Category Archives: Jewish Federation

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and the American Jewish Community

By Donna Nevel

Many American Jewish organizations claim to be staunch supporters of civil and human rights as well as academic freedom. But when it comes to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, they make an exception. In their relentless opposition to BDS, they leave even core principles behind.

jvp-sodastreamThe Palestinian-led call for BDS, which began in 2005 in response to ongoing Israeli government violations of basic principles of international law and human rights of the Palestinian people, is a call of conscience. It has strengthened markedly over the last few years among artists, students, unions, church groups, dockworkers, and others. Media coverage of endorsers of the boycott has gone mainstream and viral. Recent examples include Stephen Hawking’s refusal to go to Jerusalem for the Presidential Conference, the successful campaign surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s support for Soda Stream and its settlement operation, and the American Studies Association (ASA) resolution that endorsed boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Alongside BDS’s increasing strength have come increasingly virulent attacks on, and campaigns against it. These attacks tend to employ similar language and tactics – as if the groups are all cribbing from the same talking points – including tarring BDS supporters as “anti-Semitic” and “delegitimizers.”

These attacks simply don’t address or grapple with the core aspirations or realities of BDS. As described by Hanan Ashrawi, executive committee member of the PLO, in a recent letter in the New York Times, BDS “does not target Jews, individually or collectively, and rejects all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.” She goes on to explain that “B.D.S. is, in fact, a legal, moral and inclusive movement struggling against the discriminatory policies of a country that defines itself in religiously exclusive terms, and that seeks to deny Palestinians the most basic rights simply because we are not Jewish.”

The use of name-calling like “anti-Semites” and “delegtimizers” is problematic for a number of reasons, not only because its claims are untrue, but also because it takes the focus off the real issue at hand – whether and how Israel is, in fact, violating international law and basic human rights principles – and, instead, recklessly impugns the characters of those advocating for Israel to be held accountable.

Criticisms, even extremely harsh ones, of the Israeli state or calls to make a state democratic and adhere to equal rights for all its citizens are not anti-Semitic. Rather, anti-Semitism is about hatred of, and discrimination against the Jewish people, which is not anywhere to be found in the call for BDS, and these kinds of accusations also serve to trivialize the long and ugly history of anti-Semitism.

Most recently, the anti-BDS effort has moved to the legislative front. A bill, introduced in the New York State Assembly last month, would have trampled academic freedom and the right to support BDS in its quest to punish the ASA and deter any who might dare to emulate its endorsement of the academic boycott. Those supporting the bill were opposed by a broad coalition of education, civil rights, legal, academic, and Palestine solidarity organizations, as well as Jewish social justice groups. The bill was withdrawn, but a revised version has been introduced that is designed, like the original, to punish colleges that use public funds for activities related to groups that support boycotts of Israel, including mere attendance at their meetings.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) worked closely with the sponsors of the New York bill.

Like the JCRC, rather than engaging in substantive debate about the issues raised in relation to BDS, the Israeli government and many Jewish communal organizations choose, instead, to try to discredit and derail the efforts of those supporting BDS.

For example, as recently reported by Ha’aretz, the Israeli Knesset is debating how to continue to counter BDS efforts across the globe, that is, “whether to launch an aggressive public campaign or operate through quieter, diplomatic channels.” It is also considering what the role of AIPAC might be in introducing anti-boycott legislation and how to best bolster military surveillance–which has significant funding behind it–against supporters of BDS.

American Jewish communal organizations have also expended massive resources and energy in their campaigns to demonize endorsers of BDS. The Israel Action Network (IAN)–which describes itself as “a strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America, in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), created to counter assaults made on Israel’s legitimacy”–has funded the anti-BDS effort to the tune of at least six million dollars over a three-year period.

