When Congresswoman Ilhan Omar posted a tweet denounced by fellow Democrats as anti-Semitic, one self-styled “Jewish” group rallied to her defense and organized a social-media campaign, #IStandWithIlhan.
When Britain’s three Jewish newspapers published an unprecedented joint front-page editorial warning that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn harbored anti-Semitism and constituted a threat to the Jewish community, one American “Jewish” organization issued a spirited defense of Corbyn, charging that “antisemitism is being cynically exploited to target advocates of Palestinian rights.”
When protests by the Alabama Jewish community prompted the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to cancel an award to the staunchly anti-Israel Communist Party leader Angela Davis, one “Jewish” group circulated a petition demanding reinstatement of the award. It hailed Davis as “a tireless advocate for the human rights of all people.”
When some leaders and some entire local chapters of the 2019 Women’s March withdrew in protest of anti-Semitic comments and actions by its national leaders, one “Jewish” organization declared itself “proud to endorse” the march. It coupled this affirmation with a swipe at the dissenters, charging “accusations of antisemitism in the Women’s March are being utilized in an attempt to undermine a powerful resistance movement that is taking on Trump and white supremacy.”
When CNN announced that it had fired commentator Marc Lamont Hill after he called for “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” widely understood code for the abolition of Israel, one “Jewish” organization purchased a full-page ad in CNN’s hometown Atlanta Journal-Constitution demanding Hill’s reinstatement.
When Airbnb yielded to boycotters of Israel by ceasing to list residences in the West Bank, one “Jewish” organization celebrated the decision as “an incredible victory.”
When Chicago’s “Dyke March” banned participants with Jewish stars on their banners even while welcoming those with Palestinian flags or other sectoral insignia, one “Jewish” organization hastened to endorse the ban. On its Facebook page, this group proclaimed it “stands 100% with Dyke March Chicago,” explaining—in the guise of a breathless exposé—that one of the expelled lesbians was a known Zionist.
The organization mentioned in each of these instances calls itself Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
What is it? The Washington Post recently described JVP as “a group that advocates for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank.” The New York Times has identified it as “a peace-advocacy group” or on another occasion as a “liberal group . . . critical of the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu,” while the Los Angeles Times labels it an organization “critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians.” But these descriptions are unenlightening. Most Jews are liberals, many are critical of Netanyahu and wish for an end to the occupation of the West Bank, and virtually all yearn for peace. The positions of JVP, however, are strikingly distinctive.
The group was founded in 1996 in Northern California’s Bay Area. Over the past two decades, it has grown into a national organization boasting a staff of more than two dozen and an annual budget of nearly $3 million, with its largest reported donor being the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.1
In its “guiding principles,” JVP says it is “inspired by Jewish tradition to work for justice.” What does this mean? The answer may be found in one of the few books JVP has published, in an essay by…Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour. Although her fierce hostility to Israel is felt by many to have crossed the line into anti-Semitism, Sarsour nonetheless used the platform provided by JVP to offer instruction on the meaning of Judaism. She opined that “being pro-Palestinian . . . is foundational to Judaism” because “wanting freedom and justice for Palestinians . . . reflects the teachings of Judaism, which focuses on uplifting the oppressed.”
In invoking “Jewish tradition” as the source of its “justice work,” JVP appends the further thought: “Such work is part of our own liberation.” This lingo suggests that JVP’s interpretation of Jewish tradition is elastic, if not idiosyncratic. Apart from commemorating the escape from bondage in Egypt, Judaism’s focus is on self-demand and self-discipline (10 commandments, 613 mitzvot), not self-liberation. The roots of JVP’s thoughts on “liberation” can be traced more readily to Marxism and 1960s New Leftism than to Judaism.
The affinity with broader leftist tradition is given voice by JVP’s campus coordinator Ben Lorber in an article on the JVP website about “Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.” In it he waxes nostalgic about a time when “thousands of left-wing Jews of various stripes eagerly supported the USSR and socialist or anarchist movements across Europe, drawing sharp distinctions between their varied commitments to workers’ revolution, on the one hand, and the false liberation promised by Zionist bourgeois nationalism, on the other.”
As with the Linda Sarsour homily, JVP constantly invokes Jewish words and symbols, while freighting these with contemporary political import. Thus, it publishes alternative liturgies for the various Jewish holidays. For Rosh Hashanah, JVP suggests prefacing or replacing the shehechiyanu prayer, which by tradition thanks God for keeping us alive and enabling us to observe this holiday once again, with a celebration of the past year’s political “victories.”
