Monthly Archives: April 2011

J Street’s Ben Ami: “Our discussion” on BDS should stay “within the Jewish community” (Corrected)

Does J Street's Jeremy Ben Ami refuse to publicly engage Palestinians on BDS?

Jeremy Ben Ami wants to clarify J Street's position on debating BDS

Correction: I had originally reported that Jeremy Ben Ami’s email was forwarded to Rebecca Vilkomerson by a J Street staffer, and then on to me. In fact, it was sent to me directly by Vilkomerson, but I was confused about the email chain.

This week I reported Omar Barghouti’s account of J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami refusing to debate him because he was Palestinian, and not Jewish. According to Barghouti, Ben Ami said that J Street preferred to keep the BDS debate “inside the Jewish community.” Now I have Ben Ami’s original email to Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, in which Ben Ami rejected Vilkomerson’s proposal to include Barghouti in a future debate on BDS.

Before I reproduce the email, here is the background: Ben Ami invited Vilkomerson to debate several BDS opponents at J Street’s annual conference last February. Vilkomerson, who supports targeted BDS, told him in an email on Janurary 26 that excluding a Palestinian from a debate about Palestinian rights was problematic. “I think it is essentially important that this discussion not just be an intra-Jewish affair,” she stated. Vilkomerson proposed scheduling a debate between Ben Ami (or someone representing J Street) and Barghouti, the intellectual author of BDS and one of its most articulate advocates, when he arrived in the States this April for his book tour.

Ben Ami responded as follows (I redacted the email addresses and personal banter):

From: Jeremy Ben-Ami

Date: Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 7:07 AM

Subject: RE: BDS debate?

To: Rebecca Vilkomerson

Hi Rebecca.

My apologies for taking so long to get back to you. Obviously not an easy question – and not a lot of bandwidth at the moment for me to really engage people in discussion of a complex question related to after the conference!

As a general matter, I am open to participating in discussions of strategies for ending the conflict that would include me and someone who favors the use of BDS tactics.

I am not particularly likely to do that in a frame that is about the tactics themselves or even framed as being about the BDS movement.  I’m really open to how to frame it, I just don’t think it advances the ball for a broad enough community for it to be simply ‘about BDS issues.’

I also am most likely – given J Street’s mission within the Jewish community – to do such discussions with others in the Jewish community such as yourself – though again I don’t rule out a discussion with Omar or other Palestinian activists.  Our discussion as J Street in my mind is less with them – because they can choose whatever tactics they want, but within the Jewish community about how we run our communal conversation around these difficult questions.

Finally – again as a general matter I’d consider it a home run to do such a discussion including someone who thinks we’re both wrong and who thinks that any of our  efforts to change Israeli policy constitute de-legitimization…

Ben Ami’s email was provided to me by Rebecca Vilkomerson. “Jeremy [Ben Ami] asked me to forward on exactly what he wrote because he believes this will clarify that his policy is not racist,” she told me.

I am assuming that Rebecca made a mistake in calling Ben Ami’s rejection of the offer to debate Barghouti a “policy.” If J Street does have a policy of excluding Palestinians from debates relating to BDS, charges of racism would stick. However, Ben Ami emphasized that he is open to publicly engaging with Barghouti or other Palestinian activists at some point in the future. Only time will tell…

Judging from his language in his email to Vilkomerson about “how we run our communal conversation around these difficult issues,” Ben Ami appears interested in containing J Street’s involvement in the BDS debate to exclusively Jewish spaces. In such a situation, Palestinians are not only excluded from the debate, they are segregated from an audience primarily concerned about what is “good for the Jews.”

If Ben Ami is reluctant to debate BDS in public with Palestinians, I imagine it is because he (or any self-proclaimed liberal BDS opponent, for that matter) would be uncomfortable looking a Palestinian in the eye and telling him or her that instead of campaigning for their rights through non-violent means, they should wait around quietly until Washington convinces Israel to enact a magical solution. “You’re moving too far, too fast,” as some said in the early 1960′s.

Omar Barghouti: J Street’s Ben Ami has Jews-only policy on BDS debates

Last night I went to Columbia University to see Omar Barghouti discuss his new book, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights.” For those who don’t know, Barghouti is one of the BDS movement’s most effective strategists and promoters, basing his advocacy on a platform of human rights and international law while explicitly rejecting arcane ideology. His book offers the most in-depth and accessible analysis to date of the movement, its history, and why it is gaining so much momentum. Read an excerpt here.

