Jewish Voice for Peace, the fringe anti-Israel group that supports the boycott of Israel, is back in the news again now that the Israeli government has officially banned its leaders from entering the Jewish state. Many supporters of Israel are viewing the ban as a sign of weakening democracy in Israel or a deepening divide between American Jewry and Israel. Lost in all the noise, however, is a serious assessment of what JVP is.
It is this assessment that I undertake here. Perhaps surprisingly, my argument will not, as so many already have, take on the question of whether the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement or its anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic. For though anti-Israel activism makes up the lion’s share of JVP activities, there is an underlying worldview much more problematic than its animosity toward Israel.
Specifically, JVP’s agenda is obsessed with Jewish wrongdoing. Beyond its anti-Zionism, JVP consistently positions Jews as the cause of society’s ills.
There is nothing novel in such a posture. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt describes how the intellectuals and aristocrats of 19th-century Berlin admitted Jews into their circles on only one condition: Each Jew “had to stand out — as an individual who could be congratulated on being an exception — from ‘the Jew,’ and thus from the people as a whole.” This “good Jew” positions herself as a-Jew-who-opposes-Jews. She is accepted into society on the basis of her rejection of her people, while at the same time she must still identify as one of them.
With her analysis of the “good Jew,” Arendt provides the context in which to understand JVP’s obsession with Jewish wrongdoing and its readiness to blame Jews for societal ills. JVP is the “good Jew” of the far left, admitted and celebrated as the-Jews-who-oppose-Jews. And it’s through this lens that some of its most egregious acts must be understood.
The most glaring example of JVP’s obsession with Jewish wrongdoing is its Deadly Exchange campaign. According to JVP, Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League sponsor “exchange programs that bring together police, ICE, border patrol, and FBI from the U.S. with soldiers, police, border agents, etc., from Israel.” Through these exchanges, JVP says, “worst practices” are shared “to promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing in both countries.”
A promotional video for Deadly Exchange released in late June alleged that exchanges of arms, security technologies and ideologies exacerbate violence and discrimination against communities of color in both countries. The campaign sought to hold the Jewish institutions accountable for their complicity in funding and promoting this state violence.
The campaign was undeniably anti-Semitic libel designed to paint Jews with blood and hold Jews responsible for state violence. And I was not the only one horrified by the Deadly Exchange campaign. The campaign’s promotional video generated a storm of criticism. In a statement on its website, ADL wrote, “The video demonizes both Israelis and American Jews and blames them for some of the worst problems in society.”
Mira Sucharov, a political science professor and columnist for Haaretz, found the video nauseating. “For all my appreciation for tough messaging, saying that Jewish groups are the primary drivers of U.S. aid to Israel and for the scourge of institutionalized racism in America makes me queasy,” she wrote in Haaretz.
In her response, JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson downplayed Sucharov’s criticism as superficial, reiterating the video’s original claims and accusing Jews of rushing to cry anti-Semitism “when confronted with hard truths.”
Nevertheless, JVP deleted and replaced the original Deadly Exchange video in early August. The new video, which JVP characterized as going “one step further,” actually did the opposite, backtracking on some of the more obviously problematic features of the original.
JVP also redesigned some of the graphics. For example, where the original video presented several Jewish organizations’ logos connected by lines to an unidentified institution in the center, the new video’s graphic presented the logos by themselves, without the visual suggestion of a conspiracy.
Unfortunately, a few video edits cannot wash away the underlying anti-Semitism of the Deadly Exchange campaign, or the central claim: that JVP is “exposing” the role of American Jewish organizations in U.S.-Israel exchanges for the shadowy Jewish conspiracy that they are, designed to subvert race relations and to erode democracy and human rights.
While the new video may have toned down the framing of Jewish organizations as the catalyst behind racialized policing and oriented the arguments specifically to a Jewish audience, JVP’s broader campaign did not follow suit.
In one appalling example from this past November, the Deadly Exchange campaign led Nada Elia to inform the readers of a local Seattle publication that their police have militarized “as a result” of “deadly exchanges” funded by Jewish institutions. JVP shared the op-ed and quoted Elia’s claim that Zionism fuels “police brutality, racism, Islamophobia, and a desire for a total absence of accountability here in the U.S.”
In a similar vein, JVP staffer Jimmy Pasch and co-author Eliana Horn wrote in an op-ed for Truthout that when Jewish institutions work with the police, “it’s clear that their leadership is casting their lot with the state, at the expense of people of color and other targeted groups.”