The litany of these in 5777 (2017), to take a random year, included “Unitarian Universalists divest from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation . . . Delaware Neighbors Against the Occupation defeats anti-BDS bill . . . NYU Graduate Employee Union becomes first private university labor union to support full BDS . . . G4S announces that it is leaving Israel completely”—and a handful of other such events.
On Yom Kippur, Jews recite Yizkor, a prayer of remembrance and mourning for loved ones, and many congregations also direct prayers to the memory of Jewish martyrs, especially the 6 million murdered in the Holocaust. In 2017, JVP circulated a list of four groups of victims whose names were to be read aloud: “black men and women killed by police . . . people killed in the 2016 bombing of the Istanbul airport . . . people killed while dancing at Pulse nightclub . . . trans women of color murdered in 2015/16.”
For Passover, JVP has published its own Haggadah, the guide to the seder held in Jewish homes. It begins with a dedication to “intersectionality,” exhorting participants to “find moments of fierce righteous rage that motivate you to re-commit to local and national organizing.” It also warns that in light of “colonialist control and ongoing Occupation,” Jews must avoid any association of today’s Egyptians with those who oppressed their forebears. This is urgent because “anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia saturate our media and our culture, and we must be vigilant to oppose it and interrupt it at every turn.” The JVP website offers similar liturgies for other holidays as well, the thrust of each being to focus less on our relationship with the almighty and more on what it sees as social justice.
Even more important than JVP’s liturgical innovations is its activism. Sometimes on its own, sometimes in coalitions, JVP undertakes projects aiming to weaken Israel materially or in reputation. For example, JVP launched a “return the birthright” campaign to persuade young Jews to boycott Birthright Israel, which offers free first-time trips to Israel for Jewish students. Birthright has been one of the Jewish community’s most fruitful programs of recent decades as affinity with Israel has become central to the Jewish identity of many Americans. This is anathema to JVP, which promotes instead a heavily politicized, self-emancipatory concept of Judaism. “Our real Birthright [is] the joyful, justice-centered young Jewish communities we are building together,” declared JVP’s press release announcing its anti-Birthright “pledge.” It added a quote from a Jewish member of Students for Justice in Palestine: “My Judaism is founded upon questioning the world around me, calling out injustice, and standing with the oppressed.”
JVP also sponsors a blog—Only Democracy?—designed to “question . . . the very notion of Israel as ‘the only democracy’ in the Middle East, and put a spotlight on the intensifying struggle for human rights largely ignored by the mainstream media.” There, one can read not only a litany of Israel’s shortcomings but also such hopeful observations as this: “What would happen if Palestinians gained recognition of a state within the 1967 borders of the West Bank and in Gaza? Palestine would become the first true democracy in the Middle East.”
JVP participated in “block the boat” demonstrations that prevented Israeli cargo ships from unloading in the port of Oakland. The logo: “Zionism isn’t welcome in our town.” It disrupts pro-Israel speakers on campuses and at public meetings of pro-Israel groups. It obstructed New York City’s Celebrate Israel Parade, blocking the path of the LGBT contingent, a “carefully chosen target,” according to JVP’s director, apparently to make the point that Israel’s tolerance of sexual minorities is no reason to think well of the country.
Recently, JVP has campaigned to “Support the Great Return March,” referring to the attempts by Palestinians in Gaza to breach the security fence and break into Israel. While others have chastised Israel for using live fire in containing this challenge, few have endorsed the Palestinians’ attempted incursion, the avowed aim of which is to overrun Israel. But JVP has called on its followers to “take action in solidarity with the people of Palestine marching for their rights.”
Another JVP campaign is called “Stop the Deadly Exchange.” This targets exchanges between U.S. police officials and their Israeli counterparts. The practical aim of JVP’s agitation is to persuade U.S. cities to refrain from such programs. Thus far, only Durham, North Carolina, has yielded to JVP’s demand, although police officials there asserted that no exchanges had been planned. The more pernicious purpose of this drive is to persuade American blacks that Israel shares the blame for any mistreatment they experience at the hands of police officers. As JVP explains it:
In these [exchange] programs, “worst practices” are shared to promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing in both countries. These include extrajudicial executions, shoot-to-kill policies, police murders, racial profiling, massive spying and surveillance, deportation and detention, and attacks on human rights defenders.
The effect, claims JVP, is “to exacerbate the existing crisis of racial profiling, mass surveillance, and deadly uses of force.”
In an inflammatory fillip, JVP focuses blame on American Jewish organizations that sponsor such exchanges. In a JVP video, the narrator says: “Who is making this deadly exchange possible? The main groups are actually U.S.-based Jewish organizations.” Later, the narration continues: “Who’s going on these exchanges? Officers who lead police departments that brutalize black and brown communities.” Ergo, the suffering of other American minorities can be traced to the doorstep of the U.S. Jewish community.
