In recent posts we have discussed Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a U.S. based organization that has established itself as the "Jewish wing" of the Palestinian solidarity movement.
JVP plays a critical role in numerous aspects of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the United States by giving Jewish cover.
In so presenting itself as the Jewish justification for BDS, JVP serves the role of washing away the stains of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which are central to the BDS movement’s founding and conduct.
1. JVP – Not a Major Player in Jewish Life
Founded in 1996 by a small group of left-wing San Francisco Bay Area Jews, JVP worked in relative obscurity for years.
Today it looks poised to break into the big leagues of American Jewish organizational life.
But looks can be deceiving. It's difficult to pin these numbers down.
According to Yitzhak Santis, Chief Programs Officer for the Jerusalem-based watchdog group NGO Monitor, "JVP provides no evidence" for its claim of tens of thousands of Jewish American followers.
It doesn't actually require that its members be Jewish or American.
Critics say that it's bogus for JVP to brag about a Jewish national presence.
Law Professor David Bernstein quips that:
JVP clearly has only hundreds of activists, not enough to fill a regional AIPAC meeting. Some of them, according to JVP itself, are non-Jews ('Jews and allies'), who like the idea of hiding their anti-Israel views behind a 'Jewish cloak'".
Prof. Ilan Troen, who heads Brandeis University's Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, calls JVP "self-appointed saints with no mass following".
JVP is definitely exaggerating its appeal.
At most it represents a mere 2% of Jewish Americans.
And it likely plays an even smaller leadership role in American Jewish life.
Most of its two dozen affiliated "rabbis" probably don't actually lead Jewish congregations. One critic thinks that a lot of JVP's rabbis are privately ordained, lacking smicha (rabbinical ordination) from any of the four recognized denominations of American Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruction).
It's difficult to tell, because JVP doesn't make the bios of its Rabbinic Council publicly available.
But its website suggests that the distribution of JVP rabbis along Jewish denominational lines is non-representative of American Jewry. The JVP Rabbinic Council appears to be top-heavy with Reconstructionists. Less than 6% of synagogue-affiliated American Jews self-identify as Reconstruction, according to most recent surveys.
So JVP is nowhere near the major force in American Jewish life that it claims to be, by the numbers and actual influence in the Jewish community.
That could change though.
As reported recently in The Times of Israel, a statistical analysis by Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion shows that JVP supporters tend to be young (under 30), unaffiliated or Reform, and have never visited Israel, or visited only once.
They are three times more likely to intermarry and "disproportionally profile as unattached to Israel…and think Israel is not essential for Judaism".
According to recent Pew survey results, at least one in five American Jews self-describes as having 'no religion'. When these results are superimposed onto Cohen's analysis of the typical JVP supporter, there's an inference that JVP will have a growing pool of potential followers.
For now, though, JVP is still a non-entity in organized Jewish life.
2. JVP – Starring Role In Anti-Israel Movement
In contrast to its almost non-existent role in Jewish life in the U.S. , there can be no doubt that JVP has rocketed forward in recent years to become a central player in the anti-Israel boycott movement.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) considers it the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States, and lists it among the top ten organizations "fixated with delegitimizing Israel and convincing the American public that Israel is an international villain that deserves to be ostracized and isolated".
JVP's influence is marginal among America's Jews, but anti-Zionists "love the organization because it gives them cover". As Dexter Van Zile, the Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), notes:
anti-Zionists will invoke their alliance with Jewish Voice for Peace and say in effect, 'We're not antisemites! Heaven forbid! Some of our best friends are Jews! And guess what? They agree with us!"
Moreover, some of the outlets and characters with whom JVP associates have raised questions as to the character of the organization and its motivations.
3. JVP's Interviews with American Free Press
JVP describes itself as a "national, grassroots organization inspired by Jewish tradition".
If that's the case, then why did Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP's Executive Director since 2002, give a friendly interview to a Neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denying, white supremacist website back on April 14, 2010?
It's a question that's been troubling progressive blogger Adam Holland.
Last week Holland tweeted a podcast of Vilkomerson's 2010 interview with Dave Gahary of the American Free Press:
— Adam Holland (@ad_holland) July 3, 2015
Head of Jewish BDS group JVP told neo-Nazi podcast that fewer than 20,000 Israelis are interested in peace http://t.co/6pSKGJJ5B9 (at 13:36)
— Adam Holland (@ad_holland) July 3, 2015
The head of Jewish Voice for Peace gave an interview to the podcast of neo-Nazi Willis Carto's American Free Press. http://t.co/0g910n5Uzg
— Adam Holland (@ad_holland) July 3, 2015
American Free Press (AFP) is the successor to The Spotlight, the flagship weekly tabloid of America's radical right, founded in the mid-1970s by Willis Carto and his umbrella organization for anti-Semitic hate groups, Liberty Lobby. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) considers Carto as "one of the most influential American anti-Semitic propagandists of the past 50 years".