This construct in particular will be eerily familiar to anyone with the slightest historical memory. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt used almost identical language to describe the image of the Jew in the anti-Semitic imagination. “Because of their close relationship to state sources of power, the Jews were invariably identified with power, and… invariably suspected of working for the destruction of all social structures,” she wrote.
So, too, with Deadly Exchange, where JVP identifies Jews with state power, accusing them of working against people of color and social justice movements.
JVP doesn’t even have the truth as a bulwark against the anti-Semitism of its campaign. There is no indication that JVP’s outrage is at all proportional to the alleged harm of these exchanges. In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate suspicions that these exchanges are in fact pernicious, let alone unusual or especially deadly.
For all the talk of death, JVP almost never identifies specific deaths actually connected to these exchanges. The Deadly Exchange videos presented only a single specific example: “The former St. Louis County police chief Timothy Fitch trained with the Israeli military three years before Michael Brown’s killing and the Ferguson uprising.” In other words, in 2011, Fitch attended a weeklong, ADL-sponsored counter-terrorism seminar in Israel with a variety of Israeli security officials. Three years later Fitch retired, on February 1, 2014. Michael Brown was fatally shot several months later, on August 9, 2014, but he was shot by a police officer who worked for a different police department than the one Fitch led. Officer Darren Wilson worked for the Ferguson Police Department, not the St. Louis County Police Department.
Did an ADL-sponsored seminar in Israel have anything at all to do with the police shooting of Michael Brown? No. The allegation that ADL was behind his death is preposterous. And by identifying a Jewish institution with state power and falsely blaming Jews for the killing of an unarmed young black man, JVP is trafficking in anti-Semitism, pure and simple.
Deadly Exchange is not just about Michael Brown. JVP is convinced –- or wants to convince you — that ADL and other Jewish institutions are broadly culpable in the deaths of American citizens killed at the hands of the police. On November 8, JVP activists demonstrated at ADL offices in 15 cities to protest the ADL’s role in these programs. In the lobby of ADL’s national office in New York, JVP staffer Ilana Lerman said the campaign was an opportunity “to really show the ADL that they are causing death. This is real.”
In an act of supreme irony that was surely lost on JVP, the protesters then recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
ADL — the leading American institution in the fight against white supremacy — is not JVP’s only target. JVP often claims for itself a leading role in confronting white supremacy; yet these efforts only show JVP’s abject failure to understand it.
JVP has long considered Zionism to be a form of white supremacy. That absurd conflation became more prominent over the past year with the rise of the “alt-right.” As white supremacists maliciously drew spurious comparisons between Zionism and their desire for a white ethnostate, JVP latched on to them as if they were legitimate.
In August, when white supremacist Richard Spencer told Israel’s Channel 2, “You could say that I’m a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people,” JVP eagerlyshared the quotation with the aim of showing the evil of Zionism. Naomi Dann, then a JVP staffer, penned an op-ed that ran under the headline “Richard Spencer Might Be the Worst Person in America. But He Might Also Be Right About Israel.” In it, she sought to show how Spencer’s comparison of white supremacy to Israel has a “kernel of truth at its core” and “hits a little too close to home.”
In a response in Tablet magazine, Yair Rosenberg laid out the anti-Semitism of Spencer’s claim before turning to Dann. She bent over backward, he said, “to cast his [Spencer’s] demonstrably disingenuous fulminations about Israel as an exception to his hate, rather than an obvious example of it.” And Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward, wrote that Spencer’s comments were offensive enough, but Dann’s were “even more distressing.” She added that the comparison of Zionism to Nazism is an ugly, anti-Semitic syllogism “fueled by a willful disregard for what Zionism and Nazism actually represent.”
There is an important point here: Dann misrepresented not only Zionism but also white supremacy. When JVP and those in their orbit say “white supremacy,” what they usually mean is “racism.” This overuse of the term “white supremacy” is part of a broader trend on the left — one that threatens to minimize anti-Semitism.
The standard definition of white supremacy is not equivalent to racism. Unlike racism, white supremacy is ideological and, in the words of civil rights strategist Eric K. Ward, “anti-Semitism forms its theoretical core.” Yes, white supremacists hate people of color, but “within this ideological matrix, Jews — despite and indeed because of the fact that they often read as white — are a different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated.”
JVP displays willful ignorance of the role of anti-Semitism in white supremacist ideology, as when Cecilie Surasky, then deputy director of JVP, delivered a talk in 2015 that included a stunning act of Holocaust revisionism.
