What Really Happened at the GA

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
November 29, 2010

When five protesters from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) disrupted Benjamin Netanyahu’s keynote address at this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the world noticed. The action was widely covered, not just by politically active blogs (Mondoweiss, Jewschool, Jewlicious) or by Jewish and Israeli news agencies (Haaretz, The Forward, JTA, and The Jewish Press), but even by the mainstream secular media (CNN, Fox News, and the Associated Press).

In most of the stories in the mainstream secular and Jewish media, the JVP protesters were referred to as “hecklers”. The most frequently-expressed sentiment about the protest was summarized by Ben Sales, the editor of the Jewish student-run magazine New Voices, who described the JVP protests as “student activism gone wrong.”.

Far from articulating a positive and productive vision for the Jewish community, all they did was yell vapid sound bytes during a public event. They did not speak with delegates. They did not publicly present a plan of what they wanted. … All they did was cause a scene.

Sales suggests that the problem wasn’t just this protest, but JVP’s overall strategy. He recites the liberal mantra,arguing that dialogue—“articulating a positive and productive vision”—would have been a more effective than “causing a scene.” The question of effectiveness though, depends on the stated goals of the group.

What were JVP’s goals in staging this protest—both in the short term and the long term? To find out, I talked with two of the protesters at the event, Matthew Taylor and Rae Abileah, and with the deputy director of JVP, Cecilie Surasky. I wanted to get some perspective on this protest that has stirred up the Jewish community and highlighted a divide that seems to be growing. Who was the target of this protest? Who was the audience? What was the goal?

The Action

First, a brief summary of the General Assembly and the protest itself.

The GA is the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Every U.S. city with a substantial Jewish population has a Federation. A Federation will usually both manage synagogue endowments and family funds and also collect donations directly from community members. It pools the donations it receives and allocates this money among three categories—social services for the local Jewish community (the local JCC, Jewish nursing home, etc); support for other nonprofit initiatives in the local Jewish community; and the Jewish Agency for Israel. One job of the national body is to decide what percentage of the funds received by the Federation systems should go directly to Israel. Because of these strong ties to Israel, it is not unusual for Israeli political figures to speak at the General Assembly. Along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this year’s assembly also featured a plenary speech by Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

At Netanyahu’s talk, the six young people from JVP mixed with the crowd in the 2500+ person auditorium, sitting apart from each other and scattered throughout the very large room. After Netanyahu had been speaking for approximately five minutes, first one protester, and then one after the other stood on their chairs holding banners, and shouting statements like, “The loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel” and “The occupation delegitimizes Israel.” The protests were sequential, and separated by several minutes—giving audience members just enough time to relax and refocus their attention before the next interruption, making each new interruption more frustrating.

Netanyahu, well accustomed to protests, took the protests in stride. The topic of his speech had gone public a few days earlier: the threat of a nuclear Iran; the threat of “Israel’s delegitimizers.” Netanyahu understood right away that the protesters were attempting to undermine the specifics of his talk, and instead attempted to turn the tables. As one protester was led from the room, for example, he remarked,“The greatest success of our detractors is when Jews start believing that too – we’ve seen that today,” he said.

Audience members drowned out the protesters with a swelling chorus of boos, hisses, and chants. Some audience members reacted to the protesters with violent hostility:a few were tackled by members of the audience before the security guards could get to them. One protester, Rae Abileah, had a seat cover shoved in her mouth and was put in a chokehold by a Hebrew school teacher. I later spoke to some audience members who were sympathetic to the protesters views, but uncomfortable with their tactics. Almost no one at the General Assembly itself supported the protest action. Metaphorically, then, Sales was right: this protest did not speak to the GA delegates.

Cause and Effect

What is the measure of an effective protest? If the aim of this protest was to rattle the speaker, or change his views, it failed—Netanyahu seemed to enjoy the ruckus, as if the unpredictability and vulnerability of the protesters only reinforced his power as the voice of reason on Israel. If the aim of the protest was to persuade GA delegates in the room to change their views on Israel, then the protest also failed—the vast majority of delegates reacted with annoyance at best and outright hostility at worst.

Yet what if the target audience for this protest was far beyond the New Orleans ballroom? The day we spoke, JVP protester Matthew Taylor had just posted his own account of the action on Mondoweiss, the left-wing Middle Eastern news site, in response to Sales’s article. Taylor wrote, “My first goal was to get a message out to the larger world… Given the media firestorm that ensued, I believe this tactic was successful. As far as persuading people in the room – this was a secondary goal.”

