Whereas groups like the Anti-Defamation League have long defended Israeli government policies, a new generation of activists — young American Jews, college students, Black Lives Matter organizers — is standing up for Palestinian rights. Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté, continuing my conversation with Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. So, continuing on this theme of groups that represent the American Jewish community, I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League. Longtime in existence, engages in some civil rights work and speaks out against racism and discrimination. But, concurrently while it’s done that throughout its existence, it’s also been used to viciously target people who defend Palestinian rights, people who criticize Israel, under its previous leader, Abe Foxman. I mean, now this is out in the open.
And now they’re led by someone named Jonathan Greenblatt, who I think has tried to put on a sort of a softer image than Abe Foxman, but when it comes to Israel, I think continues much along with same themes. Just recently, he attended the opening ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and posted a selfie of himself at the ceremony and said, “I’m deeply moved to be here.” And you were recently involved in a campaign to get Starbucks to not work with the ADL after that incident in which three Black customers were arrested just for being at Starbucks. And you were involved in the pushback actually for Starbucks, as part of its sensitivity training and PR effort, to not work with the ADL. Can you talk about that?
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yeah, and I think first I’d even broaden the context, because I think the interesting thing is that the ADL has actually decades of accumulated instances of spying on African-American activists, spying on Arab activists, working with- they had dossiers on all kinds of people who were working in the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
AARON MATÉ: Right, because Israel and apartheid South Africa were-
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Right, for a long time they refused to recognize the Armenian Genocide because of Israel’s alliance with Turkey. And then when that flipped, they changed their mind about that too. And so, they have a long history of- and I don’t know that all of it is connected to Israel, though probably most of it is. I think it’s an interesting frame to look into a little bit more. But I think the point is, is that they’re- on the one hand, they present themselves as as a civil rights organization, but what they really prioritize is this pro-Israel advocacy. And with this veneer of being a civil rights organization, they really use the legitimacy they’ve gained by being a voice against anti-Semitism, in which they do some very good tracking, I would also say, of anti-Semitism. And there isn’t another organization in the United States that does that work.
But the problem is, they often define anti-Semitism as including speech against Israel. And so then, that blurs the line of what anti-Semitism actually is, so that’s also very dangerous. But they present themselves as a civil rights organization, as a very crucial civil rights organization, and in the meantime, they have this other agenda, and they use their bona fides to push it. And so, I think what was very interesting about what happened with Starbucks is, again, they were tapped early on to lead these racial bias trainings that Starbucks set up in the wake of this incident at one of their stores. And when it first happened, to be quite honest, I heard about it and I was just totally resigned. I was like, “Oh that sucks, but typical.”
But then I started looking online, mostly on Twitter, and there were numerous voices, in particular Muslim and Black American voices, who were like, “Wait a second- the ADL should not be doing training on racial bias, they have this history of attacking our communities.” And again, in a very structural way. And I think that also has to do with- the ADL has this very historic collaboration with police forces. So, one of the things, for example, that they’ve done in the last couple of years, which I don’t think has to do with Israel- actually it has to do with more their orientation towards collaborating with police- is that they honored the St. Louis police force, literally a year to the day after Mike Brown was killed. And the St. Louis police force was deeply involved in the protests in Ferguson and also has been known to be extremely racially biased against Black people in St. Louis.
And so, just the idea that you would be honoring police forces that have been deeply involved with this racialized policing is incredibly offensive. And so, a lot of people, a lot of communities of color spoke up right away and were like, “These are not the people who should be doing these kinds of trainings.” And actually, a few people came to us and said, “You know what, it would be great- JVP is mostly white and a Jewish organization, it would be great if you guys would also speak up, so it’s not just us who are out here on that.” So, we launched a petition. I think we got like 11,000 signatures in the first 48 or 72 hours. We put out a fact sheet that sort of laid out, for different groups and different individuals, why we had such concerns about them actually being very anti-Muslim, Islamophobic anti-Black organization, anti-activist organization. And ultimately, Starbucks demoted them and made them just one of the consultants on the project, no longer one of the leaders, and also added some Muslim-led organizations to that overall training.
