“Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism -Stories of Personal Transformation”

Video & Transcript
Ariel Gold, Carolyn L. Karcher, Emily Siegel, Rebecca Vilkomerson
Transcript No. 525 (July 22, 2019)

Carolyn L. Karcher:
Thank you so much Mohamed for that very warm and eulogistic welcome. I really appreciate it. I feel incredibly honored to be invited with my fellow contributors to present our work at the Palestine Center, where I’ve attended so many scintillating presentations by brilliant speakers. It’s really an honor to be here.

I’m going to start by giving an overview of our book, Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism-Stories of Personal Transformation. Then, my co-panelists, Emily Siegel, Ariel Gold, and Rebecca Vilkomerson, in that order, will summarize and read extracts from their narratives.

So, I got the idea for this book after hearing a number of people talk about how and why they stopped believing in Israel as a safe haven where Jews could escape persecution, or otherwise put, how and why they stopped believing the solution for anti-Semitism was for Jews to have a state of their own, which they could control and privilege them over non-Jews.

I decided to collect these stories with the aim of producing a book people could use as a vehicle for starting difficult conversations within Jewish families and communities. I chose the format of stories because, I knew from experience, when people tell their own stories — honestly and sincerely — they can open the hearts and minds of others, especially when others can identify with aspects of these stories. This is what makes stories so much more effective than arguments or lists of unimpeachable facts.

I began with a few acquaintances who I knew had really interesting stories to tell. Two of those acquaintances are Emily Siegel and Ariel Gold. Ariel went on the same delegation to Israel/Palestine that my husband and I did in 2013 when she was still a graduate student. Emily and Ariel are on today’s panel. Moving beyond acquaintances, I solicited narratives from people who told personal stories at public events or wrote insightful op-eds, articles, or letters to the editor. I found more contributors when those I recruited spread the word through their network.

To ensure that the collection reflected diverse backgrounds and perspectives, I made special efforts to seek out Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, as well as Ashkenazi Jews. In view of the leading role that college-aged Jews are playing in the Palestine solidarity movement, I worked very hard to enlist them. It was not so easy because by then I was no longer teaching and I didn’t have direct contact with young people, but thanks to other young people I was able to find enough to fill up the chapter, Campus Voices.

I ended up with 40 fresh and deeply personal accounts. The contributors are rabbis, professors of Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies, other academics, journalists and media specialists, lawyers, health professionals, social workers, activists, and recent graduates. They range in age from people in their 70s — like me — to those in their 20s.

I divided the book into five chapters: Rabbinic Voices, Transformative Experiences in Israel/Palestine, Voices from the Campuses, Progressive Values Versus Zionism, and Reflections of Leading Organizers — Rebecca Vilkomerson, the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, is the most leading of those organizers. As you will see, her narrative gives readers an inside view of JVP’s evolution and of her role in guiding it.

In addition to collecting and editing the narratives, as Mohamed said, I wrote an introduction and afterword to put them into a broader context. The introduction provides a brief history of Zionism and anti-Zionism from 1880-1948, and the afterword traces American Jews’ changing attitudes towards Israel from 1948-2018 when I had to turn in the manuscript.

I will now read extracts from the introduction and the afterword. To orient you a little bit to what I’m going to read from the introduction, most people don’t know these days that, actually, Jewish opposition to Zionism was overwhelming and began as soon as Zionism began. This opposition was worldwide. I will concentrate on American Jewish opposition to Zionism, which began — at least as far as I know — became apparent especially right after Britain issued the Balfour Declaration promising to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

“In March 1919, on the eve of the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference, Julius Khan, the German-born Jewish congressman from San Francisco, delivered to President Wilson a statement to the peace conference endorsed by 299 Jews. The document denounced the Zionists for attempting to segregate Jews and to reverse the historical trend toward emancipation. Its signers objected to the creation of a distinctly Jewish state in Palestine — not only because they found it would jeopardize the status of Jews like themselves in their home countries, but because they founded, ‘contrary to the principles of democracy to elevate Jewish immigrants over Palestinian Muslim and Christian native inhabitants.’ They explicitly denied the existence of ethnic ties among Jews and asserted their wish not to see Palestine, ‘either now or at any time in the future’ become a Jewish state. They petitioned, instead, for Palestine to be ‘made into an independent, free, and democratic state that would not recognize any distinctions of creed, race, or ethnic descent among its citizens.’”

This is of course 1919.

“American Jews public agitation against Zionism continued when, in 1922, Congress debated the American equivalent of the Balfour declaration, the Lodge-Fish Resolution, which eventually passed. Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rabbi David Philipson emphasized that ‘Zionists do not speak for all Jews.’”

Does that sound familiar?

“He particularly rejected the characterization of Palestine as the national home of the Jewish people. ‘No land can be spoken of as the national home of the Jewish people,’ he countered, ‘as Jews are nationals of many lands.’ Philipson articulated the philosophy of Reform Judaism, which had repudiated the religious premises of Zionism decades before the birth of the Zionist movement. Contrasting Reform Judaism with Zionism, Philipson wrote, ‘Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political. Reform Judaism is universal, Zionism is particularistic. Reform Judaism looks to the future, Zionism to the past.’

So, I’ll now read the last three paragraphs of my afterword.

“The narratives presented in this book defy stereotypes of both a monolithic pro-Israel Jewish community and a ragtag band of self-hating Jews outside it. On the contrary, they reveal that many who now reject Zionism do so out of deeply held religious values and remain observant Jews, while others take pride in a secular Jewish identity intertwined with their progressive ideals. As diverse as they are, these narratives share some common threads, pointing to five main reasons why their authors have ceased to identify themselves as Zionists.”

