Monthly Archives: December 2010

National Hillel sends many young Jews into exile. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb on Talmud and BDS.

Hillel, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization-with staff, funding and physical space on some 500 mostly US campuses – says it wants to create a “welcoming environment for Jewish students on campus by fostering students’ ability to incorporate Jewish tradition into their lives.” Translation? Only Jews who pass an ideological litmus test on Israel are welcome. Others can stop at the door.

Despite the fact that Hillels exist on campuses where, by definition, intellectual inquiry and open discussion is embraced, Hillel’s national director Wayne Firestone is sharply opposing open inquiry and free expression for many progressive Jews who want to be part of organized campus Jewish life. In an essay he published this week:

Hillel’s Schusterman International Center issued guidelines this week to ensure that local Hillels know which organizations, groups and speakers are considered valid partners in promoting civil and informed discourse on Israel.

Our guidelines state that “Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” We firmly state, however, that “Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:

* Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;

* Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel;

* Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

* Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior toward campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

These new restrictive guidelines will only further alienate an increasing number of young Jewish students from Hillels, especially those who passionately embrace the values of justice and equality. These students who join campus groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (which has many Jewish and Israeli members), are looking to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for concrete actions they can take to push Israel to be accountable to international law. When even Theodore Bikel and Stephen Sondheim are advocating settlement boycott, it’s simply absurd to demand that politically active young Jews categorically refuse such tactics, and by extension, turn their backs on their Palestinian and Muslim friends and allies.

These students are also being asked to swear allegiance to an idea- a Jewish AND democratic state-which is increasingly being understood by more and more Jews as an aspiration but not a reality.

As Jeremiah Haber said in his extensive post on the guidelines,

After all, I don’t look forward to the day when a thousand Jewish JVPers dress up as Barukh Spinoza and picket Hillels on campuses throughout the countries. What I would rather see, as a college educator, former board member, and current supporter of my local Hillel, would be for local Hillel directors to engage JVP student groups….Engage, not boycott – isn’t that the message Hillel wants to get to the Jewish students?

Firestone’s newly announced guidelines, which will undoubtedly cause some pushback at individual Hillels where directors feel job security and tend to work more independently, are a sign of the times. They symbolize the fear of a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. He makes no attempt, by the way, to draw lines on the right.

As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb points out, this Hillel policing behavior is not new:

As a target of Hillel’s effort to silence dissent before selective divestment and BDS arose on the horizon as a tactic to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and as someone who remembers when speaking to Palestinians was considered heresy, when supporting a two state solution was heresy, when protesting settlement expansion was heresy, when supporting Goldstone’s call for an investigation of Operation Cast Lead was considered heresy, it seems as if Hillel, once again, is failing to understand the positive contribution of nonviolent dissent to militarism and occupation to rabbinic and Jewish life.
By silencing dissent in broad and highly idiosyncratic language, Hillel is exiling thousands of young Jewish activists to life outside our own community. As for boycott, it has an honored place in Jewish life, especially when it is used to express non-cooperation with actions that are harmful to the public.
“Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is held responsible and liable for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b) R. Zera said to R. Simon: Did you rebuke those of the Exilarch’s house? He replied: they will not take it from me. R. Zera said: Even so, you should rebuke them. (Shabbat 55a and cf. Tanhuma Tazria parag. 9).
It has been further been taught: “It is forbidden to sell them weapons or accessories to weapons, nor should one sharpen weapons for them. One may not sell them blocks or neck-ands placed on prisoners or ropes or iron chains-neither to idolators (Romans) nor to Cuthites (a sect of Judaism). R. Nahman said in the name of Rabbah b. Avuha: Just as they ruled that it forbidden to sell (these items) to an idolator so is it forbidden to them to an Israelite who is suspected of selling them to an idolator (Roman). The rabbis taught: It is forbidden to sell them shields, but others say that shields may be sold to them. (They were used for decorative purposes) Said R. Nahman in the name of Rabba b. Avuha: The law agrees with the others. Yerushalmi 15b-16a
The text describes a form of boycott in order to avoid cooperating with Roman military rule, even if one is making a profit. Noncooperation with
acts that violate human rights in an ancient and honored form of religious action.
Finally, the Jewish American community supported the farmer workers’ boycott of grapes and the boycott of Nestle products because they believed in the universal principle of human rights which both boycotts supported. Why is selective divestment or other forms of consumer boycott different because it is directed at Israeli violations of human rights in the form of illegal land seizure?
Especially when these violations are being committed in our name? Rather than a form of delegitimization of Israel, the very act of protest by supporting selective divestment and public protest in the media and on the street is upholding the democracy that those who love Israel claim to cherish and promote.

