by Elisha Baskin and Donna Nevel on May 8, 2013
Recent debate and discussion in Jewish activist spaces have raised questions about the role of “Jews identifying as Jews” in work for justice in Palestine. These conversations have led us to think more deeply about this question. In this piece, we explore the particular significance, strategically and otherwise, of the relationship to being Jewish and how we enter this work, and how we can be meaningful and genuine partners in the struggle for justice.
As we enter this work as Jews for justice in Palestine, we do so with a firm commitment to principles of self-determination, liberation, and the right of return; to the leadership of the Palestinian movement and its call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions; and to support for the organizing going on in Palestine itself.
Being Jews standing in solidarity with Palestinian movements for justice and equal rights means, for us, bringing our full selves into the movement with great thought and care so that we can be genuine allies and partners with the Palestinian movement for justice. It means always trying to act with intentionality and integrity so as to participate in liberatory processes, rather than recreate patterns and systems of oppression. To be strong allies and to organize effectively, we must consider our positionality and our different forms of privilege as Jewish individuals and as part of Jewish communities. That includes being aware of how voices become silenced and marginalized; whose voices are being elevated; whose interests are being served; and the ways in which structures, including those within the community(ies) we are part of, have facilitated and perpetuated injustice and continue to do so. It is not a call to becoming paralyzed or inactive, but to act with principle and consistency.
For many of us who are Jewish activists in this work for justice, we begin with our own stories as a foundation from which we make connections and build together with other communities. We do not view integrating who we are as Jews into our work for justice as a distraction or as an impediment. In fact, we all come to this work, not as empty vessels, but with rich histories and experiences.
Different entry points exist from which we can and do become involved with our collective work as Jews standing in solidarity with Palestinians. Jews who choose to work for justice in a specifically Jewish framework (like, for example, as part of Jewish Voice for Peace) do so for a variety of reasons, including 1) as a political or strategic response (e.g., challenging Israel’s claim that it speaks and acts in the name of the Jewish people and wanting to challenge the highly funded, organized Jewish establishment and lobby in the US); 2) because they feel inspired by Jewish traditions of social justice or are deeply connected culturally or religiously, which is a manifestation of the identity they want to bring to this work; or 3) because it feels like the most genuine way to play a role in this movement. For some, more than one of these often intersecting (or other) points of entry and engagement, are true.
For many of us, working in Jewish organizations sometimes also includes directing our work within the mainstream Jewish community (for example, holding programs on BDS within Jewish institutions or, as the Open Hillel campaign has done, challenging Hillel’s exclusion of groups that support BDS). This work is by no means what everyone chooses to do. But we believe making room, as part of our solidarity work, to work within those spaces–and to push to open up access for pro-Palestine organizing–can be a potentially valuable component of making change that, for example, breaks the normalization of a pro-Israel politics and encourages resistance to US foreign policy on Israel and Palestine.
An important question raised about Jewish-identified work for justice and the way it’s played out relates to the potential dangers of “exceptionalizing” the Jewish people. The notions of being a chosen people, or Jews having a particular premium on social justice, are often accepted as a given or as part of our historic legacy. We agree that it’s essential to strongly challenge these notions of exceptionalism. But we also believe that exceptionalizing one’s community is not the same as, and should not be conflated with, valuing one’s culture and identity and that which one most admires and respects from within one’s history. Caring about one’s community is not the same as privileging it. As Joseph Nevel (Donna’s father) often said, “Feel proud of, and connected to who you are, but never ever think you’re better than another human being or community.”
Another concern that comes up in relation to Jews organizing in solidarity spaces is how to address issues that arise when Jewish allies, even inadvertently, try to take over movement spaces to process emotional and social realities they face when beginning to align themselves politically with justice for Palestine. As part of our solidarity work, we believe one of the values of having some separate, intentional spaces amongst Jews who are unlearning years of what they have been taught and undergoing a process of conscientization is to offer support that both strengthens our broader organizing and doesn’t try to turn Palestine solidarity spaces into support groups for Jewish activists.
Finally, in all this work, we are committed, in how we act, to reflecting the world as we want it to be. We believe deeply—even as we challenge one another in critical and often difficult ways—that we must be kind and open to there being multiple entry points into, and points of engagement with this collective work. We must also not neglect to address head-on the impact and consequences of the oppression and exclusion and various relationships to privilege that exist amongst different Jewish communities, including in social justice circles, on the basis of, for example, ethnicity, class, gender, and formal education.
We believe that those of us who are Jewish participating in this movement need to be both rigorous and generous so as not to limit possibilities for meaningful solidarity work for justice, limit the humanness of our political work, limit the endless connections we can make. We can build, for example, from the kinds of liberatory and transformative processes Paolo Freire–“reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it”– writes about so powerfully.
We greatly believe that the focus is and must be about justice for Palestine and that this work has many dimensions to it. We hope that some of these questions and reflections might resonate with others and can help deepen and strengthen our thinking and actions as we participate in movements for justice.
Elisha Baskin, an activist and scholar, and Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator whose work is rooted in Participatory Action Research (PAR) and popular education, have had both similar and different entry points and relationships to this work. Elisha is an Israeli citizen who feels that Israel has hijacked her Judaism. She was never able to be comfortably Jewish in Israel and to participate in Jewish ritual because of the deep conflation of Jewish practice and Zionism/nationalism/patriotism/militarism and other oppressions. In the U.S., she feels able to reclaim her Jewish identity, which JVP and other radical Jewish circles have supported and helped make possible and which she believes strengthens her work for justice and enriches her life as a whole. Donna is an American Jew who participates in Jewish groups as part of her work for justice in Palestine because she thinks it is a meaningful way for her to be an intentional and accountable ally and because it feels true to who she is. She also wants to be part of groups challenging the grip that Israel and the Jewish establishment have on the Jewish community’s politics.