AFP focuses on white supremacy and disseminates conspiracy theories, often about American Jews and Israel. Writers for the newspaper and featured guests on its podcast series have a fondness for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and a penchant for linking prominent American Jews to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
In the AFP interview with Dave Gahary, Vilkomerson cheerfully discusses JVP's California origins, its growing support base, and her experiences living in Israel with her family from 2006-2009. We hear about her Israeli husband, her "solidarity protests" at Israel's security barrier, and that only a "small group of Israelis" ("10,000-20,000 at most"!) are "interested in peace".
But Gahary doesn't really care about any of that—except to remind his listeners that it's those "Jewish settlers" who're "committing murder".
Time and again Gahary deftly steers Vilkomerson back to the main issue: power-grabbing and money-grubbing "mainstream American Jews" who're fighting Vilkomerson and her JVP divestment campaigns tooth and nail, preventing U.S. financial and corporate powerhouses from "doing the right thing" to "save lives".
Because—listening between those debonair Gahary lines—all Jews really care about is a "competitive financial return".
Here's the twenty minute clip:
This wasn't the only time that Vilkomerson pitched JVP's story to AFP.
Vilkomerson has claimed that "the interviewer had approached me under false pretenses, that I was horrified the interview was run without my consent and that I have been trying for days to have it removed".
Should we believe her? Anyone can make a mistake once. But twice?
Abileah is also a co-director of CODEPINK, founded by Medea Benjamin, who appeared in Teheran's New Horizon conference last year. It boasted a range of anti-Jewish activists, conspiracy theorists, and Holocaust deniers, and featured a number of panels accusing Israel of carrying out the 9/11 attacks.
The truth is obvious: despite professing a desire for "peace, social justice, and human rights", JVP works to give camouflage to Jew-bashing voices.
4. JVP – The "Jewish Shield" for BDS
JVP operates in multiple arenas to defend the BDS movement from accusations of anti-Semitism.
A. Campus Efforts:
JVP is dedicated to reaching the next generation of anti-Israel activists. It places considerable attention on youth outreach, especially on college and university campuses.
JVP sponsors anti-Israel conferences and pro-BDS events on campuses nation-wide; works to establish campus chapters; and provides assistance and support to the Open Hillel campus initiative which advocates for Hillel's partnering with pro-BDS groups and speakers.
In an earlier LI guest post by The Mike Report blogger Michael Roberts, who writes on anti-Israel activism in the Pacific Northwest, we covered a JVP supported "BDS 101" program held at the University of Washington in November 2013.
Roberts' telling of the appalling event is indicative of how JVP activists operate on college campuses.
Roberts relates how JVP-Seattle chapter leader, Stephanie Fox, participated on a panel with other pro-BDS speakers who "each on cue took their turn at demonizing Israel". Fox "flaunted her Jewish bona fides" to educate the students that the BDS call to boycott the Jewish state was akin to a 1902 Lower East Side boycott of price gouging kosher meat producers. As Roberts remarks, "The only thing missing from her heimish plea to destroy Israel was a fiddler on the roof". And then Fox sat silently when another panelist claimed that Israelis are worse than the Ku Klux Klan, "because at least the Klan are too ashamed to show their faces".
When the divestment initiative was argued at the University of Washington – Seattle, the pro-divestment groups put several JVP student members up front to advocate against Israel. This is a very common tactic at campus debates, as groups like Students for Justice in Palestine allow JVP to be the face of the divestment campaign.
Recently, JVP launched a "Summer BDS Institute" co-sponsored with the anti-Israel Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee. It offers college students assistance and tips for implementing campus boycott and divestment campaigns.
In a previous post, we also juxtaposed the JVP-AFSC summer camp, which trains young Americans in the tactics of political warfare, with "Palestinian-style" summer camps where UNWRA teaches children that Israel has no right to exist, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad train kids on military tactics while holding shooting drills against targets that represent the Zionist enemy.
