On March 11-13, a small conference of around 200 gathered on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia with potential significance extending far beyond its modest attendance. This was the national membership meeting of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a group founded in San Francisco in 1996 that, in the wake of the siege of Gaza in late 2008, has aggressively grown into a national organization with 27 local chapters and seven full time staff.
The meeting and its discussions were closed to the press (though this writer was in attendance), but this only highlights the newsworthiness of the meeting in itself. Late last year, the Anti-Defamation League named JVP on a list it released of the "Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in America," and since then well-known members of the group have in some cases been met with violence or threats of violence, particularly on the west coast, and lesser forms of intimidation from various Jewish community leaders.
The furor with which JVP is greeted by the official Jewish community centers largely around the group’s outspoken identification with the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli occupation (increasingly known by the acronym "BDS"). There have been principled objections to this movement from some who cannot be accused of being apologists for Israel. Michael Desch wrote a penetrating critique of the movement and its effectiveness for The American Conservative in the spring of 2010, and among those who were quoted approvingly in that article was Rabbi Arthur Waskow.
JVP appears, to its credit, to be conscious of these concerns and to want to allay many of these criticisms. It draws few rigid boundaries of discussion and nuance, acknowledging drawbacks to academic and cultural boycotts of Israel, though drawing a firm line against academic institutions involved in the occupation and the Israeli military more generally. Moreover, JVP is decidedly averse to any agenda of narrow Palestinian nationalism, greeting with great enthusiasm an address by Ali Abunimah emphasizing that the struggle against the occupation is one for democratic and civil rights as opposed to land and sovereignty.
Nevertheless, and perhaps especially for all these reasons, the official Jewish community, or what Peter Beinart has named "the Jewish establishment," has greeted the rise of JVP and of the BDS movement generally with unmitigated hysteria. Indeed, the event at which JVP first made headlines – the interruption by a group of young protesters of a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu to an arm of the Israel lobby in New Orleans – was a direct response to a $6 million initiative being announced at that conference to combat the larger BDS movement, which it has styled as a campaign of "delegitimization" toward Israel.
To this, JVP emphasizes that it is agnostic about the political parameters of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but emphasizes that the cardinal principle of any solution must be full democratic, political, and civil rights for Palestinians under whichever government they may reside under upon a resolution of the conflict. Though JVP may have some reluctance to explicitly say so, this must mean that Israel ceases to be a "Jewish" state rather than a state of all its citizens.
In addition, JVP emphatically refuses to be drawn into any official position on Zionism as an ideology. It is therefore no mystery why the Jewish establishment seeks, where it can, the effective excommunication of JVP. Most recently, the leading Jewish campus society Hillel refused the application of the Brandeis University JVP chapter for affiliation, citing its opposition to "Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," an incident that was covered by the Boston Globe. Yet Peter Beinart, though still very much in the progressive Zionist camp, has warned that "the best way for the Jewish establishment to ensure that BDS enters the mainstream is to keep doing what its doing."
The Jewish establishment could be making a grave and possibly fatal mistake if it continues to pursue an inquisition against the so-called "delegitimizers." One of the most extraordinary developments has been that the young people who have flocked to JVP are far removed from the old stereotype of adolescent leftists rebelling as much against their Jewish upbringing as anything else. Some of those who interrupted Netanyahu in New Orleans even attended Jewish day school. Others, such as Elaina Ellis of Seattle, grew up in a marginally Jewish family and had her passions brought out by a return to Judaism in college. Ms. Ellis led off a poetry reading the second night of the JVP conference, along with her co-author Rae Abileah, with a reading of the "Young, Jewish and Proud" manifesto that had been issued by their cohort in New Orleans.
For even the Jewish establishment may not realize the full importance of what JVP represents. In one of the most remarkable manifestations of the organization’s growing national reach, in the last year JVP announced the formation of its "Rabbinical Council" which at this writing numbers thirty, including several rabbinical students and one cantor. This is the largest organized dissent by Jewish religious leaders from the first principles of the Jewish establishment, if not from Zionism itself, since 1943, when 33 rabbis of the American Council for Judaism issued their founding statement dissenting from the "American Jewish Conference" which established the "official" Jewish community constitutionally committed to Zionism – what we have now come to call "the Jewish establishment."
In registering its protest of that establishment today, and of the Israeli policies it has indispensably enabled, JVP could do well to quote the statement of the American Council for Judaism upon the founding of the State of Israel: "We shall continue to reject concepts and programs for Jews that derive from national or racial theories. We pray that the State of Israel may also construct itself upon that basis, granting full equality of rights and obligations, in all aspects of life, to all of its people. But for ourselves, and our relationships in the American scene, we entertain no question as to our determination in these matters."