Analysis News

'There's an opportunity to embed Palestine in the progressive agenda'

The Trump administration will pose challenges for Palestine/Israel organizing in the U.S. but it also presents opportunities. Among them, JVP head Rebecca Vilkomerson tells +972 Magazine, is showing American Jews that many of the policies they oppose under Trump also exist in Israel.

Michael
Omer-Man

A lot of smart people thought Barack Obama would be more sympathetic than his predecessors to the Palestinian cause, hopefully resulting in a more even-handed approach to the conflict. Obama, however, along with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, failed to achieve peace and things on the ground in Israel/Palestine are measurably worse today than they were eight years ago.

The Trump administration, however, has thrown most campaigners on the issue of Israel/Palestine for a loop, and forced many to re-evaluate their priorities. “Even having prepared for the worst since the election, in practice things are still pretty shocking,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, head of Jewish Voice for Peace says.

JVP is the most prominent Jewish organization to have endorsed the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), a distinction that has driven a wedge between it and more mainstream Jewish groups and institutions — and also contributed to its growth. With 70 chapters across the United States, 12,000 dues-paying members and a quarter of a million online supporters, the group has become a major player in recent years.

The organization’s willingness to ally itself with the Palestinian cause — and Palestinians — has also put it and its members in the crosshairs of a new, no-holds-barred type of pro-Israel group taking root in the United States and elsewhere. Canary Mission, a shadowy website whose sole purpose is to smear pro-Palestine activists with allegations of anti-Semitism and concocted ties to terrorism, has profiles on JVP and Vilkomerson. Almost comically, on the Canary Mission website, JVP is placed directly next to Hamas.

Are such tactics having a silencing effect? Are state-sponsored attacks on pro-Palestinian groups and activists, seen most recently in Israeli-imposed travel restrictions and intelligence gathering against boycott supporters, a sign that the BDS movement is making gains? And what role does a Jewish-American organization have in fighting for Palestinian rights?

What is the future of activism on Israel/Palestine in the Trump era? I sat down with Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, to discuss strategies, hopes and fears for the coming four years. The following has been edited for length.

Jewish Voice for Peace executive-director Rebecca Vilkomerson in her office in New York, March 2017. (Photo by Maya Levin)

Jewish Voice for Peace executive-director Rebecca Vilkomerson in her office in New York, March 2017. (Photo by Maya Levin)

Israel passed a law barring entry to BDS supporters earlier this month. You wrote at the time that you hoped it would hasten the day when anybody can travel freely to Israel. Yet this is only one of many attempts to push back against BDS in recent years. What makes this different?

I do really believe that this will hasten the day that everyone can travel freely. It does seem to me to be part of the natural evolution of a struggle like this one — that as the movement gains strength, the state will work harder and harder to repress it. And they’re going to use more and more blunt instruments to do so.

Israel has been passing an increasing number of anti-democratic laws that affect Israelis but this is something that affects people globally. Even thought it’s true that this law absolutely will affect Palestinians more than Jewish people, there’s an amplification in the way it affects Jewish supporters of BDS which is important to talk about. It is an illustration of the way Israel is willing to create these political litmus tests that for the first time affect a whole class of Jews.

What progress has BDS made that you can point to?

It can be seen on a couple of different levels. One is global solidarity, and the near consensus — with the exception of the United States — that what Israel is doing is unacceptable. Even in the United States, polls show there’s a real generational shift, that people sympathize just as much with Palestinians as they do with Israelis; that they’re starting to see Palestinians as people with rights. It sounds absurd but that’s the fundamental condition we need in order to move forward: for people to understand that it’s not just about Israel’s security, it’s also about Palestinians’ security. That shift has been really important.

There is also a sense of a coalescing movement, and if you look at history and other liberation movements, they unfold something like this in terms of increasing levels of pressure. I do feel that increasing international pressure is going in the right direction, while also acknowledging that nothing has gotten better on the ground.

If you’re really appalled by what Trump is doing you also need to look at what Israel is doing.

