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The 'Jewish tent' just became even smaller

The defunding of an Israel program with a progressive, human rights framework is an affront to all progressive Jews around the world.

By Rebecca Arian

Palestinian, Israelis and diaspora Jews at the Sumud Freedom Camp, Surara, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Palestinian, Israelis and diaspora Jews at the Sumud Freedom Camp, Surara, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Last week, the Jewish Agency announced it would be cutting funding to Achvat Amim (“Solidarity of Nations”), a program offering participants the opportunity to live in Israel and volunteer with organizations dedicated to fostering human rights and coexistence. The Jewish Agency’s decision resulted from participants’ protest activity in Palestinian areas in the West Bank earlier this year. This move is just one of countless examples of mainstream Jewish institutions setting the parameters of the Jewish tent, marking opposition to Israel’s military occupation as its boundary.

The Jewish Agency cited safety concerns as its reason for defunding the program, but Sara Eisen, Masa’s spokeswoman, also claimed that the program’s leaders acted irresponsibly. She stated that once program activity “…veers into outright political activity, it crosses a line.” Masa runs programs and activities that take place in Israeli settlements, yet their decision to defund a program whose participants voluntarily visited a Palestinian area suggests they have no issue with either the safety of participants who visit the West Bank or political activity––as long as that political activity fits within a right-wing framework.

I was the very lucky recent recipient of both the Dorot Fellowship in Israel and the NIF/ Shatil Social Justice Fellowship, but before I was accepted into these programs, I aggressively pursued opportunities to live in Israel and engage in human rights work. As an American Jew, countless opportunities were available to me through Masa, yet before Achvat Amim, there weren’t any programs that would have connected me to the human rights work I sought to engage in. More importantly, I didn’t feel comfortable participating in Masa programs as a Jew who openly opposes Israel’s occupation and military policy.

When Achvat Amim was founded, I felt grateful. With the support of Masa, young Jews like myself, with viewpoints critical of the Israeli government, had an opportunity to engage in the social justice work and personal development. So last week when I learned that the Jewish Agency has decided to cut funding to the program, I couldn’t help but feel that the recently-expanded Jewish tent had closed me and others like me out of its boundaries once again.

The loss of funding to Achvat Amim will have ramifications echoing throughout the Israeli NGO sector and Israeli society at large. When I was a Dorot and Shatil fellow, I contributed to society by building the capacity of Israeli Human Rights NGO Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. In fact, many Israeli human rights NGOs have progressive diaspora Jews on their staff who got their start with the support of fellowships. Cutting funding to Achvat Amim has ramifications on the Israeli social change makers whose work progressive diaspora Jews often come specifically to support.

Achvat Amim leader Karen Isaacs speaks at a Combatants for Peace event in Beit Jala, West Bank. (Rami Ben-Ari)

Achvat Amim leader Karen Isaacs speaks at a Combatants for Peace event in Beit Jala, West Bank. (Rami Ben-Ari)

The defunding of Achvat Amim is also a huge loss to young, progressive diaspora Jews. As a fellow in Israel, I explored my Jewish identity and grew on a deeply personal level. I learned Hebrew, participated in seminars on Jewish history and Israeli life, met Israelis and Palestinians, and gained exposure to the diversity of perspective that exists in Israel and the occupied territories. This helped me to answer questions about my religion, culture, and background, further solidifying my understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

I am the spouse of a Jewish Israeli, and my future Jewish-American-Israeli children will be fourth generation Holocaust survivors. While I once feared the conversations I will have with them one day about undoubtedly complicated Jewish identities, after having engaged in my own identity exploration, I feel equipped to guide them thoughtfully and responsibly. I would never have had this personal growth if I wasn’t selected to be a fellow in these programs, and now future opportunities for progressive diaspora Jews to grow in this way have only been further limited.

The Jewish Agency’s decision to defund Achvat Amim sends a clear message to other progressive diaspora Jews that such personal exploration is possible, but only within specific, right-wing parameters. The boundaries of the Jewish tent have been redrawn yet again.

Rebecca Arian is a New York City-based attorney and past recipient of the Dorot Fellowship and NIF / Shatil Social Justice Fellowship. She tweets at @SaintBecca.
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    COMMENTS

    1. JitKunDo

      So you came to Israel, volunteered for organizations who spend their time demonizing the country and its army and then went back to the safe confines of New York. And you think that Masa should contribute to such behavior.

      Why exactly should the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government (which sponosor MASA) invest in people like you? Or, let me rephrase that. Why should my tax money be going to paying people like you to explore your identity if that consists of conducting activity that undermines the country, the army, and my personal security?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        I stopped reading after “demonizing.” You make the author’s point for her. Apparently you think Israeli Jews and for that matter “the Jewish nation” should all be marching in right wing lockstep, Feiglinist popular democracy style:
        A ‘truly’ Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin
        https://972mag.com/a-truly-jewish-democracy-on-the-ideology-of-likuds-moshe-feiglin/62170/

        Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        Why exactly should the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government (which sponosor MASA) invest in people like you?

