A progressive look at the Middle East with an emphasis on sympathy toward the Palestinian people may not be the mainstream approach to Israel in the organized Jewish community, but Jewish Voice for Peace is proudly bucking the trend.
The organization met in Baltimore last weekend for its national membership meeting, with the growing organization celebrating its accomplishments while hearing from Israeli, Palestinian and American scholars and activists.
“We are helping redefine the progressive Jewish worldview and that must include speaking out for the rights of Palestinians,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, said at the organization’s opening plenary on Friday, March 13. “We are creating an alternative to the Jewish institutions in this country that demand loyalty to political ambitions that are antithetical to our Jewish values.”
According to its website, the organization conducts campaigns to defend and free Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists and fights censorship of debate and misuses of the charge of anti-Semitism. But it has also drawn the ire of the mainstream Jewish community for its support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. It also works with Arab, Muslim, Palestinian and Christian groups to fight bigotry and end an Israeli presence in the West Bank, facilitates congressional outreach and supports alternative Jewish rituals that include Palestinian narratives.
“JVP is our political home, the place where we can bring our full selves, the place where we don’t have to leave our politics for Israel and Palestine at the door,” Vilkomerson said in her opening remarks.
Over the summer, during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas targets in Gaza, more than a dozen JVP chapters opened, and members were busy protesting for peace and against Israeli military actions. Later in the summer, those same JVP members protested in solidarity with those angered by the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
“Our anti-racist principles make us part of a broad coalition, one that brings many movements together,” Vilkomerson said. “Whether we’re fighting for immigrant rights or against the prison-industrial complex or for justice in Palestine, they’re simply difference facets of the same fight — for full equality and dignity and collective liberation of all human beings.”
Following her remarks at Friday’s opening plenary, a panel addressed the current Israel-Palestinian situation, which featured the Rev. Heber Brown III, pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore. For Brown, there are obvious parallels between the civil rights movement and what is happening in Israel right now.
He started his talk by speaking about his experience in traveling to Israel five years ago. As the only African-American in the delegation, he said, he was stopped and questioned by Israeli soldiers at the airport. He said that pattern repeated throughout the trip.
A number of others, including organizers from the Black Lives Matter organization and African-American Jew and chef Michael Twitty, have similar stories from recent travels to the country, Brown pointed out.
“It’s not about my individual experience; I’m more so concerned about the pattern of discrimination. That is a greater issue for me,” Brown said. “What I faced at that airport that day was something my grandparents faced at airports, restaurants and on highways in this country 50 years ago and so much longer ago than that.”
Brown said that stories of Palestinian disenfranchisement resonates with him as a civil rights activist.
“Anybody would see disenfranchisement from voting as a knock or forging against democracy,” he said. “I don’t think we have the luxury to be silent in that no matter where your political persuasion might be. Whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, whether black or white, I don’t think we can justify people not having the right to vote.”
Brown takes a middle of the road approach on the BDS movement. He said he is hearing and heeding to the call of Palestinians pushing for BDS because he doesn’t think someone from the outside can tell those most directly impacted what to do.
“At the same time,” he said, “I recognize that BDS by itself is not the answer either.”
Brown plans to continue working with local Jewish organizations on issues of importance, including the various issues Black Lives Matter has brought to light. The night before he spoke at the JVP conference, he was testifying in Annapolis in favor of a bill that would reform Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
“We have to work to a commitment for justice for everybody,” he said. “I think justice helps bring about peace.”