If JVP’s main goal was to get their message out to the world via mainstream media channels, the action was a success. The event has rippled outward in the blogosphere and the news media, sparking derisive responses by some and inquiry by others. This media impact was not pure luck, but the result of significant preparation on the part of JVP. The group tailored the action to be sensational, photogenic, and mobile, and backed by a plethora of easily accessible online information about the group and their cause. JVP made sure to embed several people in the crowd who were not protesters – i.e., not at risk of being kicked out – to record the whole thing.

In fact, the action was designed specifically to launch the JVP’s newest campaign. Called “Young, Jewish, and Proud,” the campaign is meant to attract progressive young Jews who feel their voices are not heard by mainstream Jewish institutions. In anticipation of media interest, JVP rolled out a brand new website based on this campaign, which they tweeted to bloggers within minutes of the protest beginning.

As a second media action, JVP launched a second website on the day of the protest that spoofed Taglit Birth Right Israel. Called Taglit Lekulanu – in Hebrew, “for all of us” – the website presented an alternate reality in which an organization would sponsor trips for Jewish and Palestinian kids to Israel and the Occupied Territories where they would hear histories of the founding of the Israeli state from both sides while touring refugee camps, the separation barrier, and border crossings. This media action concluded with an humorous update to the Taglit Lekulanu site–a spoof cancellation, citing the retraction of funds due to Birth Right’s inability to support such a truth-telling program.

This level of preparation demonstrates the GA action was not the work of a fumbling fringe group. Judging from their performance, the protesters involved were seasoned activists using a style of activism typical today. And considering the amount of media attention they received, the video documentation of the protest, and the dispersion of those images, the action was indeed well-executed and successful by the standards JVP had set for itself.

Why Not Engage Differently?

Was there no other way, however, to “get the message out to the larger world”? And why not try first to talk with the GA delegates? After all, GA delegates represent the core of the organized Jewish community and direct the majority of funds that flow from private U.S. Jewish citizens to Israel. If JVP is so concerned about the relationship between American Jews and Israel, why not start by talking with U.S. Jewish funders of Israel?

One reason is that, when it comes to Israel, many GA delegates speak a completely different language, not just from left-wingers, but from Israelis themselves. A friend recounted a conversation he had with an older man at the GA. My friend made a mild comment about the occupation and the man responded, “What occupation?”

The word “occupation” is a military term, referring to a situation in which a foreign army has effective control of an area and no final status agreement has been reached. To say there is an occupation in the West Bank is as factual as saying there is an American occupation of Iraq or an Indonesian occupation of West Papua. Kibush, “occupation” in Hebrew, is a term employed by Israelis in all levels of the IDF and in all social sectors.

The exchange between my friend and this man sums up the challenge of bringing together the Jewish community, under its current circumstances, to talk about Israel. It’s like trying to discuss stem cells with someone who believes the world is flat. It’s impossible to discuss this thing called “the occupation” if one side denies its existence.

Of course, the Federations recognize that a significant number of Jews are concerned about the Israel-Palestinian situation. A number of panels at this year’s GA addressed the conflict (and yes, the word “occupation” was used). JVP members told me, however, that even at this level it was impossible to engage a mainstream Jewish institution like the GA. “In terms of the GA, how else?,” said Taylor. “I have yet to hear anyone else present to us a valid idea of what we could have done in the GA.”

Why? JVP is a vocal advocate of the Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. This campaign seeks to economically isolate companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories through boycotts , divestment, and as a last resort, supports international sanctions against the Israeli government as a way to prod the government to move forward on the peace process.

The organization not only promotes BDS, but was part of the coalition that sought to push through a bill in the student senate of UC Berkeley in spring of 2010 that called for the university to divest from “companies that provide military support for or weaponry to support the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” BDS is the latest sticking point in the discursive wars over how American Jews talk and think about Israel. What left-wingers refer to as “divestment,” right-wingers refer to as “delegitimization.” Countering delegitimization was a major theme of this year’s GA, one that came in response to BDS campaigns on university campuses that JVP helped organize. In other words, the GA was indirectly organized around opposition to JVP and groups like it.

Why Bother?

If JVP and the GA are ideologically at odds—if JVP knew there was no chance to influence the GA delegates—why hold a protest there? Why make the GA delegates more antagonistic than they already were to JVP’s point of view? Why create a disturbance?

