No Longer Looking Away

The e-mail message had no content. Only a subject line, which read “Enough already. Sign me up.”

The e-mail came from a rabbi to Jewish Voice for Peace this summer as the attacks on Gaza were occurring, says Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director. It stood out for its simplicity, but it was part of a wave of new interest in JVP, something Vilkomerson says happens every time the region is in the news due to Israeli military action. The group grew astonishingly this summer, launching 25 new chapters and gaining 60,000 new online supporters. (A relatively new chapter here in the Capital Region was begun before this summer’s conflict.)

Vilkomerson herself says her relationship to the subject is typical of many of her members. She was raised in a synagogue in New Jersey. Jewish identity has always been a huge part of her life, and she and many people she knew had family members in Israel. So despite being politically active around many peace and social justice causes, she avoided the issue of Israel and Palestine, “because it was hard, for me and my family.”

That worked until the second intifada, at which time she was dating an Israeli, and realized she needed to come to terms with the issue. “We gave ourselves a study group. At the end of it we joined JVP,” she recalls. “It was easy once we looked at the issue. What are our principles, what are our values—how do we apply them? I didn’t feel that I could be for equality and justice here, and not there.”

Mark Mischler, one of the founders of our local JVP chapter, feels the same. “My Jewish heritage is intertwined with a commitment to social justice,” he says. “That is a gift from my parents, grandparents, and earlier generations. I cannot ignore oppression, particularly if it is done in my name as a Jew. The occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza are wrong, the Palestinian people endure repression, violence, and indignities at the hands of Israel. I helped to start the Albany JVP chapter because it is necessary for Jews to speak out against Israel’s violations of human rights, which are accomplished with the support of the United States.”

Still, in many communities this is a controversial position to take, and Vilkomerson says JVP’s ranks are swelling not merely because there are people wanting to stand against the war in Gaza, but because JVP functions as “an alternative Jewish community for people who don’t feel comfortable in traditional [Jewish] institutions because they demand fealty to this idea” that Israel’s actions may not be criticized, she says. “We are the only Jewish organization growing like that, and the only Jewish organization opposing the war unequivocally. People need a Jewish organization that understands the need to be authentic about their values and authentically Jewish.”

I asked Vilkomerson how she responds to common talking points like “But Hamas attacked us first,” or “Muslims/Palestinians want Israel destroyed.”

“This is not a war on Hamas,” she said. “Seventy to eighty percent of casualties are civilians. Gaza is completely destroyed.” In terms of rockets fired on Israel, “It’s important to talk about context. [Gazans] were under siege already. Life was already unbearable. A proper metaphor is people locked in a cage whose jailers are periodically bombing them and every once in a while they try to attack their jailers. If you don’t want those attacks, let them free. Talking about it free of context is just not enough.”

“Israel is a strong, stable country with several allies and a super strong military,” she added. “All the things they say are they are afraid of—being pushed to the sea, not allowed to live, is what happening to Palestinians. It seems like projection. Also, it’s not true [that all Palestinians want Israel destroyed]. I’m sure it’s true for a few people. After 60 years of occupation, a lot of people are angry and who can blame them. But most of them just want to live their lives in peace, that’s all.”

Capital Region residents will have a chance to stop avoiding the issue next Tuesday at 7 PM at an event organized by the local JVP chapter: “The Crisis in Israel and Palestine: A Critical Conversation,” with Vilkomerson and Barry Trachtenberg, associate professor and director of the Judaic Studies Program at the University at Albany. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but all the more reason to get started.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Sept. 25, 2014.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s