Portuguese / Spanish / English

Middle East Near You

American movement for equal rights and justice in Palestine gains momentum

As the New Year approaches and we step back to reflect upon 2013, it becomes increasingly obvious that cracks are emerging in Israel’s most special relationship.

While the occupation of Washington continues uncontested, more and more Americans are carving out other spaces of resistance that challenge the hegemony of the Zionist narrative and confront Israeli occupation and apartheid. These efforts are starting to rupture the deeply entrenched political and ideological frameworks that enable the US government to spend vast public resources to help Israel oppress the Palestinian people, without any public backlash.

There is still an extremely long way to go, but there is no doubt that Zionists in the US and Israel are beginning to see that the writing is indeed on the wall.

Last week, members of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions by a margin of two to one. While largely a symbolic move, the decision generated widespread media coverage debating the issue from both sides, with mainstream newspapers like the New York Times calling it a “milestone achievement” for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement launched by Palestinian civil society in 2005.

The newspaper quoted a leading Israeli scholar who said: “It’s almost like a family betrayal… It’s very grave and very saddening that this [has happened], particularly so in the US.”

In response, Brandeis University and Penn State University at Harrisburg have withdrawn their membership of the ASA. Last month Brandeis also suspended its relationship with Al-Quds University after the Palestinian university’s condemnation of a student rally deemed offensive to Israelis was, well, not quite condemnatory enough. Subsequently, a group of Brandeis faculty involved in the partnership issued a report in favour of Al-Quds President Sari Nusseibeh’s handling of the matter and the university’s ethics board has recommended that it should resume the academic partnership.

Only days after the ASA endorsement, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association announced that it was following suit. Last April, the Asian American Association was the first to respond positively to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

But it is not only American professors who are mobilising increasingly in solidarity with Palestinians struggling for equal rights and justice. The number of American students who are taking an active stand against occupation and apartheid is also on the rise.

Although students continue to face harsh punishments for standing up for Palestinian rights, as I have previously reported for MEMO here and here, Al Jazeera English noted earlier this month: “A sort of backlash to the backlash is gaining momentum. Over the past couple years there has been an upsurge in pro-Palestinian human rights activism on college campuses across the US.”

For example, despite being targeted by the California State Assembly, which passed a resolution in August 2012 equating criticism of Israel with “hate speech”, students in California have continued to organise events critical of Israeli rights abuses and campaigns in support of BDS.

In November 2012, the student council at the University of California at Irvine voted unanimously in favour of the college pulling its investments from Israeli companies. This year, student councils at the Universities of California at Berkeley, Riverside and San Diego also voted to divest.

Challenging the hegemony of Christian Zionism, US churches are also proving to be spaces of resistance against occupation and apartheid. In May 2012, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church decided to call for an explicit boycott of all Israeli companies operating in the occupied Palestinian territories. The following July, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to boycott all products from Israeli settlements and in May of this year, the United Church of Canada launched a campaign to support a boycott of all products produced in the settlements.

A small space of resistance even emerged in Hollywood this year, when the 86th Academy Awards nominated Five Broken Cameras for an Oscar. The celebrated film offers a first-hand account of Palestinians’ nonviolent protests against the separation wall in Bil’in, in the West Bank.

At the same time, more and more American Jews are becoming disenchanted with an apartheid state that refuses to end its occupation of Palestine and continues to build illegal settlements, all the while claiming that it is acting on behalf of Jewish people around the world. Two recent developments, in particular, stand out.

Earlier this month, the Hillel chapter at Philadelphia’s Swarthmore College sent shockwaves throughout the Zionist community when it declared in an open letter that it would not comply with its parent organisation’s policy of censoring speech critical of Israel. Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is the largest Jewish student organisation in the world and a staunch supporter of the State of Israel. With an annual budget of tens of millions of dollars, every year Hillel organises travel to Israel for thousands of students and participation in various training programmes in the US; it also coordinates national tours for pro-Zionist speakers to speak on college campuses.

The Swarthmore letter is worth quoting at length: “Across the country, Hillels’ suppression of the freedom to speak and believe things that are not narrowly pro-Zionist are the direct result of Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines. Right after stating in their ‘Political Pluralism’ section that they object to excluding ‘students for their beliefs and expressions’, they declare that they ‘will not partner with, house, or host’ – in other words, they will exclude – groups and speakers that espouse certain beliefs about Israel. These contraband beliefs include denying the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and supporting boycotting, divesting, or sanctions against Israel. They also ban those who ‘delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.’ No further explanation is provided to clarify these guidelines, but their ambiguity has done nothing to ease the stifling effect they have on individual Hillels’ freedoms of speech, belief, and association.”