During his talk, Barghouti mentioned that he had approached J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami about arranging a debate on BDS. The response from Ben-Ami was as follows, according to Barghouti: “We want to keep this debate inside the Jewish community. So we won’t participate in a debate with any Palestinians.”

Barghouti joked, “Why would BDS have anything to do with Palestinians?” He went on to describe Ben-Ami’s policy as racist.

Last December, I debated the issue of BDS against the director of J Street U, Daniel May. My debate partner was Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace. Daniel May’s partner was a Jewish student from Princeton also named Daniel May. Everyone involved in the debate was an Ashkenazi Jew, yet we were debating a movement founded and controlled by Palestinian civil society. If I had known at the time that J Street had an alleged policy of refusing to debate with non-Jews, especially Palestinians, I would not have participated at all.

Another person told me about J Street’s “don’t debate Palestinians” policy, but did not authorize me to report it at the time. The source explained that the policy resulted in the Jews-only debate at J Street’s annual policy conference in February, where Rebecca Vilkomerson debated in favor of BDS against opponents Bernard Avishai and Ken Bob of Ameinu.

It is worth noting that after the debate, Bernard Avishai took to his blog to tell a certain member of JVP (he left the person unnamed) that “you remind me, forgive me, of the Tea Party.” Avishai was apparently upset that the JVP member had asked him how he could argue against divesting from multinational companies and Israeli institutions that profit from the occupation while supporting a boycott of the settlements. It is unusual for someone of Avishai’s intellectual caliber to stoop so low to rebut a simple question about tactics. His response makes me wonder if the opponents of BDS, especially those who define themselves as politically liberal, are simply overwhelmed by events in Israel and Palestine.

To J Street’s credit, it is the only major pro-Israel group I know of that will debate BDS at all. None of the other established pro-Israel groups have participated in debates and none seem likely to do so in the near future. Last week, the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) responded to a demand by the campus Hillel house for a “dialogue session” by requesting a debate instead. SJP’s leadership told Hillel’s director that he could choose the topic, time and place of the debate. Hillel refused the proposal. Besides international law and human rights, what do they have to be afraid of?

Akiva Orr: Juliano Mer Khamis was killed for “Alice in Wonderland” (Updated)

Juliano Mer Khamis with the cast of Alice in Wonderland, his final production at Jenin Freedom Theater

Juliano Mer Khamis with the cast of Alice in Wonderland, his final production at Jenin Freedom Theater

Update: Some have accused me on Twitter and elsewhere of being “irresponsible” for posting this. I assume they can’t read headlines, because I printed it as Aki Orr’s personal opinion — not mine. And if anyone is entitled to his opinion, it is Aki. He has seen and done more than all of them combined.

Adam at Mondoweiss reminded me about Udi Aloni’s excellent review of  Juliano’s production of “Alice.” Read it here.

After the killing of Juliano Mer Khamis, I asked my friend Akiva Orr (watch my interview with him here) to write something about the actor. As an activist and writer since the early 1950′s, Akiva got to know Juliano and his mother, Arna. Akiva attended Juliano’s funeral yesterday in Kibbutz Ramot Menashe, then wrote me the following:

Sad news

Yesterday the Israeli-Arab actor-director Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot dead by a hooded assassin near his Freedom Theatre in Jenin.

Juliano Mer-Khamis’s funeral took place today in Kibbutz Ramot Menashe some 10 feet from his mother’s grave (which he designed).

I knew his mother very well.

Arna (1930-1995) was a genuine humanist who could not remain quiet when she saw someone being wronged

It outraged her and she reacted vehemently.

It was a guts response, not a rational response.

Jules took after her but had the added complication that his Dad was a christian Arab  (once the leader of the CP in Nazareth) whereas Arna was a secular Jew whose father founded the medical corps in the IDF was a world authority on Malaria, hated Ben-Gurion, and expelled her after marrying an Arab.

Jules had a cultural ID complex which he exploited through art. He was an excellent actor.  He acted out his life.

About  800 people attended the funeral, two third Arabs one third Jews.

I met many old friends there.

Nowadays we are too old to meet in demos so we meet in funerals.

An Arab youth choir sang and many people said a few words.

Udi Adiv (who did 12 years in prison for trying [unsuccessfully] to set up a Jewish-Arab Israeli armed struggle group against Israel in 1971) told me he was in constant contact with Jules.

Jules complained about the the arch conservative leadership of the Jenin refugee camp and planned to move to Jenin town, which is more enlightened.

The older generation leadership (50% of the camp inmates are under 20) was worried that the youth followed Juliano and his “Freedom Theater”.

