As the Jewish community struggles to combat efforts to delegitimize Israel and still retain a “big-tent” strategy, a mainstream consensus appears to have taken shape in recent weeks that boils down to this: one can support a targeted boycott of Israeli settlements and even a cultural ban against the West Bank settlement of Ariel — as long as one also supports Israel as a democratic Jewish state.
Helping to crystallize the issue was the Oakland, Calif.-based organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which last week was rebuffed by the Hillel chapter at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Hillel’s board voted to reject the group’s application to come under its umbrella of Jewish organizations because JVP’s support of a boycott of Israeli settlement goods runs counter to a position adopted by it and its parent, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Although the boycott issue was sufficient to place JVP beyond the pale for Hillel, that alone would not have been sufficient for most other Jewish groups, according to Martin Raffel, who is overseeing a multimillion-dollar Jewish communal effort (dubbed the Israel Action Network) to counter Israel delegitimization efforts.
Rather it was a combination of positions and actions that “pushes JVP over the line,” he said.
Among them, Raffel said, is JVP’s “unwillingness to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, its demonstrated support for the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement — history has shown it goes beyond boycott of settlements — and the tactics JVP employs of disrupting the speeches of Israeli officials.”
He was referring to the actions of five young JVP Jewish supporters who interrupted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last October while he was addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans. They yelled such things as, “The settlements delegitimize Israel,” before they were hustled out of the room.
“Those are positions that are outside the mainstream Jewish positions with respect to Israel,” Raffel said. “Israel is damaged as a consequence of their actions. … I distinguish them from members of our community who are struggling with reconciling Israel’s dual nature as both a Jewish and a democratic state.”
Many younger Jews “growing up in an open, pluralistic America may have a hard time with that concept,” he said. “Although 98 percent of this country is Christian, we would not define it that way. We are all citizens and no one ethnic or religious group has a different status in America. Israel is unique; it has a dual identity. It is a nation-state of the Jewish people and a state that serves all its citizens in a non-discriminatory fashion. We have an obligation to provide education and experiential opportunities to help young people work through the process of becoming comfortable with Israel as a democratic and Jewish state. Birthright is an example of how to do that,” Raffel said, referring to the program that provides free trips to Israel to young Jews.
And if there is any one issue that “removes one from the Jewish communal tent,” Raffel said, it is the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
Thus, he said, one can disagree with such Jewish artists as Theodore Bikel and Daniel Barenboim for their boycott of Ariel’s newly opened theater but “not recognizing Israel as a Jewish democratic state is a completely different story.”
Raffel’s thinking on the issue of “settlements-only” boycotts seems to have evolved since the Israel Action Network was formed in December. At the time, he told The Jewish Week, “I don’t know that a consensus has crystallized on this subject.
“If a person believes that Israel ought to do more to achieve peace based on a two-state formula, the question is, will boycotting a settlement advance the day that there will be peace? I’d argue that no, it will only harden positions and be counterproductive,” he said in December, “but being misguided in one’s policies doesn’t mean one necessarily has become part of the ranks of the delegitimizers.”
This week Raffel cited Meretz USA as a group that, though it might fit his earlier description of “misguided,” is safely in the tent, so to speak. The group supports the targeted boycott of Israeli settlement products and the cultural boycott of Ariel, but, Raffel said, “it is fully supportive of the Jewish state and it repudiates the BDS movement.”
Ron Skolnik, executive director of Meretz USA, agreed, saying that despite “a certain similarity of tools, we are clearly in favor of a two-state solution in which Israel remains democratic and the national home of the Jewish people. JVP doesn’t really specify what end result it prefers.”
Yet he said his organization decided to issue a statement after the action of Brandeis Hillel because it rejects the “idea that a boycott of the settlements in the occupied territories is the same as the delegitimization of the State of Israel. … We believe that a targeted boycott of the settlements (as opposed to a global boycott of sovereign Israel) is a legitimate tool to be used by Zionist organizations and individuals … ”
Cecilie Surasky, JVP’s deputy director, said her group’s emphasis is on “full human rights for both people” and that it would be comfortable with whatever solution Israelis and Palestinians agree upon — be it a two-state solution or a binational state.
“Experts are divided between those who think we have only a few days or minutes left before the two-state solution is dead, and those who think the time is past, largely thanks to entrenched Israeli settlements which have made a Palestinian state impossible,” she said.