Been to Israel/Palestine lately? The FBI may come knocking on your door.

By the time she was in high school, Sarah Smith had already been named one of the 100 most influential women in Chicago by Chicago’s business magazine, Crain’s. Now Smith, who happens to be Jewish, has been subpoenaed by the FBI to appear before a grand jury on January 25 to explain her trip to Israel-Palestine with two Palestinian women friends. (As terrifying as this whole episode is for everyone involved, it says something about Palestinian safety that only Smith has come forward publicly.) All three young Chicago residents have been subpoenaed, joining ranks with 14 other peace activists from the Midwest who have been similarly targeted in recent months.

Here is Sarah Smith’s full statement from a December 6 press conference:

Friday morning, December 3, I received a phone call from an FBI agent. He asked if I had about 30 minutes to sit down and speak with him so he could ask me some questions. I asked about what and he said he “was not at liberty to discuss it.” I then asked if I needed a lawyer present and he said it was up to me but that I was not in any trouble and that they just had a few questions.

I felt something suspicious about him telling me he wanted to ask me some questions, but he would not tell me what these questions were. So I said that I had to consult a lawyer and check my schedule and that I would get back to him. I reiterated that it would be easier for me to meet him if I knew why an FBI agent wanted to sit down with me. He then said that it had to deal with the trip I took this summer. He then emphasized, “I think you know which one I’m talking about.”

The trip I took last summer was to Israel and Palestine. I am Jewish and wanted to see first hand what life is like for Israelis and Palestinians. If I went on the standard tour to Israel, I would not be shown how Palestinians live. So I went on a tour that showed me both worlds, Israel, and the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank. I went with 2 Palestinian-American friends. You would think Jews and Palestinians going together to visit Israel and Palestine is something the U.S. government would encourage.

Instead, we are now being ordered by the FBI to go before a Grand Jury for going on that trip. The US government says it supports peace between Israel and Palestine. It says it supports separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

So why does the FBI investigate us because we went to see the Palestinian land? Top US government leaders meet with Palestinian leaders, so why does the FBI investigate us because we talked to average Palestinians on the street?

I went there so I could make up my own mind and talk about what I saw. It seems to me our government wants to hide what Israel is doing to Palestinians. I would like to thank the Committee Against Political Repression for standing up for me and my friends. You can learn about case at stopFBI.net, and please make a donation there. Or you can make a donation for our legal expenses: to NLG Foundation, memo line: FBI raids and mail it to Sarah Smith, 2961 S. Bonaparte, Chicago, IL 60608

Smith’s father, Stan Smith,  added “I think Patrick Fitzgerald, the US District Attorney, Robert Parker of the FBI need to see my daughter and her friends and apologize to them. And I think President Obama, who was elected in 2008 because he said he would stop this sort of thing, should make a point on his next trip to Chicago to personally apologize to my daughter and her friends for how his government is intimidating them.”

Meanwhile, there are actions across the country to protest this crackdown on peace activists (sign the petition here). Firedoglake’s Kevin Gosztola has this report:

The hunting down of activists began on September 24th when the FBI raided homes and offices of activists from Minneapolis and Chicago. Computers, phones, documents and other personal items were seized and the FBI officially subpoenaed 14 activists to appear before a Grand Jury. The FBI began to contact members of the “peace community” and ask them what they knew about the subpoenaed activists’ “material support for terrorism.”

The attorneys representing the activists have noted “the current definition of “material support’ can cover just about anything, like providing humanitarian aid that ends up in the hands of a group tagged as ‘terrorist’ by the US government, or posting a link to an informational website. The implications of this law, as it is being used, are troubling to anyone who does community organizing, or anyone who does journalistic reporting or academic research on wars, conflicts or controversial movements.”

Months later, the activists in Minneapolis and Chicago have not been charged with a crime, but they continue to face possible jail time if they refuse to go before a Grand Jury and participate in this “witch hunt.” They have yet to have their belongings, which were seized by the FBI, returned.

Democracy anyone?

December 3, 2010 press conference

Unprecedented: master’s thesis on Jewish white privilege and Israel attacked in Canadian legislature

Canadian grad student, Jewish anti-Zionist activist, and descendant of Holocaust survivors Jenny Peto is breaking new ground with her University of Toronto master’s thesis The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education, though perhaps not in the way she intended.

