A chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, whose stated mission is to work “for peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals,” has launched in Pittsburgh.
The specifics of JVP’s platform include seeking “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East,” according to the JVP Pittsburgh Leadership Committee.
But JVP’s tactics have been criticized by other Jewish organizations, most notably the Anti-Defamation League, as being anti-Zionist.
Members of the JVP Pittsburgh committee declined to be interviewed, but agreed to respond to emailed questions.
The local chapter was formed by a group of Pittsburghers, some of whom met each other “at demonstrations opposing this summer’s military engagement in Gaza,” according to the committee’s email. “The chapter officially formed in August in coordination with the Jewish Voice for Peace national organization and held its first public event in September.”
That event was “a social-justice-oriented observance of Tashlich and a casual meet and greet for members to get to know each other,” the committee wrote. “In the future, we will organize and co-sponsor film screenings, lectures, workshops, other Jewish ritual events and BDS-related campaigns.”
BDS refers to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
“JVP stands in solidarity with activists who use nonviolent tactics including boycotts, divestment and sanctions in order to pressure Israel to end the occupation,” the committee wrote. “JVP specifically focuses on organizing against institutions that directly benefit from the siege on Gaza and the occupation of [the] West Bank. Jewish Voice for Peace has no official position on the calls for academic and cultural boycotts.”
While former Temple Ohav Shalom spiritual leader Rabbi Art Donsky is listed as the only rabbi from Pittsburgh on the national group’s rabbinical council, he said that he is “sympathetic to JVP, but not currently involved.”
On Oct. 7, JVP Pittsburgh was slated to join Students for Justice in Palestine in hosting a screening of the film “Occupation 101: Voices of the Silenced Majority” at the University of Pittsburgh.
That film was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League in 2010 as “a distorted historical overview of the Israeli-Arab conflict” that portrays “Israel as the perennial aggressor and Palestinians as the eternal victim.”
JVP says its ranks are growing, in part due to the frustration of many in the Jewish community with Israel throughout Operation Protective Edge last summer.
Twenty-five new chapters of JVP have been launched in the last two months, according to Naomi Dann, media fellow at JVP’s national office. There are now 65 chapters across the country, she said.
According to the group’s website, JVP was founded in September 1996 by Julia Caplan, Julie Iny and Rachel Eisner as a response to a decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to open the Western Wall tunnels underneath the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Since then, JVP has lobbied the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from certain companies doing business in Israel.
JVP does not take a position on whether there should be a one-state or a two-state solution to the conflict, said Dann. “We just want justice and equality for all people in the region. It’s up to the parties to negotiate that solution.”
While, historically, not all Jews are pro-Zionism, it remains a central principle of the mainstream Jewish community,
according to Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Groups such as JVP, he said, which purport to represent a widespread Jewish perspective to the outside world, can be problematic.
“Zionism is a cardinal tenet of Judaism today,” Felson said. “We would certainly have better relations with the Presbyterian Church (USA) if they encountered the Jewish community as we are rather than through the prism of those [small groups of] Jews who question Zionism.”
JVP has also been criticized for disrupting events with pro-Israel speakers.
“The organization supports nonviolent, direct action,” Dann confirmed. “It is a tactic we have used.”
For Ilan Troen, the Stoll Family chair in Israel Studies and director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, JVP’s tactics are an attempt “to deny free speech.”
The group has interrupted his talks on two separate occasions, he said.
“On both occasions, the meetings had to do with Israel,” Troen recounted. “Jewish Voice for Peace wanted to get across the point that I was a criminal. They placed themselves strategically across the auditorium,” then stood up to protest and posted recordings of the protest online.
JVP Pittsburgh will be expected to follow national guidelines, said Dann, and to follow the “tone of the organization; the kind of language we use and the political positions we take.”
The Pittsburgh committee emphasized that JVP “opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression.”
While the group is concerned with human rights everywhere, the committee wrote, its main focus is on Israel: “Our reasons for focusing on Israel and America’s foreign policy are various; we are Jews, Americans, Israelis and combinations thereof, and for each of us our identities inform the issues we choose to prioritize.”
Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, called JVP “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He pointed to the group’s own website, in which it embraces the BDS movement.
“If you support the BDS movement, you have no place in the big tent of Jewish dissent,” he said. “To support BDS is to be anti-Zionist.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.