B. Anti-Israel Protests:
JVP has sponsored scores of anti-Israel marches, rallies and "die ins" in recent years, many of which have taken an ugly anti-Semitic turn.
A JVP-led protest also interrupted a memorial taking place at the NY City Council to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, because the protesters objected to a planned trip by numerous council members to Israel:
JVP members also were heavily involved in the “Block the Boat” attempts to prevent a partially Israeli-owned shipping line from docking at West Coast ports.
C. Partnerships and Alliances:
In 2003 and in 2011, for example, NGO Monitor provides evidence that JVP co-sponsored fundraisers with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organization whose founders endorsed violence as a legitimate form of Palestinian resistance and whose members have exhibited a willingness to collaborate with Palestinian hardline organizations. One ISM member was convicted for materially aiding Hamas.
Several JVP chapters have also supported the programming of Charles E. Carlson of Strait Gate Ministries, who writes about "Zionist control" of media, banking, and financial institutions. In 2011 JVP's Colorado chapter co-sponsored a protest with Strait Gate Ministries, and in 2013 JVP's Sacramento chapter promoted a Strait Gate Ministries protest of a concert honoring Israel.
This past January JVP joined a coalition of more than 40 New York City community groups to protest a planned City Council trip to Israel, barging into a Council meeting (see video in section B above) at the exact moment that a resolution commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was being discussed.
We covered the shameful episode in a previous LI post, and included a video of Councilman David Greenfield's impassioned speech on the "overlap between hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews".
In March, JVP worked with CODEPINK, Alison Weir's If Americans Knew, Sabeel—FOSNA, and the Answer Coalition in a series of Washington, D.C. protests aimed at "shutting down" AIPAC's national convention.
The notoriously anti-Israel activist Angela Davis was a featured speaker at JVP’s 2015 annual meeting.
JVP even has been working to try to get the State Department to water down its definition of anti-Semitism.
As we discussed in a previous LI post, Sabeel's founder, the Christian Palestinian Rev. Naim Ateek, claims that Jews are Christ-killers and promotes an anti-Semitic brand of Palestinian liberation theology.
The anti-war Answer Coalition views Zionism as racism. The ADL cites evidence that it supports terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah. Answer Coalition's anti-war demonstrations have also reportedly included chants of support for Hezbollah, the burning of Israeli flags, and Nazi-like salutes.
And in publications that she's never disavowed and which have been disseminated worldwide in multiple languages, Alison Weir has modernized the medieval blood libel that Jews ritually murder Christian children. She accuses Israel of harvesting Palestinian organs to sell on the black market.
Wherever you find BDS, particularly on campuses, you will find JVP activists teaming up with the worst anti-Israel elements.
D. JVP – Exploiting Jewish culture and traditions
In its written materials and presentations, JVP reinforces that its anti-Israel positions are consistent with Jewish values. Toward this end, it usurps the Jewish life cycle and religious holidays by incorporating anti-Israel themes into traditional celebratory and commemorative events.
For example, in 2012 and in 2015 JVP’s Rabbinic Council released a Passover Hagaddah (the Jewish text used during the Passover seder) which dedicated the third cup of wine to the BDS movement; instructed that the seder plate include an olive to symbolize "the self determination of the Palestinian people and an invitation to Jewish communities to become allies to Palestinian liberation struggles"; and featured a section on the "Ten Plagues of the Israeli Occupation" (including the "plague" of the "denial of the right of return").
E. JVP – Jew Washing at the United Church of Christ General Synod
JVP has supported and promoted the BDS agenda in America's mainline churches for over a decade.
It's activism at last month's United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod in Cleveland demonstrates the "outsize role" that JVP plays in these forum.
In several recent posts we highlighted the anti-Israel resolutions being considered at the UCC:
- United Church of Christ Proposed Resolution: Israel Guilty of Crime of Apartheid
- United Church of Christ Divests from Israel
A divestment resolution passed overwhelmingly in a 508-124 vote with 38 abstentions. A separate resolution labeling Israel's actions against the Palestinians as apartheid got 51% of the vote but failed to achieve the 2/3 majority necessary for its passage.
JVP Sends Leasdershp Contingent to Lobby for BDS
JVP sent a contingent of seasoned staffers to Cleveland who made themselves available to delegates in advance of the plenary session.
— Carolyn Klaasen (@cskpickles) June 29, 2015
Sydney Levy, JVP's advocacy director and a 15 year JVP veteran, was on hand. Last year in an interview for The Times of Israel, Levy defined himself as an anti-Zionist.
