‘There’s an opportunity to embed Palestine in the progressive agenda’

The Trump administration will pose challenges for Palestine/Israel organizing in the U.S. but it also presents opportunities. Among them, JVP head Rebecca Vilkomerson tells +972 Magazine, is showing American Jews that many of the policies they oppose under Trump also exist in Israel.

A lot of smart people thought Barack Obama would be more sympathetic than his predecessors to the Palestinian cause, hopefully resulting in a more even-handed approach to the conflict. Obama, however, along with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, failed to achieve peace and things on the ground in Israel/Palestine are measurably worse today than they were eight years ago.

The Trump administration, however, has thrown most campaigners on the issue of Israel/Palestine for a loop, and forced many to re-evaluate their priorities. “Even having prepared for the worst since the election, in practice things are still pretty shocking,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, head of Jewish Voice for Peace says.

JVP is the most prominent Jewish organization to have endorsed the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), a distinction that has driven a wedge between it and more mainstream Jewish groups and institutions — and also contributed to its growth. With 70 chapters across the United States, 12,000 dues-paying members and a quarter of a million online supporters, the group has become a major player in recent years.

The organization’s willingness to ally itself with the Palestinian cause — and Palestinians — has also put it and its members in the crosshairs of a new, no-holds-barred type of pro-Israel group taking root in the United States and elsewhere. Canary Mission, a shadowy website whose sole purpose is to smear pro-Palestine activists with allegations of anti-Semitism and concocted ties to terrorism, has profiles on JVP and Vilkomerson. Almost comically, on the Canary Mission website, JVP is placed directly next to Hamas.

Are such tactics having a silencing effect? Are state-sponsored attacks on pro-Palestinian groups and activists, seen most recently in Israeli-imposed travel restrictions and intelligence gathering against boycott supporters, a sign that the BDS movement is making gains? And what role does a Jewish-American organization have in fighting for Palestinian rights?

What is the future of activism on Israel/Palestine in the Trump era? I sat down with Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, to discuss strategies, hopes and fears for the coming four years. The following has been edited for length.

Jewish Voice for Peace executive-director Rebecca Vilkomerson in her office in New York, March 2017. (Photo by Maya Levin)
Jewish Voice for Peace executive-director Rebecca Vilkomerson in her office in New York, March 2017. (Photo by Maya Levin)

Israel passed a law barring entry to BDS supporters earlier this month. You wrote at the time that you hoped it would hasten the day when anybody can travel freely to Israel. Yet this is only one of many attempts to push back against BDS in recent years. What makes this different?

I do really believe that this will hasten the day that everyone can travel freely. It does seem to me to be part of the natural evolution of a struggle like this one — that as the movement gains strength, the state will work harder and harder to repress it. And they’re going to use more and more blunt instruments to do so.

Israel has been passing an increasing number of anti-democratic laws that affect Israelis but this is something that affects people globally. Even thought it’s true that this law absolutely will affect Palestinians more than Jewish people, there’s an amplification in the way it affects Jewish supporters of BDS which is important to talk about. It is an illustration of the way Israel is willing to create these political litmus tests that for the first time affect a whole class of Jews.

What progress has BDS made that you can point to?

It can be seen on a couple of different levels. One is global solidarity, and the near consensus — with the exception of the United States — that what Israel is doing is unacceptable. Even in the United States, polls show there’s a real generational shift, that people sympathize just as much with Palestinians as they do with Israelis; that they’re starting to see Palestinians as people with rights. It sounds absurd but that’s the fundamental condition we need in order to move forward: for people to understand that it’s not just about Israel’s security, it’s also about Palestinians’ security. That shift has been really important.

There is also a sense of a coalescing movement, and if you look at history and other liberation movements, they unfold something like this in terms of increasing levels of pressure. I do feel that increasing international pressure is going in the right direction, while also acknowledging that nothing has gotten better on the ground.

If you’re really appalled by what Trump is doing you also need to look at what Israel is doing.

How will your work — advocacy work to end the occupation, advocacy for Palestinian rights — have to change under Trump? Do you think the Trump administration’s approach to this issue will be fundamentally different from previous administrations in a way that requires you to re-calibrate your strategy?