And so, I think what it exposed was the awareness and the anger that’s out there at the ADL. And I think the other piece of it is that we’re running this campaign against police exchanges. And the ADL runs police exchanges with Israel. So, bringing U.S. captains- chiefs of police from different cities, but also ICE officials, FBI officials, customs officials, they’re running trips every year that go to Israel to learn from the Israeli cops, and they’re also importing to the U.S., but also bringing from the U.S., our own racialized policing, that already exists here- I don’t want to pretend that it’s a one-way street. Obviously, the United States, U.S. police, don’t need to learn racism from Israeli cops. However, Israel does have an expertise in mass surveillance, in spying, in collective punishment, in extrajudicial killing, racial profiling, all these sorts of techniques that they use because of the ways that they very specifically separate out Jewish from non-Jewish citizens, both inside of Israel and in the territories that they occupy. And they’re basically training U.S. police representatives in those methods and encouraging them to bring them back to the United States. And this is super problematic, to say the least.
But I think it’s also important that we understand the police exchanges in this context of this sort of police collaboration that the ADL has engaged in for many, many decades. And I think the evolving conversation in the United States about policing is helping people to see that this is not okay- the police exchanges are not okay, the ADL calling itself a civil rights organization when it’s actually collaborating with police forces all over the country. And of course, the fact that it’s using a lot of these- this credibility and this projection of being a civil rights organization as a way to push a pro-Israel agenda which harms people, both here and there. That’s just becoming less acceptable, I think, in this political context.
AARON MATÉ: One consequence of all this, I think, has been an emerging, over the last few years, of Black-Palestinian solidarity- where in the past, Black activists or leaders who speak out in favor of Palestinian rights have been demonized and attacked. I’m thinking especially of Jesse Jackson in the mid-80s, when he ran for president. Before anybody, he was calling for Palestinian rights, a Palestinian state. He was attacked for it. I mean, he took a lot of heat for it. But now, it’s becoming increasingly more common for Black leaders to speak out for Palestinian rights. Tamika Mallory of the Women’s March, she spoke out against the ADL. Black lives Matter, when it came out with its policy plank, just about a year or two years ago, included strong language for Palestinian rights, which I think is making a huge difference in the conversation. It’s showing how increasingly difficult it is to claim that you’re a liberal with liberal values while also still supporting Israeli government policies.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yeah, and my understanding is that- in some ways, that’s just reclaiming the legacy of a lot of the radical groups that were doing organizing in the 60s. So, you had SNCC, I think took a very strong position in favor of liberations, sort of when there was much more of an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist ethos that was happening in organizing. Several decades ago, I think it was much more common and it’s been slowly repressed over the last couple of decades. And so, it’s quite beautiful to see that legacy being reclaimed. And I think- when I talk to Black people in this country who have been to Israel, who have been on delegations, what they talk about is- right away, just getting off the plane, the way they’re treated in the airport, what they see the minute they get there.
I actually remember a rather fundamentalist Christian church person who said, “I could just smell the racism.” And what he was struggling with, in that moment actually was, as a fundamentalist Christian, and believing the Bible is the word of God, and the way that the word Zion is used, it can be very confusing, how to separate. And I think that’s part of the evangelical attachment to Israel, obviously, has to do with that understanding of the Bible. But how do you, as a Black person, you know- was what he was saying- reconcile the fact that it’s the same kind of racism that you see there as he himself and experienced here, and that he had to wrestle with how to reconcile or to separate those two things. And so, I think that’s a very specific problem of if you have a very deep fundamentalist Christian approach. But I think overall, it’s a natural alliance between- especially given the elevated amount of activism that’s happening now- there is this natural alliance of understanding that this is an anti-racist struggle, ultimately, and if you’re standing up against racism here you want to also be standing up in solidarity with anti-racism there.
