Jewish Voice for Peace celebrates solidarity with Palestinian freedom fighters
Rasmea Odeh, Jewish Voice for Peace meeting keynote speaker. /Paul Sancya/AP

CHICAGO – In her opening remarks here at the annual conference of Jewish Voice for Peace, Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson said that the fight for Palestinian freedom in territory controlled by Israel is “squarely in the center of the fight” against Islamophobia and anti- immigrant bigotry here in the U.S.

Tarek Abuata, former executive director of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace, added “Islamophobia and the supposed ‘war on terror’ are inextricably linked to U.S. foreign policy and its support of Israel.”

The conference’s keynote speaker was Rasmea Odeh, a feminist leader in the Palestinian and Arab-American community in Chicago, who, according to JVP, came to the U.S. in 1994 after being tortured by the Israeli military. She became a citizen in 2004 but is now being deported because of a mistake she made 20 years ago on her immigration form.

She discussed the importance of Jewish groups in the fight for Palestinian rights and echoed Farid Esack, who said, “The presence of Jews in the Palestinian liberation movement is helping that movement to avoid becoming an ethnic-based, racial struggle” and to remain a fight for national independence.

Esack, a South African Muslim theologian, added that the presence of whites in the South African freedom movement made it easier for freedom fighters to engage in “truth and reconciliation” activities after they were victorious.

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), with some 250,000 participants, is the fastest growing Jewish organization in America. It is a leader in the BDS movement — the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until Palestinians have equal rights.

Over 1,000 members attended the conference, including activists, rabbis, academics, students and medical workers concerned with the effects that poverty and deprivation are having among Palestinians living under the thumb of the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Part of JVP’s mission is to work to change the U.S. policy of unconditional support for any and all Israeli policies.

This “support” is helping American billionaires amass even more wealth.

For example, the U.S. recently pledged a record-breaking $38 billion in military aid to Israel on the condition that the money be used “for purchases benefitting the defense industry in the United States,” according to the Atlantic magazine. Before this, the Atlantic reports, Israel was required to spend a mere 74 percent of its Foreign Military Financing on weaponry produced in the U. S.

Furthermore, speakers at the JVP conference pointed out that the U.S. sends law enforcement officers to Israel to learn surveillance, policing techniques and prison administration.

On paper, the policy of the U.S. has been to work toward the creation of a separate Palestinian nation located side by side with Israel.

However, Donald Trump has made clear he “can live with” Israel completely gobbling up the West Bank and Gaza, where 4.2 million Palestinians live. They would be confined to areas much like the Bantustans in which black South Africans were forced to live during the days of apartheid.

Actually, even today Palestinians in the West Bank are forced to live in areas isolated from each other and surrounded by territory controlled by the Israeli army. Palestinians are not allowed to travel into or out of the West Bank without a permit and are required by law to use only certain roads for travelling.

“If you want to see what America would look” like if Trump has his way, Prof. Judith Butler of UCLA told JVP members, “look at Israel.”

Anti-Semitic, white supremacists

Jewish people critical of Israel are likely to be accused of being “anti-Semitic” by leaders of groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), or the Hillel clubs for university students.

However, conflating being proud to be Jewish with blind support for Israeli policies is a relatively new phenomenon.

At a conference workshop, Paul Mishler, a labor studies professor at the University of Indiana, said, “When I was growing up, being Jewish just meant being Jewish. There were all kinds of opinions on Israel, but no one questioned each other’s ‘Jewishness.’”

On the other hand, Prof. Butler pointed out, some actual anti-Semites like Trump’s Steve Bannon, support Israel.

Why? “Because,” Butler explains, “Bannon looks at Israel and sees his dreams coming true:” a nation where the “fringe right wing, which just recently ascended to power in the U.S., has been in power for quite some time.”

Butler continued, “And Bannon sees a nation that’s run by white supremacists and that is anti-Muslim.

“Zionism is the face of white supremacy,” Prof. Butler concluded, “and is antithetical to the values of Judaism.”

Because JVP members believe this, the organization has formed a strong alliance with Black Lives Matter and many conference speakers discussed how they were building “a multiracial, intersectional, frontlines-led resistance against racist policing in the U.S. and apartheid in Palestine/Israel.”

Furthermore, JVP, like many Jewish groups, has condemned Trump’s proposed Muslim bans and his threats to round up undocumented immigrants.

In many of the workshops, plenary sessions and worship services, conference participants discussed plans for protecting neighbors threatened by deportation and for doubling down on protesting Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

Several leaders of Native American rights groups spoke about the similarities between the “Indian removal” plans carried out by the U.S. in the last century and the Palestinian removal policies of the Israeli government.

Nick Estes, co-founder of The Red Nation organization, described in detail how denial of water is being used by the Israeli government to subjugate Palestinians and by the U.S. government to suppress the rights of Native Americans in Standing Rock.

Last November, nine JVP activists were arrested for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and its destruction of a source of clean water used by members of the Sioux Nation.

The day before the JVP conference opened, Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan issued a statement saying, in part, “The JVP is an anti-Semitic organization which incites against Israel. … I will continue to lead a determined struggle against [such groups] …”.

JVP Executive Director Vilkomerson responded by saying that Erdan’s statement is proof the JVP is doing something right.

“The stronger the BDS movement becomes,” she said, “the more the Israeli government demonstrates its growing alarm about the power of the movement for Palestinian rights. Our National Member Meeting, our largest ever, is proof that JVP is providing a political and spiritual home for a growing number of Jews.”


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.