The Anti-Defamation League’s new list of “The Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups” — which includes a left-of-center Jewish organization that claims to be tapping a growing body of disaffiliated younger Jews — could intensify the debate over exactly what it means to be an enemy of the Jewish state.
“We’re growing, we’re very organized and we’re effective,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the Berkeley-Calif.-based Jewish Voice for Peace, which claims a mailing list of 100,000 and more than 20 local chapters across the country, including a new chapter at Brandeis. “There was something perversely pleasing about being included on the ADL list.”
Some leading Jewish activists argue that JVP has crossed critical lines by supporting an aggressive boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement singling out Israel as the primary villain in the Middle East drama and by legitimizing anti-Zionist views.
But what really may be at work here is something else: JVP, while generally under the radar within the Jewish community, has positioned itself as the favorite Jewish interlocutor of outside Israel critics and outright anti-Israel organizations that need some Jewish cover to avoid charges of anti-Semitism.
While J Street and Americans for Peace Now play in the national Jewish arena, JVP operates effectively under the communal radar, focusing on campus activism and alliances with non-Jewish groups.
The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, admitted JVP’s platform doesn’t differ substantially from those of other groups on the Jewish far left, but he said it is more dangerous because it has “more of an audience” than those groups.
“The fact they speak in the name of Jews to groups that are hostile to Israel, and in some cases to Jews, makes them more of a problem,” he said.
The latest ADL list comes as Jewish leaders worry about what they say is an accelerating worldwide effort to delegitimize the idea of a Jewish state and at a time of deep anxiety about the growing disaffiliation among young Jews and rising anti-Israel activism on campus.
Among the other groups on the list are the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that the ADL said has “a long record of anti-Israel rhetoric, which has, at times, crossed the line into anti-Semitism”; and Friends of Sabeel-North America, the Protestant group that has played a major role in church divestment efforts.
The list focuses heavily on groups active on college campuses, including Students for Justice in Palestine, If America Knew and the International ANSWER, an anti-war group that continues to emphasize vituperative anti-Israel activism.
“These groups demonize Israel through various public campaigns,” said Foxman in last week’s statement announcing the list. “Their messages are one-sided and fail to take the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into account. They unfairly attack Israel while ignoring Palestinian terrorism and incitement. They apply a different standard to Israel than other countries.”
But are unbalanced and unfair the same as anti-Israel? Exactly what lines does a group — especially a Jewish group — have to cross to be considered anti-Israel?
Those questions loom largest in the case of Jewish Voice for Peace.
The JVP website depicts a group that clearly puts most of the onus for the ongoing conflict on Israel and conspicuously refrains from calling itself “Zionist” even as it claims its positions are based on Jewish values.
“We do not take a position on Zionism,” said JVP’s Vilkomerson, who is married to an Israeli and has lived in the Jewish state. “That’s not a useful conversation; we have Zionists, anti-Zionists and post-Zionists.”
In another departure from the pro-Israel canon, JVP does not specifically endorse a two-state solution.
“We don’t take a position on one state versus two states. We believe that’s something Israel and the Palestinians have to figure out themselves,” she said.
What they do talk about is the U.S. role in the peace process, arguing that “U.S. military aid to Israel must be suspended until the occupation ends.” JVP’s “Muzzlewatch” website describes itself as a monitor of “efforts to stifle open debate about US-Israeli foreign policy.”
But the position that may earn JVP the greatest ire is its overt but targeted support for the BDS movement.
“We definitely consider ourselves part of the BDS movement,” Vilkomerson said.
While her group does not support economic penalties on Israel itself, it supports boycotts, divestment and sanctions on businesses that “profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.” And according to the JVP website it “defends activists’ right to use the full range of BDS tactics without being persecuted or demonized.”
JVP also leads a high-profile effort to get big-name entertainers to boycott a new theater in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, enlisting names like Theodore Bikel, Tony Kushner, Mandy Patinkin, Ed Asner and Stephen Sondheim.
