Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, discusses the American Jewish community’s growing disillusionment with Israel as it aligns itself closer with the Trump administration and massacres civilians in Gaza
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
For years now, American Jewish public opinion has been growing increasingly critical and isolated from Israel. In the aftermath of the recent massacre of 61 Palestinians in Gaza, on top of the many others who were killed in the weeks before, that American Jewish distaste for Israel is growing even more. And to discuss this, I’m joined today by Rebecca Vilkomerson. She’s executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group of American Jews organizing against the Israeli occupation of Palestinians.
At my family’s Passover Seder we engaged in a really kind of heated discussion about this issue, and I suspect that’s happening more and more and more now. What kinds of signs are you seeing just this week alone after the massacre in Gaza and the Jerusalem Embassy opening, what sort of signs are you seeing and signals you’re getting in terms of the state of American Jewish opinion right now when it comes to this issue?
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Right. Well, there’s a few different things. Like on the public influencer front, I was very interested that Jude Apatow spoke out. He was very critical publicly.
AARON MATE: Hollywood director. Yeah, yeah.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: He was very critical in particular of the New York Times coverage, and the way that they sort of use this very passive voice about the ways Palestinians and died, like they weren’t willing to say Israel killed them. And he called that out very directly. Bette Midler wrote something really, really critical, and I think it was very much connected to how much she hates Trump. And I do think there’s sort of, like, twinning of Trump and Netanyahu, and how much they’re connected on this issue. And like you were saying, about the way the embassy celebration was. It was pretty much entirely a partisan event. I don’t think there are any Democrats there, except maybe Jonathan Greenblatt from the ADL. And otherwise it was all Republicans and right wingers.
And so there’s a real affinity happening there. So for people who are opposing Trump, and they’re seeing Trump and the Trump administration embrace the Netanyahu government and Israel’s actions, I think there’s, like, a willingness to look at what Israel’s doing that maybe wasn’t possible when Obama was president. And honestly, pursuing many of the same policies. But it was a little bit harder for people who come at it from a partisan angle.
AARON MATE: Even though some Democrats are making that easy. Because for example, Chuck Schumer, head of the Democrats in the Senate, he came out. He supported the embassy move.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yes. Chuck Schumer is a special case, unfortunately. I mean, I think what’s been interesting is that I think with the exception of Chuck Schumer, no Democrats have been speaking out, have been defending Israel’s actions. And in fact quite a number, over a dozen, have spoken out against what Israel has done in the last week and over the course of the last six weeks. And you contrast that with 2014, when I think something like 70 senators signed a statement supporting the 2014 Gaza war. So there has been a shift in terms of Congress and who’s willing to speak out and feels able to speak out, and that there’s enough backing from their own constituents to speak out that they’re not going to be punished by AIPAC or other organizations.
AARON MATE: I agree that there’s a shift. I just don’t want to give the Democrats too much credit, because on top of Schumer we have Steny Hoyer, number two Democrat in the House. He said that we support Israel unconditionally after the massacre. So I just, you know. It’s important to recognize the shift, but then just to-.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: No, we have very, very far to go. And also not, not, not being critical, not defending is very different from saying stop. And there are lots of tools that the U.S. government has to stop Israel from what it’s doing, and it’s using none of them. And in fact, what they’re mostly doing is defending what Israel does. Nikki Haley walking out of the U.N. when the Palestinian ambassador started to talk. I mean, diplomatically, militarily, economically, in every way the United States-. And again, this is not a Trump administration issue. This is going back every single administration over the last many, many decades has supported Israel pretty much unconditionally.
But on a better note, unless you want to-.
AARON MATE: Please, no, yeah.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: My daughter goes to New York City public high school, and she sort of very nonchalantly told me on Tuesday that there had been a moment of silence at her school for the Palestinian victims. And I was very shocked that something like that could happen at a New York City public school. And I asked her, you know, I said, did anyone get mad? And she said, no, Mom, it’s so obvious. So you know, I think that there is a true shifting in public opinion, and the younger you are, the more obvious it is. So I feel, in that sense, kind of hopeful.
AARON MATE: The whole premise for so long, for, you know, decades and decades, has been denying Palestinians their basic humanity.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yes.
AARON MATE: And it’s just the-. Like, you can’t keep it up anymore. It just, it’s untenable. If you claim to be a liberal in any remote sense, it’s just, it’s untenable. But, so let me ask you, as you’re trying to grow the membership of your group Jewish Voice for Peace, and you’re talking to prospective members, people who want to come on board. What are some of the anxieties or concerns you get from people who say, well, you know, I support Palestinian rights. You know, I don’t like what Israel is doing, but I’m not, I’m uncomfortable challenging Israel publicly and challenging it in the way that your group does, for example?