AARON MATÉ: So, on top of increasing Black solidarity for Palestine, I want to ask about another sort of hopeful development, which is the growing generational divide. I think, both in your generation, my generation, it was our summer camps, Sunday Schools- support for Israel was just drilled into us and it was pretty common. Today’s youth though, it seems to be- my impression is that it’s just become untenable. It’s like, not cool to be a Zionist, not cool to support Israel, and it’s actually even becoming cool to go to protests and support Palestinians. I’m wondering your thoughts on whether this, our young generation today, offers hope for the future, to sort of supplant the entrenched orthodoxy of support for Israel in the American Jewish community.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Absolutely. Every poll shows that there is that generational divide. And it hasn’t reached critical mass, yet but it’s absolutely noticeable. I don’t have the exact numbers off the top of my head, but they show that- I think it’s one or two more generations removed from the Holocaust, I think it has to do with the people who have only known Israel as an occupier and understand the power asymmetry. And like you said, it’s also about, I think, an ephemeral thing about different causes that become popular at different times, things like the Anti-Apartheid Movement or the Central American solidarity movement.
I do think the struggle of this generation, to a large extent, at least in terms of internationally, Palestine is one of them. And I think the more that Palestine is seen as part of this sort of broader progressive agenda, which we started seeing already in the 2016 fight over the Democratic Party platform and the sort of Bernie Sanders wing of the party, for lack of a better word, is trying to integrate that in. And so, if you support the Fight for $15 and if you support Health Care for All, you also support Palestinian rights. Those things just sort of naturally now go together, while a few years ago, we were talking about PEPs, which is Progressives Except Palestine, and people are really separating those two things out. And I don’t want to pretend PEP doesn’t still exist, it does.
AARON MATÉ: The PEP is real.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: The PEP is real. But I do think there is more and more understanding that this is- if you have progressive values, that this is one of the struggles that fits within it, within that set of principles.
AARON MATÉ: And if you’re a young person too, sort of becoming politically aware, for many people it’s their first opportunity to be politically engaged, like in my own case. I mean, I’ve always been leftist, “end occupation,” from a very young age. But my first formal entry into political organizing and activism was because on my campus at school, there was a Palestinian Solidarity group, a group of Arab and Muslim students, many of them Palestinians, who had this amazing group organize. And they would hold talks and they would hold demonstrations and actions, really creative actions. And so, for me it was like not only the topic that I was interested in, but also it was a really sort of exciting thing to get involved with, because they were doing something, and they were passing divestment resolutions. So, the activism that Palestinians and their allies have created here in North America, especially on college campuses, has created opportunities for many people to get involved in politics and get involved in protesting the oppressive structures that many people, just on their own, are naturally against.
REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. I mean, we are still way behind Europe, where you have- the entire student union of the UK, I think recently- I don’t know if they voted in favor of BDS, but it was something like that. So, we are behind. But that being said, Students for Justice in Palestine, which has grown enormously over the last ten years, has done incredible work. And you’re exactly right, where they’ve built these coalitions, which are like coalitions of every community on campus. So, you have these multiethnic, multiracial, multi-faith coalitions that are including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Black people, white people Native American people, Latino people. Everyone you can imagine is sort of aligning around this issue.
And so, I think the flipside of it is that you hear some right-wing Jewish students saying, “Oh, I feel left out, or I feel isolated on campus,” and that sort of thing. And I think- which is based on their politics, not their identity, but there is an attempt to make it about their identity instead of their politics. And that’s been a lot of the locus of the controversies on campus. But I think the beauty of those coalitions and how inspiring they are, and how inspiring it is to be a part of them, like you said, is really helping to move forward the issue on campuses.
AARON MATÉ: All right, we’ll break there and come back in part three. My guest is Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.