Just as significant but less visible is JVP’s effort to position itself as the Jewish face of the BDS movement before Christian groups that have been leading advocates of economic penalties against Israel.
JVP “plays a role in inoculating anti-Zionists and often anti-Jewish organizations and activists by offering a convenient Jewish voice that agrees with what they’re saying — as if that voice is not coming from a radical fringe,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the group’s point person in the fight against church divestment proposals.
Having groups like JVP speak at their events — and claiming that demonstrates their willingness to listen to Jewish perspectives — makes it easier for these groups to “deny the Jewish narrative,” Felson said. “So they can say, look, we have all these Jews who support divestment and say Israel is guilty.”
That, he said, “is where JVP comes in, and it does it in the most raw terms imaginable. The speakers they put up are hardcore radicals who speak in Orwellian terms. They don’t have the gene for nuance.”
Despite its relatively low profile, JVP is able to mobilize abundant resources in the BDS fight, he said.
“They have a half-dozen people at the various church conventions,” Felson said. “It takes a lot of resources to be involved in those settings.”
Does all of that make JVP anti-Israel and a genuine threat to the Jewish state? A lot of mainstream Jewish leaders agree with ADL’s Foxman that it has crossed too many red lines to be seen as anything else.
But others say the case isn’t a slam dunk, although they are reluctant to come to JVP’s defense.
Jerome Chanes, a writer and scholar who has written extensively on anti-Semitism (and has written for The Jewish Week), said the hit on JVP may reflect a lowered tolerance for dissent within the Jewish community when it comes to an embattled Israel.
“Obviously, this is a very subjective question,” he said. “I have a relatively high threshold; even the harshest criticism of the government of Israel is legitimate. Where it crosses the line is when the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise itself is questioned. At that point, you are questioning Jewish peoplehood. That is, tautologically, anti-Semitism.”
Support for the BDS movement, Chanes said, does not automatically make a group anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
“My feeling is that it is an abominable position, but it is a legitimate part of the debate,” he said.
But he said the Jewish community is “lowering the standard for what constitutes anti-Israel feeling,” the result of the growing polarization on all questions relating to Israel and “the way so many public affairs issues have been hijacked by the right.”
Chanes said he doesn’t know enough about Jewish Voice for Peace to pass judgment, but said that the expanding use of the term “anti-Israel” is “troubling.”
Another reason Jewish leaders are worried about JVP: the group claims an expanding presence on campuses across the country and growing appeal to a young Jewish demographic segment that, almost all Jewish leaders agree, is losing its connection to the Jewish state and the pro-Israel establishment.
Their un-nuanced message and anger focusing on human rights, broadly defined, are especially appealing to that segment, said JCPA’s Felson.
“The pro-Israel community would be wise to keep in mind that we need to provide multiple points of entry for young Jews, including those who are authentically pro-Israel and are not silent to concerns for Palestinians,” he said.
That, he said, is the hole JVP is effectively exploiting.
That, combined with its ability to “give a patina of legitimacy to an anti-Israel approach” in the BDS movement, makes JVP a “particularly invidious group,” Felson said.
But a prominent Jewish left winger said the JVP may be the wave of the future — which is why groups like ADL are reacting so strongly against it.
“Unlike J Street, [JVP] is non-Zionist, which used to mean utterly irrelevant within the Jewish community,” said M.J. Rosenberg, a longtime pro-Israel activist and liberal blogger. “No more. J Street is cornering the two-state youth market while JVP is appealing to the post-national trend in the very post-national younger generation. And they are PR savvy, not to mention unafraid to promote out-and-out boycotts of the occupation.”
Groups like ADL are “running scared,” Rosenberg said. “In their hearts, they know that the post-war era is over. No one under 50 even remembers the Six-Day War, let alone Leon Uris’ ‘Exodus.’ … That is why they keep attacking J Street and JVP. The past hates the future.”