Perhaps the important element of JVP’s activism is its work on behalf of the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS). Initially, the group targeted only Israeli settlements in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. But in 2015, it formally endorsed targeting all of Israel, declaring, “Our goal, and the goal of the BDS movement, is ending Israel’s ongoing violations of the rights of Palestinians and setting the stage for a lasting and just peace for all peoples of Israel/Palestine.” To that end, Israel must be boycotted until it
ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantles the Wall; recognizes the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.
While JVP declines to spell out what might be the consequences of accepting these conditions, especially the third, Omar Barghouti, the co-founder and co-leader of the BDS movement, is more explicit: “You cannot reconcile the right of return for refugees with a two state solution. . . . A return for refugees would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.” And he makes clear that this is precisely his goal. “Most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine,” he says. And he hails JVP as a “key partner in the BDS network.”
It is key because it deploys its Jewish identity to reassure non-Jewish groups that they can target Israel without compunction or fear of alienating the Jewish community. It has devoted special attention to encouraging U.S. churches to embrace BDS. This role is exemplified by JVP’s part in a long-running debate that has raged within the Presbyterian church, driven by a faction strongly critical of Israel and of Jews. In 2008, some of the more flamboyant anti-Israel rhetoric offended or embarrassed church officials, prompting them to circulate a draft statement titled “Vigilance Against anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias.” However, just days before the church’s general assembly at which this was to be adopted, it was withdrawn and an alternative text was presented, entirely vitiating the thrust of the earlier draft. Jewish organizations expressed “profound hurt,” claiming that the new version was “infused with the very bias that the original statement condemned.” These strong words were signed by a wide array of the major Jewish communal and denominational organizations. But the publication Presbyterian Outlook reported that “in response to the criticism, Sydney Levy of Jewish Voice for Peace, a grassroots peace organization, expressed his belief that ‘The current statement strikes a good balance.’”
In 2014 the Presbyterians narrowly adopted a resolution divesting from Israel, making them the largest denomination to do so. Representatives of JVP were present, urging passage of the resolution. The Washington Post reported that
a relatively small but ultimately influential group of Jewish divestment supporters met and prayed with Presbyterians during their meeting in Detroit. The largest and most established Jewish groups—religious and secular—opposed the divestment measure and warned that it would poison Jewish-Presbyterians relations.
At the same time, however, in a small gesture to appease the pro-Israel side, the church withdrew from its website the book Zionism Unsettled, a study guide that many Presbyterians, not to mention several Jewish organizations, took to be anti-Semitic. This evoked a protest from Rabbi Brant Rosen, co-founder and co-chair of JVP’s Rabbinical Council. He expressed his displeasure not at the book, but rather at its critics. He boasted that his own “words are quoted extensively in the guide,” which, he said, “shines a courageous and important light on the ideological roots of the political reality in Israel-Palestine.”
JVP’s Rabbinical Council numbers about 50 cantors, rabbinical students, and rabbis, some ordained by mainstream seminaries. They sent letters the following year to three other denominations, Episcopal, Church of Christ, and Mennonite, urging passage of BDS resolutions under consideration. JVP members, including some of these rabbis, also attended major church gatherings to continue their lobbying in person.
The apparent purpose of the Rabbinical Council is more political than religious, lending a patina of authority to the kosher stamp that JVP places self-consciously on anti-Israel groups and activities. In 2018, UCLA was weighing whether to host a national gathering of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Canary Mission, an online watchdog of anti-Semitism, reproduced numerous shockingly anti-Semitic tweets attributed to SJP members. These said things like “let’s stuff some Jews in the oven” and “every time I read about Hitler I fall in love again.” In response, JVP’s Rabbinical Council offered “strong support for the young people organizing the upcoming National Students for Justice in Palestine conference at UCLA.” It explained:
We know that screenshots of antisemitic comments made on social media, allegedly by SJP members, have been widely shared. Our understanding is that some of the screenshots are fabricated, some of them were written by students who wrote them before joining SJP, and some were not written by SJP members at all. We want to be clear: those actual antisemitic messages are harmful and dangerous and have no place in our movement for justice, and that is why SJP plays such a crucial role. After joining SJP, students have the opportunity to learn about the difference between Israel and Jews and build profound relationships of solidarity with Jews.