— JewishVoiceForPeace (@jvplive) June 30, 2015
— uccpin (@uccpin) June 30, 2015
Lev Hirschhorn was there too. Hirschhorn, a JVP Board member, first became active in the organization four years ago when he was a Brandeis University student spearheading an effort to have Hillel include his campus JVP chapter.
— Carolyn Klaasen (@cskpickles) June 30, 2015
Also attending was Carolyn Klaasen, a JVP-New York member, who took to social media and live-tweeted the convention proceedings.
Three years ago, while working for JVP's youth wing and completing her M.A. in Bible at Union Theological Seminary, Klaasen participated in a JVP-sponsored "occupy the lobby" event at New York's LGBT Community Center. It was organized to protest the Center's cancellation of an Israel Apartheid Week activity.
According to the Center, the policy was instituted to keep the Center a "safe haven for LGBT groups and individuals" and to "ensure that all LGBT people feel comfortable coming here".
Klaasen was having none of that.
She wrote a rambling emotional essay, titled "a queer activist's manifesto," trying to justify the hijacking of a venerated LGBT community center for a virulent anti-Israel agenda.
Klaasen and her JVP pals overlook the unconscionable abuses heaped onto gay Palestinians by their own governments and societies, and instead concoct absurd accusations that Israel is "pinkwashing" its actions towards Palestinians by demonstrating a stellar record on gay rights.
JVP's Provides Cover at the UCC Keynote and Plenary
Once the UCC committee meetings were over, things got downright ugly.
Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Christian Palestinian and Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, traveled from Bethlehem to deliver the Synod's keynote.
Raheb is reportedly fond of telling visitors at Christ at the Checkpoint conferences in Bethlehem that Jews come from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.
It's the thoroughly debunked racist conspiracy theory that modern-day Jews descended from the Khazars and have no connection whatsoever to the Middle East.
At the UCC keynote address, Raheb received a standing ovation for attacking the legitimacy of the Jewish people, writing them out of their own biblical history, erasing the Jewish roots of Christianity, and portraying modern-day Israel as the source of all Palestinian suffering.
Raheb sanitized his twisted arguments and perverse theories by giving a shout out to JVP during his speech, by referencing “9 Jewish Men and Women” who supported the BDS effort.
Then JVP's Carolyn Klaasen tweeted joyfully about Raheb's accolade:
— Carolyn Klaasen (@cskpickles) June 30, 2015
As we reported in our prior post, the plenary floor debate was surreal as one vehemently anti-Israel speaker after another relied on distorted and prejudicial evidence produced and disseminated for years by a small cadre of anti-Israel church activists.
JVP staffers didn't address the plenary. But their presence was strongly felt.
Plenary speakers continually referenced JVP support for the resolutions. One even said that the General Synod should pass the divestment resolution "in order to stand with Jewish Voice for Peace".
Rev. Graylan S. Hagler, Senior Minister of the Plymouth Congregational UCC of Washington D.C., who recently opened his pulpit to the notorious anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon, noted with satisfaction how "instrumental" JVP was for the plenary vote:
— Graylan Hagler (@Graylanhagler) June 30, 2015
JVP's influence shouldn't be overstated. The presence of its activists at the UCC General Synod didn't cause the pro-divestment vote.
But JVP provided critical cover at the Synod debate by allowing those with anti-Israel agendas falsely to portray divestment as standing with the Jewish people in the form of JVP.
Other factors influencing the vote included ineffectual leadership; the anti-Israel animus within a number of highly politicized UCC subgroups, including its Palestine-Israel Network (UCCPIN) and Global Ministries; and the fact that the convention was underway when the Supreme Court announced its ruling on gay marriage.
The coincidental timing of the Supreme Court decision carried a lot of explanatory weight.
BDS activists could capitalize on the self-congratulatory atmosphere to say: "The UCC was on the right side of history in 2005 with gay marriage. Now it's time for the UCC to be a trail-blazer with BDS".
So the UCC divestment vote was driven by a vocal minority of anti-Israel activists within the church. But JVP was most definitely an enabler.
5. JVP Association With and Rupture From Alison Weir
In a recent LI post, we discussed JVP's decision to break ties with Alison Weir and If Americans Knew (IAK). As we noted, it's an entirely self-serving move. JVP isn't interested in condemning Weir's "obvious anti-Semitic crackpottery" but in burnishing its image as a champion of progressive causes.