The IAN website characterizes supporters of BDS as “delegitimizers”and says that, in order to gain support from “vulnerable targets,” which include “college campuses, churches, labor unions, and human rights organizations,” delegitimizers utilize Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) tactics, “the same tools used to isolate and vilify apartheid South Africa, Iran, or Nazi Germany. BDS activists, IAN continues, “present distortions, fabrications and misrepresentations of international law in an attempt to paint Israel with the same brush.”

In another example of name-calling without any substance, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL’s) July 2013 report attacked Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), featuring ad hominem accusations (JVP “intentionally exploits Jewish culture”), rather than discussing JVP’s actual positions. (A JVP report on the ADL points out that the ADL not only targets JVP but is well-known for its long history of spying on Arabs and supporters of the Palestinian movement.)

On the charge of anti-Semitism, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in its call to fight the BDS movement, urges it supporters to “learn the facts behind this hypocritical and anti-Semitic campaign,” and the ADL’s Abe Foxman echoed those same sentiments: “The BDS movement at its very core is anti-Semitic.” And most recently, in his speech to AIPAC, Prime Minister Netanyahu, after shamelessly drawing upon classic anti-Semitic imagery of Jews to speak of supporters of BDS, says: “So you see, attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti- Semitism.”

The demonization of BDS is not only the domain of the Israeli government and the mainstream Jewish community. The self-declared liberal J-Street, in its seemingly relentless quest to stay under the Jewish “tent,” has also jumped on the anti-BDS bandwagon, sometimes in partnership with the IAN, which (precisely because J Street is positioned as a peace group) proudly documents its relationship with J Street in fighting BDS. Discussing how J Street is gaining acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community, JCPA’s CEO Rabbi Steve Gutow points to “its role in pushing back against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement…

Further, the refusal of both liberal land mainstream Jewish groups to discuss substantive issues around Israel’s actions or BDS also reveals itself in language that admonishes BDS as being “beyond the pale.” Recently, for example, as reported by the director of JVP in an op-ed in the Forward, the director of the JCRC of Greater Boston, who has a history of involvement in liberal organizations, explained that “any organization that supports BDS…doesn’t belong at the communal table. In fact, he was referring specifically to Jewish Voice for Peace. He even argued that opening the public conversation to BDS is roughly akin to welcoming the Ku Klux Klan.”

This attempted silencing of those simply discussing BDS plays out even in seemingly minor local skirmishes. For example, last year, the liberal rabbi of a large New York City synagogue cancelled the synagogue’s facilities-usage contract with a group of Jews who, he feared, might, on his premises, discuss BDS. That, he said, would be “beyond the pale.”

These attacks against BDS appear to be an almost desperate reaction to the increasing successes of BDS, not only in the world at large, but also within the broader Jewish community itself. Respected members of the liberal Jewish community as well as a few liberal Zionist groups that were vehemently anti-BDS are now calling for boycotts against products made in the settlements and are engaging with the issue publicly. Further, the mission and vision of groups like Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace – “a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights” – are resonating with increasing numbers of Jews who support BDS as a natural outgrowth of their commitments. And that movement is growing in partnership with the broader Palestinian-led movement for justice.

How should the rest of the Jewish community respond? Ad hominem attacks on BDS just will not do. It is time for BDS opponents to take a deep breath. Consider this: BDS is a principled response to Israel’s actions and behavior as an occupier. It is a profound call by Palestinians – and supporters world-wide–for justice. It is not BDS that should be opposed, but, rather, the very policies and practices that have made BDS necessary.

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a long-time organizer for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. She was a co-coordinator of the 1989 landmark Road to Peace Conference that brought PLO officials and Knesset members together to the US for the first time. More recently, she was a founding member of Jews Say No!, is a member of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and is on the coordinating committee of the Nakba Education Project, U.S.