“First, those who have witnessed the Israeli occupation firsthand have learned that a state run by Jews, for Jews, and dependent on maintaining a Jewish majority, cannot guarantee either physical safety or spiritual wholeness for Jews. Indeed, that such a state must necessarily be an ethnocracy rather than a democracy.”

“Second, those who have formed warm relationships with Palestinians, whether as college classmates, partners in coalitions for justice, or hosts during trips to the region, have overcome a major obstacle to envisioning a future in which Jews and Palestinians can live harmoniously together as equals.”

“Third, those who have attended Jewish day school, Hebrew school, and Zionist summer camp — especially when they have taken seriously the commitment to social justice fostered by their Jewish education — have, sooner or later, recognized the contradiction between that commitment and Israelis’ cruel treatment of Palestinians. Once they apply it to Israel, the critical thinking that they have been taught to consider the essence of Judaism, they came up against the censorship and silencing necessary to preserve faith in Israel as a democratic haven for the Jews and in Zionism as a central tenant in Judaism.”

“Fourth, as the cases of Professors [inaudible names] indicate, the blatant discrimination that Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews have confronted has exposed the falsity of Zionism’s promises. In {inaudible name], ‘the Zionists’ relation to the Mizrahim carries a history of oppression and deceit, making the inclusion of Mizrahim possible only on the condition that they remain subordinate to Ashkenazi power,’ and ‘hate their identities and cultures.’”

“Fifth, secular Jewish progressives have typically begun to question Zionism when they have discovered that the racial equality and religious tolerance they upheld in the US are not practiced in Israel, and that Israel has joined the US in supporting the reactionary regimes against which progressives fought in Vietnam, South Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.”

“For many, rejecting Zionism has entailed alienating family members, losing friends, and enduring expulsion from Jewish communal spaces. In compensation, however, dissenting Jews have found new spiritual homes in Open Hilal, If Not Now, JVP, and non-Zionist and informal prayer groups that have been springing up around the country. These alternative spiritual communities have been infusing new meaning into ancient Jewish rituals of Kadesh, Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, among others. Liberated from the need to defend the morally indefensible in the name of keeping the Jews safe — a safety that has proved dubious at best, dissenters can now ask forgiveness during Yom Kippur for the crimes committed against Palestinians and prospectively celebrate freedom during Passover for all the victims of Zionism — Palestinians, Mizrahi Jews, and even the Israeli settlers and soldiers whose souls have become so twisted by fighting for dominance. Above all, the rediscovery of the Jewish diasporic tradition of, what Rabbi B Rosen calls, ‘worldwide spiritual peoplehood,’ can provide a foundation for solidarity with the oppressed everywhere that can make Jews better partners with others in the struggle for universal freedom, justice, and equality.”

So, now you have the opportunity to hear the wonderful contributors to this book. Thank you.

Emily Siegel:
So, I’m going to be reading a couple of excerpts from my chapter, which is called, Finding Community and the Right Pair of Glasses. I’m going to start from the beginning.

“I work to encourage, facilitate, and support travel to Palestine/Israel by individuals in the US. These trips take visitors to the historical and religious sites, yes, but also help them dig deeper, learn more about the realities on the ground, truly understand the ways in which the systems of oppression by the Israeli government have affected this holy land, and most important, learn about the creative and resilient ways Palestinians are working to change the status quo.”

“I’ve served as Program Director for Eye Witness Palestine and formerly Interfaith Peacebuilders for almost a decade now, and find myself everyday feeling lucky to be doing something I care so passionately about and knowing that the work I’m doing affects so many. Still, when I was denied entry by the Israeli Border Authority for this exact work in April 2018, I was surprised, and so were many around me. How is it that I spent the year leading up to my twenty-first birthday, enjoying life within Israeli society, studying and partying at Ben Gurion University, and then spent my thirty-fifth birthday held for hours in a detention center in Ben Gurion Airport before being flown back to the US? How did I go from the lowest security threat — welcomed warmly upon arrival at the airport and walked around baggage scans by airport security upon exit because such inspections simply weren’t needed for me — to being labeled a public safety, security threat and banned for at least five years? Is my transformation, that threatening? Is wanting peace with justice scary?”

It took me awhile to write my chapter. It wasn’t easy for me to find the right words. Months went by and Carolyn had to keep nudging me to write because I could never really find time that I felt that I could take away from — what I saw as my real work — to sit and think about myself and how I got here. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t until I was denied entry that I even started really writing this chapter. First, I had the time. I had three weeks with nothing on my calendar. I didn’t have any organizing meetings planned or other phone calls or conference calls, which is what takes up lots of organizers’ times. Also, I think I had a little bit more motivation.”
When I actually looked back at my chapter, I realized that it also follows a little bit of the questioning that I was asked when I was being interrogated at the airport because the Israeli authorities started by asking me about all of the different times that I have been to Israel previously. When they started with my first trip — they stopped about three or four trips in because it wasn’t what they were expecting, someone who they saw as a public safety and security threat to talk about. So, I’m going to take you through a few of the trips that both connected me to Israel but also broke down my views of Israel as a utopian, wonderful society for Jews.

