Substance & Tactics at JVP (Response to Mira Sucharov)



Mira Sucharov is one of the best writers in North America on the left about the contemporary politics in and about Israel and Palestine. Having moved off from a liberal Zionist (2 State Solution) point of political view, she responded sharply to an initiative pushed by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) called “Deadly Exchange.” The initiative accuses American Jewish institutions for directly aiding and abetting violence against people of color in this country by sponsoring junkets involving U.S. police and their counterparts in Israel. Many, including this blog, were startled to see in an initiative video mapping out the red lines connecting a nefarious white Jewish cabal colluding against black and Palestinians lives, and accused JVP of slipping into anti-Semitism. For her part, Mira penned an op-ed here at Ha’aretz English pointing out that neither JVP nor the leaders of the initiative have provided any information about the content of these police-professional exchanges or any other evidence to make stick incendiary claims that these exchanges have any substantive connection with the ongoing reality of police brutality in the United States. (Note: it is my practice at the blog to refer to those I consider friends by their first name.) As fallout, Mira, who’s politics are probably now more in alignment with JVP than not, has been accused of trading in racism and the racist erasure of Jews of color. The back and forth has been vicious, and encouraged by supporters and leadership of JVP, particularly on social media.

In an exchange on FB, Mira wanted to suss out my views about Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization about which I have been consistently and bitterly critical for some years now.  Mira, who has herself come in for a considerable amount of abuse from JVP, suggests that it is possible to separate [1] matters especially of radical ideological and political principle from [2] the tactics of self-righteous posturing and moral bullying that many of come to identify with the organization.  Ideally, this analytic distinction should be possible. But my own sense is that while these two “things” might indeed be distinct, they tend to congeal in practice. An extreme political stance lends itself almost inevitable to zero-sum political tactics. Conversely, the lack of that zero-sum stance among self-professed radicals suggests that such posturing obscures more pragmatic political wiggle room under the surface of the radical appearance.

Mira asked, “ So I guess I’d ask (in light of my subthread above — or maybe that was in the previous post — about trying to separate policy from tactics) is what do you have against JVP — is it a difference of values/beliefs/opinion on Israel-Palestine? Or is it a dislike of their tactics?”

I wrote back to say that my criticism of JVP has always concerned the following:

[1] Starting with the substance of the world-view, I’m a liberal Zionist, or a progressive Zionist. (I don’t really care about the label). JVP used to be agnostic about Zionism, but JVP has largely turned itself into an anti-Zionist organization. That’s their right to stake out whatever political position, but it puts them at the margin of and in stark oppositional relations within the Jewish political mini-verse. Of note, however, is the special animus that liberal/progressive Zionists have attracted on the anti-Zionist and now intersectional left. It’s one thing to attack rightwing Zionists who make an easy target, whereas liberal/progressive Zionists hold out a vision which to liberals and leftists might in some way recognize as semi-palatable. You see this animating contempt for liberal Zionists on display at places like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifadah.

[2] JVP has increasingly resorted to the tactics and language of “targeting” these people. This was the language used by organization leadership to characterize “actions” taken to disrupt a LGBT contingent, including a group of queer orthodox Jewish youth marching at an Israel Day parade in New York. It’s reflected in the abuse heaped on A Wider Bridge, a group of American Jewish LGBT creating bridges with the LGBT community in Israel, the support of JVP for expelling the three marchers at the Dyke March parade in Chicago, and the cyberbulling of Mira in the wake of  a critical piece that she wrote about a JVP initiative that come dangerously close to and slip into anti-Semitism. Compare in contrast the Jewish activist IfNotNow, whose actions never fall into these kinds of traps, and who always punch up in their political actions. The tactics out in the world and online at FB and Twitter by JVP are bullying tactics increasingly and consistently directed at liberal Zionists.