Which of the Holocaust-affirming tweets were “fabricated” or “not written by SJP members” was not specified, and the claim strained credulity. Had JVP’s rabbis been able to cite a single fabrication, they could have done devastating damage to SJP’s critics. And while their factual claims were dubious, their reasoning was risible. They seemed to be saying that under SJP’s beneficent tutelage those who posted these tweets would no longer wish to stuff all Jews into ovens, only Israelis.
Deploying its “Jewish” identity in attacking Israel is JVP’s métier, one might say its purpose. The cutting edge of this work, as the episode of SJP’s tweets illustrates, is to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism. In the FAQ section of its website, JVP asks, “Why is it important that JVP is a Jewish group?” And it answers: “There are often attempts to silence critics of Israel by conflating legitimate criticism with anti-Semitism.” Elsewhere it says: “Jews have an important role to play in calling out the cheapening of the charge of anti-Semitism by those who wish to silence human rights advocates.”
Were it not for the strategic advantage of speaking “as Jews,” it is likely that some of the self-described “progressive and leftist” activists who constitute JVP’s membership would have little interest in belonging to a Jewish organization. Indeed, JVP says it is open to non-Jews, and some of the members of JVP are not Jews at all. When the Washington Post recently reported that Ibrahim Samirah, a Palestinian-American candidate for state office, felt compelled to apologize for violently anti-Israel tweets, it also noted that “as an undergraduate at American university [Samirah] co-founded a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.” Another recent Post story reported that Mikkel Jordahl, who sued Arizona for the right of his business to boycott Israel, “comes from three generations of Lutheran ministers” and “counts himself a non-Jewish member of Jewish Voice for Peace.” I merely stumbled across these stories; there must be many other such examples.
JVP’s efforts to negate accusations of anti-Semitism have ranged beyond its defense of Students for Justice in Palestine or the Dyke March’s ban on Jewish stars. In the face of numerous reports of Jewish students being harassed, intimidated, and even assaulted by Palestinian partisans, in some cases resulting in disciplinary actions by colleges, JVP issued a blanket statement: “We commend all activists . . . who have carried on movements for . . . Palestinian Liberation and [for] campuses free from . . . repression and false accusations of anti-Semitism.”
When JVP endorsed the Women’s March despite its leaders’ association with Louis Farrakhan, it could not easily dismiss the issue of anti-Semitism by claiming it was really about criticism of Israel. Farrakhan has exhibited less interest in Israel than in Judaism, which he has called a “gutter religion,” and in Jews, whom he has called “termites” and “satanic.” Still, JVP refused to fault Farrakhan. Instead, it lashed out at his critics, accusing them of “an opportunistic attempt to break up a strong and growing cross-movement coalition by rehashing a painful conversation that has been happening in progressive spaces since Farrakhan first assumed leadership of Nation of Islam.” In truth, Farrakhan’s egregious insults to Jews were not the subject of a “conversation,” implying moral ambiguity, anywhere reputable. And nothing was being “rehashed.” The issue had arisen because revelations that march leader Tamika Mallory was a supporter of Farrakhan’s and that co-leader Sarsour had had friendly relations with him shocked many would-be participants.
Implicitly justifying Farrakhan’s hate speech, JVP’s statement said “Black people . . . see daily anti-Black racism in Jewish communities and need white Jewish people to commit to ending it.” It offered no parallel assertion about anti-Jewish prejudice in black communities. The furthest it would go was to observe that “Jewish people . . . rightfully need antisemitism in progressive spaces to be denounced.” But JVP would not itself do the denouncing. Instead, it unleashed a torrent of self-congratulatory new-age psychobabble:
We at JVP are taking the opportunity of this moment to listen, learn and reflect. We understand that these discussions have to be rooted in ongoing conversations and relationships based on mutual commitment and shared visions of justice for all people, not just public statements and demands.
We are working to build JVP as an organization that can have this conversation in an authentic way, rooted in lived experiences, and we know we aren’t there yet. We invite our community to grow with us as we struggle on this path, because we know we will get there together.
Rarely have such linguistic contortions been exerted in the effort to avoid condemning bigotry.
As JVP sees it, what threat there is from anti-Semitism comes not from blacks, Arabs, or leftists but rather, as executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson puts it, from the “racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and antisemitism of the white nationalist movement.” Yet in its vituperation against Israel, JVP sometimes finds itself in bed with those self-same white nationalists. When JVP’s intervention enabled a razor-thin victory for the BDS resolution at the Presbyterian general assembly, this “victory” was splashed across David Duke’s website.
