its diplomatic, economic and military leverage to allow Israel to do that. It’s our job as American Jews to change that equation,” she asserts.

As she sees it, BDS is the most effective method so far of effecting change. And so, in tandem with other pro-Palestinian groups on the left, a range of companies, governments and universities are pressured to cut ties with Israel, or entities they tie to Palestinian oppression, ranging from equipment manufacturers to insurance firms.

“BDS has been incredible for us,” says Vilkomerson. For a group like hers, “one of the great beauties” of boycott and divestment tactics is the way in which they awaken grassroots feelings of participation and give people the sense there is something concrete they can do on a local level.

The local chapters “can find the best targets, and run these campaigns to change things locally,” she says. “Then they are connected to a national and global network of people who are all doing the same thing, and those campaigns reinforce one another.” Her definition of “best targets” for BDS are those companies or entities with “stories that really show what the occupation is,” so it falls on each chapter to “choose a target that feels exciting and moves them.”

That includes keeping academics affiliated with Israeli universities from attending conferences, to Israeli musicians and dance troupes whose tours are supported by the state to showcase the positive aspects of Israel, no matter what those individuals’ political views may be. “I understand that people are experiencing this as individuals and that’s very painful – but it is institution-based,” she says.

Defying all stereotypes

Fluent in Hebrew and married to an Israeli with close family in the Jewish state, Vilkomerson defies any stereotype of the American-Jewish leftist as being assimilated, alienated from Judaism and ignorant of mainstream Israeli society.

She grew up in a Conservative Jewish community in Princeton, New Jersey. If anything stood out about her Jewish family, it was their unusually close ties to Israel. Her aunt immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and Vilkomerson’s grandparents followed in the ’60s. As a result, Vilkomerson grew up visiting Israel regularly and, to this day, remains close to her aunt, uncle and cousins, some of whom, she notes, live in the West Bank.  

She began working as a community organizer in the 1990s and obtained her master’s degree in policy from Johns Hopkins University. In her early professional years, though, she focused on domestic politics, with some time working on South American issues. She confesses that, early on, she actively “avoided” marrying her leftist pro-human-rights politics to her relationship with Israel: “It didn’t feel right – it was too hard.”

That all changed with the second intifada in 2001. “I think there are peak moments when young Jewish people begin to think about these things. I’ve heard similar stories from 22-year-old Jewish Americans regarding the Gaza war in 2014,” she says.

It was then that she pivoted to activism on the Israeli-Palestinian front. “I already had an overarching political framework that I believed in. Once I was able to face it, I was able to put Israel into that frame.” She joined JVP as a member in 2001. At the time, it was a small group that “met in people’s living rooms” in the San Francisco Bay area, where she was living and where she met the Israeli Berkeley student who would become her husband.

In 2006, they took their young children and moved to Israel for three years, where she improved her Hebrew, worked for a variety of human rights organizations, and joined in protests and activism with groups like Taayush and Anarchists Against the Wall. In 2009, they returned to the United States, settled in Brooklyn and she took the helm of JVP.

In her absence, it had expanded into a national organization, incorporating other small groups around the country. She became the fourth full-time employee of the group, which at the time had a budget of $400,000, she says. It has grown since to $3.2 million, with more than 70 regional chapters and multiple subgroups for students and various professionals.

When they hold their convention in Chicago, they expect 1,000 participants (“And there’s a waiting list,” she points out). By contrast, the last conference, in 2015, drew 600.

This year’s event has made headlines due to its inclusion of Rasmea Odeh as a top-billed speaker. Odeh, 69, a Chicago Palestinian and feminist activist, was convicted of two bombings in Israel in 1969, but says she was tortured into confessing. Israel released Odeh in a prisoner exchange in 1979. The day before Vilkomerson spoke to Haaretz, the news broke that Odeh had agreed to plead guilty to charges that she failed to disclose her time in an Israeli prison when she got U.S. citizenship, and would voluntarily leave the country. Odeh had claimed she didn’t disclose her past because of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Standing with torture victims

Vilkomerson said that despite the criticism, she has no regrets inviting Odeh, who, as far as she knew, would still address the conference.

“The way we see it, we are welcoming a woman who survived torture and sexual assault by Israel and made a false confession in Israeli military court, and I think it needs to be noted that the [Israeli] military courts have a conviction rate of 99.7 percent. The labeling of her as someone who has been convicted of terrorism allows the Jewish community to evade some really hard truths about the ways that Israel treats the people under its control,” says Vilkomerson. “Rasmea – I think especially now – is a warning and a reminder about tactics used by the U.S. and Israel. [President Donald] Trump has talked about wanting to bring torture back … and the torture the police have used in Chicago against black suspects is very widely documented. We are standing with victims of torture and against torturers.”

She rejects accusations that her group is in any way showing insensitivity to the victims of the attack Odeh was convicted of participating in by inviting her – or by denying the request of the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs to hold a memorial event for Israeli terror victims at the conference. “In our mission statement we say that we mourn the loss of all life and condemn violence against civilians. That includes lives lost under the occupation, and civilians killed in bombings in Jerusalem. We value all life and we are against violence against civilians,” she says.