First, I’ll just say a little bit. I grew up here in Washington, D.C. to a relatively typical, very secular Jewish-American family. I went to public-school. My mother was a public-school teacher. So, my community in D.C. was always very diverse. In a lot of places, I was the only Jewish person in my grade — in my Girl Scout troop — things like that. In a lot of ways, I found my connection to Judaism through and as I started connecting with Israel. That really started when I was 16, and I spent six weeks on a teen tour with the Jewish Community Center of the US. We visited historical sites that were important to Judaism. We went hiking and saw the beauty of the country, and we connected to Israel and how important it was for our Jewish community. We never talked about Palestinians. We never saw anything that would even bring up those questions until the end. So, I’ll read a little bit about the end of that trip.

“Finally, with the trip coming to an end, plans were made to ensure our last night was a special one. We were taken to a fancy restaurant in Jerusalem, which happened to be located right behind the Prime Minister’s house. The dinner was elaborate. I remember eating for what it seemed like hours. When we finished and went to exit the restaurant, we were surprised to see a crowd outside. It was a protest. We were told Ehud Barak had just returned from working for peace in the US and that he was about to speak. After some discussion, we were allowed to stay for the speech. While we waited, we were surrounded by people chanting and singing. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I remember feeling a deep sense of belonging, more so than during any other part of the trip. There seemed to be so much hope and excitement in the air. It felt like something I wanted to be a part of. During the entire trip, we had never talked about the current political climate. It wasn’t relevant to the journey we were on, which served to connect us to our community and to the land. That night — my last night in Israel — I returned to the hotel and wrote in my journal, which I still have today, that my life had changed at the peace really. I had to find a way to be involved in the struggle for peace, and I couldn’t see myself going forward without being a part of it. That trip left me with a profound sense of connection to Israel, and a desire to help bring about peace that these people in the rally were calling for.”

I was 16 at the time, and that really changed the course of direction for me. I ended up going to, as you heard, to the University of Delaware and studied International Relations. As part of that, I did eight months in an Israeli university. While I was at Ben Gurion University, I lived with Israelis, and I traveled around going to their hometowns and spending time with their families. I took intensive courses in Hebrew and on Israeli society from an Israeli perspective, but I also ended up taking on a volunteer position. I was the only person in the international studies program to volunteer. It was to help tutor children in English at a Bedouin school, which was an elementary and middle school for a number of unrecognized Bedouin villages that were near Ben Gurion University. I’m going to read an excerpt that talks about that experience.

“The teacher I was assisting pulled up in a blue pickup truck, her husband behind the wheel, and drove a short distance before stopping at the side of the road on the edge of what looked like an endless desert. This was as far as we could drive to reach the school where I would be tutoring. We then walked for 10 minutes to a small building where I would meet about 20 10-year old students eager to sing Beyoncé and learn new songs from me. I would take this journey once a week for about two months. It was only a short ride away but it felt worlds away from the university environment and the Israeli friends I was building relationships with there. ‘

“Those rides allowed me to form a friendship with the teacher I was assisting. I learned about her life in Jordan, and how her parents had ended up there in 1948 after being forced to flee their villages in Israel; how she grew up in Amman, isolated from the rest of her tribe, and returned to Israel because she had to marry within the tribe and knew very few members of it who also lived in Jordan. Moving back to this society from a big city like Amman was hard on her and very different from the independent life she had had growing up. She explained what it felt like to live in an unrecognized village, in a place she called home but which had been robbed of everything that really felt like home. Learning from her and visiting her village prompted me to begin asking questions about the lack of electricity, plumbing, or medical services in an area so close to where I was living in comfort. When my time studying abroad ended, I was determined to learn more, but had few ideas about how to do so, or where to go with my questions.”

So, I returned to my university, and I remember about a month after returning feeling like I really missed my time in Israel. So, where did I turn to? The pro-Israel group at my university. I got very involved, and I ended up — after six months — being elected the president, and was paid to come back to DC — which I always loved — to go to AIPAC conferences, and learned a lot of really important leadership skills from that time. But at the time, my love for Israel but also my commitment with peace, made me want to go back there and learn more. So, I went back and interned at an organization that brings Israeli and Palestinian children together to go to camp in the US. My role in that internship was to interview Palestinian youth who wanted to join this camp, and basically to test their English skills. So, I was really allowed to ask them anything I wanted, and just get them talking.

“So, I decided to ask them each the same question, ‘If you could tell an Israeli anything about your life, what would it be?’ What I heard that day and, in many interviews to come, was heartbreaking, and something I could not ignore. I was told about the checkpoints many of them had to go through to get to school, about life in refugee camps, about the Nakba and what their grandparents had experienced, about their fathers currently in prison. I was told about their wishes for peace, to be able to travel to Jerusalem to pray, or just play with their friends they could no longer see.”

“The stories went on and on, each child spoke to me, I kept asking myself, ‘How I could’ve gone so long without knowing any of this?’ I knew these weren’t made up stories because a 12-year old has no inclination to be disingenuous, and none of them were aware of how little I really knew about what they were telling me. By the end of the first day, after returning to Jerusalem through my first checkpoint, I had a very different understanding of what I was seeing around me. It was as if something had been missing from my education all my life. ‘Why had I never been exposed to the realities I had just witnessed? Was my community, my university, trying to keep them from me?’”

I was lucky enough to return to DC right after that — which was the summer of 2006 — and start an internship that had a really deep effect on me, as well as start my graduate program at American University. Through those two communities, I really had a supportive environment to ask all of these questions, and received sort of the political education that I needed to back up personal experience that I had just had. I was really lucky to have a lot of amazing peers and mentors to help me along. By the time I had finished graduate school, in a lot of ways my political views had solidified, and I really had that knowledge and experience to back them up. So, I’ll kind of end with the last few paragraphs of my chapter, which kind of go back to the beginning of what I talked about, of how writing this narrative allowed me to look at why Israel might see me as so threatening.