“I believe it is critical to situate the genocide of Jews in a broader context,” she said, “and not as an exceptional, metaphysically unique event. Some 6 million Jews died, but another 5 million people were also targeted for annihilation.”
Yet — and it seems absurd to have to say this — the extermination of the Jews was exceptional. Unlike other races, the Nazis viewed Jews as a parasitic counter-race unyielding in its attempts to corrupt the integrity of racial groups “in order to destroy them both racially and as states, and thereby rule over them.” Jews must be prevented, Hitler declared, “from intruding themselves among all the other nations as elements of internal disruption, under the mask of honest world-citizens, and thus gaining power over these nations.” This is an ideology in which the very existence of Jews is inimical to international peace and security. (It is also an ideology fundamentally at odds with Zionism.)
When white supremacists chanted, infamously, “Jews will not replace us” at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, they were referring to this very ideology. And yet within days of the rally, JVP shared a Mondoweiss article capitalizing on an image of white supremacists from Charlottesville to plug the evils of another supposed form of white supremacy: Zionism.
“It is time for consistency and to end the exception made for Zionist racial supremacy,” the post read. “Progressives across the board must condemn Zionism and cease to offer uncritical support of the State of Israel.”
The message, supposedly opposed to the white supremacists, was one to which many of them would have readily signed their names.
This was only the beginning. JVP’s response to Charlottesville again and again lumped Jews into the same boat as the white supremacists marching for our destruction.
“White Jews need to accept that they are white and that whatever harassments or humiliation they may experience from anti-Semites, they nevertheless dwell under the all-encompassing shelter of white privilege,” said Lesley Williams on behalf of JVP at a Chicago social justice rally held in response to Charlottesville. Williams insisted that “white Jews of good conscience” must “acknowledge that they are not the primary victims of white supremacy.”
Not only was this kind of rhetoric an unhelpful Oppression Olympics, it was also worryingly ignorant of that central core of anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville. Actually, Jews are indeed the primary victims of white supremacy, by definition.
Not for Williams. Jewish institutions, Williams told her mostly non-Jewish audience, “have not only failed to challenge, but in some cases are openly complicit” in white supremacy. Among these institutions, Williams specifically called out ADL.
In her response to white supremacists’ declarations that Jews are to blame for white genocide, Williams blamed Jews for the killing of people of color. Referencing the Deadly Exchange campaign, she strongly implied that Jewish organizations are responsible for the deaths of Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald. Jewish security, she told them, was coming at the expense of communities of color. “American and Israeli police officers share tactics of oppression, teaching each other the aggressive, militarized police strategies which have led to the deaths of African Americans like Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald,” she said, “and Palestinians such as Mahmoud Khalaf Lafy, Omar Ahmad Lutfi Khalil and Siham Rateb Rashid Nimer.”
Williams may have intended to speak against white supremacy, but she was actively spreading the anti-Semitism at the core of its diseased ideology.
And there’s the crux of the matter: Whenever there is a conversation about white supremacy, JVP’s instinctive reaction is to blame Jews. The term “white supremacy” is deployed with the singular goal of tarring its primary victims — Jews — with its stench. The undeniable evil of actual white supremacy targeting Jews is invariably minimized by JVP, while every opportunity to emphasize Jewish wrongdoing is exploited.
This is an egregious inversion of reality that casts a long shadow over anything valuable that JVP might offer.
We need not delve into substantive issues on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to understand that Jewish Voice for Peace has a continual obsession over the real and perceived ills of Israel and Zionism while consistently excusing or minimizing “pro-Palestinian” anti-Semitism.
Thus, when members of the anti-Zionist movement are accused of drifting into anti-Semitism, JVP rushes to defend them almost without fail. When a student leader turned the ALS ice bucket challenge into a “Palestine solidarity blood bucket challenge,” JVP was there to denigrate the resulting outrage as “witch hunts.” When the Chicago Dyke March Collective expelled Jews with Jewish pride flags, JVP rallied to release a statement of solidarity with the group. When evidence came to light that a professor glorified the murders of Jewish civilians, JVP renounced “the suppression of Palestinian voices and false charges of anti-Semitism.”
JVP published an entire book, “On Antisemitism,” to defend the anti-Zionist movement from charges of anti-Semitism. Nearly all the authors of the book, a collection of essays, are lacking in anything resembling expertise in anti-Semitism. Instead, the book “includes the voices of those who are often marginalized in mainstream discussions of anti-Semitism,” such as activist Linda Sarsour and Omar Barghouti, co-founder of boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
“Scaring you with false charges of anti-Semitism is how groups that support Israeli apartheid keep you silent,” in the words of a JVP video. Or, as David Duke would have it, “racist” is “a word they use to silence people who tell the truth.”