Regarding Meretz USA, Raffel, who is also senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said:
“We just say they are still within our tent and we should discuss with them whether their activities will advance the cause of peace.”
The JCPA and the Jewish Federations of North America late last year created the Israel Action Network to combat efforts to delegitimize Israel, specifically the BDS movement.
William Daroff, JFNA’s vice president for public policy and director of its Washington office, said it “has not been easy struggling with the issue of who should be inside the metaphorical tent of the pro-Israel community. We must have a big tent of organizations and beliefs. Not everyone will agree on many of the specifics. … But we embrace those organizations and individuals who hold core beliefs in Israel as a democratic Jewish state that is the eternal home of the Jewish people.”
Thus, he said, the JVP by “promoting the boycott of goods both inside and outside Israel’s Green Line [pre-1967 border] assaults the legitimacy of the State of Israel. And by refusing to support the concept of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, it clearly falls outside the boundaries of being a Zionist organization that is inside the tent of the pro-Israel community. … As we combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy, our standards should not be so watered down as to be meaningless.”
Surasky insisted that the “single greatest threat to Israel today is the occupation and Israel’s continued settlement expansion. It’s the reason Israel is becoming an international pariah, and it’s what is fueling the deterioration of democracy within Israel,” she said.
There are some Jewish institutions, Surasky said, that “are in denial about the massive and growing opposition to the occupation. … There are young, engaged, smart Jews who feel very deeply about being part of the Jewish community. They were raised with Jewish values of justice and healing and are simply applying them to what is happening in Israel and are saying it isn’t fair. The level of engagement is exactly what we want from this generation of Jews, and they are sending them away.”
In explaining its action against the Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, Andrea Wexler, president of Brandeis Hillel, wrote that JVP’s support of a boycott of Israeli settlement goods contravened a position adopted by both her group and her parent organization. And she said she was mindful that the JVP national organization supports the entire BDS movement.
In December, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life adopted guidelines that clearly state Hillel “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups or speakers that … deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers.”
In addition to JVP’s support of a boycott of Israeli goods, Wexler said the campus chapter brought in controversial speakers. Among them was Noam Chomsky, the author and political activist who, she said, told students that “Israel is acting like an apartheid state in its handling of the Palestinian people.”
“We don’t want to support anything that supports divestment or a degradation of the State of Israel,” she said, adding that Hillel’s decision received mixed support on campus.
Lev Hirschhorn, 21, a Brandeis senior and spokesman for its JVP chapter, said the group was established on the Brandeis campus last fall and was officially recognized by the Student Union in February. It was then that it applied for affiliation with Hillel, despite knowing of the group’s new guidelines.
“The admission statement of Brandeis Hillel affirms the necessity of a pluralistic Jewish life on campus with partisanship to none,” he said. “Because Brandeis is a very peaceful campus where there are good relations between the different Israel-related groups, we figured that Brandeis Hillel would live up to its mission statement and welcome us to the table.”
Surasky said the JVP, which was formed 14 years ago and first hired staff seven years ago, has five campus chapters and another six in formation. The Brandeis chapter was the first to seek Hillel affiliation, she said.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, said one of the last times the issue of who is in and who is out in the American Jewish community was debated came after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when an organization called Breira [alternative] was formed. It advocated making territorial concessions to the Palestinians and said the national aspirations of the Palestinian people should be recognized in order to achieve lasting peace.
“We look back and are surprised that a position that is today [widely accepted] was so controversial in its day,” he said. “Will we look back in 50 years and say the same thing about JVP? I can’t tell you.”
He stressed that Hillel’s decision “does not deny JVP the right to speak out and have meetings on campus. Hillel just said it is not within the tent of those within Hillel. I’m sure there are other organizations like Jews for Jesus that would not fit under the Hillel tent.”
“I can understand that JVP is unhappy about it, but I have to say my own view is that once you start the business of boycotting everybody you disagree with, there is pretty well no end to that,” he added. “I think that Hillel as I know it at Brandeis includes a wide range of opinions, and I can well understand that Hillel wants to limit certain kinds of groups that advance different positions. History will decide whether these people were beyond the pale in advancing something we see as dangerous or whether they weren’t.”