When North American Jews gathered in New Orleans for their annual General Assembly earlier this week, the mainstream Jewish establishment unveiled a new initiative to counteract the growing international condemnation of Israel's policies of occupation and land theft. The big plan: delegitimize the delegitimizers.
The Jewish Federations of North America announced at the conference that over the next three years they will invest $6 million to launch an "Israel Action Network." Based on speakers' comments at the GA, the strategy seems to be to tar and feather virtually anyone who supports any form of boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS ) as a "delegitimizer" who is participating in an alleged plot to "destroy the State of Israel." Instead of spending millions to persuade Israel to change its path, the JFNA prefers to shoot the messengers.
Meanwhile, a few days before the assembly, the U.S.-based advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP ) convened a gathering of young Jews from the U.S. and Israel to explore difficult questions that the mainstream leadership seems eager to avoid, such as: How does the occupation delegitimize Israel? When Israel bulldozes Palestinian homes, uproots olive trees, and builds roads designated for settlers only, is that consistent with the Jewish value of respecting your neighbor?
This young group of Jewish activists seems to be an embodiment of Peter Beinart's recent essay in The New York Review of Books, which explored why Israel's oppressive policies cause young American Jews to feel alienated. "[Many American Jews have] imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture ... a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights ... They did not realize that they were supposed to shed those values when it came to Israel," Beinart wrote in his piece, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment."
Disaffected with the mainstream American leadership's "Israel: Right or wrong" attitude, the participants at JVP's gathering, the Young Jewish Leadership Institute, outlined a vision for engagement with the Israel/Palestine problem. "We won't be won over by free vacations and scholarship money. We won't buy the logic that slaughter means safety," the group wrote in its declaration, which is posted at youngjewishproud.org.
At a GA forum entitled "Confronting Israel's Delegitimizers," Julie Bernstein, of San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council, spoke about how to delegitimize the delegitimizers. "We need to make BDS the issue and not Israel," Bernstein said. "What's challenging is, we have [young Jews] on the front lines advocating for boycott, divestment and sanctions, who truly want peace, who want to help the Palestinians. They have good intentions, and they don't know that they are essentially pawns in this game of bringing Israel down."
On the contrary, the young Jewish progressives see BDS as a nonviolent strategy that can influence Israel to change its behavior, and bring about a just, equitable resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They see themselves not as well-meaning idiots, as Bernstein implies, but as highly educated Jews who've personally witnessed the brutality of the occupation and feel a moral obligation to take action.
During the question-and-answer segment of the GA forum, UCLA law student Rachel Roberts expressed her outrage at Bernstein's remarks. "What you said about the young, conscientious Jews who have joined with their Palestinian peers to work on divestment campaigns is so unfair and condescending," Roberts said. Before she could say another word, a chorus of panelists and audience members interrupted and began hurling insults at her.
This dynamic of the older establishment patronizing and being condescending to the young was also palpable in Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to the GA on Monday. Before Netanyahu could even spit out the word "delegitimize," the first in a succession of five young Jews rose from her seat and unfurled a large white banner that read, "The loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel." Other protesters followed with "The siege of Gaza delegitimizes Israel" ... "Silencing dissent delegitimizes Israel."
Netanyahu had sharp words for the protesters. "Attempts by our enemies and their misguided fellow travelers to delegitimize the Jewish state must be countered," he said to thunderous applause.
I'm one of the five who was dragged out, clutching a sign that said, "The occupation delegitimizes Israel." When I envision Israel ending settlement expansion and living in equality with the Palestinians - while Netanyahu's government confiscates more Palestinian land and builds more settlements every single day - I wonder who is misguided?
The fifth and final protester, Rae Abileah, a Jewish American activist of Israeli descent, stood up and proclaimed: "The settlements betray Jewish values." Members of the crowd tackled her, shoved a towel in her mouth, and then chanted "Bibi, Bibi, Bibi" in unison.
Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." In the case of Israel and the tone-deaf American Jewish establishment, one could revise this statement to: First they ignore you, then they call you a self-hating Jew, then they call you a delegitimizer and fight you with $6 million.
What's next? We young Jews won't back down, our numbers are growing, and we will win. Israel will change its cruel, self-destructive behavior. We won't rest until Israelis and Palestinians live together in true equality, safety and mutual respect.
Matthew A. Taylor (http://www.matthewtaylor.net ) is a Berkeley, California member of Jewish Voice for Peace.