How will your work — advocacy work to end the occupation, advocacy for Palestinian rights — have to change under Trump? Do you think the Trump administration’s approach to this issue will be fundamentally different from previous administrations in a way that requires you to re-calibrate your strategy?

We’re still figuring it out. JVP is certainly not alone in our sense of whiplash. Even having prepared for the worst since the election itself, in practice things are still pretty shocking. We were better positioned to deal with the Trump era than pretty much any other Jewish organization in that we never expected a Hillary Clinton administration to be making progress on a policy level. But in another sense it’d be crazy to say that it’s not different in several ways.

Exhibit one is David Friedman, a settlement fundraiser who will be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. He clearly is not going to be thinking about the needs or rights of Palestinians in his policies. There’s something to be said about everything being overt as opposed to hidden. Under the last few administrations, the [American] left was always promoting Israel’s interests under the guise of seeking peace. Maybe having somebody who’s an extremist [in a prominent position] helps bring that to the fore.

The biggest silver lining of the Trump era so far has been a real concrete intersectional approach. But it comes at a very, very high price, which is a real sense of — panic may not be too strong a word if you think of something like the destruction of health care for people who need it. People want to weigh in on that and have to weigh in on that. We’re noticing that people are doing a lot of their political work as JVP [members] even if it’s not on topics that are specifically related to JVP’s work. JVP is their political community and they want to take action with JVP.

So the pivot toward domestic American issues is more organic than deliberate?

The work we have to do is still very much focused on Israel/Palestine and our core mission. The way a lot of that is manifesting — especially at our grassroots base — is being in solidarity and community and coalition with people who Trump is affecting in different ways. That’s where the political moment is right now and I think in the long term, building these kinds of alliances is going to be critical.

There’s a real opportunity to embed Palestine as part of the progressive agenda right now. I think the Democratic party generally is being pushed by its base, very hard, to resist the Trump agenda. And part of that is also being willing to stand up and speak out on specific Israel/Palestine related things.

One other thing I find both scary and exciting is that so many of Trump’s policies are being strongly opposed by progressive Jewish organizations, and there are really strong parallels with a lot of Israeli policies. The Muslim ban is a perfect example. We have an opportunity — with love but also with challenge — to say to people: okay, if you’re really appalled by what Trump is doing you also need to look at what Israel is doing and has been doing. And if you oppose it under Trump then you should be opposing it under Israel, too.

Let’s jump back to Israel-Palestine. The first time you and I met, four or five years ago, we spent the day escaping clouds of tear gas at an anti-wall protest in a village called Jayyous in the West Bank. You were a bit more experienced with that than I was, which is a way of saying that you were pretty active on the ground when you lived here in Israel/Palestine. What lessons from your time as an activist here have you been able to draw on in your current role organizing in the U.S.?

It was an enormous advantage that I had spent time there and had been doing work with Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills, and I’d been working in the Negev with Bustan, which doesn’t exist anymore but was a Bedouin-Jewish environmental rights organization, and I worked with Yousef Jabareen — who’s now an MK on the Joint List — at Dirasat, which was his sort-of policy think tank he was building around educational issues and local municipality issues in the Palestinian-Israeli community. So I really had a strong set of allies and relationships and experience all over the West Bank and inside of Israel and I was able to bring those relationships with me to JVP, which was super important. Not that JVP didn’t have a lot of those relationships already, but it certainly was strengthened by the fact that I had been there.

One of the things I realized I would miss when I was leaving Israel was that feeling of being really able to affect things on the ground — that feeling of putting your body on the line. You go and you try and help [an olive] harvest happen, and it might be a terrible day, and it’s really really hot and it’s really really sweaty, and maybe you get attacked by settlers, and maybe you get tear gassed, and maybe you get arrested — I was never arrested by Israel, to be clear — but at the end of the day something gets done.

That’s been historically much less true from here. Here we’re working generally toward more abstract and long-term goals, which in some ways can be less satisfying in the short-term. Now under the Trump administration, however, there’s a real energy and communal experience and a sense that this is serious and we’re putting our bodies on the line for it. That is sustaining. That’s what helps me to keep doing the longer-term work that doesn’t have immediate rewards.