But JVP’s eagerness to defend Palestinian activists from serious claims of anti-Semitism is matched only by its eagerness to cast aspersions on the Jewish people and the Jewish state for even the slightest of infractions. JVP staffer Ben Lorber vehemently denounced pro-Israel philanthropist Adam Milstein when Milsten tweeted an anti-Semitic octopus cartoon of George Soros. Lorber was correct that the image was anti-Semitic. But when Carlos Latuff published an anti-Semitic octopus cartoon in response to the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010, the ire of JVP was nowhere to be found. The forehead of the Latuff octopus is emblazoned with an Israeli flag but with a swastika in place of the Star of David, and its tentacles are wrapped around the boat labeled “Freedom.”
It was not Latuff’s first anti-Semitic anti-Israel cartoon; they are his bread and butter. But rather than denounce Latuff, JVP lauds him and his work. One of Latuff’s cartoons is featured on a JVP website.
That JVP invariably finds fault with Jews and ignores the faults of pro-Palestinian activists is a pervasive problem. In another recent example, JVP castigated Stanford University Hillel for hosting Reservists on Duty. The group of Israel Defense Forces reservists, JVP claimed, is “infamous for its virulent Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.” And yet JVP posted the objection to Twitter within minutes of retweeting Stanford literature professor David Palumbo-Liu, who has situated himself in a milieu of virulent anti-Semitism and who has defended terrorism on the basis of false and libelous claims about Israeli actions. Indeed, JVP promotes Palumbo-Liu’s writing on a regular basis.
And all this is in line with other blind spots, such as when JVP shared an article that blamed the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel for exacerbating an inevitable Gaza water crisis, with the caption, “Israel is wrecking the sea and causing more death to the citizens of Gaza.” JVP literally erased the culpability of the P.A. and Hamas to place blame exclusively on Israel’s shoulders — with no consideration for the fact that water-poisoning accusations are an anti-Semitic libel dating to medieval times.
It is as if JVP has a fatal allergy to criticizing Palestinians and their uncritical supporters. Indeed, Jewish Voice for Peace goes so far as to celebrate even those convicted of murdering Jewish civilians.
A full-page advertisement for JVP in the Forward last June included a quote from Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian in prison in Israel because he led Fatah’s Tanzim militia during the second intifada and was convicted for his direct involvement in the murders of five Israeli civilians in three separate terrorist attacks.
Celebrated by JVP even more than Barghouti is Rasmea Odeh, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In 1969, her PFLP cell detonated a bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket on a Friday at 11 a.m., when the store would be at its busiest. Leon Kanner and Edward Jaffe, both Hebrew University students in their early 20s, were murdered. A second bomb, set to injure first responders, was defused seconds before it detonated.
Odeh confessed to her complicity in these attacks. An Israeli military court convicted her and sentenced her to life imprisonment. In less than a decade, however, she was released in a prisoner exchange with PFLP. She eventually made her way to the United States, where she fraudulently obtained American citizenship. Following an April 2017 plea agreement with federal prosecutors, she was stripped of her citizenship and deported to Jordan.
Odeh claimed that the Israeli authorities coerced her confession through torture. But while there is little doubt that Israeli authorities have tortured prisoners, there is no evidence to confirm that Odeh specifically was tortured.
Still, “with love, with appreciation, with gratitude for all that you are,” JVP Deputy Director Alissa Wise welcomed Odeh to the podium to speak at JVP’s 2017 annual meeting. The audience jumped to their feet for a standing ovation, and they did so again when Odeh finished speaking. “We love you, Rasmea,” the audience declared in unison.
With such a record, and this is far from a complete accounting, it is disturbing how ever-present JVP is in the news and social media. But JVP remains a small group that generates a tremendous amount of noise for its size. Despite low membership fees of $18 per year, JVP boasts only 13,500 members, a significant number of whom do not identify as Jewish. This is small even in the limited context of the anti-Zionist Jewish world (over 20,000 anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim live in the town of Kiryas Joel alone).
With its obsession on Jewish wrongdoing, it’s hard not to arrive at the conclusion that JVP is anti-Semitic. As such, it does not merit the attention it demands from us, nor does it merit our defense when it is excluded from Jewish communities and the Jewish state.
Andrew Mark Bennett is a lawyer and doctoral fellow in the “Human Rights Under Pressure” program at the Freie Universität Berlin.