Originally published on the Tikkun Daily Blog

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San Francisco bus ads condemn Israeli apartheid: backlash begins

American Muslims for Palestine launched an ad campaign this week on San Francisco buses condemning Israeli apartheid. (See below.) Predictably, local branches of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council, immediately issued a statement in effect calling the ad hate speech for using the word ‘apartheid’. They have called on “all civic, ethnic and religious leaders who oppose bigoted lies and demonization to exercise their constitutional rights by condemning these inflammatory advertisements.”

Below is a line by line reading of their media statement.

First, it’s hard to know if the people who wrote this press release actually believe what they wrote. The points they make against the ad are so off the mark, and often offensive, it’s hard to believe anyone could write them sincerely. (I’m deleting the names on the release because I don’t think it’s fair to blame them. I think people at the top should be held accountable for such nonsense.) Continue reading

Jewish Community Relations Council of SF to young Jews: You can’t speak here

We said that restrictive funding guidelines written by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of San Francisco, and implemented by the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Federation, would be used as a form of good old fashioned banishment of those who don’t toe the line on Israel. In this letter just released today, see how the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) was pressured to cancel an entire panel, “Reclaiming Jewish Activism: Re-discovering Voices of Our Ancestors,” organized by members of Workmen’s Circle and Progressive Jewish Alliance. The Jewish Community Federation is a major funder of BJE.

The problem? Not the topic. Just one of the panelists’ associations. Rae Abileah, who works with Code Pink and is a member of the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace, happens to be one of the Bay Area’s most inspiring and heartfelt young Jewish social justice activists. She was going to talk about her great uncle, the Israeli peace activist Joseph Abileah.

The great news is that socially and politically diverse SF-based Congregation Sha’ar Zahav has no such problems with the panel (or, to cut to the chase: funding) and is sponsoring the panel there on May 24.

While the JCRC/Fed will argue this is not a message to all young Jews, just to Rae and her many colleagues and friends, it’s clear that this move will resonate far and wide among young people who wonder rightly if there is a future for them inside the Jewish communal world. The letter (full version embedded below) says:

From our discussions, we understand that the event was cancelled by the Jewish Community Library, in consultation with its parent organization, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), and with the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), consultant-advisor to the local Jewish Community Federation Endowment. Federation funds support many BJE programs.

The Federation’s 2010 revised funding guidelines, which prohibit grant recipients from associating with organizations and individuals who oppose its strong support for Israel, apparently triggered the cancellation. Of specific concern was panelist Rae Abileah’s work with an organization that opposes occupation profiteering and supports the boycott of products made in illegal Israeli settlements. Ms. Abileah is not officially representing her organization but speaking about the work of her great-uncle, a spiritual Zionist nominated by fellow musician Yehudi Menuhin for numerous peace awards.

Six decades after McCarthyism’s assault on progressives and their values, we reassert that censorship by association is dangerous and unconscionable: that it subverts truth, unity, and democracy. Need we point out the chilling effect of the Federation’s exclusionary funding guidelines –adopted in response to criticism of its support for the 2010 Jewish Film Festival, after screening of a documentary about Rachel Corrie — on dialogue about Israel within our community.

Here’s the whole letter. Click on first button at bottom of image for a full screen view.  Hover over other buttons to find those that allow you to share or download. Or go here.

Inspired by the attempts to police thought here in the Bay Area, Jewish Daily Forward editorial cartoonist Eli Valley has an old cartoon that refers to the “Frisco way- toe the line or say hello to the blacklist.” h/t Richard Silverstein. Seems appropriate.

-Cecilie Surasky, Muzzlewatch

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Getting banished by the Jewish Federation on Yom Kippur.

What does Chabad Rabbi Manis Friedman have that I don’t have? Is it the beard? The religious authority? Or is it the record of advocating for the killing of Arab women, men and children?  Why does he get to stay on the Jewish Federation’s much promoted Jewish Heroes competition list, while I was unceremoniously deleted- without explanation- this morning, less than 24 hours after a story about my nomination appeared in JWeekly, the Bay Area Jewish paper.

