On JVP, Zionism and Jewish Community Growing Pains

As the co-chair of the newly created Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, I’ve naturally been interested in the fallout from the Anti Defamation Leagues‘s naming of JVP as one of their “Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in America.” According to the ADL and its supporters, JVP is guilty of any number of Jewish communal sins – the most cardinal among them, apparently, is JVP’s refusal to call itself a pro-Zionist organization, thus making it trefe in the eyes of the mainstream Jewish organizational community.

From a recent article on this issue in the New York Jewish Week:

The JVP website depicts a group that clearly puts most of the onus for the ongoing conflict on Israel and conspicuously refrains from calling itself “Zionist” even as it claims its positions are based on Jewish values.

“We do not take a position on Zionism,” said JVP’s (Executive Director Rebecca) Vilkomerson, who is married to an Israeli and has lived in the Jewish state. “That’s not a useful conversation; we have Zionists, anti-Zionists and post-Zionists.”

Zionism is, of course, the litmus test of communal loyalty in the old Jewish establishment. I’ve often been struck by the fact that although political Jewish nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon in Jewish history, it has fast become the sacred cow of the American Jewish community.

Indeed, in the organized Jewish community today, nothing will earn you a Scarlet Letter quicker than terming oneself an “anti,” “non” or “post-Zionist.” So when the JVP politely declines to display its Zionist credentials at the door, it’s inevitable that the Jewish communal gatekeepers will be poised to pounce.

Again, from the Jewish Week article:

JVP “plays a role in inoculating anti-Zionists and often anti-Jewish organizations and activists by offering a convenient Jewish voice that agrees with what they’re saying — as if that voice is not coming from a radical fringe,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA)…

This is nothing new. Jews have been accusing other Jews of being part of the “radical fringe” from time immemorial. This how communal authority is typically wielded: leaders determine the reach of their power by marking the boundaries of what it considers “normative” and by attempting to marginalize what it deems “beyond the norm.”

Of course, boundaries tend to be moving targets. As it invariably turns out, yesterday’s radicals become today’s establishment. The outsiders eventually move inside. And little by little, the new authorities will be compelled to redraw the boundaries of the norm yet again.

In the case of Zionism, for instance, we have a movement that was regarded as a small and insignificant Jewish fringe when it was founded in 19th century Europe. Though it feels like ancient history today, even in the years prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 there were many respectable anti-Zionist institutions in the American Jewish community (the Reform movement being the most obvious example).

And in truth, even following the founding of the State, devotion to Israel was still not considered to be the sine qua non of American Jewish identity. It was only after the Six Day War in 1967 – a mere forty years ago – that Zionism came to be considered an incontrovertible component of the American Jewish communal consciousness.

In this regard, I found this line in the Jewish Week article to be particularly noteworthy:

In another departure from the pro-Israel canon, JVP does not specifically endorse a two-state solution.

Wow. It’s an innocuous claim, but when you stop to think about it, it’s pretty astounding to consider that the two-state solution is now considered to be a mainstream element of the “pro-Israel canon.” I well remember when the mere suggestion of a Palestinian state was tantamount to heresy in the Jewish community.

A history lesson:

In 1973 a group of young rabbis and and Jewish activists founded Breira – an “alternative” Jewish organization that sought to put progressive values on the agenda of the American Jewish community. When it was created, Breira was a national membership organization of over one hundred young Reform and Conservative rabbis (including Arnold Jacob Wolf and Everett Gendler) and many important American Jewish writers (including Arthur Waskow and Steven M. Cohen). In its first (and by far most controversial) public statement, Breira called for negotiations with the PLO and advocated for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

To make a long story short, in four short years Breira – an vital organization of 1,500 members and prominent young Jewish leaders – was dead and gone, successfully blackballed by the organized Jewish community.

Today, when I hear Jewish organizations such as the ADL and the JCPA trying to marginalize JVP, I can’t help but think about Breira. I can’t help but think about the arc of Jewish communal history, and how it inevitably bends from the outside in. And I can’t help but wonder at an old school Jewish establishment trying desperately to hold on to communal paradigms that are slowly but surely slipping from their grasp.

