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The Community I Was Looking For: My Weekend with Jewish Voice for Peace

Alyssa Goldstein
December 11, 2012

One of the hardest things about leaving college is finding communities to join or having to build new ones all over again. When I settled down in Brooklyn last month after a summer of traveling, I had to face this challenge. At Bard, I loved being a part of (and leading) the Jewish Students Organization, and I wanted to still belong to some sort of non-synagogue Jewish organization or community. However, I was not going to join any organization that identifies as Zionist in any way, and I also didn’t want to hear anyone make dehumanizing comments about Palestinians or talk about how amazing their Birthright trip was. As well as being in the JSO, I was also the head of an SJP-type group called Students for Justice in the Middle East, and I wanted to continue my Palestine solidarity work too. If not for Jewish Voice for Peace, I don’t think there would be any opportunities for me to combine the two.
[caption id=“attachment_13360” align=“alignright” width=“300”] Embroidered illustration of a JVP demonstration by artist Lee Porter[/caption]
I’d heard about JVP from their teach-ins on BDS and their disruptions of a Birthright event and Netanyahu’s speech. I went to my first meeting in late October, in a JVP member’s apartment on the upper east side. The meeting was small: only me, four older people, and another woman in her twenties named Carolyn who also works for JFREJ. The experience of being at very small Palestine solidarity meetings was familiar to me from my Bard days, though the knowledge that JVP was also a very large and well-funded national organization (by Palestine solidarity organizational standards, not Jewish community standards) made this ragtag meeting feel a little incongrous.

At the meeting, Carolyn mentioned that JVP was holding something called a Leadership Development Institute in November, but that she and no one else from the New York chapter could attend. Even though I had barely been a part of JVP for 20 minutes, I decided to volunteer to go. I had no plans for that weekend, and I could bring along a stack of Jewish Currents magazines. I knew this was a massive escalation in involvement that was happening very quickly, but I wanted a community, didn’t I? This was the chance.
I was lucky enough to travel up to the Isabella Freedman Jewish retreat center with another woman, a few years older than me, who I’d met at the JVP national fundraiser the night before. Though my attendance at the fundraiser meant that I had to miss the Strike Debt Rolling Jubilee telethon, at least I could go to the LDI and see a few familiar faces. Once I got there, though, I had the strange feeling that everyone there was a little familiar. Many of the other young women there looked, dressed, and spoke like all the young Jewish women I had encountered in high school, college, and Hashomer Hatzair -- and we all knew the same songs. However, instead of talking about how awesome their Birthright trips were, they were talking about how awesome it was to occupy Birthright. I heard my own story of political transformation repeated back to me from people my age: “I was a liberal Zionist until Cast Lead. Then I began to realize that there was something seriously wrong.” Almost everyone seemed to have a story like this, with a different precipitating event depending on their age -- the second Lebanon war, the second intifada, the Sabra and Shatila massacre. I thought back to how alone I’d felt in the aftermath of Cast Lead, and it was heartening to know, even years later, that I hadn’t been.
There were about 40 people at the LDI, all mostly from the East Coast between North Carolina and Boston. I got the sense that the group leaned heavily towards the secular end of the spectrum, though there were also some rabbinical students who led us in a havdalah service (using a special candle from Narrow Bridge Candles, whose proceeds go to benefit the Boycott National Committee). There were, of course, differences among the secular people there: some were very involved in larger Jewish communal organizations and considered their Jewish identity to be a very important part of their life. Others, not so much. Some attendees were not Jewish, since JVP is not an exclusive organization. However, these differences can (and did) lead to disagreements about what the “Jewish” in Jewish Voice for Peace should mean. Should we say kaddish at our demonstrations for the people killed in Gaza? If we speak out against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians as Jews, does that marginalize Palestinian voices?
It also happened that the Leadership Development Institute coincided with Operation Pillar of Cloud, which necessitated a reconfiguring of the schedule and lent a sense of urgency and anxiety. Though there were still workshops on topics like fundraising, social media, leadership-building and Islamophobia, we also devoted time to planning demonstrations and figuring out how to conduct BDS campaigns in the aftermath. The internet and cellphone coverage was inconsistent, and I and many others were constantly trying to check the news. I was at times too worried and distracted to sit in the workshops, and had to step outside to anxiously scroll through Twitter and Facebook instead. After we got news that an Israeli airstrike had killed ten members of the Dalu family, we decided to hold a moment of silence. I’d only experienced moments of silence as formalities before, not something that comes out of a moment of genuine shock and horror. Some people wept.
Though there were people of all different ages present, I didn’t get a sense that there were big gaps in attitude or worldview between the younger and older people. Some of the older people had been lifelong activists in the civil rights or anti-apartheid movements. One of them, Dorothy Zellner, was familiar to me from her article on BDS which appeared in the autumn issue of Jewish Currents. However, our rustic surroundings at the retreat center made me feel as if we were all kids at summer camp, despite the chilly November weather. On Saturday night, we had a bonfire that most of the people my age and a few of the older people gathered around. As we sung a mixture of pop songs (Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on it” immediately segued into a feminist critique) and protest songs (with some modified words about ending the occupation and the nation-state), I began to feel like this was the community I had been looking for.