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Right. Well, I mean, I think what we see is our job, quite honestly, is to create the container that allows people when they’re ready to come to us. Because we’re not going to convince someone in an argument or in a conversation that it’s their, that they have to speak out. People have to come to that conclusion on their own, and that is what’s happening right now, is a lot of people are coming to that conclusion on their own. What we want to do is create the chapters, create the different points of entry, create the opportunities we have on the street, create the opportunities that take part in long-term campaigns, BDS campaigns, that’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, which is what Palestinians have called for, and global solidarity to create Jewish ritual that people can be their whole selves and have their whole politics, art, and artists, and faculty members who are supportive of this work.
And you know, that there’d be many points of entry so that when people are ready they can come to us. I think the effort of, people-. You know, as an organizer you’re always looking for the formula, like, what is the one thing that you can say that can make people change their mind? And there isn’t one formula. It happens for different people in different ways, and it happens to more people in moments like this one. But the main thing is that we need to be there ready for them when they, when they are ready to take that leap.
AARON MATE: OK. So what do you think are the main obstacles that you see that prevent many American Jews, especially liberals, from getting involved? From seeing this series of atrocities committed in their name, this, this 50 year-plus occupation, 70 years of dispossession of Palestinians. What prevents Jews, you know, to accept that one can generalize from, from getting involved, from speaking up?
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: There’s a lot behind that question. I mean, I think part of it is there’s this security frame that, through which people look at this issue, and you saw that being deployed a lot this week where, you know, right away people said, like, oh, well, these are all members of Hamas. And it’s just sort of like, and then people are like, oh, well, then I guess that’s-. I think what the thought process was like, oh, that’s OK. And this is, there’s a real dehumanization behind that, and the idea that Palestinians just are, fundamentally have less human rights, that they’re, you know-. That, you know, you hear this rhetoric all the time. Israel has the right to security. Well, don’t Palestinians have the right to security? But that’s not the conversation that’s happening in the Jewish community.
And I do think that-. Again, that’s a huge generalization. But I think many of the more secular Jews, they grow up, you know, this is the Hebrew school that I went to. It was about Holocaust, Israel, Holocaust, Israel. And so so much of your Jewish identity is tied up in Israel, especially if you don’t have a Jewish practice that’s separate from that, so you feel like you’re denying your Jewishness. And for people who feel that’s an enormous part of their identity, I think that that’s very, very difficult. And then of course, there’s the thing of your friends, your family, your teachers, your rabbis, your community leaders. It’s very hard to pull away from that. On the other hand, then once you are willing to, then you can really feel like you know, again, it’s providing a community of people who are like-minded, who feel like it’s an expression of Jewish values to be supporting Palestinian rights. It’s an expression and honoring of Jewish history and of Jewish culture to be speaking out for Palestinian rights. But there’s an enormous barrier to doing so, especially for people who have grown up in that community, have learned the propaganda, have learned the myths, and you have to, like, active, very actively unlearn them in order to take that step.
AARON MATE: Yes. Yes. I have a lot of thoughts on this. And like, on the one hand I do think the Holocaust looms large for many people. I mean, my family survived the Holocaust, and I have some relatives who I think have developed a stronger affinity for Israel than I have because of it. Because for, you know, for many people’s parents and grandparents, Israel was the only place that they were able to go to. Now, part of that was actually by political design. There was an effort just to direct Jews towards Israel, to keep them out of the U.S., including the American Jewish community here played a role in that, in actually keeping American Jews out, in part to direct them towards toward what was in Palestine. But anyway, that’s a whole other story.
But I also think that, especially since ’67, Israel has become important to the U.S. power structure. So you know, it’s been a favorite client state of the U.S. It smashed Arab nationalism in ’67. It’s performed all sorts of services for American power when American power wasn’t able to do it. So it’s training death squads in Central America. It helped funnel the weapons to Iran in the ’80s. So it’s valuable to American power to support Israel. And so I suspect that part of what explains a lot of American Jewish support for Israel is that if you were to speak out against, you’re actually threatening your own privilege. If you speak out in favor of Israel, if you, you know, then you can get published in places, you can get op-eds in the New York Times, or maybe a column in the New York Times, based on its op-ed page right now.