Bottom line? Jewish Voice for Peace is an example of a new Jewish organization that speaks to a young post-national generation of Jews that simply cannot relate to Zionism the way previous generations did. Indeed, increasing numbers of Jewish young people are interested in breaking down walls between peoples and nations – and in Israel they see a nation that often appears determined to build higher and higher walls between itself and the outside world. (It’s a poignant irony indeed: while Zionism was ostensibly founded to normalize the status of Jewish people in the world, the Jewish state it spawned seems to view itself as all alone, increasingly victimized by the international community.)

Whether the old Jewish establishment likes it or not, there is a steadily growing demographic in the American Jewish community: proud, committed Jews who just don’t adhere to the old narratives any more, who are deeply troubled when Israel acts oppressively, and who are galled at being labeled as traitors when they choose to speak out.

Here is the introduction to the JVP’s mission statement. Witness the words of an organization that the JCPA’s Ethan Felson calls “a particularly invidious group.” Is it any wonder why JVP is growing steadily – and why this growth strikes fear in the hearts of the Jewish establishment?:

Jewish Voice for Peace members are inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law, and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals.

JVP opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression. JVP 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; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East.

No, I’m not surprised when I hear the invective of the Abe Foxmans and Ethan Felsons of the Jewish world. Painful as they are, I have to remind myself that their words are ultimately a sign of our Jewish communal health and vigor.

Yes, I suppose growing pains are brutal – but in the end, we shouldn’t have it any other way.


20 Comments on “On JVP, Zionism and Jewish Community Growing Pains”

  1. Pauline Coffman says:

    Dear Brant,
    Thank you for this blog message. It is good to be reminded of the history of the concept of Zion and Zionism and how it is used today to divide people, particularly Israelis from Palestinians. But the divisions within the Jewish community are not as well-known. JVP is a peaceful organization. Long may they live!

  2. Muhannad says:

    Excellent post.

    What’s amazing to me is that some believe if you belong to a religion, or ethnicity you all have to think and act the same way, you have to support the same causes, or otherwise you do not belong. But if that is true then who decides for us what we all should do, and how we should think, and who to support?

    Each community/group has people like that. You may be familiar with the prophet Mohammad saying: support your brother whether he is the oppressor or the oppressed. Then he was asked how to support him if he is the oppressor. He answered: by advising him to stop and helping him to stop from being one.

    LOVE TO ALL

  3. Barbara says:

    Rabbi Brant, I just signed up for your blog. We are new members and I can’t tell you how relieved I am that these issues are being discussed. When I became a “Jew by Choice”, I was asked to write an essay about my feelings about Israel, and I remember being very scared that I wouldn’t pass the test! I remember thinking that I didn’t know what “Zionist” even meant! I want the State of Israel to survive, BUT I was opposed to their policy re: the Palestinian people. Also, we once joined a synagogue where it was not OK to talk about these issues. A Sunday school teacher got fired over discussing these issues with high school kids.

    So I know that we have found the right place!

  4. Ross says:

    I believe that the change to Zionism that many organizations made after 1948 or 1967 was just a surface change since the opposition to Zionism of these organizations before 1948 or 1967 was not opposition to hitching Judaism to nationalism or opposition to the belief in salvation by military force. These organizations were as devoted to nationalism and militarism before embracing Zionism as after. They just added devotion to Israeli nationalism and militarism to their devotion to U.S. nationalism and militarism, which is a very small change. For an example in a logo of the pre-zionist position of these groups, see the website of the American Council for Judaism, the one holdover from pre-Zionist Reform Judaism, http://www.acjna.org
    Note the red, white, and blue menorah.

    Ironically, Judah Magnes, appalled by Reform Judaism’s support of militarism during WWI, saw in Zionism a way for American Judaism to detach itself from American militarism by creating alternative non-violent Jewish institutions in Palestine. He might not want to identify himself with the label “Zionist” today since its meaning has been replaced with the very things he opposed.

  5. Thomas Zaslavsky says:

    This is a good reply to the distortions of people who can’t see reality plain. I wrote a defense of liberal Jewish values on the Jewish Week Web site. It will be interesting to see what the response is.

  6. Y. Ben-David says:

    It is important to keep several things in mind:

    (1) Almost half of world Jewry lives in Israel today.

    (2) I believe that Israel is the ONLY country in the world where the Jewish population is growing.

