When it comes to problematic issues within the Jewish community, how can we have tough conversations without straying into unsavory, even hateful territory?
Right now, a video criticizing joint Israeli-American police training is making waves. Produced by Jewish Voice for Peace, the video is part of its recently-unveiled End the #Deadly Exchange campaign.
Ending the occupation and American police brutality are urgent and laudable goals. But the video falls into a trap of casting 'the Jews' as having outsized and pernicious influence on both.
The video does some good things. It points out the worldview shared by Netanyahu and Trump, something I’ve written about. It reminds viewers that black and brown lives matter. And it explains that a U.S. corporation produces the biometric technology used to help run the occupation.
But after laying out the scope of Israel-US security coordination including, in its widest purview, $3.8 billion in annual American aid, the narrator asks: "Who is making this deadly exchange possible? The main groups are actually U.S.-based Jewish organizations."
The video then moves to domestic policing issues. "Who's going on these exchanges? Officers who lead police departments that brutalize black and brown communities."
For all my appreciation for tough messaging, saying that Jewish groups are the primary drivers of U.S. aid to Israel and for the scourge of institutionalized racism in America makes me queasy. It makes me queasy in that the causal logic is so deeply implied but so empirically thin as to imply a secret conspiracy.
And it makes me queasy in thinking that just when Jews and People of Color should be standing shoulder to shoulder in fighting fascist impulses in America, the video implicitly suggests that one community might actually need to turn on the other for their own survival.
Two core questions remain. First, would these training trips occur without brokering by Jewish groups? Very likely, yes. Security and policing coordination between Israel and America is deep and wide. JVP’s website acknowledges as much when it cites Georgia State University as playing a role in facilitating some of these trips.
Most importantly, do these training exchanges increase violence against civilians? Theoretically, more training should mean the embrace of de-escalation tactics. The video does not tell us what actually goes on in these sessions.
Other groups, like IfNotNow, seem to pull off this balancing act of exposing the Jewish community without suggesting outsized influence more adroitly. Indeed INN’s mandate calls for "American Jewish institutions" to "end their support for the occupation."
Why do INN’s tactics feel less abetting of anti-Jewish animus? Is it because many of INN’s leaders describe themselves as having grown up within the orbit of the mainstream Jewish community? Is it because, while INN doesn’t condemn BDS, neither do they promote it?
If so, this would be a tough ask of JVP. Surely JVP is entitled to gather members who have varying types of Jewish background. Similarly, JVP should be allowed to adopt a non-violent tool of resistance and solidarity (that is, BDS) without being accused of aiding anti-Semitism.
The main difference, I think, is two-fold. The first is making clear, when criticizing, that one is pointing to the role our community plays in the problem at hand, rather than framing the problem as being primarily driven by our community.
The second is signaling. JVP head Rebecca Vilkomerson says she wants to lead an internal conversation. "We feel like our piece of the work is to target Jewish organizations that are sponsoring" these trips. But the video does not make clear that this is the intention. In fact, Vilkomerson says that the video is intended to speak to multiple audiences - including "people who are the target of violent policing in the U.S." She adds, however, that their goal "is certainly not to say that Jews are to blame for violence of People of Color."
Vilkomerson is careful in her causal claims. But the video is not.
Tough conversations have their costs. The justice-seeking left can be sharp-elbowed. While Vilkomerson said that, "I feel excited to be starting this conversation in the American Jewish community," not everyone is so gracious in the face of critique. Owing to this op-ed, my own social network might be a little lonelier tomorrow.
But when we demand of our institutions that they build wider tents, and when we call on our community leaders to speak out when things aren’t right, then we must be prepared for tough conversations anywhere. It might expose chinks in the armor of the progressive left, but healthy alliances are ones that should be able to do the work of self-reckoning when something misses the mark.
Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Twitter: @sucharov
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