A lot of the push-back against the type of activist and advocacy work you guys are doing has in recent years taken on the form of smear campaigns and seeking out disqualifying, seemingly anti-Semitic statements by activists — from Canary Mission to the campaigns against people like Simone Zimmerman and Steven Salaita. Is that having a silencing effect? And do you have an approach for addressing or countering it? You’ve had to distance yourself from a few people over the past couple of years.

My overarching approach is that transparency is best — that everything we’re doing is above board and legit and there’s no reason for us not to be proud of it and open about it. That said, especially for younger activists, and particularly for Palestinian activists, something like Canary Mission has been very harmful. Especially when you’re already in a place that’s Islamophobic and anti-Arab, it’s scary for the first thing that comes up when a potential employer puts your name into Google to be this extremely exaggerated-if-not-filled-with-lies profile from Canary Mission. I think it is having some effect.

The bigger structural parallel to that is all the anti-BDS legislation that’s going out. Those fights have been interesting because they’ve been real opportunities for our chapters and others to build relationships with state legislators and build their presence with local officials. And local officials become federal officials.

I would also say that it’s having a backlash in that people who are free speech advocates — who aren’t necessarily Palestinian rights advocates — are being forced into the fray, onto what I think is the right side. A perfect example is the ACLU, which has been wonderful partners and allies in these struggles on the state level. They’ve been very clear that they have no position on BDS — that’s not their thing — but from a free speech perspective they think these laws are a disaster.

We want to build a Jewish community where people can bring their whole selves and their whole politics.

A Mizrahi and Jews of Color Caucus has formed out of JVP recently. How did that happen and why is it important?

We had several long-time members who noticed that our national membership meeting two years ago didn’t have a lot of explicitly Mizrahi or Sephardi or Jews of color leadership from the front of the room. As JVP has grown, it has in many ways mirrored other Jewish organizations which have been and are Ashkenazi-centric and has a leadership that’s almost entirely Ashkenazi. So they brought that to us as a challenge and a concern and the caucus grew out of that.

I don’t want to pretend that this challenge came and then we responded and now it’s done. It’s just like with any other issue about racism within the community or between communities: it’s going to be an ongoing process for us to become an organization that truly reflects what the Jewish community looks like in the United States. Our aim is to do that and to be that, and we still have a long ways to go, and I feel like we’ve taken that charge very seriously.

One of our goals is to build a new kind of Jewish community where people can bring their whole selves and their whole politics and for it to look like what the Jewish community looks like in the United States, which includes Jews of color, and includes Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, although they’re quite invisibleized here. And of course there’s also the political issues that we are concerned about and how important it is to have Mizrahi and Sephardi leadership and to have the leadership of Jews of color speaking out on those issues — so it’s two-fold.

How important is Jewish identity for JVP? Is it a point of authority for speaking about Israel? Is JVP a Jewish organization or an organization of Jews?

We talk a lot about the “J” in JVP, and it is fundamental to our identity. That being said, we have a wide range of Jewishness within the organization. It’s an ongoing internal conversation that I think will go on forever, about obviously not wanting to recreate the structural privilege that we are trying to fight inside of Israel.

At the same time, a lot of our identity is about being a Jewish organization, and what brings a lot of people to JVP is being able to be part of a Jewish community that actually represents them, where they’re not asked to check their politics at the door.

Obviously it also has a strategic element. Like it or not, in order to create change here in the United States, the Jewish community is going to have to shift. So are Christian Zionists. So are a lot of other communities. But the little piece that is our piece is the Jewish communal piece — so it feels very fundamental.

How does the occupation end in your mind? And do you have hope that we’ll see a just outcome in the foreseeable future?

I am an eternal optimist. One thing that has been interesting to me about the Trump era more generally has been this feeling that there are multiple paths things could go down. Most of them are quite terrible, and a couple of them could be a re-ordering that is really for the best for most of humanity. But it’s unclear what kind of path we’re going down, or will go down, and what kind of control we have over it. That’s an extremely disconcerting feeling.