“Now that I can look back at this part of my life, I see that this transformation was in some ways natural for me. What I was seeing and learning related to so many things that were happening around me all my life. My parents and grandparents had been involved in politics, desegregation, and labor work. I have grown up within diverse communities, and had learned about inequality. How could I not understand, quickly, and want to learn more when confronted with similar issues taking place somewhere else?”

“Moving away from the people I had become close to through the Jewish community was hard. To this day, I still have to confront questions and arguments from long-term friends I met during the programs I talked about” ‘How can you think the way you do? You lived there. You know the ‘truth’ ’ they would say. I always answer the same: ‘I found the right pair of glasses, which allowed me to see the reality, not just the truth that my community I had surrounded myself with wanted me to see.’ I found a new community. One that resembled the one I grew up in: diverse, compassionate, lively, and incredibly powerful. If this means that Israel now sees me as a threat and doesn’t want me to visit, I’m fine with that.”

“In many ways, I understand why I would be threatening to the Israeli government. I have a background that would lead to conclusions about Israel’s right to be as it is today. Yet my path led me to believe that something very different is possible, is necessary. What the exact solution is, is not for me to define, but I will continue to be vocal about insisting that the world push to bring it about. I still believe in and fight for peace, just as I did as a teenager at the end of that teen tour. However, today I understand that peace cannot come without justice, and that it must bring freedom, justice, and equality for us all, not just some. I’m also proud to proclaim that I am anti-Zionist. As such, I believe solidarity is the true path to safety and liberation for everyone and that it offers the only way for us to fight against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of white supremacy.”

“I still have a lot to learn, and through my work and my friends, find myself doing so every day. I confront my privilege as a white-Jewish-American from a middle-class family almost daily. I try to expand the ways in which I connect the things I grew up around in the US to what I understand about Palestine and vice versa. I continue to read and expand my understanding of oppressive systems and how they affect the world we live in. I learned lessons of resistance and persistent struggle from Palestinians both from Palestine and in the US every single day. Most importantly, I continue to immerse myself in communities that uphold the same values of justice that I hold — communities that I continue to learn from, and that I hope may sometimes learn something from me. I’m grateful for the path I’ve been on and where I ended up. It has created a world around me, that while filled with frustrations and sadness, is even more filled with love and kindness, strength and powerful voices, and most of all, beauty in so many ways.”
Thank you.

Ariel Gold:
So, I’m going to read some excerpts and then I am going to talk from there, sort of where the end of my contribution to this book left off.

“It is Shabbat. I am sitting with a group of Palestinians in a non-violent activist center in Hebron, the most heavily occupied city in the West Bank. Last week, I was assaulted by one of Hebron’s most notorious violent settlers. She screamed at me, ‘Go to Syria, go to Hell, go to Auschwitz.’ She kicked me in the leg and hit me in the face. A few weeks before, one of Israel’s largest newspapers had published an article about me on its front page, proclaiming me a traitor to the Jewish people. How did I, a Jewish woman, a Jewish mother, come to this place?”

“Though both of my parents had been raised at synagogue and Jewish summer camp, neither raised me as religiously Jewish. My mother took me to a couple of new age saders and tashlik ceremonies. My father remarried a Protestant with two daughters of her own. The bright, colorful celebrations of Christmas and Easter easily overshadowed the candles we lit for Hanukkah. My first memory of being in a synagogue was for my oldest cousin’s bar mitzvah. I knew none of the traditions or the prayers. As I came into adulthood, I felt my Jewishness was missing. It wasn’t just religion, but Jewish identity, culture, and history I felt I had missed out on. In elementary school, I had been sent to a separate Jewish craft table while the rest of the class made Christmas cards. I had been told that my nose was Jewish, but Jewish prayers, history, and community were lacking from my life.”

“When I was a child, my grandparents on my father’s side planned to take me to Israel. My grandmother was proud that we were a family of Zionists. She and her parents had come from Poland in the early 1900s. They settled in Utica, New York, where they established a local Zionist organization to raise money for the creation of the Jewish state. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant to have a Jewish state, but I had seen pictures of my cousins when they went to Israel. They got to ride camels, meet our cousins who lived there, and travel around with our grandparents. I was disappointed when my grandparents told me that violence had broken out and it was unsafe to go. Our trip was canceled. As I reached adulthood, I looked in the mirror and realized that I liked the shape of my Jewish nose; I began to spend my Christmas at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy in San Francisco’s Chinatown; I read through Holocaust books and books about Jews hiding during the Spanish Inquisition; I enrolled in Judaic Studies courses in college — Women in Jewish law, Judaism in the Middle Ages, Hebrew 101 — I went to my first high holiday service and fasted for Yom Kippur. Discovering my identity, history, and culture also meant feeling proud of Israel. I watched films about Holocaust survivors arriving in the Jewish state; I attended an Israeli Independence Day fair; I fantasized about moving to the Jewish state.”

