JVP’s Rebecca Vilkomerson debates for BDS at J Street’s annual convention

JVP executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS yesterday at J Street's annual convention

JVP executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS yesterday at J Street's annual convention

Today at J Street’s annual convention, my friend and one-time debate partner Rebecca Vilkomerson, who is the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, made the case for BDS against liberal Zionist opponents Ken Bob of Ameinu and writer Bernard Avishai. I was not at the conference, in part because I am speaking at Rutgers’ Palestine Awareness Week later today. But I have heard that the session was packed; according to Vilkomerson, a sizable portion of the room was with her.

Because it wasn’t videotaped, I have reproduced the full text of Rebecca’s opening remarks below. Note that she identified BDS as a Palestinian-led movement that forms the international backbone of the Palestinian non-violent strategy and is “part and parcel of the Arab Spring sweeping the region.” Building on these points, Vilkomerson questioned why there were no Palestinian members on the panel (the BDS movement’s mastermind, Omar Barghouti, has been mysteriously denied a visa to enter the US to promote his book about the boycott). In the end, however, she was grateful to J Street for simply hosting the discussion while the rest of the Jewish establishment — including Ameinu — demonizes BDS proponents and tries to change the subject.

Remarks to Jstreet BDS Panel

February 28, 2011

Rebecca Vilkomerson.

I just want to take a moment in appreciation of J Street for including this discussion at the conference.  It is the most important conversation, in my mind, that we can have at this moment, and I thank you for having it.

I want to take a moment to make sure we all are clear about what BDS is.  BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It’s a Palestinian led, globally active, non-violent movement in support of equality and freedom for the Palestinian people.

As Kathleen mentioned, I lived in Israel from 2006 to 2009.  My husband and children are Israeli, so obviously I am deeply invested in what will happen in Israel.  I actually learned about BDS largely through Israeli activists and friends, who had increasingly come to support it, especially in the wake of the Gaza War. I find it to be the most hopeful strategy that we can engage in—a way to act on principles of equality and human dignity that I value as a Jew and as a human being.

In the last month or so, three events, in particular, have reinforced this for me.

1) The Palestine Papers revealed that the “peace process,” which has been going on for 19 years now, is bankrupt.  The U.S. is not an honest broker, Israel is not willing to compromise, and the PA is too weak to fight for Palestinian rights, willing to make enormous concessions –which still were not considered enough by Israel.  Throughout this almost 20 year process the settlements have grown enormously, creating de facto bantustans that make a two state solution hard to imagine.

2) The U.S. vetoed a resolution at the U.N. which was an exact reflection of its own foreign policy.  The U.S. is simply unwilling to use any of the many tools it has at its disposal to force Israel to stop violating international law, to stop violating human rights, and to stop violating U.S. policies.  Obama stood in Cairo and said that settlements must end—and yet he has proven that in this case he believes only in words, not action.

Frankly,  we need to be realistic about the current power dynamics.  The strategy of relying on governments –our government—to bring about change on its own has shown itself to be completely ineffective.

3) In contrast: the Arab uprisings. Many of us watched in awe as Egyptians took to the streets in their millions, to non-violently call for freedom, democracy, and dignity.  Now from Bahrain, to Libya, and Yemen, thousands more are doing the same.  Last night, Mona Eltahawy’s call for solidarity for Arab struggles for freedom and dignity got a standing ovation.  The Palestinian BDS movement is part and parcel of the Arab Spring sweeping the region, and deserves the same respect.

So on the one hand we have government-driven processes that have shown themselves to be corrupt and hypocritical, and on the other we have a movement rooted in civil society, in principles of non-violence, which draws on the long and noble history of BDS efforts against apartheid, for civil rights, for many other righteous struggles.  These are the tools of our heroes—Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez.

BDS is an opportunity for each of us, personally, to act on our values.  To express, directly, our support for freedom, democracy and dignity.   It can create—is creating—the pressure that will eventually be much more successful than current lobbying tactics have been to create a true change in U.S. foreign policy, to create the conditions for negotiations that are between equals.

I want to highlight just one company that is being targeted in a global boycott campaign as an illustration.

Veolia is a French company, one of the largest in the world, which manages transportation systems, waste systems, and water treatment around the world (including here in D.C., where it manages the bus lines).  It operates a land fill in the West Bank (using Palestinian land and resources to serve the settlements), runs bus service to the settlements on road 443, which was built on Palestinian land but is only open to Israelis, and had a contract to build and manage the light rail to connect West Jerusalem to the settlements around it, effectively annexing Palestinian territory.

