Autumn in the Bay

On my last day in the Bay Area, I visited an Oakland farmer’s market where protestors have been weekly squaring off over Israel for years. At the appointed hour, both groups assumed their positions on opposite sides of Lake Park Avenue. On one side were about a half-dozen protestors affiliated with San Francisco Voice for Israel handing out flyers and holding Israeli flags. Across the street, about twice as many showed up for a silent vigil organized by Women in Black, an anti-occupation group. Everyone I spoke to, in both groups, was Jewish.

When I asked if there had been attempts to initiate some cross-boulevard dialogue, the sentiment was the same on both sides: Sure, we’re willing, but those folks aren’t interested in talking. As I interviewed one of the few men standing with Women in Black, one of his colleagues rushed over to inform him I was from the "other side." I informed her I wasn’t on either side.

This is the state of intra-Jewish dialogue here. Of the five young Jews who disrupted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the G.A. in New Orleans last month, two were from the Bay Area. They were part of a team of 14 activists brought to the G.A. by the Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that has been vilified for its supposed self-hatred and alleged willingness to consort with Israel’s enemies.

The situation has become so polarized and inflamed that several individuals informed me they feared for their physical safety. One of the JVP protesters in New Orleans, Rae Abileah, was placed in a headlock by another member of the audience. In May, the Berkeley home of Tikkun magazine editor Rabbi Michael Lerner was vandalized. And last month, in an apparent response to the disruption in New Orleans, several activists with ties to the pro-Israel group Stand With Us interrupted a JVP meeting in Berkeley (they insisted they were acting on their own). One of the activists deployed pepper spray against a JVP member, though the exact circumstances of the action are in dispute.

I met with Abileah on an overcast morning at her office in San Francisco’s Mission District. Abileah’s day job is as a national organizer for Code Pink, a women’s group that got its start opposing the invasion of Iraq, but she has a long history of community involvement. She’s been to Israel with a Jewish youth group and prays at San Francisco’s Mission Minyan. She told me she went to New Orleans, in part, to assert her place within the Jewish communal conversation. I heard that sentiment repeatedly, and judging from the admittedly small sample of folks I’ve met here, its sincerity is hard to quibble with, even if one questions the propriety of disrupting a prime minister.

I wanted to pin down exactly what these folks believe and, I hoped, understand where all the hostility was coming from. It wasn’t easy. JVP is a study in nuanced positioning. They don’t endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (though some of their supporters clearly do), but they do support boycotting goods made in the settlements and companies that "profit from Israel’s occupation." They don’t call themselves Zionist or take a position on a two-state solution, but they support "self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians." They oppose anti-Semitism, but their supporters have been known to show up at rallies where speakers flirt uncomfortably with anti-Jewish sentiment.

One Bay Area local who was with JVP in New Orleans and teaches a class on Israel at a Reform synagogue in Oakland told me he supports self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as BDS, a pillar of which is a call for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes — a policy which, if implemented, would overwhelm Israel’s Jewish majority. Try parsing that one.

Sorting this all out takes time and most people don’t bother trying. Most Jews — scratch that, most people — don’t do nuance. They don’t have the time or the inclination or the capacity to wade through the various pronouncements coming from the alphabet soup of left-wing groups, or their various official and unofficial spokespeople, to understand the distinctions among them. Instead they draw rough lines in the sand, lines which invariably place JVP squarely on the side of Israel’s detractors. And when JVP’s supporters don’t firmly distance themselves from the more hateful stuff, they find themselves tarnished by association.

I asked Rob Kanter, one of the Women in Black protesters, about a rally I had heard about where, in Arabic, some chanters had called for "Death to the Jews." Kanter, who opposes the idea of a Jewish state, said nobody should talk like that, and that it was unfair to tar everyone with the views of a minority. Nonetheless, he told me he understood where that kind of anger comes from and that it should be understood in context.

"Expressing it vocally," he said, "is not expressing it violently."

Jean Pauline, an older woman with deep lines in her face, sat in a director’s chair facing the traffic on Grand Avenue. In her hands was a black sign opposing military action against Iran. I asked her if she felt that Israelis had any legitimate reason to raise concerns about a nuclear Iran. She scoffed.

"They’re lying," she said angrily. "They like bombing. I’m a Jew. I know what I’m talking about."