So, along with not growing up with a religious background, I was raised in the anti-war movements of the 1980s and 1990s — opposing nuclear weapons, US military involvement in Latin America — so when I did hear the word ‘occupation’ and the word ‘Palestinians’ and something that was happening I knew it was wrong. I knew I opposed it and I began to kind of look for anybody who talked about peace, very much as I think Emily said, but I still didn’t get super involved, and I still hadn’t been to Israel or Palestine, until 2013. With each of the major bombings in Gaza — 2008, 2009, 2011 bombing, and then finally each of those before 2013 — I had gone out into the streets. I took my kids out, and I was horrified. I would stand in front of the television and just sob. At first, I didn’t know what to do with that emotion afterwards, and then I found Jewish Voice for Peace. I started getting involved in JVP, took on leadership of my local chapter, and led a protest for divestment. I was so surprised that the members of my synagogue and the members of my family and some of my close friends didn’t join me. I really didn’t understand. I thought, ‘Well, you know, we love being Jewish, and these things are happening and their horrible, so we should oppose them.’ A friend of mine said to me go and see with your own eyes, and understand that way, So, I signed up for the 2013, then IFPB, now Eye Witness Palestine, delegation with Carolyn and Martin. That was the first time that I saw Palestine/Israel.

“Our flight landed at night in Tel Aviv. All the way from the airport to our hotel in Bethlehem, I pressed my face to the window of the bus. I wanted to take in every sight of the Jewish state. The first place I felt I really belonged. I fantasized about leaving the delegation and staying in Israel to explore. The delegation began with a trip to the Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp. We got off the bus. A few yards away were children around the age of my son, then 12, throwing stones in the direction of fully armed soldiers. None of the stones reached anywhere near the soldiers. The kids didn’t even seem serious about their stone throwing. Within a few moments, the soldiers started shooting tear gas. The gas hit us too. My eyes burned and teared. I felt as if I could not breathe. As the smoke and burn subsided, I continued to cry. I cried throughout the day, and on the bus ride home, and on a phone call that night with my rabbi. I cried throughout the rest of the delegation, and periodically over the next couple of months after I returned home.”

“I recognize now that this was my process of grieving my belief in a Jewish state. Before leaving for the delegation, I had planned an event for a week after my return. A report back on my trip. The location was my synagogue. I think I was still in shock as I walked into the synagogue to prepare to give my talk. I could still see in my mind’s eye the black plastic water cannisters that adorned the top of Palestinian houses; I could still taste the dust and the tear gas. I could still see the face of a man in the village of Jenin whose house I had stayed at; I could still see the keys to his old home he had shown me, the home his family had been displaced from in 1948; I could still see the face of a young girl I had met whose house had been demolished in Jerusalem, her father now lived in a cave as he tried to hold on to their land; I could still see the faces of the soldiers — some of them so young at age 18, they barely had facial hair.”

It took me a long time to grieve, and I think after later getting denied entry I went through another process of grief about this. You know about giving up my hopes in a place that does feel like home to me, and I love being surrounded by Judaism. The land is incredibly important to me, and yet my values are more important. That was my first trip there, and I actually extended my ticket that time, and stayed just a couple extra days and went to one of the weekly Friday demonstrations, and started to form individual relationships with Palestinian families on the ground and march with them, and started to plan my next trip back.

The next time I went back I brought my two children. They were then 12 and 14, right in between my son’s bar mitzvah and my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I felt because I was raising them in the Jewish community that I had found, in a community I felt I had missed out on — that because I knew that they would experience so much indoctrination from Zionism within that community — that they had to see with their own eyes as well really look at the situation. So, we traveled for three weeks throughout the West Bank, staying with Palestinian families as well as spending a difficult evening with my family as well. So, this is the last excerpt I’ll read. I now go back to when I was writing this — writing this I was in Hebron with that situation where I had just been on the front page of Israel Hayom, which is kind of the equivalent of USA Today I think would be the closest equivalent to, a free newspaper that’s delivered daily. My face had been right on the front of it.

“So, a week into my stay this time, the Israeli right wing caught wind that I was here. They launched a campaign to demand that the Ministry of Interior Security deport me from the country. It was covered on the front page of Israel’s most widely read newspaper. I never expected my journey into embracing my Jewish identity would land me at odds with the majority of the Jewish people — at odds with the State of Israel — but there is a saying in the Palestinian solidarity community: ‘Once you see, you can’t unsee.’ My Jewish identity is now firmly interwoven with my work for Palestinian freedom and equality. It is the truest and only way I feel I can behave as a Jew.”

So, when I left that time from the airport, I was informed by the authorities that, in order to return, I would need special permission in advance from the State of Israel. Well, given that I have an extremely Jewish name, Ariel Gold, it was not that difficult for me to obtain a visa in advance, and I went about doing that. So, just about a year ago, July 1, 2018, I landed again in Tel Aviv with a visa already in my passport, figuring, well, maybe I had at least a decent chance of getting in since I did have a visa.

I did not get in. It was an experience similar to Emily’s. I was detained in Ben Gurion Airport for seven hours, during which time they would intermittently scream at me, ‘Who was this person on your phone? Why is the name Arabic? Why do you have Palestinian friends? Why would you come here and tell soldiers that they don’t reflect Jewish values? Why would you put this up on social media? Why would you take an Israeli settler to court?’ — They didn’t say settler — ‘Why would you take a Jewish woman to court? You’re embarrassing your people.’ The woman I had taken to court was the one that hit me. I had to go to court for it to get a restraining order, which I did obtain.

Eventually, they told me that I was being denied entry and upon my denial, [inaudible name] the Minister of Public Security, called me an ‘extreme boycott activist,’ specifically citing that I ‘distributed videos on social media taken in Hebron of soldiers telling them that their actions didn’t conform to Jewish values.’ The Interior Minister, Deri, accused me of ‘taking advantage of my Jewishness to embarrass myself and Jewish people,’ which I found quite challenging given all of the what had felt like a lot of work to obtain my Jewishness.

