Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organization which opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression now has a chapter in Santa Barbara, formed just this month. One of our first actions was to purchase a booth at the upcoming Jewish Festival, taking place in Oak Park, April 29, so that we could bring to the Jewish community JVP-SB’s message of “Israelis and Palestinians. Two peoples. One Future.” We were very pleased to be accepted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, the festival’s sponsor.
We’re not naïve. We know that JVP’s perspective on U.S. policy toward Israel isn’t embraced by all Jews. But we also know that many in our community do wish for a change and welcome conversations about more than one way to think about Israel.
Unfortunately, we won’t have the opportunity to bring this conversation “to the Jewish table,” because the Federation has withdrawn our invitation to participate in the Jewish Festival. Some of the reasons given to us include: “JVP is too controversial”; “There is no occupation in Israel”; and “The Federation retains the right to not have organizations we do not like.” Which is exactly why we should be at the metaphorical table.
The Federation does a great deal of good in Santa Barbara. Of that, there is no doubt. “However, many of us in the Jewish community have been silenced because we criticize Israel for maintaining its 45-year Occupation, allowing Jewish-only settlements to grow, and discriminating against Palestinian Israeli citizens. JVP and other critical voices are marginalized because it is preferable to maintain silence rather than engage in uncomfortable discussions.
Those of us with dissenting viewpoints are growing in numbers daily because the injustices in the Occupied Territories, and persistent discrimination within Israel, are too great to ignore, and because the Palestinian/Israeli issue is not just about Jews. It is also about stability and security for the world.
There are certainly other unjust regimes in the Middle East, but Israel claims to be a democracy, and can continue its behavior only with strong U.S. financial and political support. JVP asks the question, is it democratic to destroy more than 400 Palestinian villages with their olive groves, as was done, beginning in 1948, during the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”)? Is it democratic to evict Palestinians and demolish their homes under the pretense of security, or in the service of ethnic purity, practices that continue to this day? In short, is it democratic to discriminate against the Palestinian people?
It is in the Jewish tradition to pursue justice and fairness. We are acting in that tradition by asking disquieting questions. We are asking the mainstream Jewish community to open its heart and mind so that there can be frank and open discourse about Israeli and American policy, both among Jews and within the larger American public. Judging by the response to our chapter formation we know there are other Jews, and allies, in our community who want to hear and discuss multiple perspectives, not just one. It hasn’t been easy for us to come out as Jews who criticize Israeli and U.S. policy, but it is our Jewishness that makes it possible, and we would be untrue to ourselves and our culture if we didn’t take action.
Forty percent of the Jews in the world live in the U.S. If we are denigrated as “self-hating Jews” and if non-Jewish critics are tarred as anti-semites, then where is the robust democratic debate on this issue? As Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” These are questions that force us to look inside ourselves. We at Jewish Voice for Peace are offering the Jewish community an opportunity to look within and ask some difficult questions. There is no better time to ask than now.
This op-ed has been amended slightly since its original publication. The Santa Barbara Independent apologizes for any confusion.