Friedman and I have been running in the top ten for Jewish communal professionals for weeks. And though he’s a rabbi and I’m not, I was nominated by a young rabbinic student sincere in his commitment to a Jewish future. Heck, I even once helped raise thousand of dollars for the Fed after going on a mission to Israel– and my uncle was once a 6-figure fundraiser for the Federation and board member. But my nomination represents hundreds if not thousands of Jews in communities across the US who are heroically working to make equality between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis a reality.

Which is, presumably, why it was nixed and my organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, made subject to a modern day form of Jewish banishment. This despite the competition’s tagline: “We honor those making strides to repair the world.” (Picture at left: my nomination page now says Page Not Found and is blank.  Here is the cached version-what it used to look like before today. And I’m off the leaderboard completely.)

But what about Friedman, who still remains riding high at number 4 on the leaderboard?

While he has written a lot about love, and famously brought Bob Dylan to Chabad–which gives him hipster points–that’s not what Friedman is most famous for. When asked by Moment Magazine a few years ago, “How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors?”, this was Friedman’s response as reported in the Forward:

“The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle),” Friedman wrote in response to the question posed by Moment Magazine for its “Ask the Rabbis” feature.

Friedman argued that if Israel followed this wisdom, there would be “no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war.”

“I don’t believe in Western morality,” he wrote. “Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.”

Yes, Arab men, women and children don’t even rank as civilians. After a firestorm of criticism, he gave a half-hearted apology which the people who know him well didn’t find compelling.
So, what exactly are we to conclude about Jewish Federation values? There are numerous examples of policing on the left (banning groups like JVP and other human rights organizations) while remaining wide open to supporters of illegal settlements and even groups that arm settlers and giving standing ovations to the most right-wing and destructive Prime Minister in Israeli history. Though they do not openly advocate settlements, declared illegal by international law and considered by many to be the number one barrier to peace, they have defacto historically been one of the great supporters of the settlement project.

But something else is true here- groups like JVP are fully committed to nonviolence. Not so for Friedman and supporters of offensive Israeli militarism. And so when nonviolent Jewish activists are violently attacked by other Jews, (attacks on Palestinians are daily occurrences) whether in Anatot- or the Jewish Federation General Assembly- or in Congress–or at a community meeting –and communal Jewish professionals remain silent, this silence speaks volumes. The same can be true here. What does it say that nonviolent leftists are being shunned and banished?

When I look back on the wise and amazing work of JVP members over the decades- everything we said came true. We said the occupation must end, the settlements must stop, all citizens must be treated fairly- that otherwise there would be more bloodshed and that Israel would become a pariah. It doesn’t feel good to be right, not one bit. But the knee-jerk and policing response by much of the institutional Jewish world has already been shown to be wrong. And self-destructive.
My family has a tradition of Hasidic rabbis who didn’t look or likely think that differently from Rabbi Friedman. But my parents’ generation and certainly my generation has changed in our thinking and values to embrace a more universalist view of humanity while still being committed to Jewish continuity. That generational change is being repeated literally millions of times over all over the world. Look at this amazing video of young Jewish adults and their statement of values and identity. You’re looking at the future.

Disappearing JVP’s/my nomination is the perfect metaphor for an older generation’s fearful attempt to disappear an entire generation. Their children and certainly grandchildren are increasingly embracing the values of equality, going to the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem to see for themselves the horror wrought by the illegal occupation and a dream built in many ways on the backs of Palestinians.

But we can’t be so easily disappeared with the click of a mouse. Not by a long-shot. And frankly-speaking as someone who cares deeply about a Jewish future– the Federation should be thankful for that.
There is real irony that this happened on erev Yom Kippur. It is traditionally a day when even non-religious Jews seek forgiveness, from Gd or from people in our lives who we have wronged. What a way to begin a day of introspection.
Cecilie Surasky, cecilie@jvp.org
Deputy Director
Jewish Voice for Peace

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