The American Jewish community is now at a crossroads. The recent Israeli elections, following the latest war on Gaza by just six months, highlighted the deep divisions between the liberal values held by a majority of American Jews, and an increasingly right-wing Israel that systematically suppresses the rights of Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.
The two of us found our first political homes in opposing oppressive Israeli policies with J Street, after witnessing a piece of the everyday inhumanity of the Occupation while traveling in Israel/Palestine. The more we learned, and the more we experienced, the harder it was for us to reconcile Jewish social justice values of full equality and freedom with what we saw happening to Palestinians under Israeli control.
Eventually, frustration and disappointment with J Street’s political model prompted us to seek a home for our activism elsewhere. For us, it was the lack of tangible action to put pressure on Israel to change, the opposition to Palestinian-led strategies to achieve justice, and the irreconcilability of Jewish social justice values of full equality and freedom with the liberal Zionist claim that Israel can be both an equal rights democracy and a state that privileges Jews.
Jessie’s gradual disillusionment was cemented after witnessing the brutality of an IDF raid in Balata refugee camp during Operation Brothers’ Keeper and coming home to tepid emails from J Street about opposing divestment from Israeli occupation.
Liza left after grappling with the idea that preserving a state with a Jewish majority also depended on enforcing the exclusion of Palestinians through displacement, military occupation and discrimination.
For each of us, this political journey led us to get involved with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, with the understanding that working simultaneously for liberation for Palestinians from Israeli military occupation, and liberation for Jewish Israelis from an increasingly militarized, anti-democratic, and racist society required external pressure.
Social movement history has proven that people with different self interests, and indeed with different tactics, can work towards the same goal. But J Street’s desire until now to remain inside the mainstream pro-Israel camp has caused them to actively work against Palestinians and their allies who are using nonviolent tactics to bring about the end of the occupation.
By fighting BDS, J Street has allowed itself to be get distracted from its goal of opposing the Occupation, instead partnering with right-wing groups like StandWithUs who consistently fight human rights activists.
For the most part, we share the same social justice values and we want the same things that J Street wants: an end to the Occupation and an end to discrimination and violence against all the people in Israel and Palestine.
But, we believe that full liberation and safety for both peoples must be based on political equality and human dignity, not demographic segregation. And this liberation will not happen without outside pressure.
As young American Jews who care deeply about the future of all people in Israel and Palestine, we cannot sit on the sidelines and wait for the next election cycle, or a false peace process, while Israel hurtles along an increasingly racist and oppressive path. And far from fearing losing an older Jewish community’s acceptance, we have chosen to create our own, one that honors our Jewish history and values while working alongside Palestinians fighting for their rights.
The reelection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a blatantly racist and anti-peace platform proved that only external pressure will bring Israel closer towards peace. Netanyahu’s actions of the last few weeks has highlighted for many what has been true for a long time, that the Israeli government is not serious about making peace. Thus far, limited words of criticism from elected leaders and from American Jews have done little to change this trajectory.
And while we are heartened by the fact that voices of leadership are considering changing the US approach to Palestinian statehood at the UN, that is not enough. Now that the Prime Minister himself has come out against two states, it is clear that repeating the same peace process framework is fruitless. It’s time now to consider, not just carrots, but also sticks that will encourage Israel towards a just peace agreement with Palestinians.
We are glad J Street seems to be embracing new forms of concrete actions to change policy, and we hope that they will stop using their credentials as a peace organization to fight other non-violent pressure tactics, namely boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection shows that Israel is not willing to change on its own. This is why we are calling on all people who value freedom and equality to join Palestinians and their allies in supporting all forms of non-violent pressure on Israel.
Liza Behrendt organizes with the Boston chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Jessie Lowell is a graduate student at Brandeis University and a multi-issue activist.