It’s actually a sign of Israeli racism, and I’m fairly shameful about how long it took me before I finally got denied entry to Israel. So, I had been traveling there once or twice a year, and I am a quite well-known creative activist. At one point, I unveiled a banner in front of the Western Wall reading, ‘American Jews support BDS.’ I have a few arrests, more than one. I think I have three or four arrests inside Israel, inside both the West Bank and in Jerusalem. These arrests in particular caused my passport — each time I would go in — it would automatically red-flag that I had an arrest record there. So, I would always get pulled aside, but in the beginning they would just make me wait a few minutes and then give me my visa — and then sometimes they would question me for a little bit, and mostly I would just say, ‘Oh no, no, no I’m not going to do anything this time. I promise. I’m just here to visit. I promise. I promise. No, no.’ ‘Okay, okay you can go in.’ So, that it took this amount of effort, I could say on my part, to finally get denied from the State is a sign of Israeli racism. It’s a symbol of it.

My denial of entry received enormous coverage in Israeli news and American Jewish media. I was glad that it had a positive impact highlighting the absurdity of Israel declaring itself a democratic state even for Jews only. But at the same time, it’s only a small glimpse into the exclusion policies of Israel. So, while it took me years to get denied entry and an enormous amount of activism — and being in the public about that — many Palestinians in diaspora cannot get in ever. Not even once. Since 1948, the 750,000 Palestinians and their descendants are still not allowed to return to the land. This is despite clear UN Resolutions saying that refugees have the right to return ‘at the earliest practical date’ it says. 71 years later they’re still waiting for that.

I want to talk a little bit about what’s going on here today since then because since that first visit in 2013, as I grieved, I didn’t stop planning work, and I haven’t stopped really for even a day since. It’s become very much my life, and now as the National Co-director for CODEPINK, I continue to plan these actions and continue to work on policy. I think we’re in both a really dark time right now — with such things as the embassy move to Jerusalem, Golan heights recognition by Trump, and the appointing of such vile folks to the US relationship with Israel as Freedman and Kushner. Just in the past couple of days we heard Jason Greenblatt — he and Kushner were on their way now or already back in Israel — that they’ll be traveling the Middle East to sell their bribe of a peace plan. Just recently in the past few days he said that ‘Israel is more the victim than the party that’s responsible.’ He said that he rejected the term ‘occupied’ and said that the word ‘settlements’ is pejorative.

So, that’s the state that we’re in right now, but at the same time I think we’re in this moment where there is an enormous amount of reason to hope. We’ve seen just in the past couple of years, even before the Trump Administration came into power, massive shifts in Jewish-American opinion, even including right now what we’re looking at. Even pro-Israel Jews are largely upset with Donald Trump’s remarks right now invoking Israel in his attacks on The Squad. That I think is a major shift for us, that American Jews are rejecting this idea that to protect Israel is the only definition of Jewish safety. We still know that 80 percent of American Jews vote Democratic and largely oppose the settlements, so I think we’re seeing real changes. We see those changes in the massive growth of Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now, and other organizations.

We have the two new members of Congress — the first time having pro-BDS members in Congress. If anybody is not aware, there was a resolution just introduced last week by Representative Ilhan Omar protecting our right to boycott. So, if you’re not aware of that yet, it’s H.Res.496, and I encourage everyone to advocate for it, and then also to go and see and travel with Eyewitness Palestine, whoever that is, and be a part of the work.

Rebecca Vilkomerson:
Hi everybody, it’s wonderful to be here. I want to really thank The Jerusalem Fund for hosting us. As you can hear from all of our stories — it was emotional to listening to them — that this is really a lot about internal Jewish struggle, communal struggles, and communal conversations. So, it’s not lost on me the generosity and curiosity that The Jerusalem Fund is showing by hosting a conversation like this here. I did also want to take a moment to thank Carolyn, publicly, for conceptualizing this book and pushing all of us to contribute our chapters. It helped me and my process of self-reflection. I have to say I am still dipping into the book and reading essays, and each one I’m finding to be incredibly rich. As a whole, they are really an incredible portrait. I think of myself who’s quite an expert on these kind of transformational stories. It’s part of my job. I’m still learning an incredible amount from it, so I really encourage folks to take a look at the book and buy a copy. It’s really worthwhile.

The chapter that I wrote, I co-wrote it with the Deputy Director of JVP Rabbi Alissa Wise. It’s a little bit different. It’s less personal than the stories who heard from Emily and Ariel because it’s about organizational transformation as opposed to personal transformation. On the first page of our chapter we wrote about that.

We said, “As an organization, being willing to evolve and grow is a part of our DNA, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable and even painful.”

So, as you could hear from the stories that have already been shared, that can also be true on an organizational level. So, the chapter as we wrote it — I think we wrote it by now a couple of years ago — mostly talks about two major decisions that JVP went through in our political evolution. One of them was endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions call, the BDS call, which I will pause and explain for a moment. Also, our decision organizationally to endorse the movement for Black Lives’ platform in 2016. We endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions call in 2015, and we endorsed the movement for Black Lives’ platform in 2016.