As someone who was at the protest, and who agreed with at least part of the JVP message, I can report that the protest was disturbing. The protest was sensationalist, disruptive, and overwrought. As each protester stood up, a raw anger—and fear—pervaded the room. One couldn’t help but wonder what drove these people to do what they did. What compelled them to this kind of action?

I asked Cecilie Surasky that question. Why do this? Why disrupt the GA? Surasky told me that they had to go to the GA precisely because the GA represented the organized Jewish community. We went to the GA, she told me, in part to demand that the Jewish community “stop living in a closed and controlled monologue.”

The organized Jewish community works overtime to silence dissent and marginalize our voices. With some significant exceptions, they’ve made it clear that they don’t want to hear from us or our Palestinian allies, and they don’t want anyone else to hear us either. Over the years, so many speaking engagements with Palestinian or supportive speakers have been cancelled or almost cancelled that we finally had to create a blog – www.muzzlewatch.org – to chart all the instances of silencing. Groups like ours have been literally banned from Jewish spaces.

“The fact is that we had to scream to be heard,” she told me.

When Sales writes that JVP should have presented a feasible plan, and engaged in reasonable dialogue, rather than yell “vapid sound bytes,” it is unclear where and how he thinks this would take place. The problem is not that JVP does not engage in reasoned discourse. The problem is that the organized Jewish community is not willing to accept that JVP is a proud, Jewish organization that speaks from a pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian point of view.

Abileah told me that she took part in the protest to “create an alternative narrative to the propaganda about Israel that was being put forth there.” The central theme of the conference was countering the nationwide campaigns on college and university campuses that are critical of Israel (and advocating BDS). The launch of the Israel Action Network, an initiative the JFNA is funding to the tune of $6 million, was a centerpiece of the conference. Taylor sat in on a workshop on the same theme, titled, “Confronting Israel’s Delegitimizers.”

“We’re being tarred and feathered,” he said. He recounted how the speakers at the workshop explained unequivocally that their goal was “to change the conversation away from whatever it is that Israel is doing wrong to ‘these people are illegitimate because they’re trying to destroy the state of Israel.’”

“It wasn’t a panel discussion where on one side, there’s Jewish members of Students for Justice in Palestine, who are working on BDS, and then the other side panelists who talk about why they’re opposed to that. That wasn’t what it is. There was institutional leadership whose goal was to paint Israel in a certain way, to airbrush out the crimes of the occupation and human rights violations, and to attack anyone who challenges Israel’s policies and to claim that they’re a traitor to the Jewish people. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called a self-hating Jew for criticizing Israel’s policies.”

What JVP wants is a civil discussion about the BDS movement. The GA declared in advance that supporters of the BDS movement delegitmize Israel. How was JVP supposed to get their message across at the GA if that same message was being characterized—in position papers, in plenaries, and at panels–not only as wrong-headed but as illegitimate, destructive, and even anti-Semitic?

Where We Agree

Jews may disagree—disagree vehemently—on whether U.S. Jews should be involved in discussions on Israeli policy, and if so, on whether U.S. Jews have the right to use a stick (as opposed to a carrot) to convince the Israeli government to take steps towards lasting peace. There is a growing consensus, however, that U.S. Jews simply cannot ignore the Israel-Palestine situation as they hand over millions of dollars to the Jewish State.

At the conference, JVP members told me, they found that even among younger right-wing Jews there was a recognition of the reality of the occupation and the suffering of the Palestinian people, and a sense of cognitive dissonance between political beliefs and feelings of sadness and guilt. If the goal of the protesters was to create a scene that would reveal the division and silencing in the Jewish community, then they were successful.

The real issue that the protest uncovered is the question of discourse and voices, how the conversation about Israel is framed and who does the framing. The charged emotional reaction of the crowd to the protesters reflects the cultural undercurrent that characterizes the Federation’s core constituency, one that sees activists with the views like those held by JVP as implacably beyond the pale, “traitors,” and “delegitimizers.” This attitude (and its terminology) are reenforced in a closed feedback loop by the institutional policies like those cited by JVP. By keeping their voices out of the conversation, institutions like the Federation render those voices even more shocking when they fight their way in. If those same institutions allowed groups like JVP to sit on panels, then they wouldn’t face obnoxious protests like the one at the GA. If JVP’s message is so patently naive and misguided, that would be clear to everyone in the audience. And if it’s not – then people should be allowed to hear it.


ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com