Of course, the fact that Duke and the JVP were on the same side does not mean they collaborated. But, as CAMERA (Committee on Middle East Reporting in America) discovered, Vilkomerson herself has in fact collaborated with white supremacists. She did two podcasts, one-on-one interviews, for AmericanFreePress.net, a white-supremacist website where one can buy books proving that the South was in the right in the U.S. Civil War and Germany was in World War II. When Vilkomerson finished describing JVP’s campaign to pressure a pension fund into divesting from Caterpillar (whose tractors are used by the Israeli army), American Free Press host Dave Gahary, who does similar podcasts with leading neo-Nazis, enthused: “Thank you for doing it. . . . You really did something great.”
JVP explains that it regards anti-Semitism as less important than other prejudices because it “is not currently reinforced by state institutions in the same ways that racism, anti-immigrant prejudice, and anti-Muslim bigotry are through state violence, mass incarceration, and surveillance.” Vilkomerson worries that “endless debates [on anti-Semitism] would detract from necessary attention to the state-sponsored systemic violence and structural power of Islamophobia, anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiment, and all forms of prejudice and bigotry that demand our immediate and sustained attention.” And deputy director Rabbi Alissa Wise adds:
My own understanding of antisemitism has deepened through seeing how my partners and colleagues have been hurt by antisemitism. Their struggles for recognition and liberation are stymied by the relentless privileging of antisemitism in debates about Israel/Palestine over and above racism and Islamophobia.
Accordingly, while it devotes no visible resources to combatting anti-Semitism, JVP has created a Network Against Islamophobia (NAI) as one of its major projects. Among other activities, NAI offers workshop curricula and modules, Challenging Islamophobia and Racism, with nine highly articulated sessions, emphasizing such subjects as “Israel’s Anti-Palestinian Politics,” “Jewish organizations that have a history of supporting Islamophobia,” and “Jewish organizations that have a history of funding anti-Muslim hate groups.” The project has commissioned its own art, posters, buttons, stickers, and lawn signs, which it sells in various sizes and colors as well as T-shirts, hoodies, onesies, aprons, boxer shorts, baseball caps, tote bags, key chains, even doggie jackets, all emblazoned with such slogans as “Stop Profiling Muslims,” “Standing with Muslims Against Islamophobia and Racism,” “Free Palestine” (and a clenched fist), and “Property of Allah,” this last, an especially curious sweatshirt slogan for a Jewish group.
In contrast, the only resources I can see that JVP has devoted to anti-Semitism are two books—one of essays called On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, the other a monograph called Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus. The point of both books, however, is not to combat anti-Semitism but rather to combat accusations of anti-Semitism. As academic Judith Butler puts it in a foreword to the former, “the charge of antisemitism has become an act of war.”
Despite these protests against “stifling,” it is JVP that has disrupted events and interrupted speakers and has lent uncritical support to the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in trying to inhibit pro-Israel students. Also, JVP seems to have been behind—or at least a partner to—a campaign to have Canary Mission excluded from Twitter as a “hate group” because it posted the names, photos, and direct brief quotes from Nazis, Arab extremists, and others uttering anti-Jewish words. Twitter yielded to the pressure but then reversed itself when shown that Canary Mission was in reality an anti-hate group. JVP did not acknowledge its role but the website Legal Insurrection noted that “the URL for Against Canary Mission goes to a JVP website page” and that Vilkomerson tweeted a “thank you” to Twitter for its initial ban, adding, “Schadenfreude never felt so good!”
While aiming to counter charges of anti-Semitism, On Anti-Semitism is itself replete with anti-Semitic comments. One entry explains that most Jews are racists: “However vulnerable they may feel, white or white-passing Jews gain status while knowingly excluding others. . . . They allow people of color to be excluded, help keep structures of white supremacy in place, perpetuate racism, and internalize attitudes and practices of domination.”
An entry by Rabbi Brant Rosen (the same one who defended the book that an embarrassed Presbyterian church had withdrawn), relativizes the Holocaust and likens Israel to Nazi Germany. “Is it happening again?” he asks and then replies: “No—and yes. No we are not witnessing the prelude to a ‘second Holocaust.’ Though many Jews may be unwilling to admit it, we currently live in an age of unprecedented Jewish power.” Then he goes on: “It is, in, fact happening again. It is happening again in the streets of Baltimore and Chicago and in US prisons and immigrant detention systems. It is happening again in the checkpoints of the West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip.”
Still another, by Omar Barghouti, the Palestinian-Canadian founder of the BDS movement, claims that “Zionism . . . present[s] Jews as superhumans, ‘the Chosen people,’” creating “separation . . . between Jews and rest of the human species.” This is a parody of Jewish theology; “chosen-ness” refers to a unique covenant with God having nothing whatever to do with innate difference.