Veolia has been the target of a boycott and divestment campaign worldwide , and as a result Veolia has lost literally billions of dollars in new contracts.  In June, 2009, Veolia announced that it was withdrawing from its contract to build the rail, though it is still managing its implementation, and continues to lose contracts because of it.

The campaign against Veolia is a great example of why BDS is so exciting and so effective:

  • It works.
  • It educates people about the way corporations are implicated in the settlement project and in building and expanding the infrastructure of occupation
  • It enables people to take action once they understand what is happening—Veolia is in local communities all over the country, collecting garbage, operating buses and trains, and all over the country people are organizing campaigns  in their own cities and campuses to build the pressure on Veolia to stop profiting from the Occupation.

This is just one example.  One of the strengths of the BDS movement is that it is both loose and broad, all sorts of campaigns and targets fit within it, depending upon local priorities and conditions.

BDS movement is inspired by a call that was put out by Palestinian civil society in 2005, but it is a very diverse movement of acts of nonviolent resistance occurring every day in ways big and small.

Some just do it quietly by bypassing settlement goods at the store-which is common in Israel among my friends and family, and I would guess in this room. Israeli artists boycott performances in Ariel, and U.S. artists, like Steven Sondheim, Tony Kushner, and Mandy Patinkin, support them. Some picket in front of stores, or ask artists not to play in Israel, or like JVP, focus only on companies that profit from the Occupation.

We have groups in Israel like Boycott from Within, that have been supporting the full Palestinian call, and groups like Peace Now that ask supporters not to invest in the occupied territories.. Here in the U.S., Meretz USA, recently put out a statement supporting BDS in the occupied territories.

It really varies and not everyone agrees on every campaign. But we all have in common a belief that Israel must abide by international law, must be a true democracy for all of its citizens, and cannot continue to subjugate another people.  That stand for democracy and freedom is what motivates the BDS movement, just as it motivated the movement for civil rights in the U.S. in the 1960s, and what we are seeing today in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

One of the beautiful things about watching those movements unfold has been watching people under dictatorial regimes who suddenly found the courage to take their governments, and their lives, back.  The BDS movement strives to fulfill these same basic human needs and in the same spirit of non-violence.  After years violent attacks on civilians that were rightfully condemned, how could we not respect and encourage these non-violent means, that bring together Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists in common cause?

It is very encouraging to have this conversation in a Jewish space. It’s great that J Street has rejected the attempts of right wing groups to split progressive Jews from one another, and is not following the lead of groups like Hillel (and Ameinu), that are creating political litmus tests for inclusion in the Jewish community. Its exciting to be able to sit together and have this discussion about tactics—there should be room for all of our approaches.

But is also of utmost importance to recognize that to have this conversation only in this space is not enough.  Many of us in this room have been to Bilin or Sheikh Jarrah.  These places are inspiring, because though led by Palestinians, as is appropriate since it is the Palestinian’s struggle to be free, they are joint Palestinian-Israeli efforts. In those places you can imagine a future in Palestine and Israel where all people are free to be full citizens, and where life is richer for everyone for it.

One of the strengths of BDS is that it actually requires conversation and coordination. So as a next step, I would put out a plea and a challenge that we not have this conversation only among Jews, but respect the agency of Palestinians in this struggle.  They are the ones most affected, they are the initiators of the call, and they need to be able to represent themselves in this debate.

8 thoughts on “JVP’s Rebecca Vilkomerson debates for BDS at J Street’s annual convention

  1. lshalom

    There is no doubt that Rebecca Vilkomerson believes in her heart and mind that BDS is not only legitimate, but the right vehicle to bring reform to a seriously recalcitrant Israeli government and thus to the Palestinian people. Her words not only underscore the growth of the movement but try very hard to connect it with the best parts of the revolutionary wave that is washing across North Africa and the Middle East. However BDS is a negative tool built not only to challenge the Occupation, but in the mind of many the future of the State of Israel itself. I believe that the modern State of Israel will not give in to any campaign against people and property because it reminds of Germany and the only answer to that will be never again. So whether there is justification in the actions of Palestinians and Americans, Israelis and other human rights supporters who pursue BDS it is a vehicle that will only push real peace farther away and make violence much more likely in its absence.

