A packed hall at Anyplace University. The audience, lulled into a syntactic stupor by the lecturer’s academic drone, is unprepared for the evening’s surprise performance.
Suddenly, a small group of activists jump from their seats. While one member films the ensuing chaos on his smartphone, the others brandish banners and take the podium to usurp the microphone and shout anti-occupation soundbites.
A quick exit — or ejection — from the hall follows. And another potentially viral YouTube video is quickly posted.
Love it or loathe it, in using what some call “guerrilla” tactics to dissent from mainstream Jewry’s pro-Israel stance, far leftist activist group Jewish Voice for Peace is reportedly experiencing unprecedented growth since the start of Operation Protective Edge.
Whether staging a “die-in” in front of Hewlett-Packard‘s offices, storming US senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein’s offices, holding a public street performance of a human black-clad blockade outside NY’s Jewish Federation offices, or organizing pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli marches attended by tens of thousands, JVP is on the forefront of the leftist critique of Israel.
In the past two months of military operations in Gaza, the organization’s e-list has grown 37 percent and Facebook likes have more than tripled to upwards of 188,000 — “more than any other Jewish group working on this issue.” Twitter followers have also tripled to more than 34,000, and new chapters are forming in 18 cities, “representing 45% growth from our existing total of 40,” says Ari Wohlfeiler, the New York-based Jewish Voice of Peace development director.
Additionally, says Wohlfeiler, “While we did not issue any fundraising appeals in July, we received more donations than any month in our history.”
What is Jewish Voice for Peace — and why is it hated?
Jewish Voice for Peace was founded by Julia Caplan, Julie Iny, and Rachel Eisner in 1996 in Berkeley, California, as a far-left activist group with an emphasis on the “Jewish tradition” of peace, social justice, and human rights. It is currently led by Rebecca Vilkomerson, who joined the organization in 2002, and its board members include controversial Israel critics Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, and Tony Kushner.
JVP consists of American Jews and non-Jewish “allies” who attempt to draw attention to Palestinian suffering in what is described as occupied east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — and Israel’s culpability.
In using civil disobedience tactics, its members see themselves as the heirs to the glorious civil rights battles of yore, invoking names such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. along with the fight against the Vietnam War. And, according to its website, it is an organization that “fights McCarthyite censorship of debate and misuses of the charge of anti-Semitism, especially in the Jewish community.”
A staunch supporter of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, JVP claims it pinpoint-targets its activities at companies which either support the Israeli military (Hewlett-Packard) or are active in the West Bank (SodaStream).
After a careful reading of the JVP website’s materials, watching its YouTube videos and several conversations with activists, it is clear the organization is acutely aware of its word choices in explaining the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. “Zionism” is no longer a neutral term referring to a national movement of Jews and Jewish culture based on the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
One of the organization’s most popular slogans, “Not in my name,” is used by Jews throughout the world in pro-Palestinian rallies. Other campaigns include lobbying efforts to push the Presbyterian church toward divestment from Israel and recruiting prominent Jewish celebrities for its #GazaNames YouTube video, which has garnered almost 200,000 views.
The organization teams up with smaller grassroots groups that are across the board in faith and philosophy. However, in representing itself as a Jewish organization — complete with rabbinic board — it is often the “token Jew” in interfaith protests.
This use of the Jewish card in the organization’s high-profile efforts against Israeli policies — many say against Israel itself — draws ire. JVP is vehemently opposed by most mainstream Jewish organizations.
“JVP intentionally exploits Jewish culture and rituals in its advocacy to reassure its own supporters that opposition to Israel not only does not contradict, but is actually consistent with, Jewish values. Its ‘Rabbinical Council’ even published a Passover Haggadah in the spring of 2012 that dedicated one of the traditional cups of wine to BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) and added an olive to the Seder plate in honor of the Palestinian struggle,” writes the Anti-Defamation League on its website.
“JVP also uses its Jewish identity to shield the anti-Israel movement from allegations of anti-Semitism and provide the movement with a veneer of legitimacy. On its Web site, JVP recognizes its role as such, noting that the group’s Jewish nature gives it a ‘particular legitimacy in voicing an alternative view of American and Israeli actions and policies’ and the ability to distinguish ‘between real anti-Semitism and the cynical manipulation of that issue,’” says the ADL.
The ADL in 2010 and 2013 listed JVP as one of the ten most influential and active anti-Israel organizations in the United States.
“While JVP’s activists try to portray themselves as Jewish critics of Israel, their ideology is nothing but a complete rejection of Israel,” says the ADL’s website in an entry on JVP.