    (3) Israel today is THE major center of Torah and Jewish Studies in the world which makes it the spiritual center of world Jewry.

    (4) Israel’s legitimacy and its very physical existence is under ongoing threat.

    Yes, it is true that Zionism was only supported by a minority of the Jews in the world before the rise of Nazism in 1933. The pros and cons of having a Jewish state were subject to debate for a long period of time. BUT HISTORY HAS DECIDED THE ISSUE. The state is a fact. The vast majority of Jews in Israel accept the Zionist creed for defining the state’s values, and this includes, in practice, the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community. The majority of Jews around the world support Israel’s Zionist identity as well.

    Certainly Jews today can say they don’t support Zionism. But, as I said, the issue has been decided, just in the way the dispute in what became the United States was decided between the Patriots (pro-independence) and Tory (pro-British loyalists) in the 1770’s and 1780’s. Same with the dispute between the secessionists and Unionists before and during the US Civil War. The loyalist and secessionist philosophies are not considered legitimate political positions any more (and variations on the secessionist philosophy lasted until the desegregation of the 1960’s), regardless of how one may feel in his heart about these issues today. It is not legitimate to argue for the break-up of the United States today.
    Same with Israel. Much blood and treasure has been expended in setting up an preserving the state. Certainly it is legitimate to argue about the exact nature of the state, the relationship to the non-Jewish minorities in the state and what the exact borders of the state may be in the future. But an Israeli who sees Jews, particularly outside of Israel, demanding that Israeli military officers be put on trial for “war crimes” by international tribunals, or Jews demanding the the UN condemn Israel, or Jews organizing boycotts of Israel has every right ot feel that these Jews are DIRECTLY working against his interests, whatever their intentions may be.

    There is one large group of Haredim who are militantly anti-Zionist. They oppose religious Jews cooperating with the state of Israel and its institutions (although, in practice, many do anyway). However, their philosophy is considered on the fringes by the larger Haredim community and has little influence. And yet it is important to note that they restrict their opposition to Zionism to being an INTERNAL argument within the Jewish people. They do NOT participate in campaigns against Israel on the international stage because they are acutely aware of the antisemitic groups that often attach themselves to these movements and they don’t want anything to do with them.

    Thus, Jews outside Israel who actively work against Israel’s Zionist core beliefs and its welfare on a day-to-day basis, even with the best of intentions, are condemning themselves to irrelevancy in the larger Jewish community and to the very historical progress of the Jewish people.

    • Thomas Zaslavsky says:

      If you mean by “Zionism” the existence of Israel, then everyone in JVP agrees with you. If you mean by “Zionism” the territorial expansion of Israel through settlements in the occupied areas, then many supporters of the existence of Israel disagree with you. Those are just two extremes of meaning. “Zionism” can mean very different things to different people and in different historical periods. It’s impossible to interpret your note properly without knowing which of the many “Zionisms” you mean. It’s possible that you haven’t thought it out yourself.

      Why opposition to repression by the Israeli government should be suppressed in the name of anti-antisemitism, especially when internal opposition is completely without effect anyway, is not clear to me. It would be like the Catholic Church’s suppressing opposition to priestly pedophilia in the name of protecting the Church. The evil goes on, unchecked, while the facade appears fine — for a while.

      • Y. Ben-David says:

        Here is how I define Zionism. I think most Israelis and pro-Zionist Jews can more or less agree with what I say here:

        (1) Israel must be a Jewish state meaning that the state is bound to support Jewish culture, religion and values for the Jewish majority population, while also recognizing those of religious and national minorities and their rights to their religion, culture and values as long as they do not clash with those of the Jewish majority.
        (2) All Jews have an inherent right to immigrate to and live in the Land of Israel. The State of Israel has an obligation to encourage and facilitate this immigration. The “Law of Return” was passed and implemented with this goal in mind.
        (3) The Jewish people have a right to settle the Land of Israel for the purpose of defining a territory for the state of Israel. This right extends throughout the territory defined by the Balfour Declaration and the territory defined the British Mandate for Palestine in the 1920’s. This right may be suspended for demographic reasons, recognizing the existence of non-Jewish populations, but this does not inherently abrogate historic Jewish rights to settle anywhere in the country, regardless of any possible future dispensation of the territory in question.
        (4) The government of the state of Israel is obligated to provide security for the population of the country, the Israel Defense Forces is the military arm of this security force and the IDF is expected to conform to Jewish values and make Jewish religious observance possible for those soldiers who wish it. The IDF has a historic mission to redress the long history of Jewish powerlessness which had a corrosive effect on the Jewish national character.