This kind of talk triggers something deep and visceral in the Jewish psyche. One can try to qualify it, but ultimately I suspect it goes beyond reason. This sub-rational quality to discourse surrounding Israel is part of what gave Obama trouble with some Jews during the campaign season in 2008. He said all the right things, but as several observers noted at the time, something deeper was operating. Jews wanted not just to hear the expected rhetoric, but to know that he got it, that he felt it in his kishkes, in his gut. Obama is quite far from the JVP folks on the question of Israel, but this sort of gastro-uneasiness explains, I think, some of the intense opposition to both of them. 

When Jews explain away calls to violence, minimize or outright dismiss the threats facing Israel, and can stand with those who are cavalier about the preservation of Jewish life, they show that their kishkes are immune to Jewish insecurities. Maybe that reflects superior psychological or spiritual health, but it makes the stomachs of other Jews even more unsettled. JVP’s refusal to support the existence of a Jewish state places them outside the consensus of the organized Jewish community. But I think what generates the intense fear, hostility and — at times — violence, is this aggravation of a sub-rational anxiety about Jewish survival.

It can’t be because of the particular positions JVP takes. As at least one observer at the GA noted, most of the folks in the room in New Orleans agree with what the protestors were saying: that the occupation is corrosive to Israel’s moral health in the long term (not to mention the Palestinians’ in the short-term); that settlements are an obstacle to a sustainable resolution of the conflict; that the loyalty oath is a blemish on Israel’s democratic character; that human rights should be guaranteed for all — these are not propositions with which most American Jews would be quick to disagree. When a guy like Ali Abunimah sets those themes to soaring rhetoric about equality before the law, universal rights, and our shared humanity, the effect is nearly irresistible.

Which is one of the reasons we’ll likely be hearing more of this. Another is that JVP is growing fast — it’s expecting to raise between $700,000 and $750,000 in 2010, up about 40 percent from two years ago — in a recession where the rest of the Jewish philanthropic world is working overtime just to stop the hemorrhage.

JVP has a long and relatively thoughtful position on why the organization won’t endorse a particular political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. But in failing to come down clearly on the side of a two-state solution — the only solution that would preserve a Jewish democratic state — they reject what it’s fair to say is the central secular principle of post-Holocaust Jewish life. When I pushed several activists on this question, they looked uneasy and chose their words with care. Abileah conceded that there is "room" for a Jewish state that acts in accordance with international law — not that there should be such a state.

Without taking that position, the Jewish left implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) aligns itself with people like Abunimah, who, despite his lofty evangelism, can’t bring himself to express even the barest recognition of the moral and historical legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty. "I am not a Zionist," he said repeatedly in our interview in New Mexico, as if only a Zionist were capable of such recognition.

Even the self-described liberal, progressive Zionists can do this. That’s precisely why they’re so eager to see a resolution of the conflict (and why the BDS crowd writes them off as apologists). And why they still, if tepidly, speak out on human rights issues in Israel. They are desperate to preserve the Zionist project.

It’s also why the same conditions of communal entry don’t apply to the right. You may think groups that defend the settlements are evil, law-breaking and/or detrimental to Israel’s security, but there’s little doubt whose side they’re on. One can argue that these groups are actually harming Israel’s long-term interests. But this isn’t about arguments. It’s about kishkes. If it wasn’t, the folks in Oakland would probably be having a weekly coffee klatch after the protest.

Should non-Zionist Jews be automatically disqualified from membership in the collective Jewish conversation? Lots of Jews have opposed Zionism, and for various and not necessarily consonant reasons. Even today, Agudath Israel of America, the haredi Orthodox umbrella group, has a similarly nuanced position on the rightfulness of a Jewish state.

So even by the standards currently operating, it’s hard to see why non-Zionism alone is sufficient for exclusion. But given the deep anxieties aroused by JVP’s non-endorsement of statehood, it’s hard to imagine much changing in this regard. Which is unfortunate, if only because, so far as I can tell, there’s more common ground here than one would expect — particularly about what kind of state Israel should be: one that guarantees equal rights for minorities, that protects religious pluralism. A state that is, in a word, liberal.

A few minutes after I left her office, Abileah e-mailed me. She was thinking about Chanukah and sent me links to some events in the city she thought might interest me. An unrelenting activist, she was also thinking about our conversation.

"I have visions of what such a state could look like, what it could aspire to be, some of which are captured in the Israeli equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, but very few of which are present in the current state," she wrote. "My main interest is that human rights and equality prevail. I believe this is an interest shared by many people my age, and I hope the tent of mainstream Judaism is big enough to hold us, as G-d knows I have put a lot of heart and work into that tent and feel I belong in it."

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