In the latest salvo of this ongoing controversy, JVP has released a "Statement on Our Relationship with Alison Weir" which chastises Weir for—wait for it—"giving interviews to a range of far-right outlets including The American Free Press".
The statement further underscores that:
JVP is part of a broad progressive movement that makes the connections between the struggle in Israel/Palestine and all struggles aimed at justice, dignity, freedom, and equality for all—from the Black Lives Matter Movement to the struggle for immigrant rights, from work against mass incarceration to opposing US militarism around the world…In contrast [to JVP] Weir and IAK have a fundamental political framing that the U.S. is not implicated in the same racist and white supremacist structures as Israel".
Basically, from JVP's perspective it's OK for Weir to hate Israel. But Weir isn't also willing to rail against America's "white" power structures. So they're just not into her anymore.
It's all beyond bizarre, but makes more sense if you understand where this is coming from.
In a number of recent LI posts, we've noted how BDS co-opts and hijacks unrelated issues in the U.S. (police problems in Ferguson or the Baltimore riots, problems along the Mexican border, gay rights—even divestment from fossil fuels). They invent a connection between these issues and the fight against Israel, portraying a common enemy. Israel and the U.S. are lumped together in this perspective, both dominated by structures of white privilege and white settler colonialism.
Like the BDS movement as a whole, JVP is about "othering" and isolating Jews as white, privileged, and unworthy of restorative justice that a persecuted minority people deserve.
6. The JVP Con – “Jewish” BDS
Back in 2012, fourteen national Jewish agencies, including the four streams of American Judaism, 125 local Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs), and over 1,500 faith leaders signed an open letter rejecting BDS.
Among America's Jewish institutions and agencies, JVP stands alone in its complete rejection of Israel.
JVP activists tend to downplay it, so as to appear mainstream.
They represent themselves as people who have moderate and sensible criticisms of Israel's policies, like the supposedly "unjust occupation" of the post-1967 disputed territories. And they approve selective divestment goals.
It's completely disingenuous.
JVP has never rejected the central goal of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee: the elimination of Israel as a Jewish-majority state.
As we discussed in a recent LI post, that call originated in Teheran and made its way to the 2001 UN Durban Conference, a hate-fest that was so blatantly anti-Semitic that the U.S. walked out.
JVP conceals its full endorsement of BDS goals behind the veneer of the more reasonable sounding "anti-occupation" lingo.
Basically they're perpetrating a fraud.
The movement recruits…with a call for justice for Palestinians—justice that a two-state solution could provide—then draws them into one-state advocacy by demonizing the State of Israel with hyperbolic and irrational accusations. Meanwhile the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere puts the lie to the confidence that Jews do not need a homeland whose future and right to self-defense they control. Indeed, it strengthens the opposite argument."
7. JVP: a Moral Failure
As we've noted repeatedly at LI, while BDS needs to be taken seriously, there's no need to panic or overstate the problem.
The reality is that BDS has had very few concrete victories.
On America's university and college campuses most divestment-from-Israel motions fail. And even when they pass they haven't had any impact on actual university policies.
At the federal level and in state governments there's now a significant "boycott the boycotters" momentum.
And even in America's progressive mainline churches, BDS appears to have stalled.
Last week the Episcopal Church handed it a crushing defeat, and the Mennonite Church (USA) postponed consideration of its own divestment measures until 2017.
BDS activists had expected those initiatives to pass easily after the UCC vote. Now they're licking their wounds and trying to figure out what went wrong.
BDS isn't gaining ground.
But it still needs to be met head on.
The threat of BDS is in its poisoning of hearts and minds against Israel. BDS gives haters of Israel a tangible campaign to focus their efforts. Instead of just spewing hatred against Israel, BDS allows them to spew their hatred with a purpose that people can join".
When BDS activists mobilize in the hope of scoring their next rare win, we can safely bet that JVP won't be very far away.
It'll be there working behind the scenes to shield virulent anti-Israel propagandists from allegations of anti-Semitism, and it'll be noisily invoking its Jewishness as a way of legitimizing hostility toward Israel.
There's now an astonishing amount of evidence to suggest that JVP isn't just another liberal progressive Jewish activist organization.
In fact it's a radical movement that attracts the far-right and the far-left.
It puts Jews at risk.
And it's helping to unleash some nasty forces into America's public sphere.
Dexter Van Zile puts it well:
JVP is escorting chaos through the front door of American civil society. Those of us who love America and Israel will have to bar the door as best we can".
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Prof. Jacobson contributed to this post.