        These are the vales of the Zionist credo I mentioned in my previous comment. To nullify any of them means abandoning this Zionist ethos. For example, to say on the one hand that “Israel has a ‘right to exist'” but, on the other hand, that the “right of return” should be cancelled and that Jews should not have an automatic right to immigrate to Israel (‘to make aliyah’) because the law is supposedly “discriminatory” would be an anti-Zionist act and would be inherently invalid. It would be the same thing to say “Jews have no right to live in Hevron (Judea/Samaria)”. That would be anti-Zionist. One could be a Zionist and say “yes, Jews have a right to live in Hevron, but we should not implement that right at the moment because of the large non-Jewish population there” but not to claim that it is “immoral” or “illegal” or whatever.

    • Muhannad says:

      Wow…that is so sad Ben-David , I pray for you my brother .

      • Dan Solomon says:

        Hi Ben-David:

        I have a question about your post. It seems reasonable to me to advocate for the “right of return” of Jews to within the borders of the state of Israel. This is because Israel is a sovereign nation and its citizens have a right to control who is allowed in. For example, the United states could decide to allow in more people of Italian decent if its citizen were so inclined. We are a sovereign nation and it is up to us who we let in. But I don’t follow why the “right of return” should be allowed for Jews to return places outside of Israel. This seems to be what you are stating. Is that correct?

        Dan Solomon

  7. Bob says:

    ADL were correct in assessing JVP as anti-Israeli, because:
    1. JVP demands from Israel concessions while not demanding concessions from Palestinians;
    2. JVP actively protects dissidents within Israel, but ignores plight of those brave souls in Arab world looking for peace;
    3. JVP presents disputed points of International Law in a clearly anti-Israeli bias.

    Therefore, no matter how JVP calls itself, or whom their members marry, currently JVP is anti-Israel organization.

    • Bob,

      In answer to #1, from the JVP website:

      Palestinians must stop suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians.

      Racism and bigotry cannot be tolerated, whether in the U.S. or abroad, whether against Arabs or against Jews.

      In regard to #3, again from the JVP website:

      Our mission statement endorses neither a one-state solution, nor a two-state solution. Instead it promotes support for human rights and international law. As a result, we have members and supporters on both sides of this question, as well as many others who, like the organization as a whole, are agnostic about it. If a short answer is required, it would be that we support any solution that is consistent with the national rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews…

      I’m not sure I understand your point #2, alas. Could you cite me an example to explain what you mean?

  8. Y. Ben-David says:

    Dan Solomon-
    When you refer to the “borders of the state of Israel” I presume you are referring to the “Green Line” which was the 1949 cesae-fire line between Israel and Jordan. When you refer to “outside of Israel” I presume you are referring to the so-called Jewish “settlers” in Judea/Samaria. The Green Line is not and has never been regarded as an international border by anyone. As I said it was a ceas-fire line based on the disposition of the troops on the two sides at the time the armistice agreement was signed. UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 make no reference to an prospective Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line specifically (nor do they refer to the “Palestinians”) . Even though the Oslo Agreements do refer to the Green Line as a demarcation line regarding Israeli control inside of it and Palestinian Authority contol outside of it as regards the autonomy provisions of the Agreement, nothing in them obligates an Israeli withdrawal to the Green Line in the event of a final peace agreement. The Palestinians do not recognize Israeli sovereignity inside the Green Line, either, based on their demand for the so-called “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, showing that they do not view Israel as having sovereign control of its own territory.
    The Balfour Declaration made during the First World War and subsequent League of Nations Mandate for Palestine given to Britain in 1922 recognizes the rights of Jews to immigrate to the country and build a “Jewish National Home” and to settle thoughout the territory of the Palestine Mandate, which includes both what you consider modern “Israel” territory AND what we now know as Judea/Samara AND the Gaza Strip. This includes territories on both sides of the Green Line, which, of course, didn’t exist then. In addition there were both traditional Jewish communities (the so-called “Old Yishuv”) and modern Zionist Jewish communities (the “New Yishuv”) throughout the territory, including Gaza, Hebron, Shechem (Nablus), Beit Ha’arava, what is now called “east Jerusalem” including Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah and other places. Jews have lived more or less continuously throughtout the country for centuries and even millenia As I said in my previous comment, Jews have a right to live ANYWHERE in the country regardless of any future disposition of the territory of Judea/Samaria. Should a Palestinian state be set up in the areas where Jewish settlements are located, various ideas could be implemented such as having the Jews their still maintain Israeli citizenship, allowing free movement across the border, while at the same time Israeli Arabs could be offered a similar program to adopt Palestinian citizenship while maintaing their residence rights in Israel and giving them similar right of free movement. With good will and true peaceful intentions, the territorial issues can be solved without infringing on the rights of both Jews and Arabs to live throughout both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

