For more than a decade, the NGO camouflaged behind the misnomer Jewish Voice for Peace was just a fringe anti-Israel agitprop group that barely registered beyond the University of California, Berkeley, where it was hatched in 1996.
But in recent years its profile has grown along with its infamy. With a swelling budget from opaque sources, the JVP has become a major supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and of Palestinian rejectionism. Along the way, it has excused Palestinian terrorism, engaged in Holocaust inversion (comparing Israel to Nazi Germany) and spread its disruption tactics across many college campuses.
Now it has gone academic with its first book, deceptively titled On Anti-Semitism. “Gone academic” is probably giving the JVP more credit than it deserves, as the book is actually a disjointed compilation of essays by 22 very different authors—not all of whom are academics or even Jewish. Some of the authors assert, by virtue of their Jewishness, a special moral authority to criticize Israel and advocate for Palestinians. One contributor even claims that he “is not a member of JVP and does not support BDS” (p. 223).
Not all the essays are about anti-Semitism. But all the contributors share a vision of Palestinian statehood, and all are defensive about having their anti-Zionism equated to anti-Semitism.
JVP founding member and prime-mover, Rebecca Vilkomerson, sets the tone for the book in an introduction that complains the Trump era is “a noxious stew of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism … that remarkably converges on one point: support for Israel” (p. 1).
The book’s subtitle, Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, is as misleading as its title. The JVP isn’t really interested in justice; it just wants Israel supplanted by Palestine—the “one-state” solution. The problem is, most of the authors aren’t honest enough to admit it. Honesty is one of the notable absences in this book.
Any reader who manages to get through the entire volume will find three different kinds of authors. First are the scholars, who are responsible for the most effective pieces of propaganda. The celebrities bring the media attention that the JVP craves. And the “grass-roots activists” provide comic relief.
The several scholars who contributed essays labor to make simple things seem complex, starting with pettifogging over how to write the word “anti-Semitism.” Is there a hyphen or not? What about capitalization? Is it “anti-semitism”or “anti-Semitism”? The word appears in various forms, sometimes with no explanation and sometimes with exhaustive commentary. Wielding a jargon steeped in new historicism, anti-colonialism and deconstructionism (the post-modern trinity), the scholars aim to befuddle and intimidate readers into tacit acquiescence.
Judith Butler in The Forward insists that “it is not at all clear whether there is more generally a single understanding of what constitutes antisemitism” (p. vii). Others follow her lead in attempting to disconnect opposition to Israel from anti-Semitism. Convincing readers that the anti-Semitism they think they understand doesn’t really exist requires a special kind of sophistry. Antony Lerman takes it to the extreme when he accuses Theodore Herzl of “using antisemitic attributes” (p. 16) to demonize the Jewish opponents to his Zionist project. Depicting the founder of the Zionist movement as an anti-Semite is a tactic designed to unsettle.
While Judith Butler has become somewhat of a celebrity herself, Omar Barghouti and Linda Sarsour are clearly the stars of the book, which has the feel of a festschrift to Barghouti, purported founder of the boycotts movement. Barghouti’s essay is a classic bit of over-the-top hyperbole about “the Zionist ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians and the settler-colonial project in Palestine” (p. 139). Sarsour is interviewed in a six-question, four-page section (pp. 91-94) mostly about “Islamophobia.” Even the editors at Haymarket Books seemed to recognize that she is unconvincing in the role of opponent to anti-Semitism.
Several essays by professional rabbis and Christian ministers are included in an attempt to lend credibility to (or divert attention from) their fairly straightforward anti-Zionism. There are essays by Rabbi Brant Rosen and Rabbi Alissa Wise, co-founders of JVP’s “Rabbinical Council,” which the ADL charges was created to give the “perception of legitimacy and establish … it as not just a culturally Jewish organization but a religiously Jewish one as well.” This is an example of what Syracuse University professor Miriam Elman calls “Jew washing” the anti-Israel movement.
In the third, and largest, group of contributors to this volume one finds the JVP ground forces: regional directors, deputy directors, campus coordinators, co-founders of campus chapters and so on. Most list their employment with the JVP as their main (or only) credential. Identity is everything with JVP.
One contributor identifies as a “Calestinian (Palestinian + Californian) born and raised in Los Angeles, Khaliphaztlan” (p. 221). Another goes by “Puerto Rican Ashkenazi Jewish feminist writer and … sixth-generation radical” (223). Their essays vary from Judith Butler imitations to adolescent rants; some read like parodies of scholarship. Almost all are autobiographical narratives, unsteady confessionals about being blinded to intersectional suffering by upper-class privilege, epiphanies of “wokeness,” and always the claim that a monomaniacal hatred of Israel is not the same as anti-Semitism.
In essay after essay—whether by scholars, celebrities or activists—the book defies logic, as when it argues that Israel’s Judaism is “a form of supremacy akin to American white supremacy” (p. 33). It distorts history in asserting that Israel is a colonial power, and that Jews have no real attachment to Israel or the Middle East. And it repeatedly ascribes to JVP critics foolish arguments they never made, rendering them easier to refute. Indeed, this book is so full of strawmen, it should come with a flammable warning.
The list of what’s missing is as important as the book’s contents. No attention is paid to anti-Semitism from the secular left. Islamic anti-Semitism is also ignored almost entirely, save for a single essay that downplays it; “historically, Islam has not demonized the Jews” (p. 131). The authors seem oblivious to the similarities between their anti-Zionist rhetoric and that of the Sunnis of Al-Qaeda, Hamas and ISIS, as well as by the Shias of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah.
The JVP’s pseudo-scholarly venture into academic discourse fails in its stated goal of demonstrating that anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism. But then this book is not really about anti-Semitism at all. Its real goal is to make opposition to Israel seem moral and cool, and to advocate for a “one-state” Palestinian solution.
Back to the question of honesty: If the JVP wanted to be honest it should have titled its book Against Israel and given it the subtitle Solidarity with the Palestinians and the Struggle to Delegitimize the Jewish State. It’s too late for that, but the JVP could still change its name to reflect what it really is: the Jewish Voice for Palestine. Or at least the mostly Jewish Voice for Palestine.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.