But if you are to speak out against that, you’re not just, you know, risking alienating your family and friends, but you’re actually also threatening your own privilege and your own actual assimilation into the U.S. power structure. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: I think that’s a really good theory. I think it’s certainly true that there’s there’s parameters of the conversation, and as soon as you go outside those parameters you are losing access to a lot of mainstream, like you said, power and privilege. And I think, you know, it’s very tied up in the sort of evolution of Jewish identity, and how it’s tied to Israel in general and has been since the Holocaust. And you know, 1967, from what I understand, was a moment when this sort of pride in being Jewish and this pride in having Israel as a state was, was very, was intensified, as opposed to the years immediately post-Holocaust, where the population is just decimated, and also ashamed of having been part of the Holocaust. And it’s all part of this sort of Israeli mythology of the new Jew, and it wasn’t, you know, they were going to be ghetto Jews. These were going to be people who fought, these were going to be people who fought back. They were going to be strong.
And so, you know, you get to sort of be the David, but then you also still get to be the, you get to be the David and the Goliath at the same time. So you, you know, you both get the sort of power of being a victim, and the power of having power.
AARON MATE: It’s a terrible combination.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Is a terrible combination. Yeah.
AARON MATE: The, like the victimized behemoth. Yeah. OK. So, Jewish Voice for Peace took, it stands apart from other, you know, sort of progressive liberal Jewish groups, for lack of a better term, like J Street, in that you guys support BDS, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. That was a bold decision in that, you know, because you risk alienating a lot of people who, who don’t want to boycott Israel, because they, they have friends there, family there. And they feel maybe hypocritical about boycotting Israel, but living in the U.S. So how do you guys address people who are uncomfortable with your embrace of BDS?
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Right. Well, the first thing I should just say, from a personal level, my husband’s Israeli. My kids have Israeli passports.
AARON MATE: There we go. Yeah.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: I’ve lived in Israel, my grandparents are buried in Israel, I have a whole family in Israel. I think that this-. And you know, there are groups, like very small groups, but very, very beleaguered groups. But they exist in Israel. There’s a group called Boycott from Within, for example, that supports the boycott movement.
But you know, so I think it is, it was-. And I think part of it is I think JVP, we have positioned ourselves, we care very much about the Jewish community. We have families, friends, camp friends, Jewish day school friends. Some of us don’t have those. I mean, I think the important thing is, like, the, the broadness of what the Jewish community is. And the Jewish community is not just people who come out of Jewish institutional backgrounds, but also people who are secular Jews or who come to their Judaism in other ways or feel it in other ways, and we really embrace the full spectrum of that. People who are part of Jewish families through marriage, all those things.
But I think the, you know, the important thing there is that we also have responsibilities to our allies. And I think that might be what actually sets us apart from other Jewish organizations, is that we feel an obligation to be organizing and speaking within the Jewish community, but we also feel an equal accountability, in particular to Palestinian allies, but also to the increasingly multiracial, multiethnic set of people and organizations that are speaking out on Palestinian rights, and that make up the left more broadly. And so we’re not going to choose having legitimacy in the Jewish community, or having credibility- I would guess I would say credibility in the Jewish community, if it means not being good allies to our allies. And so that’s, that was a big part of that decision to endorse the BDS movement.
AARON MATE: What kind of a difference do you think it can make to resolving the issue- I don’t like to use the word Israel-Palestine conflict, because it’s not a conflict. It’s, it’s a straight-up occupation and oppression. So what kind of a difference you think it can make to ending it, to resolving it if, you know, American Jews were mobilized en masse to say, look, this government does not represent us, and we oppose it fundamentally? Like, I’m just envisioning, like, the sight of-. Without American Jewish support, could Israel continue to do what it’s doing?
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Right. I think that’s the critical question, and I think that’s the reason why, you know, JVP as an identity-based organization, we feel, we do feel like we have a role to play. And we try to be very careful of both sort of being aware of the power and the privilege that we have in this movement, and using it in ways that help also other communities to speak out. And so I think there’s both the Jewish community itself that needs to be organized and needs to move, and then you also have to think about how that interacts with Christian Zionism, which of course, in terms of numbers of, sheer numbers of people and actual political power, actually dwarfs the Jewish institutions that are pushing on the United States to be constantly supporting Israel. But they work in tandem with one another, and I think there’d be, there would be a collapse of the rationale, the public rationale for the U.S. support of Israel if, if and when, I really believe it will be when, the Jewish Committee says, like, you know what? This does not represent us.
AARON MATE: We’ll take a pause there and come back in Part 2. My guest is Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.