“While the group’s innocuous name and some of its outward policies seem mainstream, JVP consistently co-sponsors rallies to oppose Israeli military policy that are marked by signs and slogans comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, demonizing Jews and voicing support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. JVP has never condemned or sought to distance itself from these messages,” wrote the ADL in a 2013 report.
JVP for its part, appreciates the ADL’s “recognition of our growing strength, especially among younger Jews,” and calls its place on the list a “badge of honor.”
Impact on peace efforts with Palestinians
Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi says she has a lot of respect for JVP and admires its members’ conviction in “challenging the complacency” of those in power.
“Frankly speaking I know it is not easy to stand up to Israeli policy and measures and against Israel or even the Jewish community as a whole,” she says.
She describes the group as activists that work in a collective to “be the voice of the dis-empowered” through forming coalitions in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
She says JVP sends a message to the world that “not all Israelis and Jews are warmongers — and that is good for the health of the Jewish community.”
“Some people might call it radical, but it takes courage and commitment to challenge the prevailing opinion” — particularly today with a hard-line Likkud government, she says.
In reference to the group’s media-savvy tactics, she says they are not always wise, but “sometimes you need to get attention, and some people asses that negative attention is better than no attention.”
The former academic says Palestinians feel there is no peace partner on the Israeli side today. But she reflects and says, “I remember the days when talking about the two-state solution was considered treason, when it was illegal for Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other.
“What may appear radical or strange may be pace-setting and a challenge to the status quo,” she says.
A voice for unaffiliated Jews
His Holocaust survivor grandfather drew development director Ari Wohlfeiler to JVP over three years ago.
“I think I feel a responsibility to make the connections he couldn’t — that brutality and war crimes are wrong when committed against any people. But ‘never again’ is a concept that truly applies to all people, not only the Jewish experience.”
Wohlfeiler was raised in what he calls a “fairly typical unaffiliated house… a house that looks like a lot of American Jewish households — very clearly Jewish, and American.” He says JVP is the first Jewish organization that has appealed to him and there he found “the clarity and courage that it takes to be an American Jew challenging Israel and Israel policy.”
He has never been to Israel and says he is not a Zionist.
When asked why he devotes his human rights activism to this issue, he says, “You don’t just stand on a street corner and say, ‘Justice for all in every way!’”
At JVP he feels he has “a real voice.”
“We are visible and pressure decision makers to change US policy away from unequivocal support of Israeli policy,” he says.
Mainstream Jewish organizations have experienced an almost unprecedented unity in their solidarity with Israel in Operation Protective Edge.
According to a spokesman from the Jewish Federations of North America, “During the recent conflict there has been wide-spread support for Israel throughout the North American Jewish community. We have seen Federation-supported rallies in virtually every community, with tens of thousands of people raising their voices in support of Israel, and we have seen Jewish organizations come together in words and deeds.
“Those who do not accept Israel as a Jewish State and support boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel represent a tiny fringe of our community and we should not be distracted by their marginal efforts,” says JFNA.
Wohlfeiler, however, feels the status of Palestinians in the territories, particularly now during the Gaza conflict, “is a tremendous and horrific violation of human rights with massive devastation and needless death. When something is so wrong that you cannot sit idly by, it is the highest form of ethics to make sure you are heard,” says Wohlfeiler.
Who are Jewish Voice for Peace supporters?
Emory University Holocaust history Prof. Deborah Lipstadt says her impression of the organization is that some people who are there are genuinely committed to Israel. And some have discovered their Judaism through their concern about Israel. Others, however, “proclaim their Jewishness as a way of validating their hostility for Israel.”
Unlike the majority of JVP supporters, JVP advocacy director Sydney Levy was raised in an affiliated household and began learning Hebrew in kindergarten, he says.
“I am deeply Jewish, deeply connected to my Jewish identity. It is that deep connection that makes us want to speak up and in the beginning say, ‘Not in my name’ — because not all Jews think alike,” says Venezuela-born Levy.
When asked if he is a Zionist, Levy says with sorrow that he was once, but after seeing the inequality between Palestinians and Israelis, is no longer.
“We are a minority everywhere and we should present an example of how to treat minorities,” says Levy.
Although he now lives in California, Levy spent seven years in Jerusalem where he earned his BA and MA in Jewish history. “Some of what I learned in Jewish school I had to unlearn,” he says.