We’re still figuring it out. JVP is certainly not alone in our sense of whiplash. Even having prepared for the worst since the election itself, in practice things are still pretty shocking. We were better positioned to deal with the Trump era than pretty much any other Jewish organization in that we never expected a Hillary Clinton administration to be making progress on a policy level. But in another sense it’d be crazy to say that it’s not different in several ways.

Exhibit one is David Friedman, a settlement fundraiser who will be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. He clearly is not going to be thinking about the needs or rights of Palestinians in his policies. There’s something to be said about everything being overt as opposed to hidden. Under the last few administrations, the [American] left was always promoting Israel’s interests under the guise of seeking peace. Maybe having somebody who’s an extremist [in a prominent position] helps bring that to the fore.

The biggest silver lining of the Trump era so far has been a real concrete intersectional approach. But it comes at a very, very high price, which is a real sense of — panic may not be too strong a word if you think of something like the destruction of health care for people who need it. People want to weigh in on that and have to weigh in on that. We’re noticing that people are doing a lot of their political work as JVP [members] even if it’s not on topics that are specifically related to JVP’s work. JVP is their political community and they want to take action with JVP.

So the pivot toward domestic American issues is more organic than deliberate?

The work we have to do is still very much focused on Israel/Palestine and our core mission. The way a lot of that is manifesting — especially at our grassroots base — is being in solidarity and community and coalition with people who Trump is affecting in different ways. That’s where the political moment is right now and I think in the long term, building these kinds of alliances is going to be critical.

There’s a real opportunity to embed Palestine as part of the progressive agenda right now. I think the Democratic party generally is being pushed by its base, very hard, to resist the Trump agenda. And part of that is also being willing to stand up and speak out on specific Israel/Palestine related things.

One other thing I find both scary and exciting is that so many of Trump’s policies are being strongly opposed by progressive Jewish organizations, and there are really strong parallels with a lot of Israeli policies. The Muslim ban is a perfect example. We have an opportunity — with love but also with challenge — to say to people: okay, if you’re really appalled by what Trump is doing you also need to look at what Israel is doing and has been doing. And if you oppose it under Trump then you should be opposing it under Israel, too.

Let’s jump back to Israel-Palestine. The first time you and I met, four or five years ago, we spent the day escaping clouds of tear gas at an anti-wall protest in a village called Jayyous in the West Bank. You were a bit more experienced with that than I was, which is a way of saying that you were pretty active on the ground when you lived here in Israel/Palestine. What lessons from your time as an activist here have you been able to draw on in your current role organizing in the U.S.?

It was an enormous advantage that I had spent time there and had been doing work with Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills, and I’d been working in the Negev with Bustan, which doesn’t exist anymore but was a Bedouin-Jewish environmental rights organization, and I worked with Yousef Jabareen — who’s now an MK on the Joint List — at Dirasat, which was his sort-of policy think tank he was building around educational issues and local municipality issues in the Palestinian-Israeli community. So I really had a strong set of allies and relationships and experience all over the West Bank and inside of Israel and I was able to bring those relationships with me to JVP, which was super important. Not that JVP didn’t have a lot of those relationships already, but it certainly was strengthened by the fact that I had been there.

One of the things I realized I would miss when I was leaving Israel was that feeling of being really able to affect things on the ground — that feeling of putting your body on the line. You go and you try and help [an olive] harvest happen, and it might be a terrible day, and it’s really really hot and it’s really really sweaty, and maybe you get attacked by settlers, and maybe you get tear gassed, and maybe you get arrested — I was never arrested by Israel, to be clear — but at the end of the day something gets done.

That’s been historically much less true from here. Here we’re working generally toward more abstract and long-term goals, which in some ways can be less satisfying in the short-term. Now under the Trump administration, however, there’s a real energy and communal experience and a sense that this is serious and we’re putting our bodies on the line for it. That is sustaining. That’s what helps me to keep doing the longer-term work that doesn’t have immediate rewards.

A lot of the push-back against the type of activist and advocacy work you guys are doing has in recent years taken on the form of smear campaigns and seeking out disqualifying, seemingly anti-Semitic statements by activists — from Canary Mission to the campaigns against people like Simone Zimmerman and Steven Salaita. Is that having a silencing effect? And do you have an approach for addressing or countering it? You’ve had to distance yourself from a few people over the past couple of years.