        Because people like her are the State Department, Congressional Staffers and Executive Branch staffers that Israel will need to deal with in 15 years. Politically active young people grow up and gain influence over policy. Or maybe she becomes the Israeli investment specialist for US Trust, Citibank or Chase.

        Israel as it gets more religious and more right needs leftwing activities that capture the imagination of your Jews in the USA to maintain the alliance. American Jews have been moving right since the 1940s, but they are moving slowly. Israeli Jews started off way left of American Jews and have been moving right quickly. Israeli culture is already right of American Jewry. The BDS struggle had the potential to speed this up like it did in Canada, France and England but the American Jewish community was strong enough to mostly kill this off domestically so that didn’t happen, the irony of winning the battle.

        Whether the Rebecca Arians of the world think of Israel as
        an embarrassment to them they want to distance themselves from or
        an exotic foreign country they have a vague affection for or
        their homeland whom they love deeply but are troubled with some aspects of or
        their homeland which they visit regularly and will fight for despite some policy differences

        makes a very big difference. AIPAC is 100% right in advising Israeli leadership not to let Israel become a partisan issue. You all should listen.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        On BDS:

        On September 12 an interview with Dr. Ruchama Marton was published in +972 Magazine as “War crimes and open wounds: The physician who took on Israeli segregation: On the occasion of her 80th birthday, Ruchama Marton, the founder of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, talks about the atrocities she witnessed as a soldier, the enduring power of feminism, and why only outside help has a chance of ending Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians.”

        On September 26, Ruchama Marton penned additional thoughts on this matter, in a reply to Uri Avnery, in Haaretz: “BDS Is Our Only Lever Against Israeli Occupation and Apartheid: Thinking that Israel can fix a colonial, apartheid regime without outside help is a dangerous illusion based on Israeli macho pride.”
        read more: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.814203

        This interview, and this essay, taken together are clarifying. They dispel a lot of confusion about what BDS means and why it is necessary and why the arguments against it ultimately fail. BDS is outside help.

        “…The Zionist left is afraid of radicalism because it is afraid of remaining alone, without a tribe. The problem is that there is another, larger tribe – and that tribe is on the outside. For example, the growing international BDS tribe. It is our ally because we have no allies within our local tribe. We have to know that from within, we are too few and too weak. We cannot do much without our allies on the outside. Today’s traitors are tomorrow’s heroes. … BDS is the only nonviolent lever that can cause Jewish-Israeli society to feel the yoke and pain of the occupation when it is forced to pay the price. If the occupation and apartheid lead to economic, cultural and diplomatic suffering because of an international boycott, it is very possible that a change will occur in Israel’s worldview, which is based on one hand on the enormous benefit to the country and its Jewish citizens from the occupation and separation, and on the other hand the cowardice of what is called the Israeli left, or peace camp.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          And by the way,

          UN Sent Warning Letter to 150 Companies for Doing Business in Israeli Settlements
          Israeli officials say some of the companies responded to the UN human rights commissioner by saying they won’t renew their contracts in Israel
          read more: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.814658

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            I notice they listed 0 examples. There probably are some mostly European companies that won’t renew in Israel as the situation is getting too legally complicated. Some European countries off and on consider settlement a war crime, though they haven’t enforced it against a single company yet. Israel has economically annexed to the point that keeping the lines clear between green line Israel and settlement Israel is in practice impossible. Those whose business interests are rather light may think it is not worth the liability.

            OK so small number of companies don’t bid on Israeli contracts in which they were bit players and instead we get some combination of:
            — USA companies take those roles
            — smaller European companies take those roles
            — Israel has domestic companies to take those roles
            — or best of all possible cases Arab companies take those roles

            I don’t see that bringing a nation-state to the place where it is willing to give up huge chunks of its territory and ethnically cleanse 10% of its population from that territory. What’s being asked and the level of pressure are totally out of whack with one another.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Au contraire. Does not look like you accessed the article:

            The Washington Post reported in August that among the American companies that received letters were Caterpillar, Priceline.com, TripAdvisor and Airbnb. According to the same report, the Trump administration is trying to work with the UN Commission on Human Rights to prevent the list’s publication. Israel’s Channel 2 reported two weeks ago that the list includes some of the biggest companies in Israel, such as Teva, Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, Bezeq, Elbit, Coca-Cola Israel, Africa-Israel, IDB, Egged, Mekorot and Netafim.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            I wasn’t saying who received letters or who was in the database. The article claimed some companies agreed to pull out. Caterpillar has been slammed for 20 years they’ve taken the heat, they are staying. Coca-Cola had one of the worst PR disasters in the history of the company (and its a long history) agreeing to the Arab boycott. No chance they reopen that wound. Teva is not going anywhere. Etc.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            ​Yeah, sure, that’s what you meant. And did you access these paragraphs of the article?:

            ‘Senior Israeli officials said the Israeli fear of divestment or scaled-down business due to the blacklist is already becoming a reality. They said that the Economy Ministry’s Office of Strategic Affairs has already received information that a number of companies who received the letters have responded to the human rights commissioner by saying they do not intend to renew contracts or sign new ones in Israel.
            “These companies just can’t make the distinction between Israel and the settlements and are ending their operations all together,” the senior Israeli official said. “Foreign companies will not invest in something that reeks of political problems – this could snowball.”‘

            Reply to Comment
        • BOAZ

          Those who have read Dr. Marton’s piece in Haaretz may also have seen Abe Simhony’s talkback.
          I fully concur with the latter.

          Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Ben

          That’s pretty explicitly calling on an external groups to change the political dynamic within one’s country through the use of external force by allying with external enemies. That’s precisely what the left’s critics accuse it of. That’s note is a confession to acting in an anti-democratic way. The way one is supposed to win an argument in a democracy is to through political activism and interaction change the opinions of the broader move the internal consensus and thus change policy.

          Creating a culture where political factions feel comfortable going to foreign powers to help them win arguments against their domestic opponents is about as dangerous to a country as anything I can think of. Ask the neighboring Lebanese how well that strategy is working out for them.

          I will say I agree with the author on one thing. If Israeli society feels a great deal of pain and suffering as a result of internal subversion from a faction that has lost an internal debate and respond by lashing out at their society that is likely to change the politics of Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “That’s pretty explicitly calling on an external groups to change the political dynamic [partially within] one’s country through the use of external force by allying with external enemies [of the Israeli far right, not of Israel]…Creating a culture where political factions feel comfortable going to foreign powers to help them win arguments against their domestic opponents [about non-domestic matters involving foreign persons on foreign land that their domestic opponents want to continue to rule over (see below)] is about as dangerous to [the fascist* pro-occupation wing of] a country as anything I can think of.”

            Yup. You are right.

            “That’s…a confession to acting in an anti-democratic way.”

            No more “anti-democratic” than the boycott against South African apartheid, and in fact even less “anti-democratic” than that because, remember (as you seem to always forget) we are not talking about the internal democratic affairs of Israel, we are talking about illegally occupied territory, about the entity comprising Israel and the territories is occupies, and about millions of people who are not Israeli citizens but are ruled over by a foreign occupier and cannot vote in this matter; so that it is not simply an internal Israeli domestic affair at all. So your words about “anti-democratic” fall flat, they are hollow.

            *See Ze’ev Sternhell on fascism, and Rogel Alpher on why Ayalet Shaked is in fact a fascist. Links supplied elsewhere in these pages.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            The conversation was about Israeli leftists coordinating such activities. Those are full citizens in every sense of the word. That’s a serious problem. Conversely Gazans are in a state of off and on war with Israel. They can do pretty much anything in coordinating with Israel’s enemies.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Actually the conversation is about what it’s about. Not some artificial demarcation of that conversation inside your head. Your comment about Israeli leftists changes nothing.

            Reply to Comment
        • BOAZ

          There is a talkback to Dr Marton’s piece, which exactly concurs with my views :

          Quote.

          As much as I really respect Dr. Ruchama Martin, I can’t accept her views about the BDS movement. Years ago I was a convinced supporter of BDS, but watching the ideological developments of this movement, I have changed my conviction about and views about BDS. I do agree that the peace movement in Israel is of urgent need of support and assistance of outside liberal and progressive anti colonialists groups. However, this can not include forces which in reality call and fight for the destruction and the right of existence of the state of Israel, and include outspoken antisemitic groups. The Israeli peace movement, Zionists or not ( one can argue what “Zionism” today really is and means) desperately needs help in its fight against the colonial occupation, but not from a group denying the right for the existence of Israel. I don’t know, as a non Israeli, what the right and possible solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is. In my view, most certainly the colonial occupation by Israel must come to an end, but what follows is something all peace seeking people must ceriosly consider. Is the solution two states for two peoples, or one state for such peoples where every citizen is equal with equal full political rights and full guarantees for their national identities. This is something that the two peoples must consider and decide on, with the advice and help of the international community. Having voiced my objection to the BDS, I must emphasize that it is of high importance to fully boycott the activities, of any nature – commercial and cultural – of and in the occupied territories. Perhaps other measures are also necessary to clarify to the Isralies the dangers of their follies, but by no means measures leading to the disappearance of their state.

          Unquote.

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Boaz

            BDS is a morass of contradictions and incoherence. The most obvious being, consumer goods exports are a miniscule percentage of the Israeli economy. In meaningful terms there isn’t anything to boycott. In 2005 when it started I think it was really aiming for a divestment program similar to the college divestments that occurred against South Africa (which were of negligible effect). I think today it is best understood as an attempt to harass and intimidate European Jews and American Jews into not supporting Israel.

            In Europe it pushed Jews out of the left and then burned out once Jews institutionally joined with the right. In the USA, BDS supporters were just simply outgunned and all it did was hurt some college kids. Its a spent force in the USA. Which I’m very happy about. Had BDS successfully turned Jews into swing voters on their way to becoming Republicans and thus deprived the Democrats of yet another major pillar of their domestic strength the damage to the world would have been rather bad.

            Reply to Comment