Like many JVP activists, Levy — who is still affiliated with a Jewish community — is often called a “self-hating Jew.” He audibly shrugs it off and says, “It’s a very comfortable thing for other people to say.”
Levy’s rich Jewish background is seemingly an anomaly, however. According to a statistical interpretation for The Times of Israel by Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, potential JVP supporters are young American Jews under 30, unaffiliated or Reform, who have either never visited Israel or visited once.
The JVP supporter profile was siphoned from the Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” based on the parameters of agreeing the US is too supportive of Israel, Israeli leaders are insincere in their efforts for peace with Palestinians, and Palestinian leaders are sincere.
Cohen estimates JVP supporters account for 2% of all American Jews. They are, however, three times more likely to intermarry and disproportionately profile as unattached to Israel (9% of all “not very” or “not at all attached”) and think Israel is not essential for Judaism (4% of total).
The Pew survey result last year that made headlines was the growing trend of at least one in five American Jews now describing themselves as having “no religion.” When that is imposed onto Cohen’s analysis of the typical JVP supporter, there is an inference that JVP has an ever growing pool of prospective followers, especially on campuses.
The looming frontline: College campuses
Throughout North America university students are packing up and getting ready to head back to campus. But is the campus ready for them?
After a year of high-profile grassroots criticism pointing to a lack of plurality of opinion, Hillel, the international student organization found on some 500 campuses, has taken steps recently to increase programming on Israel, including the appointment of a new vice president of Israel education and engagement, Shelley Kedar.
Does JVP have a place at Hillel?
Hillel guidelines state, “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.”
Therefore, an organization such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which does not necessarily support Israel as a Jewish state, is not usually welcome. At Brandeis University, for example, the local student JVP chapter was barred from affiliating with the campus Hillel in 2011.
Over the past year, grassroots student group Open Hillel has spearheaded criticism of Hillel and its guidelines. When asked about JVP’s place in discussions on campus, Open Hillel, which will host its first national conference in October at Harvard, told The Times of Israel, “Open Hillel advocates for all Jewish organizations, including JVP, to be included in pluralistic Jewish communities.
“We believe that the Jewish communal conversation on Israel-Palestine should include the full range of political perspectives held by members of the Jewish community, and JVP’s voice is an essential part of that conversation,” says Open Hillel.
During a crisis surrounding a new World Jewry Joint Initiative last week, the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel proclaimed campus advocacy plays a central role in swaying US public opinion.
Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky told The Times of Israel last week he proposed focusing a pilot project on campuses in light of ongoing delegitimization of Israel and with the likelihood of anti-Israel campus activism getting worse in the imminent new academic year.
“The war is still on here, and now we’ll be in a war on the US campus battlefield,” says Sharansky.
The Jewish Agency is currently sending some 70 Israel Fellows emissaries to serve on 80 campuses in North America and provide advocacy programming and materials.
Education versus advocacy
Brandeis University Prof. Ilan Troen is no fan of JVP, whom he calls “self-appointed saints with no mass following.”
“If you’ve ever dealt with the JVP, they themselves are a semi-terrorist group, promoting the disruption of free speech and the inability of others to conduct public discourse.”
He was personally twice interrupted during lectures, at Brandeis and at the University of California, Irvine.
“It is an intolerant extremist group masking itself under the banner of universalism,” says Troen, who heads Brandeis University’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.
For Troen, however, the campus battle should be fought over students’ minds, not emotions — through critical education, not pro-Israel advocacy.
The Center for Israel Studies, founded in 2007, aims to train scholars how to critically think about, research and — most importantly — teach about Israel. Active on the Brandeis campus year-round, its summer institute allows faculty from widespread universities to attend sessions and learn how to critically teach about the Jewish state. Troen says the center has seen 225 academics from 200 universities.
There are currently half a dozen similar institutes in North America.
‘It’s not advocacy, it’s academy’
“We are there to teach a nuanced, unbiased history of Israel,” says Troen. “It’s not advocacy, it’s academy.”
Troen claims his institute teaches the debate about the country, the internal conflicts. “That opportunity doesn’t exist at most university campuses,” he says.
In a day of ubiquitous social media, Troen worries JVP’s “sound bites and impassioned speeches” may be victorious over scholarly study.
“To lead the world to the virtues and visions of who shouts the loudest is not the way universities and human societies should be run,” he says.
In the meantime, however, JVP’s popularity among students grows — as well as the organization’s claims that established Jewry freezes out its pro-peace, pro-Palestinian message.
For Troen, the solution is clear: “They would be listened to if they would speak civilly.”