He preached freedom not only from Israel, but also from Muslim tradition.

Many young girls, who rebel against the subservient role of women in the Palestinian society, were ardent actresses.

The oldies didn’t like the fact that girls appear on stage, have roles, and act together with boys.

The theatre is located inside the camp.

There were two attempts to burn it down.

The latest play Jules staged was “Alice in wonderland”

Most theatres in the West Bank refused to show it because the major role of a clever girl outraged all oldies in the West Bank.

No newspaper in the West Bank mentioned the Alice play.

It seems this was too much for the oldies.

So Jules paid with his life for staging “Alice in wonderland” in Palestine.

He died for the cause of “women’s liberation” … which goes much beyond “Palestine liberation.”

Too much for some people.

MAY ALICE FORGIVE THE FOLLIES OF THE FOOLS

Remembering Juliano Mer Khamis

Juliano Mer Khamis was killed yesterday by a gunman in Jenin. I met him on a number of occasions. He exuded a unique charisma that was bound up with unpredictable rage and spontaneous joy. Gideon Levy has done justice to his legacy in a short but powerful obituary.

My friend Jen Marlowe helped create this video about Juliano’s work with the Jenin Freedom Theater. Watching it is all anyone needs to do to understand how much of a void his murder has created:

Juliano’s documentary, “Arna’s Children,” is the best film I have seen about the occupation. There is really no other film that approaches its emotional impact or captures the way in which the trasher of the occupation methodically destroys the lives of everyone in its path — and how those in its way resist it no matter what. So here it is, a testament to the genius of Juliano, the courage of his mother, who founded the Jenin Freedom Theater in 1988, and the humanity of the children of Jenin:

Juliano was born to a Jewish Israeli woman, Arna Mer, who dedicated the last years of her life to challenging the occupation, protesting at checkpoints and traveling to and from the Jenin refugee camp, even while in the terminal stages of breast cancer. His father was a Palestinian Christian bureaucrat, Saliba Khamis, who met Arna in the Israeli Communist Party, which was for decades the only party in Israel that promoted co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Mer and Khamis named their son after Salvatore Giuliano, a strikingly handsome, swaggering Italian bandit who led a small band of landless peasants against powerful oligarchs, earning himself a reputation as “the Italian Robin Hood” and eventual media stardom.

After making Arna’s Children and appearing in films like Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (not the best Gitai film but still worth watching), Juliano set out to revive his mother’s Jenin Freedom Theater. The theater had been in ruins since the Israeli army destroyed it while reducing Jenin to a post-apocalyptic moonscape of destruction. Once the Second Intifada was crushed, the camp was transformed into a laboratory for Tony Blair and General Keith Dayton’s cynical security plan. Now Jenin was ringed by electrified fences, a virtual prison inhabited by thousands of children with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Juliano’s return to Jenin was a rebuke to the promise of former Israel Labor Minister Shlomo Benizri to “convert the life of Palestinians into hell,” as he restored a creative outlet for a generation the occupation had sought to demoralize and destroy. In turn, he brought young Israelis (including Palestinian Israelis) and international activists over the Green Line to help him build the theater, promoting a model of co-existence based on solidarity with the Palestinian grassroots.

With assistance from Zacharia Zubbeidi, a former leader of the armed insurgency during the Second Intifada, the theater allowed young people from the camp to take aim not only at the occupation, but at the internal problems plaguing Palestinian society. The next Intifada would consist of theater, music, poetry — the struggle of a dispossessed, dehumanized generation asserting itself through culture. That was Juliano’s vision.

Through their work in the theatre, young Jenin residents challenged traditions and entrenched social mores like corporal punishment and the relegation of young women to secondary social roles. “For me freedom is the occupation ending and the army leaving,” a young boy who participates in the theater said. “But it’s also playing snooker and not having anybody hit me.”

Juliano’s final play, a production of “Alice in Wonderland,” was filled with themes and symbols that explicitly challenged patriarchal authority. I wish I had traveled to Jenin with Matan Cohen when he invited me to see the play; the reviews I heard from those who attended it were glowing.

Was Juliano’s murder motivated by religious extremism? For now no one knows. The theater has been attacked with molotov cocktails and Juliano has been denounced as a Zionist agent by militant elements. He knew the risks of his work and was committed enough to risk paying the ultimate price.

“At the end, there’s a feeling that the spirit [of freedom] is already here, it’s already seeded,” he said during an interview in Jenin. “And I don’t believe that someone or anyone can stop it.”