I feel the same about the occupation. There are many potential outcomes: some are very violent; some are very oppressive or continue along the same path we’re on now. What still feels incredibly important to me is, considering that we don’t actually know, it’s very important to wage this fight from a sense of principle and hope as opposed to fear and paranoia.

I still feel that the path we are on —and the path that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is on — is the one that has showed the most concrete progress and which has the most potential, whatever happens next, to be able to build something for the good of everyone — Jews and Palestinians together.

Top photo: A JVP supporter at a protest against the war in Gaza, Chicago, July 28, 2014. (By Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

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    COMMENTS

    1. R5

      WOW. OK, BLM, women, Mexican Americans, people without healthcare, students in debt: this is the BEST WARNING you’re going to get. Stay as far as absolutely fucking possible away from these nutjobs. THEY WANT TO USE YOU. They want to “embed” a regressive, hyper-nationalist cause into your organizations and enlist you as soldiers in a tribal war taking place on the other side of the world. And they are working very, very hard with sophisticated PR and to convince you their war should be part of your “progressive” politics. DO NOT LET THEM ABUSE AND DESTROY YOUR MOVEMENT. Palestine, BDS, JVP – all of this shit is the POISON PILL that will discredit viable progressive opposition to Trump. BEWARE. FUCKING BEWARE.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @R5: It happens to be a tribal war taking place on the other side of the world in which their government pays for half the defense budget of one of the tribes.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “THEY WANT TO USE YOU. They want to “embed” a regressive, hyper-nationalist cause into your organizations and enlist you as soldiers in a tribal war taking place on the other side of the world.”

        Sounds just like what Israel does with the US Republicans in general, and in particular with the US fundamentalist Christian segment.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Andrew

      JVP supports terror, hate and violence. Ms. Vilkomerson is an opportunist of the worst kind. She seems to harbor a tremendous amount of racism and is doing an injustice to the cause she claims to serve. JVP’s promotion of violent terrorism should be exposed and condemned.

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      This is a good example of how the far Left becomes trapped by their own distorted view of reality. The far Left is convinced, like much of the Arab world, that Israel is essentially an unviable, unsustainable country which is propped up by the US whose governments are beholden, for political reasons, to the Jewish vote. The far Left thus decided to try to divide American Jewry and get a significant part to turn its back on Israel, which then presumably allow the government to follow it “real” interests which would involve forcing Israel to give into the Palestinians. It was for this reason that Obama and other Left Jews formed J-Street and others support JVP. These organizations would presumably give cover to the majority of members of Congress who would no longer be afraid of the “Jewish vote” and they could say “see, lots of Jews support the policy of cutting off the US from supporting Israel”.

      The problem is that this calculation is wrong. On the one hand, the Left is pushing on an open door…..US Jewry IS distancing itself from Israel. This is an inevitable process tied to ongoing assimilation of American Jewry and weakening its Jewish identity. This is similar to what happened during World War 2 when American Jewry, during the extreme crisis of European Jewry, largely turned their backs on them, believing that “if we push the Allies to try to save European Jewry, American non-Jews won’t allow us into their country clubs”. Once the reality of what happened became clear, this gave a shock to American Jewry which rallied around Israel and Zionism, but now that shock has worn off and things are returning to “normal” for assimilating American Jewry.

      The mistake is that America’s policy towards Israel IS NOT BASED ON THE JEWISH VOTE. Jews are only 2% of the American population and this number is in decline, and most don’t live in swing states. The fact is that a majority of the American people support Israel and there is little public support for the Palestinians. Many politicians who live in states with few Jews also support Israel for many reasons, primarily because they view Israel as a traditional ally and the Palestinians are part of the dysfunctional, violent Arab/Muslim world which turns off many Americans, and Europeans for that matter.