While we were writing the chapter, we were also going through an organizational process of considering writing a statement on Zionism for the first time. JVP, when it first started, had not ever taken a position on Zionism. We always thought of ourselves and continue to think of ourselves in a lot of ways as a big tent organization. So, we had thought that a conversation about Zionism would actually be something that would close down conversation rather than open it up. As time went on, there were other reasons and other push and pull factors that made us reconsider that decision. So, we’re going through a pretty intensive process on taking a position on Zionism that I’ll also talk about a little bit as we go along.

I do want to talk briefly about each of those decisions, but before I do that I want to pull out a few of the themes because they’re actually very similar I think in a lot of ways. The first thing is, again, organizationally, I think we really value taking bold political action, but taking bold political action in a way that’s not reckless. What that mostly means is, as a grassroots membership organization, that we do a very thorough internal process before we make a decision like this, so that all the members can be involved in making those decisions and feeling that their voices heard. We have a lot of different constituencies within JVP: rabbis, students, artists, faculty members, teachers, and all kinds of people. They all have different positionalities when it comes to these kinds of decisions — how it affects their lives, how deeply inside they may be into institutional Jewish life or not — so that means they approach these questions differently. So, we did a very intensive process for each of these decisions.

I think one of the things I feel proud of in our time at JVP — and I think some people here know that I’m in a very reflective mood because I’m just finishing 10 years as JVP’s Executive Director and I’m in my last couple of months, so I’ve been thinking a lot about 10 years at JVP — this idea that even as we grow, that we continue to sharpen our politics, and that at the right moment at certain key moments, that we’re willing to spend some of the political capital that we’ve accumulated in order to have an impact and be able to make change in a discussion, or change a public narrative or have an impact on the way that things are being talked about in order to shift a broader paradigm. That’s an incredibly worthwhile thing to do even though it’s also a risk. So, the idea of still being willing to do that and not having an overabundance of caution, but being willing to take those steps even when it’s scary or painful or uncomfortable for us organizationally or for us individually as members has really guided us. Finally, that last thing about shifting the conversation, thinking about what decisions that we can make to change the paradigm of conversation, whether that’s inside the Jewish community or outside it.

So, the first thing is around the BDS call. Just for folks who may not know, BDS is Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It’s a call from Palestinian civil society that came out in 2005. It basically has three main demands: one is the end of the occupation and the tearing down of the wall; the second is full equality for all people inside of Israel, Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the third is right of return for Palestinian refugees. I was living in Israel, as Mohamed mentioned during the introductions, in 2009 when I was just about to become Executive Director of JVP. I had the opportunity to meet Omar Barghouti, who’s one of the founders of the movement, while I was there. The reason I was able to meet him was because I had been doing work on the ground those three years. I was working with groups like Anarchists Against the Wall, Ta’ayush, and other activist groups. So, I had some credibility for having put my body where my thinking was.

So, we had an opportunity to talk, and this was right after the 2009 war. I think the thing that has struck me ever since then is that he was very welcoming. He invited us to be allies, and he showed this remarkable patience, which I found to be true of the Boycott National Committee, the body governing of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. They have been willing to meet us where we are from the very beginning, so we did not at that time, or for several years afterwards, have a position beyond boycotting the occupation. They were thrilled to have us do that and were willing to be patient with us and allow us to go through the process that we needed to become comfortable with the full call. I’ve always been very grateful for that willingness to go along with us in that journey.

I do want to remind folks who have gotten used to JVP supporting the BDS call how momentous a decision that felt like in 2015. We remain the only Jewish organization of any significant size to have endorsed the BDS call, and it meant that we were putting ourselves in opposition to just about every — every — mainstream Jewish organization in the country and internationally.

Like I said, we spent several years deliberating this within our organization, within our membership, and ultimately decided that our values were more important than what the mainstream Jewish community opinion of us was, and that we had faith in ourselves and our ability to continue having the conversations inside our communities, locally especially, even if it was going to make it harder, which we thought it would, if we were to endorse the BDS call.

So, it really was a milestone. I do think that decision did have that impact. It really has changed the way have this conversation about BDS inside the Jewish community and the ways that we have been able to, I think, expand the conversation outside the Jewish community as well by offering a principled endorsement of the BDS call. I’ll just read a very small quotation from the chapter that I think expresses that.

“The process of coming to endorse the call was rooted, not just in our internal process, which was intense and comprehensive, but in reframing our orientation to the movement. Yes, we were building the broadest possible movement of Jews fighting for justice for Palestine, but our obligations lay not just in or to the Jewish community, but to our allies of all races and religions working alongside us, and of course primarily to Palestinians leading the movement for their liberation.”

So, I think that was a very key moment, even though it wasn’t the moment that we took a position on Zionism. I think taking a position on right of return is a way to do that. I think we changed the way we thought about it ourselves in that we weren’t just thinking about the way that the Jewish community thought about us, but we were thinking of our community as a much broader coalition of our allies and partners that we had obligations to, just like we had obligations inside the Jewish community. That was incredibly important.

The following year, in 2016, the movement for Black Lives put out a pretty visionary platform around what was needed in the black community. This was after the Black Lives Matter movement had begun, and it had a small — very small compared to the rest of the document — section on Palestine. Because it unequivocally endorsed the BDS movement, and talked in pretty strong terms about Palestinian rights, pretty much universally the Jewish communal organizations started to condemn or strongly critique this platform.

We were able to make an intervention. We made, in that time, a pretty quick decision that we needed to do an intervention, we need to use our political capital, in order to interrupt that narrative that the ‘Jewish community’ was against this platform. What was particularly important in that moment was JVP had then at that point developed a Jews of Color, Mizrahim, and Sephardi Jews caucus. They felt it was extremely important as people who had identities in both communities to take that on and to remind folks that there were people who are black and Jewish in this particular case. So, that was incredibly important.