My overarching approach is that transparency is best — that everything we’re doing is above board and legit and there’s no reason for us not to be proud of it and open about it. That said, especially for younger activists, and particularly for Palestinian activists, something like Canary Mission has been very harmful. Especially when you’re already in a place that’s Islamophobic and anti-Arab, it’s scary for the first thing that comes up when a potential employer puts your name into Google to be this extremely exaggerated-if-not-filled-with-lies profile from Canary Mission. I think it is having some effect.

The bigger structural parallel to that is all the anti-BDS legislation that’s going out. Those fights have been interesting because they’ve been real opportunities for our chapters and others to build relationships with state legislators and build their presence with local officials. And local officials become federal officials.

I would also say that it’s having a backlash in that people who are free speech advocates — who aren’t necessarily Palestinian rights advocates — are being forced into the fray, onto what I think is the right side. A perfect example is the ACLU, which has been wonderful partners and allies in these struggles on the state level. They’ve been very clear that they have no position on BDS — that’s not their thing — but from a free speech perspective they think these laws are a disaster.

We want to build a Jewish community where people can bring their whole selves and their whole politics.

A Mizrahi and Jews of Color Caucus has formed out of JVP recently. How did that happen and why is it important?

We had several long-time members who noticed that our national membership meeting two years ago didn’t have a lot of explicitly Mizrahi or Sephardi or Jews of color leadership from the front of the room. As JVP has grown, it has in many ways mirrored other Jewish organizations which have been and are Ashkenazi-centric and has a leadership that’s almost entirely Ashkenazi. So they brought that to us as a challenge and a concern and the caucus grew out of that.

I don’t want to pretend that this challenge came and then we responded and now it’s done. It’s just like with any other issue about racism within the community or between communities: it’s going to be an ongoing process for us to become an organization that truly reflects what the Jewish community looks like in the United States. Our aim is to do that and to be that, and we still have a long ways to go, and I feel like we’ve taken that charge very seriously.

One of our goals is to build a new kind of Jewish community where people can bring their whole selves and their whole politics and for it to look like what the Jewish community looks like in the United States, which includes Jews of color, and includes Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, although they’re quite invisibleized here. And of course there’s also the political issues that we are concerned about and how important it is to have Mizrahi and Sephardi leadership and to have the leadership of Jews of color speaking out on those issues — so it’s two-fold.

How important is Jewish identity for JVP? Is it a point of authority for speaking about Israel? Is JVP a Jewish organization or an organization of Jews?

We talk a lot about the “J” in JVP, and it is fundamental to our identity. That being said, we have a wide range of Jewishness within the organization. It’s an ongoing internal conversation that I think will go on forever, about obviously not wanting to recreate the structural privilege that we are trying to fight inside of Israel.

At the same time, a lot of our identity is about being a Jewish organization, and what brings a lot of people to JVP is being able to be part of a Jewish community that actually represents them, where they’re not asked to check their politics at the door.

Obviously it also has a strategic element. Like it or not, in order to create change here in the United States, the Jewish community is going to have to shift. So are Christian Zionists. So are a lot of other communities. But the little piece that is our piece is the Jewish communal piece — so it feels very fundamental.

How does the occupation end in your mind? And do you have hope that we’ll see a just outcome in the foreseeable future?

I am an eternal optimist. One thing that has been interesting to me about the Trump era more generally has been this feeling that there are multiple paths things could go down. Most of them are quite terrible, and a couple of them could be a re-ordering that is really for the best for most of humanity. But it’s unclear what kind of path we’re going down, or will go down, and what kind of control we have over it. That’s an extremely disconcerting feeling.

I feel the same about the occupation. There are many potential outcomes: some are very violent; some are very oppressive or continue along the same path we’re on now. What still feels incredibly important to me is, considering that we don’t actually know, it’s very important to wage this fight from a sense of principle and hope as opposed to fear and paranoia.

I still feel that the path we are on —and the path that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is on — is the one that has showed the most concrete progress and which has the most potential, whatever happens next, to be able to build something for the good of everyone — Jews and Palestinians together.

Top photo: A JVP supporter at a protest against the war in Gaza, Chicago, July 28, 2014. (By Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)