      The other mistake Rebecca and others are making is that they feel that the Palestinians “are becoming embedded in ‘progressive’ agenda”. I have news for you…they are already there. Last years “progressive” celeb, Bernie Sanders is firmly in the pro-Palestinian anti-Israel camp and those who follow him in the Democratic party will continue this. The D’s are going to be facing a major struggle over the future of the party, and the far Left, which is pro-Palestinian will become dominant in the D party, just as has happened in the British Labour Party which is solidly anti-Israel now, in spite of the fact that Labour was once the “Jewish party” in Britain, just as the D’s are today in the US. So the D’s will become the party of advocacy for BDS and the such today. We see this in young leaders like Linda Sarsour who represents the wave of the future for the D’s. Whether this will bring them to power is questionable, however.

      Finally, Israel is NOT so dependent on the US as in the past. Many countries that were quite hostile to Israel in the past are scrambling to improve relations, such as Greece, Turkey, many African states including Muslim-majority ones, China, Vietnam, India, Latin America etc, etc. Yes, Israel does need good relations with the US, but as I indicated, there are many factors in the US pushing for maintaining this strong link, and it is NOT dependent on the “Jewish vote”.

      PS-I have heard that JVP is actually a dummy organization that is NOT primarily Jewish, but was created to create the image that there are large numbers of Jews who oppose Israel and condemn it, again in order to supposedly give cover to politicians who feel the same. This would mean that Rebecca and Brant Rosen are actually fronting for others. It would be interesting to know if this is indeed the case.

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        It should be noted that although Philip Weiss at MONDOWEISS speculated about a “revolution” that may occur in the Jewish community in June with the 50th anniversary of the 6-Day War and that Open Hillel will take over Hillel, BDS’s will conquer Jewish institutions and synagogues and that Neturei Karta and JVP will become the dominant voices in the Jewish communtiy. This is based on the presumption that most American Jews spend their time thinking about the Palestinians and settlements. While it is true that American Jewry is distancing itself from Israel, for most it isn’t for this reason. It is apathy. Polls show most American Jews still feel some vague identification with Israel but this is declining with the passage of time and advancing assimilation. However, there is an important countervailing process as well. This is the increasingly open and loud antisemitism that is being expressed. This is a by-product of the increasingly polarized political discourse in the US along with increased ideological extremism and further emphasis on “identity politics”. A “racial studies” professor at Tulane University threw out a question to his class asking whether “Jews are part of white privilege” (he would have felt at home in 1920’s Germany where professors asked “are Jews Aryans?”. A Jewish student who protested this was reprimanded by the university administration. As we hear more and more of this, Jews who are currently apathetic about the whole Israeli/Arab conflict are going to come to the realization that they are not wanted in the “progressive” camp, no matter how much they may want to be. This will increase support for Israel among at least part of American Jewry that is currently tuned out.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Larry Snider

      Rebecca,
      The ability of you and a small group of activists to launch a highly successful national grass roots Jewish organization is most laudable. But an organization that promotes BDS and does not believe in an independent Jewish state is in fact Jewish in name only. The path to justice for Palestinians is through dialogue, understanding, reconciliation and ultimately peace between two people’s who must learn to live as neighbors in one Holy Land.

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        I am sorry, Larry, but the Arabs have defined the Arab/Israeli conflict as a zero-sum game. You are right that a policy of reconciliation and peace would benefit EVERYONE in the area, but the Arab leadership does not view it that way. They prefer conflict for practical reasons (that maintaining the conflict keeps them in power) and for ideological reasons (that Islam must control all of the Middle East and minorities can not aspire to more than subservient, dhimmi status). That is why the Palestinians, both FATAH/PA and HAMAS prefer the status quo to achieving an independent Palestinian state. Sorry.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          This tireless propaganda. Your version of “reconciliation and peace” is in reality surrender to Greater Israel. As if Israel ever sought “the path to justice through dialogue, understanding, reconciliation and ultimately peace between two people’s who must learn to live as neighbors in one Holy Land.” Rebecca Vilkomerson distinguishes between the Disneyland version of Israel and the reality.