  2. pelangan

    Thanks for posting on the BDS panel at J Street Conf. I had to wait in line for 15 minutes before the three security guards would let me after another participant left. And there were at least 10 other people behind me waiting. The session was indeed packed, but I am new to this issue and don’t understand the heightened sensitivity (no other concurrent panels had security guards) or the very strong sentiment in the room of supposedly progressive Jews who had listened to speakers in previous sessions rail against “every” Israeli government as undemocratic and disrespectful of human rights. The phrase “Israeli apartheid” nearly had people throwing their shoes and overall, the crowd, including the youngest among them, was definitely more in Avishai’s camp than Vilkomerson’s. Can you help me understand how these “progressive” American Jews can be so blind?

  3. andrew r

    lshalom – Israelis are just going to have to realize they aren’t a Jewish store in Berlin. The Nazi boycott was an act of racial segregation, not so much a boycott as a paramilitary blockade. Anyone who is appalled by the behavior of a state has the right to not patronize its businesses or do anything for its cultural enrichment. Israel has a powerful mechanized military, nuclear weapons, has invaded three countries plus the remainder of Palestine and has racial segregation policies in ’48 and ’67. If you insist on invoking Germany, Israel would fill its role in the analogy, not the boycotters.

    BDS is non-violent. If you can’t do that, what should be done? There’s no mechanism to pressure Israel; 64 years of toothless resolutions haven’t done it. It has to be a grassroots effort.

  4. nInCT

    In brief response to a prior comment “the modern State of Israel will not give in to any campaign [such as BDS that] reminds [it] of Germany ….”
    We who are philosophically outside a group (such as the group of those inside the ‘modern State of Israel’) are morally required to make our own critical assessment of any claim of exceptionalism, such as similarity of BDS to prior atrocities, in this case, those of 1930’s Germany.
    Clearly, it cannot be the case that all forms of pressure are unacceptable because, while such pressure may have worked in South Africa and many other contexts, Israel is an exception based on the exceptional history of its residents. Every group can make claims of exceptionalism, including, taking just a few, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Blacks, Chinese, the Irish and Basques, and their associated claims are frequently mutually exclusive. While there are legitimate arguments for exceptionalism in certain cases, such cases are few and highly specific. For example, prohibiting the use of swastikas as identifying symbols would ordinarily be legitimate, because the prohibition is so narrowly-tailored and closely-tied to specific atrocities in the relatively recent past. Nonetheless, some Hindus might legitimately ask for an exception, given the ancient importance of that symbol to their tradition, and in appropriate circumstances such a claim of exceptionalism might prevail.
    In short, whenever a group says “don’t oppose me (other than in specific ways that I authorize) because I find any opposition intolerable as a result of my exceptional history and culture”, we must be wary. Indeed, our presumption should be that such an argument has been advanced because other, more fundamental, direct and legitimate arguments are unavailable. In other words, the presumption should be that such an argument must be viewed skeptically, and indeed should be interpreted as providing support for greater, not less opposition. In this case, Israeli arguments of exceptionalism provide support for BDS, because the connection between (a) a current political boycott in the style of recent successful boycotts in related contexts, and (b) expropriation of Jewish property early in the prior century, appear both too tenuous and to prove too much.

  5. poyani


    It all depends on what you mean by BDS. This concept means different things to different people. I think any Israeli will have a hard time trying to denounce the boycott of Veolia as an antisemitic or anti-Israeli plot. After-all Veolia is not an Israeli company. It is a French company which has been building settlement infrastructure.

    People who boycott companies like Veolia send a clear and unambiguous message that their objections are over the illegal settlements and the continued occupation.

    However I agree with you that an all-out boycott of anything Israeli can have serious negative repercussions.

  6. poyani

    Next week is the 7th annual Israel Apartheid Week which is observed in dozens of major cities across the globe. Please spread the word and join the events.

    For a list of events go to the following link and click on your city.


  7. Rose

    Ishalom, people have already convincingly responded to you, so I’ll just reiterate:

    Zionist Israel is the new Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa and every single Israeli company or official establishment that supports settlements in one way or another should be boycotted until Israel stops its war crimes against the Palestinians. The cultural and economic boycott succeeded in ending apartheid in South Africa and it, hopefully, will also succeed in ending Israeli war crimes.

    “Never Again” means never again for all oppressed people not just for the Zionists who love to dishonour the phrase by using it to defend their pogroms against Palestinians and non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

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