US JEWISH ACTIVISTS: attract positive press for anti-Occupation message 11Nov10 November 10, 2010

by Wendy Elisheva Somerson  -  Tikkun Daily -  11 November 2010

The five young Jewish activists who disrupted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech in New Orleans earlier this week shouted familiar criticisms of the Occupation. What was unexpected and new was the way the U.S. and Israeli media portrayed the protest, seeming to hear the critiques with fresh ears and unusual sympathy.

The five activists from the Young Leadership Institute of Jewish Voice for Peace disrupted Netanyahu’s speech at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly on Monday, November 8, five separate times. The first activist unfurled a banner that read, “The Loyalty Oath delegitimizes Israel” and yelled the same message until she was escorted out of the hall by security. Separated by pauses of a few minutes, the four remaining protesters each unfurled banners and yelled similar messages while they were escorted out: “Silencing dissent delegitimizes Israel,” “Occupation delegitimizes Israel,” “The siege on Gaza delegitimizes Israel,” and finally, “The settlements betray Jewish values.”

With each additional disruption, some members of the crowd grew increasingly agitated, and attacked the protesters before security was able to lead them out. Appearing uncomfortable, Netanyahu was forced to respond to the protesters at least twice. At one point, he remarked, “Israel is guilty until proven guilty,” and “the greatest success of our detractors is when Jews start believing that themselves. We’ve seen that today.”

As an anti-Occupation activist (I helped found Jewish Voice for Peace’s Seattle chapter), I have been pleasantly surprised by how much press the youth activists’ action is receiving and even more surprised by how much of it is positive. Anti-Occupation activists are often depicted negatively or completely ignored by the press; however, I believe there are at least three reasons for this newly sympathetic coverage:

  • The disruptions of Netanyahu’s speech coincided with Monday’s announcement that Israeli authorities approved construction of over 1,000 Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem.
  • The activists worked from within Jewish community to turn the Jewish Federation’s focus on the “international effort to delegitimize Israel” on its head.
  • Since the horrendous attacks on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, the mainstream media has begun running more critical coverage of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

What seems entirely new to me is how many Jewish and Israeli sources are situating these activists squarely within the Jewish community, quoting them at length, and referencing the poetic “Young Jewish Declaration,” thereby giving a voice to young anti-Occupation Jews.

For example, in an article about the “hecklers,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz included 17-year-old Jewish Voice for Peace member Hanna King’s explanation of why they organized a protest:

We believe that the actions that Israel is taking, like settlements, like the occupation, like the loyalty oath, are contrary to the Jewish values that we learned in Jewish day school … This is not Tikkun Olam. Oppressing people in refugee camps is not Tikkun Olam. And it is a hypocrisy that I cannot abide.

The Jewish press has also emphasized that many other Jews at the General Assembly agreed with the young activists. The Jewish Journalhighlighted the remarks of an Israeli journalist in the audience who asked, “What were they against … The loyalty oath? The occupation? Gaza? Most Jews would agree with them.” The Journal proclaimed that the protesters “sounded like a younger generation of Jewish activists, rather than the often anti-Semitic protesters who make up [the] left-wing anti-Israel movement.” I had to read this line over and over. While I take exception to this characterization of the so-called anti-Israel movement, I was shocked and pleased to see the Jewish media validate these young critics of the Israeli government as legitimate participants in Jewish public discourse. Often these voices are pushed to the margins, but the Journal quotes another General Assembly attendee as saying, “Hey, we talk about getting the younger generation involved in Israel … here they are.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that while many General Assembly participants didn’t agree with Jewish Voice for Peace activists’ method of delivery, they did agree with messages about ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Furthermore, several participants said “they would like such issues that weren’t aligned with the policies of the Israeli government to be discussed at Jewish events.”

Seeing all this positive coverage made me want to find out how the activists themselves felt about their portrayal in the media and more about their engagement in the General Assembly as a whole. I spoke to two of the activists, both of whom I know through the Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP): Eitan Isaacson, one of the disrupters of Netanyahu’s speech, and Stefanie Fox, JVP’s national organizer, who helped convene the Young Leadership Institute that took place for several days before the protest.

Eitan Isaacson, who has joint Israeli/US citizenship, said the Israeli media has been overwhelmingly positive — and mostly accurate — in representing the activists’ message. He was especially pleased with a live reporter from Israel’s Channel Two, who immediately understood their message that “the real de-legitimizers of Israel are Israel’s policies and not peace and human rights organizations.”

Having put much effort, along with other activists, into a spoof website of Birthright, Isaacson was thrilled that Haaretz highlighted the fake Birthright “tour,” Birthright For Us All, which purports to take Jews and Palestinians on a free trip to Israel that includes a visit to the West Bank and the Separation Wall. Isaacson said they created an alternative Birthright trip to highlight the Jewish community’s practice of using free trips to bribe its youth into supporting Israel. When asked why the press has been so positive, Isaacson said:

The time has come for the Jewish community to talk. We didn’t say anything new. We just made the disaffection of young Jews apparent. The press follows power, so if you want to make an impact, you have to follow the power. If it weren’t for the interruption of Netanyahu, people wouldn’t be discussing it.

The press has mostly focused on the Netanyahu interruption; however, Stefanie Fox emphasized that over a dozen young Jews attended JVP’s Young Leadership Institute prior to and during the General Assembly. In addition to planning the Netanyahu protest, they also built connections through formal and informal conversations regarding how to talk about Israel with family members and how to organize within Jewish communities. Through a writing workshop, they wrote “The Young Jewish Declaration” as a collaborative piece. Later at the assembly, they attended panels and workshops where they were pleased to meet other young Jews with similar political views.

Fox and Isaacson were disappointed by the student track that the General Assembly created for young people, which kept them from participating in most of the panels about Israel’s image or future. “The Jewish Federation is reaching out to youth,” Isaacson said, “but not as future or current leaders. They want to redirect any questions they have about Israel into unconditional support.” For example, Isaacson mentioned meeting a Hillel student who came to the General Assembly for a “day of service” in New Orleans, but was overwhelmed by the amount of pro-Israel propaganda.

After the Netanyahu protest, Isaacson talked to several students who felt turned off by the increasingly hostile crowd chanting “Bibi, Bibi” (Netanyahu’s nickname) in response to the protesters’ disruptions. Fox also heard from several young Jews with a range of responses to the disruptions. Many were scared by the crowd’s mob mentality, and many agreed with the message, if not the approach, of the protesters.

I’m thrilled that the next generation of Jewish youth is willing to criticize Israeli policies, that the press is beginning to present young Jewish anti-Occupation activists as legitimate Jewish voices, and that these young Jewish leaders, rooted in the Jewish value of justice, are going to help change the future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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