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No Longer Looking Away

by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 25, 2014 · 2 comments


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.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Danny September 29, 2014 at 11:49 am

The Anti-Defamation League lists Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) among the top-10 anti-Israel, Israel-delegitimizing organizations in existence:
Also it is critically important to read the NGO Monitor’s analysis both of the JVP sources of funding and their anti-Israel tactics:

JVP, a deceptively misnamed organization if there ever was one, is one of the most virulently anti-Israel organizations among the numerous misguided anti-Zionist propagandizing organizations around the world. During the July/August Gaza war, I watched as the local chapter members assembled here in Albany on Lark & Madison flashing banners and broadcasting sensationalized, slanderous slogans condemning Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East with freedom of the press and freedom of worship, for everything from genocide, to being a terrorist state to being an apartheid state to being child murders. These accusations are so far from the truth and so devoid of any documented evidence as to bring into question who are the people and funding behind JVP. Meanwhile I have seen no protests or shouting by these same people or any other other anti-Israel organization regarding the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Syria at the hands of Bashar Assad or the barbaric killings by ISIS or the murders by Hamas of Gazans simply accused, without trial, of collaboration or speaking out against Hamas’s dictatorship.

Even the author of this article propagates any number of falsehoods about Israel’s history and its self defense against missiles from Gaza being lobbed into civilian Israel territory. The author omits/denies how Hamas demonstrably and intentionally forced civilian casualties among Gazans by using their civilians, including children, as human shields. Hamas leadership has even publicly admitted their use of civilians and buildings such as hospitals and apartment towers in this way. The author says that it’s not true that all Palestinians do not want Israel destroyed but omits that these same Arabs elected leadership, especially Hamas but also the PA, who declare over and over again that the destruction of Israel and the return of the land of Israel to Arab control is the ultimate goal of their hostilities. The author uses the phrase “after 60 years of occupation” which is totally untrue as modern Israel was only founded 66 years ago on the tiny sliver territory that the UN, the international community and Jewish people accepted as the 1947 partition…… only to be immediately attacked by 5 Arab nations the next day. Is the author implying that even that tiny sliver of land of the original modern Israel is “occupied territory”???? There is so much misinformation and propaganda that has been spread about Israel, its founding and its actions to survive that uninformed and Israel-bashing people have accepted as factual without serious analysis or credible historical perspective. It is sometimes overwhelming to try and get the truth out when there is such a morass of knee-jerk anti-Israel bias both by Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. Do not be fooled by the inclusion of “Jewish” or “pro-Israel” or “pro-peace” in the names and slogans of some of these organizations. The fact that there are misguided, anti-Israel Jewish people has been a part of our Jewish history from time immemorial. Even the prophet Isaiah warned: “M’harsayikh u-maharivayikh mi-meikh yeitzei’u, “Your destroyers and ravagers shall come from within you.” (49:17) Israel does not lack for enemies, and Jews should not add to them.

The key point is the need for people to truly educate themselves about the history of modern Israel, from the Zionist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the present; to read credible historians like Efraim Karsh of Kings College, London; to take seriously the several wars of annihilation over the last 66 years that were initiated by the Arab countries; to read and take seriously the genocidal and murderous declarations and charters of the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Islamic militant organizations. Israel and the Jewish people have learned over the past century that they do not have the luxury of ignoring such hate-filled, anti-Semitic declarations. I say: Shame on this author and Shame on Jewish Voices for Peace for endangering Israel and the Jewish people by enabling and furthering the aims of these genocidal terrorists and militants through ignoring the entire historical context in which Israel finds it necessary to constantly defend itself against annihilation by its neighbors.


Andrew September 30, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Ms. Vilkomerson’s racist organization, JVP seeks the elimination of Israel. JVP’s lies continue unchecked in this article. It is actually Hamas that launched rockets indiscriminately into Israel to kill as many civilians as possible. Hamas also built more than 30 terror tunnels to kidnap and kill Israeli civilians. Israel has very few allies and is the only Jewish state in the world. The Palestinians are supported by 22 Arab countries (many of whom are extremely wealthy)and more than 60 Islamic countries. JVP and Ms. Vilkomerson exploit the suffering of the Palestinian people for their own economic benefit.


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