The most striking chapter of On Anti-Semitism focuses on Jewish power and what its author, the Reverend Graylan Hagler of the United Church of Christ, sees as the unfair exploitation of the Holocaust. “We see great power and influence exerted onto the national and even the international scene that is not proportionate to the numbers of Jews in the country or world,” laments Hagler.
His complaint continues:
Antisemitism . . . . doesn’t hinder the Jewish establishment from attaining the mantle of power and dominance in a culture that once viewed it as “the other.” . . . After the death camps of Europe, Jews began to use their victimization and cohesiveness . . . to garner sympathy, influence, and power. . . . infusing a narrative into the overall narrative with such finesse, purpose, and power that it negates or lessens the narratives of other peoples. . . . . Numbers of people have had a holocaust, so why is the narrative exclusive to the Jewish European experience[?] Jews have moved from powerlessness . . . to total control over the narrative, now defining and redefining how it is to be used, and its meaning. This demonstrates a unique power, as a group brings influence to already existing systems of power, exclusivism, and influence.
As if to put an exclamation point to all of these entries, On Anti-Semitism is glossed with just a single blurb on its cover—from Steven Salaita, an academic dismissed by the University of Illinois for posting anti-Semitic tweets. One of them said: “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”
If it seems odd to publish a book about anti-Semitism that itself expresses anti-Semitism, the explanation seems to lie in a curious syllogism. While JVP claims that anyone who criticizes Israel is accused of anti-Semitism, its own approach seems to be the very opposite, namely that anyone who criticizes Israel must perforce be held innocent of anti-Semitism. Ergo, the Dyke March’s ban on Jewish stars, Corbyn’s comment that Jews don’t “understand English irony,” the Women’s March leaders’ embrace of someone who calls Judaism a “gutter religion,” SJP’s tweets hailing Hitler, the Reverend Hagler’s complaints about Jewish power privileging the Holocaust, Barghouti’s claim that Jews see themselves as “superhumans,” and Salaita’s view that Israel’s existence makes anti-Semitism honorable—all of these things are acceptable because opponents of Israel have met the litmus test of virtue and therefore are inherently innocent of any accusation or at least have earned a pass.
So what, then, does JVP have to say about Israel’s very existence? Early in its history, in its more moderate years when it supported BDS aimed only at the 1967 territories, JVP professed ambivalence toward Israel, claiming that some of its members were Zionists and others not. Five years ago, however, it says it reached the conclusion that it “needed to clarify our position in order to effectively continue doing our work,” and it initiated a process of internal discussion.
In 2017 it issued a booklet, Confronting Zionism: A Collection of Personal Stories, in which 13 JVP members recounted the evolution of their own thoughts and feelings about Zionism. One described her “journey of unlearning the Zionism I was raised with”; another how she “became an ardent anti-Zionist.” A third lamented that for her, “Zionism and Israel have been a source of shame,” while another said she “no longer want[s] any association with mainstream Judaism.” A fifth said she discovered that Zionism’s treatment of the Palestinians “mutated the Holocaust.” One of the few male contributors declared: “The Zionist regime . . . with its deeply racist systems . . . must fall, and be replaced with a democratic and egalitarian regime.”
This, as well as the contents of its book, On Anti-Semitism, published that same year, left little doubt where JVP was heading. In January 2019, JVP’s board officially adopted this declaration: “Jewish Voice for Peace is guided by a vision of justice, equality and freedom for all people. We unequivocally oppose Zionism because it is counter to those ideals.”
What does it mean to oppose Zionism? Before the birth of Israel, many Jews were unpersuaded that a Jewish state in their people’s ancestral homeland was a realistic solution to their plight. But today, 70 years into the life of the state of Israel, opposition to Zionism is no longer a matter of theory. It means opposition to Israel’s existence, or at least to its existence as a Jewish state—that is, it means to abolish Israel as we know it.
This is why JVP now refers to itself as “the Jewish wing of the Palestinian solidarity movement,” the goal of which is precisely to do away with the Jewish state. Accordingly, one of JVP’s more ambitious projects is a nearly full-length course with teaching guides, readings, videos, exercises, and a wealth of other pedagogical paraphernalia on “The Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe, the word by which the Palestinians refer to the creation of Israel. In JVP’s eyes, that birth is wholly to be regretted.
