On the way to the Climate Strike rally in De la Guerra Plaza, I was struck cold by a flurry of Jewish Federation flags flying in downtown Santa Barbara.
To a casual observer, the flags, blue and white, the same colors as the Israeli flag, whispered an innocuous Happy New Year greeting at the start of Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish religion.
For Jews like myself, however, who are members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the flags reflect the Jewish Federation’s shilling for Israel, a colonial settler state that bestows “birthright” citizenship on any Jew in the world who wants to emigrate to Israel, while denying citizenship and the right of return to nearly a million Palestinians who fled in fear for their lives in 1948.
This is the date the Palestinians mourn as The Nakba or catastrophe—an ethnic cleansing I never learned of in Sunday school or at synagogue—when Palestinian villages, over 500 according to Palestinian historians and Israeli historians alike, were depopulated — or destroyed, burned to the ground, their villagers massacred to make way for a Jewish state.
To some Jews, Israel offers a safe ancestral refuge for a persecuted people, six million, including my relatives, murdered in the Holocaust. To evangelicals, Israel marks the spot where Jesus in the Second Coming ushers Christians to heaven while Jews who refuse to convert burn in hell. To white supremacists like Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville neo-Nazi leader, a self-described “white Zionist” who wants a homeland for white people, Israel is the model for ethnic cleansing.
The Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara, according to its 2017 tax return, contributed $37,550 to its umbrella organization, Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) that “partners with Israel” and in 2016 spent a million dollars lobbying U.S. state legislatures and Congress to suppress debate through laws aimed at criminalizing support for the boycott of Israel. Such laws label supporters of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) anti-Semitic—a claim backers of BDS reject as defamatory and dangerous in its potential to shut down activists on university campuses, including UCSB where Students for Justice in Palestine erected a mock Israeli apartheid wall.
For the Jewish Federation, support for Israel and indoctrination into Zionism begins as young as five, with the local chapter’s support for a pro-Israel Jewish day camp, Camp Haverim, in Carpinteria. The chapter lists a $12,024 donation to the camp that hosts “Israel Day” to decorate the gym with posters of Israel and Israeli flags.
The Federation also donated $20,000 to UCSB Hillel, which employs an “Israel Engagement Associate” and advertises a free winter Birthright Israel trip. Besides funding Birthright trips through Hillel, the local Federation contributes directly to Birthright, donating over $15,575 in 2017.
What’s wrong with a free trip to Israel?
Plenty, according to “If Not Now” members, young Jews walking off the trips to protest Birthright’s erasure of the Palestinian experience. In several days of touring Israel and the Dead Sea, located in the Israeli occupied West Bank, Jews who quit the tour in 2018 said they met zero Palestinians.
Quite remarkable when you consider one in five Israeli citizens is Palestinian, over 4 million live under Israeli military occupation, 1.8 million struggle under lock down in near uninhabitable Gaza, 2.8 million face Israeli checkpoints, home demolitions, and indefinite detentions of children in the West Bank.
All of this comes at great cost, with Israel joining the U.S. as one of the largest arms exporters in the world during a climate crisis in which war and the weapons industry constitute the top emitters of greenhouse gases.
After seeing the Jewish Federation flags on State Street, I visited the chapter’s web site, where Israeli flags are front and center. The Federation conflates Judaism, the Jewish religion that emphasizes mitzvahs or good deeds, with Zionism, the belief in a Jewish state on land in which expelled Palestinians have no right to exist.
This conflation is political, but also deeply personal, as it suggests all Jews support the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
We do not.
As a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization with 15,000 members, 250,000 supporters and contributors and 70 chapters, including Jewish Voice for Peace Santa Barbara (on Facebook), I endorse the call issued by Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest and sanction Israel until it ends its colonization of all Arab lands.
I am not asking the City of Santa Barbara or the Santa Barbara Downtown Association, which sponsors the popular flag program, to prohibit the Jewish Federation from participation.
I believe in the First Amendment.
To present a countervailing opinion, however, I ask the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara to perform the following mitzvahs:
° Remove the Israeli flags from your website and withdraw from the National Federation until it ceases its attacks on free speech and challenges Israel as an ethno-state.
° End your sponsorship of Birthright Israel trips that ignore the pain and suffering of Palestinians.
° Support the “One Democratic State Campaign” to envision Israel not as an ethnocracy or Jewish state but as a secular democracy, a safe refuge for all persecuted people, with constitutionally protected equal rights for everyone in Palestine, where a truth and reconciliation commission airs grievances of Palestinian victims of Israel’s state-sponsored violence—blockades, massacres, indefinite detentions—as well as Israelis targeted by Palestinian rocket attacks and suicide bombers, and where Israel, the colonizer, in an historic apology and commitment to decolonize, pays reparations to Palestinians for demolishing their homes, torturing them in prison and denying them access to clean water.
This Jew would proudly fly those requests on a State Street flag.
Marcy Winograd is a member Jewish Voice for Peace, which will show the film “Defamation” on Thursday, October 17, 2019, 7-9:30 p.m., First Congregational Church, 8 Padre Street, Santa Barbara. RSVP on Facebook.