[3] JVP is non-transparent. Not really a peace movement, JVP is a Jewish voice for Palestine, i.e. a Jewish movement doing Palestine advocacy.  In good faith, there is no reason why re-branding JVP as such should preclude its members from arguing the claim that [1] Palestinian interests do not contradict Jewish  interests and in fact coincide and are coequal, that no interest can ever be secured at the expense of another, but that [2] given the asymmetrical nature of the relationship, Palestinian rights and interests enjoy a distinct priority and privilege. Alas, the group’s mission statement on its website is more or less vanilla with an ambiguous, even subtle support of a Palestinian right of return to 1948 Israel. But signing on to the PACBI BDS call means that JVP has committed itself to an unambigious call for RoR, which by most projections would transform Israel into Palestine and Jews into a minority ethnic-religious community. That’s a perfectly coherent notion about which one can argue this way or that. But what rights would such a minority Jewish community would enjoy, especially if the roots of that community are envisioned as “essentially” settler-colonial, and now “white supremacist? Would Jews in such a compact have a public-political interest or a liberal-private one, perhaps simply “religious,” or not even that. The Palestinian cause as taken up on the anti-Zionist left is a social justice movement, not a peace if peace means bridging genuine differences between two opposing sides in a conflict whose resolution requires meeting the interests of both parties. About any of these questions, there is no public transparency at JVP.  If all Zionism means to them is settler colonialism and now white supremacy, they should say so. If members are of mixed mind, then the organization is incoherent about a fundamental ideological point.

[4] The attacks against liberal Zionists and perceived enemies from the liberal-left are an index to an affective pressure at JVP that tends towards anger bordering onto and slipping into hatred, not constructive engagement. From  a more mainstream perspective in the Jewish community, JVP is coming increasingly to resemble a sectarian movement, which in the history of religion, tend towards violent rhetoric. This mood sits at and appeals to the temper of rage and self-righteous fury with the established order, and the desire to rip up and restructure it down to the bitter root. On the other hand, one should not fail to observe that JVP is not just tapping into the mood out there on the intersectional left. JVP is now itself an intersectional Jewish movement. JVP has now brought intersectionality as an internal Jewish question/dynamic to the fore, and with it all the anger and rage that goes into that expressive style as queer Jewish radicals and JOC’s go after the white Jewish and liberal mainstream on matters of substance including but not limited to Israel and Palestine. This is relatively new territory and needs to be addressed carefully, no matter where one stands on the issues. On the basis of limited experience, however, I think I can say with some confidence that JVP does not own a monopoly on questions of common concern regarding social justice, economic inequality, peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, Black Lives, LGBT rights, Islamophhobia and Jewish-Muslim outreach. What  JVP brings to these complex phenomena is the politics of purity, moral posturing, and boundary policing that has engulfed large segments of the radical and intersectional left.

[5] Lost on no one is that the politics of identity and the genuine urgency of creating safe and inclusive spaces is double-edged. JVP claims to oppose anti-Semitism, but they don’t really. When they tag anti-Semitism, there is an almost reactive tendency not to give an inch, immediately and in the next breath to blame its spread on Israel while insisting that people allegedly hyping the problem are responsible for either the problem or for the problem going unchecked. JVP is quick to justify expressions and actions on the anti-Zionist fringe and now intersectional left that exclude Jewish people on the basis of narrow litmus tests regarding Israel and Zionism that work to separate “good Jews” from “bad Jews,” the very same thing about which people complain regarding demands placed upon BLM activists or Muslims as a class. There’s a lot of anti-Jewish rage out there on the anti-Zionist and intersectional left. Had JVP had the courage to stand up to it and work to create bridges, they’d have won a lot more respect in the Jewish community. The fact that they don’t speaks volumes. They now actively contribute to making Jews unsafe

In short, I see the impetus behind Mira’s initial query about splitting off the question about substance and tactics. But I think there is a point where form and content, style and substance meet or resonate. I would submit that the bullying tactical mode at JVP is an index reflecting something seriously wrong with the substance of the political platform and vision, which, in relation to Israel and Palestine, is one that would rejects the principles of self-determination and mutual recognition for two peoples. Several friends and colleagues have observed online that JVP is not the movement that it once was when they joined up, a long time ago, already, when the group first formed. Others who have been sympathetic are losing or have lost sympathy over the course of the last several months or so. There was once upon a time when JVP was agnostic about BDS that allowed for a more free form of give and take. JVP changed when it drank the BDS Kool Aid. The tactics have simply followed suit, reflecting an extreme political orientation premised as it is on the eradication of Zionism.

Regarding the future of Israel and Palestine and the end of Zionism, there is no clear vision, not from the right, left, or center. In power for so many years, the center right in Israel is no closer to its goal of “managing the conflict” with the Palestinian people, while the center left remains hapless and the far left even more so. Or the country is reeling towards some kind of violent, apocalyptic break, a new Nakba, or the country is simply slouching toward a one-state entity with a Palestinian majority. Any such one-state future will have been the work of the Jewish right in Israel, intent on occupying territories, not of the anti-Zionist left, which offers little prescriptive vision moving forward or effective capacity to mobilize politically moving forward.

The truth of the matter is that people who in this country care deeply and consistently about Israel and/or Palestine are very few in number.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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