It sees Israel as an execrable country and a threat to others. One JVP essay explains that Israel is “increasingly fascistic,” necessitating it to weave “a narrative of endless external threat to [its] security.” Another explains that Israel “ghettoizes itself in the region” and then “makes surrounding Arab and Muslim countries and Palestinians into scapegoats for its condition of isolation.” A JVP post on social media warns that “Israel’s regime of militarization, securitization and racism [is] a danger not just to Palestinians and the Arab region, but to humanity at large.” In contrast, JVP finds much to admire among the surrounding peoples. It recalls how “Jewish people have had long and integrated histories in the Arab world and North Africa, living among and sharing community, language and custom with Muslims and Christians for thousands of years.” And today, JVP feels itself “humbled by the vibrance [sic], resilience, and steadfastness of Palestinian life [and] culture.”
Even more than Israel’s purported belligerence, what JVP finds most deplorable is its alleged racism. As JVP campus coordinator Ben Lorber puts it: “Anti-Zionism is anti-racism, plain and simple.” JVP deputy director Cecile Surasky takes this further, arguing that “settler colonialism and white supremacy is [sic] the right, holistic frame with which to understand Israel,” and that Israel’s “mythical national narrative” makes “ethnic cleansing, even genocide . . . divinely justified.”
JVP assiduously cultivates hostility to Israel among black Americans, apparently hoping that they can become the pivot for tilting American opinion. JVP deputy director Rabbi Wise argues: “To support Israel’s existence in its current form is to hold that supremacy, religious or racial, is sometimes acceptable, leaving us susceptible to supporting and maintaining white supremacy in this country.”
In its declaration against Zionism, JVP made much of racism between Jews in Israel: “Zionism . . . has always hierarchized Jews based on ethnicity and race. [It] is and was an Ashkenazi-led movement that othered, marginalized and discriminated against Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa.” This polemical device backfired on JVP, as it elicited a scathing rejoinder from dozens of Mizrahi and Sephardi synagogues and communal organizations in a joint statement that turned the accusation of “racism” back on JVP. It merits quoting at length:
Jewish Voice for Peace’s (JVP) latest document, “Our Approach to Zionism” . . . tokenizes, appropriates, revises and explicitly lies about Mizrahi and Sephardic history and experiences in order to promote a hostile, anti-Israel agenda. . . . [It] fails to reference the genuine importance and communal role of Zionism in the lives of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews. Zionism is an embedded religious principle of our faith, demanded in our Bible, fulfilled by our ancestors. . . . It has been the yearning of Jews throughout more than 2,500 years of diaspora . . . . The Establishment of the State of Israel in the lands of Ancient Israel is the fulfillment of that religious imperative. Moreover, political Zionism was a part of Jewish communal life in nearly every country in the Middle East as is evidenced by the underground Zionism clubs that existed throughout the region. Today, the majority of the Mizrahi and Sephardic community resides in Israel, and the vast majority of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, in Israel and in diaspora, are self-identified Zionists.
Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish history has long been abused as a talking point for this or that ideological agenda, and for years JVP has been among the primary offenders. Their statement on Zionism is only the latest example of a long history of patronizing hostility towards Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews.
JVP responded that the signatory organizations “do not represent us,” the “us” being “a group of Sephardi and Mizrahi members and staff of JVP,” whom JVP failed to name.
Like the rest of the “Palestinian solidarity movement,” JVP does not shrink from supporting terrorism. Nominally it says it is against violence aimed at civilians, although it does not say by whom. And when I asked JVP spokeswoman Sonya Meyerson-Knox, in the course of a correspondence in which she had answered some other questions, if JVP had “ever criticized any specific acts or statements by Palestinians against Israel or Jews,” she fell silent and broke off the exchange. In truth, repeated JVP statements defend Palestinian violence of all kinds. “The problem is that if you just stop the violence you would not have justice,” explains JVP board member Phyllis Bennis.
In defending terrorism, JVP claims repeatedly that “the right to resist colonization is enshrined in international law,” an assertion with which few, if any, respected authorities would agree, especially not that there is a “right” to commit acts of terror. When I emailed Meyerson-Knox, asking where this “law” might be found, she failed to respond. On Twitter, JVP posted a cartoon depicting a heroic Palestinian woman with a Kalashnikov strapped on her back and a bandolier of ammunition around her torso. She is shaking hands with a Jewish woman, apparently symbolizing JVP, who declares her “support [for] the struggle of Palestinians to determine their own destiny.” When several readers tweeted objections to the violent imagery, JVP answered all with the mantra: “It is our duty to support the right to resist military occupation.”
JVP’s support for Palestinian terrorism naturally extends to individual terrorists. The San Diego branch signed on to the campaign to “Free Ahmad Sa’adat,” the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, serving a 30-year sentence for numerous murders carried out under his authority including of Israeli cabinet member Rehavam Zeevi. National JVP did not appear as a sponsor, but it worked energetically on behalf of a more notorious terrorist, Marwan Barghouti, the chief of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, principally responsible for the wave of terrorism known as the second intifada. Barghouti was convicted of five specific murders although he was no doubt responsible for many more.
