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.