Another speaker is Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March in January. Vilkomerson describes Sarsour as “passionate and compelling, very smart, committed and an impressive person,” and that her recent interview in The Nation, which sparked a dialogue on the compatibility of Zionism and feminism, was “perfectly clear and perfectly brilliant.”

That debate, she says, highlights “the potential disconnect between being a feminist and understanding that Palestinian women are horrifically affected by Israel’s policies. For me, it’s part of a broader conversation that’s happening in the Trump era. In the Jewish community, there’s been a beautiful flowering of resistance to Trump policies. The Muslim ban got people in the streets.

“But there’s been a Muslim ban in Israel for decades. And a Christian ban – Palestinian Christians can’t come back, either – and policies against Palestinian refugees,” she continues. “So the challenge I would put out to people is to be consistent with their values. Israel does not get an ‘out.’ If you hold certain values in the U.S., you have to hold them when it comes to Israel.”

Complaints that Israel is being unfairly singled out among progressives strike Vilkomerson as a “straw man” argument. “In the same way you would see South Africa called out in the 1980s and not other countries in Africa,” she says, “I think that different movements have different moments. … The battles are often about where the energy is, not so much about what is more important and less important to the other.”

JVP has a tense relationship with liberal Zionist groups that consider themselves “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” but take strong positions against the BDS movement – though she believes many of their members are more sympathetic than their leaders. Vilkomerson was invited to J Street in 2011, to talk about BDS. She hasn’t been invited back, even though “the room was packed,” she notes.

No position on one or two states  

Supporting BDS is not the only issue mainstream leftist Jewish groups have with JVP. Its failure to endorse a two-state solution leaves its umbrella wide enough to include those who would eliminate the Jewish state altogether, critics argue. It has also been criticized for its willingness to partner and accept support from groups and individuals who are seen as actively hostile to Israel and support violent actions against the state.

Vilkomerson defends the group on both charges: “We do not take a position on one state versus two states. That’s largely because our charge is to change U.S. policy – not dictate how many states Jews and Palestinians should live in. Obviously, the more settlements grow, the more two states seems unlikely.

“More than that, I personally feel the idea of the number of states being the dividing line is the wrong question. While, yes, it is still theoretically possible to have two states where people can have full rights, there are one-state models that are pure apartheid and other one-state models that are secular nationalist. For me, it’s not about the numbers of states; it’s about what happens within those states.”

In its official mission statement, the group “seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law,” but does not specify precisely how that should be achieved.

As for partners in BDS and other coalitions, she says JVP stands “against all forms of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism.” Without naming names, she notes there are individuals and groups her organization has refused to ally with because of their anti-Semitism or racism. While JVP is “not in lockstep with everybody we work with, we have a comprehensive set of values and work with people who share those values.”

She says it has been stunning to see those on the right who have condemned JVP for making common cause with anti-Semites look the other way at elements in the Trump administration simply because they say they support Israel, when “there are plenty of anti-Semites who support Israel for their own white supremacist reasons. … Supporting Israel does not mean you like or love Jews, and support for Israel is not a substitute for saying that you are not anti-Semitic.”

As for JVP’s partners in the BDS coalition, she says all groups formally affiliated are “very, very clear about drawing lines at anti-Semitism and have backed that up with concrete action.” Additionally, “they are clear about their principles about when a boycott would end. It’s not a perpetual call against a Jewish state because it’s Jewish. It’s about specific conditions of oppression they are trying to end.”

While J Street may have a problem with JVP, Vilkomerson says the reverse is not true. In the Trump era, she says, they see eye-to-eye on many issues, but disagree fundamentally on philosophy and tactics.  

She says her biggest issue personally with J Street is that it has “spent a lot of time trying to be the left-wing group that speaks out against BDS, and uses its left-wing credentials to fight it. What I would like to see from J Street and other Jewish institutions on the left is neutrality on BDS.

“I totally understand why it’s not the right tactic for some people, but it’s a nonviolent tactic and it’s a pressure tactic, and it’s working better than anything else has worked over the past few decades,” she adds. “Let us work using our approach and you guys use your approach. Nobody knows what’s going to be the thing that works.”

One thing she does know: Until liberal Zionists change their approach of downplaying Israel’s darker side – she cites a recent Peter Beinart column, in which he explains why he’s teaching his kids to love Israel first and to tell them the truth about the occupation later – JVP will continue to grow and attract young members from the ranks of liberal American Jewry, looking for a different kind of political and spiritual Jewish home.

“We see with many people coming into JVP what they feel is an incredible sense of betrayal that they’ve been fed lies and been presented a ‘Disneyland’ version of Israel that doesn’t exist. They have to rethink the whole frame of reference they’ve been taught by people they love and trust. They are searching for something that is new and real that aligns with their values.”

The larger and stronger they grow, she asserts, the less it bothers them that the vast majority of American-Jewish organizations keep them at arm’s length at best, and harshly denounce them at worst.

Vilkomerson believes her organization’s position has evolved over time. In the early days, “we had more of a ‘let us in’ sort of attitude, and we felt we needed to break down the walls inside the Jewish community in order to accomplish this.” Today, she says, “We have grown and have become more powerful and more dynamic. Our attitude has shifted to, ‘We don’t need the institutions of the Jewish world: We are building a Jewish institution ourselves.”  


March 29, 2017
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