In 2017, Barghouti led a “hunger strike” of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, although its luster was dimmed when Israel released a surveillance video showing him secretly snacking. Barghouti explained that the strikers sought not only better conditions but also “Palestinian self-determination.” JVP took up his cause, producing a poster in print and online with an artist’s rendering of Barghouti, hands held high flashing a V for victory sign despite shackled wrists. It was emblazoned with the slogans “Support the Hunger Strikers” and “Palestine Will Be Free.”
JVP’s Vilkomerson interviewed Barghouti’s adult son in a video posted to YouTube. She declaimed at its conclusion: “Please know that all of us at Jewish Voice for Peace are in full solidarity with the strike [and] with the efforts of your father and all the other leaders who are fighting for their basic rights and rights for all the Palestinian people. So thank you incredibly much.”
JVP’s favorite terrorist is Rasmea Odeh. She was convicted in Israel of the 1969 bombing of a Supersol supermarket in Jerusalem that took the lives of two college students and injured nine others. She was sentenced to life in prison but was released after 10 years in a prisoner exchange. In the 1990s, she secured a U.S. visa and citizenship, becoming active in Arab causes. It apparently took a couple of decades for officials to connect the dots, but in 2014 the Obama administration brought charges against her for lying on her immigration forms on which she had denied she had ever been arrested or charged with a crime. Odeh was convicted and sentenced to prison and deportation. After appealing, she agreed to a plea in 2017, accepting deportation and loss of citizenship without a prison sentence.
JVP and other leftist and Arab groups made her case a cause célèbre, echoing her contention that she was merely a political activist who had confessed to Israeli interrogators after weeks of torture, rape, and grotesque acts inflicted on her and her family. But her version was not considered credible by the U.S. Justice Department and has been refuted in painstaking detail by William Jacobson of the website Legal Insurrection.
Jacobson found that in an interview published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Odeh recounted joining the “military wing” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and later being arrested. She recalled that she was “accused of involvement in the supermarket explosion. . . and another in the British Consulate. We ha[d] placed a bomb there . . . . Actually we placed two.” The consulate bombs caused no harm and were safer to admit to directly, but while she did not also acknowledge her role in the supermarket bombing, neither did she deny it, as would have fit the stream of narrative.
Two other women, Aisha Odeh (no relation) and Rashida Obeidah, were Rasmea’s principal accomplices in the bombing and have discussed it in sympathetic filmed interviews in Arab media. As the Department of Homeland Security recounted in announcing Rasmea’s plea deal: “In numerous television and video interviews throughout the years, other admitted participants in the bombings named [her] as the person who chose the supermarket as a target, scouted the location and placed the bomb.”
These facts constituted only a fraction of those brought forth by Jacobson, demonstrating that Rasmea’s story was a tissue of lies. He posted most of them in 2014 during her U.S. prosecution, but JVP’s lionization of her only intensified over the ensuing years, culminating with her invitation to address its 2017 national membership meeting. There, she was introduced by Rabbi Alissa Wise, who said, “We welcome you today, Rasmea, with love, with appreciation, with gratitude for all you are,” igniting an ovation lasting a full minute, while elsewhere in the hotel a memorial meeting was held for the two students she murdered.
So what is Jewish Voice for Peace?
Contrary to allusions in the press, it is neither liberal nor dovish. Rather it is a collection of mostly Jewish ideologues of the radical left who realize that their lineage affords special leverage in attacking Israel, which is a defining target of contemporary leftism. Nowhere does JVP evince any genuine interest in Judaism or in the well-being of the Jewish people or any reverence for the accoutrements of Jewish life—holidays, prayers, ceremonial garments, Hebrew words—that it appropriates as props or adornments in its impassioned campaign for Palestinian vanquishment of Israel.
If the use of “Jewish” in its name is opportunistic, the use of the word “peace” is entirely disingenuous. JVP derides what it refers to as “so-called ‘peace talks.’” It declines to spell out an alternative path or the end it seeks, declaring itself indifferent to the details so long as the Palestinians’ “right of return” is achieved. There might be one state or two, it says, but in this formula all will be Arab-dominated. The Jewish state will disappear, and this will constitute the end of racism, the birth of democracy, and the fulfillment of Judaism—as explained by the prophetess Linda Sarsour.
1 The watchdog NGO Monitor has published a list of more than 50 beneficiaries of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, ranging from shrill critics of Israel to outright opponents of Israel’s existence.