On a recent Wednesday night in New York City, Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that critics label anti-Israel, made the case for her group’s main protest tactic: a targeted campaign of boycott, divestment and sanction — or BDS, as it has become known — against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
BDS, she explained to the audience of about 70 that had gathered in a stuffy basement room of the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, in Midtown Manhattan, was just like the movement against South African apartheid in the 1980s, the 1960s civil rights struggle and the fight for union organizing before that. It is a nonviolent approach to dealing with an immoral situation.
“We can even see BDS as part and parcel of the Arab spring,” Vilkomerson said, referring to the wave of revolutions roiling the Middle East.
For many within the Jewish community, JVP’s readiness to use BDS tactics — and its refusal to support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict — places this group far outside the American Jewish consensus. But to the consternation of other Jewish groups, JVP has been insisting that it represents a significant strain of Jews concerned about Israel who deserve a communal niche, rather than treatment as pariahs.
“It is troubling that Judaism and support for Israel have become so inextricably linked,” Vilkomerson said at the New York event. “We are trying to create a space in the Jewish world where we can express our criticism as Jews without needing to apologize for ourselves.”
That is a distinction that even many liberals do not embrace. “JVP is characteristically slippery on the question of one state or two states,” said Ben Cohen, a writer who has focused on American Jewish responses to Israel. “But it is clear that many of their members dream about one state, and for those of us under the communal tent, one state is a code word for genocide.”
Though small, JVP is growing. In just the past year it has expanded to 27 chapters from six. Eleven of these are on college campuses, the much fought-over battleground for Jewish hearts and minds. On its most recently available tax return, for 2009, JVP received nearly $600,000 in contributions — a marked increase from previous years, which ranged from $200,000 to $400,000.
Moreover, it is a group that has demonstrated a guerilla-like savvy in staging actions that get its message out to a broader national audience. In its use of BDS, for example, JVP has staked out a position distinct from those who target any and all entities related to Israel, which for many Jews implies a rejection of Israel’s very legitimacy. JVP instead targets only entities involved in one way or another with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
This has allowed a wide range of Israel critics to find a home within the group and act on their feelings about Israel’s occupation policies — by boycotting, for example, a company like Ahava, whose beauty products are produced on the occupied West Bank.
The group has also shown a flair for launching attention-getting protests.
Last November, JVP interrupted a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in New Orleans, garnering a cascade of news stories that, favorable or critical, spelled its name correctly, boosting its profile and that of its cause. Earlier that fall, it quickly organized a petition signed by 150 Hollywood figures, including Theodore Bikel, Ed Asner, Julianne Moore, Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Kushner, protesting the Israeli government’s threat to withdraw state support from Israeli actors who refused to perform at a new cultural arts center in Ariel, deep in the West Bank.
More recently, in March, a Brandeis university chapter of the group applied to become a constituent member of the school’s Hillel and was rejected. JVP then managed to collect signatures from 1,000 students on a petition demanding that the decision be overturned.
For all this, though, JVP’s demand to be heard as a legitimate if minority voice within the community is not likely to gain traction anytime soon. The problem is not necessarily the group’s limited use of BDS. Martin Raffel, who oversees the Jewish community’s $6 million campaign to counter perceived delegitimization of Israel, has gone on record stating that BDS efforts targeting settlement-related entities will not, by themselves, render a group beyond the pale. But JVP’s refusal to affirm support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is another matter.
Nevertheless, JVP continues pulling at the fabric of that communal tent, trying to find a place at its edges. Following the Brandeis incident, the group released a petition signed by 50 rabbis and other Jewish leaders on the political left, urging Hillel not to “exclude from your communal table Jewish students whose relationship with Israel may be one of thoughtful critique.”
According to Vilkomerson, it is JVP’s refusal to take a position on Israel’s future — the very stand that excludes it from the mainstream community — that attracts Jews in significant numbers who want to question and discuss what they see as the deeper sources of the conflict.