The Canadian National Post reports:

It has provoked intense debate online, in academia and even the political realm. Progressive Conservative MPP Steve Clark raised it in the legislature Tuesday in response to sharp criticism in the Jewish community, calling it “shockingly anti-Semitic.” Citizenship and immigration minister Eric Hoskins likewise condemned the thesis in the legislature saying he was “greatly disturbed and, in fact, disgusted,” when he read media coverage about it.

These attacks (by some if not many who haven’t actually read it) on a master’s thesis, one that has already been through an academic review no less, are unprecedented. Also from The National Post:

Michiel Horn, a York University history professor and author of Academic Freedom in Canada: A History: “I know not of a single case where a master’s or a phD paper has been subject of discussion in the legislature of any province in Canada,” he said.

You can read Jenny Peto’s thesis yourself by downloading it here. Her abstract states:

This paper focuses on issues of Jewish identity, whiteness and victimhood within hegemonic Holocaust education. I argue that today, Jewish people of European descent enjoy white privilege and are among the most socio-economically advantaged groups in the West. Despite this privilege, the organized Jewish community makes claims about Jewish victimhood that are widely accepted within that community and within popular discourse in the West. I propose that these claims to victimhood are no longer based in a reality of oppression, but continue to be propagated because a victimized Jewish identity can produce certain effects that are beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state. I focus on two related Holocaust education projects – the March of the Living and the March of Remembrance and Hope – to show how Jewish victimhood is instrumentalized in ways that obscure Jewish privilege, deny Jewish racism and promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state.

I myself can’t wait to read it. There’s not a lot here that those seriously familiar with these Jewish institutions and Israeli history and politics could really argue with. For too long, the central organizing principle of much of institutional Jewry has been fear, which has been essential in, among other things, enabling an unaccountable Israel. And few programs more dramatically reflect this than the March of the Living which inflicts a proxy Holocaust trauma on Jewish teenagers (without proper context and support, so I hear from friends who have gone) as an essential right of passage into Jewishness.

To the young N. American Ashkenazi Jews especially who can’t help but notice that Jews as a whole occupy places of real economic and racial privilege in their communities, the messages of perpetual victimhood (and the implied privileges that might go with it, as in the case with the free pass that Israel tends to get) just don’t compute.

I’d imagine that in addition to her own experience, Peto had plenty to draw on from work and discussions happening in academic environments these days regarding Holocaust studies, Israeli politics, white privilege and so on. Is it possible that Peto’s crime is to have thought too complexly –in an academic setting.

(Update: Avi Lewis has a lot more on this story and what’s happening in Canada over at Mondoweiss.)

For another take, Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir documented the Jewish instrumentalization of victimhood in his must-see documentary, Defamation, though I’d argue that he unfortunately underplayed real threats of anti-Semitism to make his point.) Here’s a snippet:

Inconceivable! The US mainstream media on Israel back in 1952.

Hat tip to Pulse Media and M. Shahid Alam for uncovering this fascinating tidbit from Time magazine, 1952, announcing the selection of newly elected Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh as Person of the Year for 1951. This sobering analysis is striking because of the way in which it speaks from the perspective of Arabs. It’s exactly the kind of analysis we simply don’t see anymore in the MSM (mainstream media) here in the United States, thanks, in no small part, to the growth of the Israel lobby which obscures not just Israel’s responsibility, but even more damning, the United States’.

Here the Time magazine writer makes the case for why the Palestinian “problem” is the United States’ problem.

“The word “American” no longer has a good sound in that part of the world [the Middle East]. To catch the Jewish vote in the U.S., President Truman in 1946 demanded that the British admit 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine, in violation of British promises to the Arabs. Since then, the Arab nations surrounding Israel have regarded that state as a U.S. creation, and the U.S., therefore, as an enemy. The Israeli-Arab war created nearly a million Arab refugees, who have been huddled for three years in wretched camps. These refugees, for whom neither the U.S. nor Israel will take the slightest responsibility, keep alive the hatred of U.S. perfidy.

“No enmity for the Arabs, no selfish national design motivated the clumsy U.S. support of Israel. The American crime was not to help the Jews, but to help them at the expense of the Arabs. Today, the Arab world fears and expects a further Israeli expansion. The Arabs are well aware that Alben Barkley, Vice President of the U.S., tours his country making speeches for the half-billion-dollar Israeli bond issue, the largest ever offered to the U.S. public. Nobody, they note bitterly, is raising that kind of money for them.”