The letter continues: “Therefore, we choose to depart from the Israel guidelines of Hillel International. We believe these guidelines, and the actions that have stemmed from them, are antithetical to the Jewish values that the name ‘Hillel’ should invoke. We seek to reclaim this name. We seek to turn Hillel – at Swarthmore, in the Greater Philadelphia region, nationally, and internationally – into a place that has a reputation for constructive discourse and free speech.”

The letter concludes that Swarthmore Hillel declares itself to be an Open Hillel. “All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist. We are an institution that seeks to foster spirited debate, constructive dialogue, and a safe space for all, in keeping with the Jewish tradition.”

The Open Hillel movement was launched in November of last year after the Hillel chapter at Harvard University refused to host an organisation supportive of the BDS movement. However, Swarthmore Hillel is the first chapter to actually declare itself to be an Open Hillel.

Responding to this declaration, Hillel International President Eric D. Fingerhut insisted that no organisation that welcomes “anti-Zionists” would be permitted to use the Hillel name.

The second development worth noting is the audience response to a “community discussion” last week that was organised by the 92nd Street Y in New York City on the question of “What it means to be pro-Israel in America”. Founded in 1874, the 92nd Street Y is a well-known cultural and religious institution in Manhattan that served initially as a Jewish association for men. Today the organisation is guided by Jewish principles, but serves people of all races and faiths.

As Haaretz blogged, “based on the course of the debate, ‘being pro-Israel in America’ means ideological chasms, professional rivalries, frayed nerves, inflamed tempers, one of the participants storming out in a huff and then exchanging barbs and insults on the internet with the moderator.”

The participant who stormed out was John Podhoretz, editor of the right-wing Commentary magazine and a former presidential speechwriter. He left after being booed by the audience when he attacked Jeremy Ben Ami from J Street, the liberal Zionist lobby in Washington, for contextualising the ASA decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions by pointing out critically, “Israel’s own policy of continuing occupation” and its ill treatment of Palestinians. Shortly after Podhoretz left the event, he blogged that the audience was “hostile”.

A tiny but vocal group of far right supporters of Israel has also been holding monthly rallies outside the 92nd Street Y to protest against its hosting of “Israel-haters working to destroy the Jewish State”.

In fact, Israel’s problem with Americans Jews may be even worse than we know. In October, a report commissioned by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs found that 30 per cent of American rabbis who were surveyed said that they are afraid to reveal their true opinions about Israel, with the majority of these rabbis supporting more progressive views than they feel they are able to express. The survey also found that these progressive-leaning rabbis are experiencing a much greater fear of reprisal and censure than those rabbis who hold more hawkish views.

In what may be regarded as a sad irony, there are so many American Jews who oppose Israel these days, that some in the US solidarity movement have started rightfully to critique the over privileging of Jewish voices in the struggle for equal rights for Palestinians. After all, our inspiration has always been the resilience and courage of Palestinians themselves.

In any case, the growing resilience of Palestine solidarity activists, not only in the US but also around the world, coupled with the rising disenchantment among American and international Jewry, is definitely creating fear and desperation in Israel.

The Associated Press reported earlier this week that more than 100 Israeli leaders gathered with Jewish-American counterparts in Jerusalem last month “with a daunting mission: to save Jewish life in North America.” AP pointed out that Israeli leaders are increasingly aware that they “cannot ignore the alienation that many Americans feel over perceived religious intolerance, Israel’s construction of West Bank settlements and the continued control over millions of Palestinians.”

The wire service described how participants at the meeting, which was organised by the Israeli prime minister’s office, spent two days brainstorming ways to bring young “unaffiliated Jews back to their roots”. Adding that the gathering was part of a campaign “to strengthen Jewish identity among young Jews and solidify their connection to Israel”, AP noted that some 120 representatives from Jewish organisations around the world, mostly from North America, and a number of Israeli government ministries pledged to formulate a plan by next year “to address assimilation”.

In addition to spending $125 million on bringing Jews around the world to Israel, the government has also formed a task force to reverse the disenchantment trend.

Other efforts that illustrate the growing sense of desperation in Tel Aviv include a related initiative of the prime minister’s office to establish covert units at Israeli universities to engage in online public diplomacy, or hasbara. As Haaretz reported in August, “A diplomacy group will be set up at each university and structured in a semi-military fashion.” Those students who head each group are to receive full government scholarships while other students are paid stipends.

When a government has to pay its own youth secretly to counter the increasingly negative image of its country abroad, pro-justice activists can take courage in the struggle in the year to come. Despite it being a long road ahead, it really does look like the beginning of the end.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

Show Comments
Show Comments