          “We see with many people coming into JVP what they feel is an incredible sense of betrayal that they’ve been fed lies and been presented a ‘Disneyland’ version of Israel that doesn’t exist. They have to rethink the whole frame of reference they’ve been taught by people they love and trust. They are searching for something that is new and real that aligns with their values.”
          read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.779797

          Reply to Comment
    5. Randall the Sarcastic

      Embed “palestine” on the Moon.
      Thats a place where the PLO Islamofascists won’t trouble anyone!

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      ​@Ike52: First of all, APIAC’s power is proportionately far in excess of the percentage of American Jews in the electorate, i.e., “the Jewish vote.” That’s the whole point of AIPAC, isn’t it? That’s what lobbies do. And APIAC is among the two or three most powerful lobbies in America. Or at least was, until this political moment. See my third point.

      Secondly, it is incredibly disdainful and offensive, and awfully condescending to the past to say what you say about American Jewry. No one sat there and said, “I know the Holocaust is coming and I can prevent it but I just choose not to because my country club membership is more important.” What are you, an anti-Semite?

      Thirdly, your characterization of how the broad American electorate and the American Jewish electorate thinks about Israel is stuck in amber, ignores the political moment, the demographic and conceptual shifts taking place. And the idea that American Jews are going to suddenly wake up and say “oh my gosh, some anti-Semites exist among the left as well as the right, let me rush to support the occupation, that’s the ticket” is implausible to say the least. JVP has clearly and firmly dissociated itself from anti-Semitic elements and it is not throwing up its hands in helplessness over the issue.

      Fourth, Bernie Sanders is the one politician that I think everybody no matter their persuasion sees as utterly honest and genuine, as having deep integrity.

      Fifth: Israel remains deeply dependent on American aid and expertise and on the American veto.

      Sixth: “I have heard that JVP is actually a dummy organization…it would be interesting to know if this is indeed the case.” And I have heard that Elvis Presley is being kept alive in a secret vault in the basement of US government facilities in Area 61…it would be interesting to know if this is indeed the case.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis2 from Afula

        Ben, US Jewry is in a process of accelerated assimilation and dissolution. In another 30 years, all that will remain is a hard core of super-religious types. The rest will gone.

        Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        Oh, dear, Ben called ma an “antisemite” for making pointed criticism of American Jewry when they largely sat on their hands WHILE THE HORRORS WERE OCCURRING (not just before, as you claim) during World War 2, but his JVP/BDS friends presumably are not antisemites even though they curse Israel every day and those Jews and non-Jews who support it, not to mention inviting terrorist-murderers like Rasmiah Odeh and making them honored celeb guests at their gathering, or hostile Israel bashers like Linda Sarsour who called Zionism “creepy”. Perish the thought that they should be called antisemites!

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I think you know I didn’t call you an anti-semite, or think you one; that I, tongue-in-cheek, asked you if you were one because you accuse Jews of the early 1940s of being so covetous of hobnobbing with the Gentiles at their country clubs that they coldly sold out European Jewish refugees. I think this is a distortion of history and I have a kind of allergy to condescending to the past and applying today’s awareness and today’s standards to people who lived in a different time and place.

          Rebecca Vilkomerson on Rasmea Odeh:

          “The way we see it, we are welcoming a woman who survived torture and sexual assault by Israel and made a false confession in Israeli military court, and I think it needs to be noted that the [Israeli] military courts have a conviction rate of 99.7 percent. The labeling of her as someone who has been convicted of terrorism allows the Jewish community to evade some really hard truths about the ways that Israel treats the people under its control,” says Vilkomerson. “Rasmea – I think especially now – is a warning and a reminder about tactics used by the U.S. and Israel. [President Donald] Trump has talked about wanting to bring torture back … and the torture the police have used in Chicago against black suspects is very widely documented. We are standing with victims of torture and against torturers.”
          She rejects accusations that her group is in any way showing insensitivity to the victims of the attack Odeh was convicted of participating in by inviting her – or by denying the request of the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs to hold a memorial event for Israeli terror victims at the conference. “In our mission statement we say that we mourn the loss of all life and condemn violence against civilians. That includes lives lost under the occupation, and civilians killed in bombings in Jerusalem. We value all life and we are against violence against civilians,” she says.
          read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.779797

          Reply to Comment