As I wrote about it in the book, as Alissa and I wrote about it, I said, “This remains one of our proudest moments. We used the political capital we had accumulated as a growing force in the Jewish community in a moment when it was needed. In many ways, this moment parallels and was an extension of the decision to endorse the BDS call. We knew that there was a significant proportion of Jewish people who wanted to support the BDS call, and that was not reflected by the actions of any Jewish institutions. Yet again we prioritized our values over alignment with the mainstream Jewish world.”

I wanted to pause, before moving on to the Zionism statement, to just talk about the importance of a Jewish communal home and its role in JVP and its growth, and the way that I think all of us who are part of JVP have been able to continue to do this work and the need for it. I think it’s much easier to talk about after having heard a couple of the stories of peoples’ individual transformation. It’s very common for people who are in JVP or in similar organizations to go through a pretty painful process where you basically have to move away from everything that you have been taught as a child — the things that your family expects of you, the things that maybe your rabbi expects of you, the things your friends and other members of your community expect from you. You can’t just move away from that. You have to go to something new. You have to find a community that will embrace you and allow you to be your full self, and to — in this particular case — be Jewish in a way that you feel like doesn’t need to compromise your values.

So, creating a communal and spiritual home for people in JVP is what I think of as one of the most important things that we do that allows our members to sustain themselves in the work. We know this is long-haul work. It’s not something that’s being fixed overnight, that’s for sure. So, if we’re committed to doing it for the long term, we have to provide for ourselves and create for ourselves that kind of spiritual home and communal home, not just a political home. It nourishes us in different ways than political work. I think as all of us have found in this political era, you have to do a lot of — in order to keep doing what we’re doing on various different political fronts — we need to think about how to nourish ourselves in ways that are not just political in order to do that incredibly important political work.

Just to share one quick memory of a time within JVP that was most precious to me was — we have a national membership meeting every two years — at the 2015 national membership meeting, which was about eight months after the 2014 war in Gaza, which was an incredibly difficult time. This intense war was happening, civilians were being killed all summer long, the mainstream Jewish communities were strongly supporting Israel, they were attacking Jewish people who were against the war, and in the meantime this war was happening and we felt we need to be relentless in the ways we are protesting it. Many of us never had the chance to process what that felt like. So, at the national membership meeting in 2015, a number of our rabbis created a ritual where we could grieve, in a Jewish way, the deaths that happened the summer before. As you could tell, even now four years later, I still almost cry thinking about it because it was one of the moments where I felt that the political work that we do and the communal work that we do came together most beautiful and most completely. When JVP’s doing its best work, that’s the work that it’s doing. Again, for ourselves, but also as a way to build the movement and make the movement stronger, and to eventually win.

So, in terms of the Zionism statement, we did a very similar process as we did with the BDS call. It also went on for years. It also involved national webinars where people got on and we had a series of events where we learned about what Zionism was, where we collected people’s memories of what they had grown up with and how their thoughts had changed. We had chapter meetings; we had individual meetings; we had feedback sessions; we had surveys; we did a lot of work to make a decision. We wanted to take into account, like with the BDS call decision, the different constituencies that we had and the different ways that this decision would affect them.

It felt scary, I will say, in terms of our impact on our relationships within the Jewish community, both individually and as an organization, but it also felt worth it because it felt like that was, again, an expression of the core values of our organization. If we weren’t able to speak clearly about what we believe, that we weren’t doing a good enough job and we wouldn’t be able to continue to speak clearly, and also to note that it was very important, especially because there’s been more attacks and more attempts to define anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism.

What is meant is that for Palestinians, it’s impossible for them to just speak the stories of what has happened to them — their oppression and the ways that they’re losing homes, going to jail, losing land, being dispossessed, oppressed, and losing their rights — and even just to tell those stories is being automatically defined as anti-Semitic. So, the idea for us, as a community that’s privileged in this conversation, to be able to say clearly why anti-Zionism is an incredibly legitimate position that many of us share, felt like a way to support and hold the larger movement and to help make sure those sorts of could happen publicly.

Before I do say the last little thing I want to read, the interesting thing about both the Zionism statement and the BDS statement was, again, we were very scared when we did it. It felt like something that took a lot of nerve, and almost nobody left the organization. That’s not to say that there weren’t people who disagreed with our decisions, or who disagreed with the individual wording of the statements, or who didn’t like the decision that we made. But, I think the fact that we took the time to create a process that everyone felt that they were being heard and they got a chance to weigh in, and that we were taking care in the process, enabled people to stay even if they didn’t necessarily agree with what we came up with. So, I feel like that’s an enormous accomplishment.

The last little quote that I want to share, which is not from the book, but is from our statement on Zionism, since we are talking about reclaiming Judaism from Zionism. This is the last paragraph, and if you want to go to our website and read the whole thing, I do think it’s worth reading.

“Rather than accept the inevitability of occupation and dispossession, we choose a different path. We learn from the anti-Zionist Jews who came before us, and know that as long as Zionism has existed, so has Jewish dissent to it. Especially as we face the violent antisemitism fueled by white nationalism in the United States today, we choose solidarity. We choose collective liberation. We choose a future where everyone, including Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, can live their lives freely in vibrant, safe, equitable communities, with basic human needs fulfilled. Join us.”

Thank you.