Arab fears that Ben Gurion’s real plans were to expand were not unfounded. In 1937, before he became Israel’s first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion wrote to his son:

“A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning. The establishment of such a Jewish State will serve as a means in our historical efforts to redeem the country in its entirety….We shall organize a modern defense force…and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means….We will expel the Arabs and take their places…with the force at our disposal.”

Of course, the US did much more to win the Arab and Persian world’s enmity than simply support the creation of the State of Israel. Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s valuable oil industry and paid the price with his freedom thanks to a US CIA sponsored coup which led to his imprisonment. He was later put under house arrest until his death in 1967. Iran, or more accurately, Iran’s citizens, have been paying the price ever since.

Odious NGO Monitor smears Electronic Intifada, tries to cut funding

NGO Monitor was captured perfectly in The Forward by liberal jewish thinker Leonard Fine who said it was “an organization that believes that the best way to defend Israel is to condemn anyone who criticizes it.” But now, no longer satisfied with its McCarthyite efforts to not just condemn, but actually take down respected human rights organizations, it is seeking to stop critical funding of the Electronic Intifada, a key media source for information and analysis about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Electronic Intifada (EI) is a pioneering online news outlet that has been an essential resource for activists, scholars and journalists since its inception in 2002.  Its coverage is unapologetically sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle for human rights, grounded in an understanding of international law and universal human rights. Years before the current proliferation of blogs and alternate news sources, EI was there first, providing a much needed antidote to one-sided mainstream news coverage of Israel and Palestine. And they continue to provide original reporting and news and analysis you still can’t get anywhere else.

Which perhaps is why NGO Monitor has made the preposterous claim that EI is “an anti-Semitic website,” stunningly based on the fact that one staffer is a supporter of the BDS movement and executive director, Ali Abunimah, in his non EI-related speaking engagements, “calls for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and routinely uses false apartheid rhetoric.” Really? This is what they’ve got? (They’d have to start throwing a lot of Jewish Israeli government officials into the anti-Semite dungeon if invoking ‘apartheid” is officially verboten… and Abunimah’s one state is different in substance but certainly similar in form to an increasing number of Israeli right-wingers who also push for a “one state solution”. And then there’s the entirely reasonable observation that we seem to already have a de-facto one state after 43 some years of occupation.. but I digress)

Yet another of thousands of such a ridiculous claims would be laughable if NGO Monitor didn’t have a card up its sleeve–EI gets about one third of its funding from a Dutch government-funded aid organization. According to the Jerusalem Post, NGO Monitor’s unsubstantiated charges

“prompted Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal to say on Thursday to the Post, “I will look into the matter personally. If it appears that the government subsidized NGO ICCO does fund Electronic Intifada, it will have a serious problem with me.”

As EI has documented in this must-read report, NGO Monitor has very close ties to the far-right. They use the language of NGO (non-governmental organization) transparency to go after funding of Israeli and other human rights groups and funders (including the New Israel Fund and Amnesty International) while remaining completely silent on Israel’s funding-dependent and law-breaking settler groups. EI writes:

NGO Monitor is an extreme right-wing group with close ties to the Israeli government, military, West Bank settlers, a man convicted of misleading the US Congress, and to notoriously Islamophobic individuals and organizations in the United States….

NGO Monitor’s attack on The Electronic Intifada is part of a well-financed, Israeli-government endorsed effort to silence reporting about and criticism of Israel by attacking so-called “delegitimizers” — those who speak about well-documented human rights abuses, support boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), or promote full equality for Palestinians. Last February, The Electronic Intifada reported that a leading Israeli think-tank had recommended a campaign of “sabotage” against Israel’s critics as a matter of state policy (“Israel’s new strategy: “sabotage” and “attack” the global justice movement,” 16 February 2010).

NGO Monitor has already been at the forefront of a campaign to crush internal dissent by Jewish groups in Israel that want to see Israel’s human rights record improved.

The Jerusalem-based organization poses as a project concerned with accountability for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but as Israeli human rights activist and journalist Didi Remez has stated, “NGO Monitor is not an objective watchdog: It is a partisan operation that suppresses its perceived ideological adversaries through the sophisticated use of McCarthyite techniques — blacklisting, guilt by association and selective filtering of facts” (“Bring on the transparency,” Haaretz, 26 November 2009).

There is good news here- thus far EI reports that no action has been taken thus far to end their funding. Presumably anyone who does so would have to actually substantiate NGO Monitor’s spurious charges. Good luck with that.