  9. Laurena says:

    This recent scenario “according to YBD” sounds hauntingly familiar to the Native Americans on the North American continent. The white man just came in and settled “whereever he wanted”…except the red man had to wait a really long time for “residence rights”…how sad mankind is….they never learn…

    • Y. Ben-David says:

      There is no comparison between the two situation. Jews are native to the Land of Israel, and have been living there continuously (although not necessarily as a majority) since long before the Arabs came to control the country.

      • Muhannad says:

        The “Arabs” as you call them,when they came to control the country, they did not kick the locals out. Most of them converted to Islam,and became “Arabs”. Same with egypt and morocco. Before that they have been living there for God knows how long.
        While if my Chinese friend converted to Judaism today,he can start telling me he lived there forever.
        Nevertheless, land does not belong to anybody. We human didn’t create it. It belongs to all of us. We just need to stop oppressing the weak. And stop the discrimination . Which Israel is guilty of both.

  10. Israel Gershon says:

    Laurena,

    The Jew is the American Indian of the middle east -having lived there, ruled there, developed literature, language, culture, laws, etc. there, long before there ever existed a Christian or Muslim. “The White Man” in this case, being the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, all carried out acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Jews, followed by further humiliation at the hands of the Christians and the Muslims. And as with the American Indian, so to the Jewish People should never lose there rights to live in their homeland. And if the American Indians chose to gather on their ancestral lands and purchase land and build majority Indian communities, and if they chose to appeal to the US government to establish an independent Indian entity on this land, and if the US government agreed, would you be ok with that even if some “white” folks felt uncomfortable, and had to live as a minority? Will you say NO to the Tibetans, NO to the Armenians, NO to the Kurds. The Jewish People have rights, and they don’t need to feel ashamed when defending them. Those days should be over.

  11. Steve says:

    JVP is nothing but a voice for Jews who wish to delegitimize the State of Israel. I belong to a synagogue with 600 member families. I can’t imagine even 1 person who would be sympathetic to JVP. My children and their friends love Israel. They sing Hatikvah. My daughter plays Yerushalayim Shel Zahav on her guitar. Israel ain’t perfect but it is loved. It is also a great country as is the U.S. No member of JVP loves Israel. They hate Israel and wish to see it gone.

    • Dan Solomon says:

      Hi Steve:

      I know a number of people who are members of Jewish Voices for Peace. I have, on occasion, contributed money to this organization. I do not believe that the members of JVP hate Israel. In my opinion the members of JVP are upset by the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians who, they believe, are being mistreated and oppressed by Israel. Of course you may not agree that the Palestinians are being mistreated but suppose you did – wouldn’t you feel compelled to do something about it.

      Dan Solomon

  12. Thomas Zaslavsky says:

    To Muhannad: Hear, hear! I wondered how the Jews who say Jews lived in Palestine all along (true), but whose own ancestors hadn’t been there for 2000 years, could claim some right of ownership. Can that be a collective right due to special legal status like that of a corporation, or is it a genetic right that passes down the chromosomes (then it would go with the descendants of converts), or a God-given religious right (then we ought to wait for God to settle the dispute, but instead we get fanatical fighting), or what else? It makes no sense.

    I’m not saying one side is all correct.


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