“We do not take a position on one state or two states,” Vilkomerson said in a conversation with the Forward. “It’s not our place as American Jews to take a position on that. Our role, as we see it, is to try to have an impact on U.S. policy, to try to create an even playing field.”
Unlike other groups, Vilkomerson said, JVP “recognizes that this problem did not start in 1967.” To get to a “just peace,” she said, the right of Palestinian refugee families from the 1948 war that established Israel to return to homes in Israel “has to be tackled.”
For some younger Jews coming of age with an Israel whose image and actions provoke concerns their parents never had, this environment, where fundamental questions previously considered beyond the pale are raised, offers a crucial space found nowhere else in the community.
“I think the real problems of the conflict cannot be solved just by talking about a political solution,” said Lev Hirschorn, one of the Brandeis students who started the school’s JVP group. “We need to be able to discuss the deeper assumptions, whether it’s even possible to have a state that is both Jewish and democratic.”
Brant Rosen, a Reconstructionist rabbi from Chicago, said that it was “enormously painful” when he shifted from his liberal Zionist views to those of JVP’s. He said the group confronts that issue of Palestinian oppression and leads from there.
Vilkomerson grew up in Princeton, N.J. She is married to an Israeli and has close ties to Israel (three out of five of her cousins, she said, are settlers). In speaking about the right of return for Palestinians as conforming with international law, she mentions that her husband — whose family members were refugees from Nazi Germany — holds a German passport. Like many who have joined JVP, Vilkomerson first started questioning her views on Israel during the second intifada, and became even more radicalized during the Gaza operation of 2009. She lived in Israel for a couple of years and found there a community of leftists. Shortly after returning to the United States in the summer of 2009, she took over JVP, an organization that had started in the San Francisco area in 2001 but gained a national foothold only toward the end of the decade.
The group’s current $660,000 budget is funded by many small donors — between 4,000 and 5,000 of them, according to Vilkomerson — and a few large family foundations, which she declined to name. At the moment, there are only 500 core members, but according to Vilkomerson, 100,000 people are on the group’s lists as having participated in a JVP action or event.
Vilkomerson said that JVP’s focus on its limited version of BDS had helped transform the group by giving it a clear objective. At the moment, the group is engaged in a campaign against TIAA-CREF, the pension fund used largely by teachers, demanding that the fund divest from five companies that do business in the West Bank.
But Vilkomerson said: “We do feel connected to the global BDS movement. We consider ourselves a part of it. We would defend the right of people to do a full boycott. This is what Palestinians are asking for, and we respect their call.”
In fact, JVP’s “strategic” BDS position might not last very long. Rosen, the Reconstructionist rabbi, who heads the group’s rabbinical council, said: “Sooner or later we are going to stop the fancy footwork and say we fully endorse the Palestinian call. At our last members’ meeting in Philadelphia, that was the central question. We talk about it all the time.”
JVP’s own tent seems a difficult one to maintain. It includes those who believe that there is an inherent contradiction between a state that is both Jewish and democratic, implying support for one secular state for Palestinians and Jews in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. But there are also members who are simply questioning and still describe themselves as “pro-Israel.”
In their presentation to the Brandeis Hillel board seeking acceptance within the Hillel tent, JVP members said they supported “a democratic state in Eretz Yisrael based on Jewish values,” a formulation that some Hillel members saw as purposefully vague and possibly indicating a vision of a one-state solution. Eretz Yisrael, the biblical term for the Land of Israel, is understood to encompass both modern day Israel and the West Bank, with its estimated 1.5 million Palestinians.
“There is always going to be a question of how we create a tent in which people feel embraced and empowered in their Judaism,” said Larry Sternberg, executive director of Brandeis’s Hillel. “But we can’t have a referendum on the boundaries every day. And on Israel, the community expects us to reflect a certain core set of beliefs. Just like the community as a whole, we can’t be expected to compromise on those.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman