Controversial Jewish Voice grows louder in Oakland

For Cecilie Surasky, seeing a Star of David and “Gas the Arabs” painted on the wall of a Palestinian-owned shop in Hebron rocked her world.

She loved Israel so much, even idealized it, so the shock went particularly deep.

Surasky’s Zionist credentials are strong. Her grandfather ran guns to Israel in 1948. Her uncle raised big money for the United Jewish Appeal. Her first trip to Israel was on a federation mission.

That’s why, she says, for her to stand in an Israeli-controlled city with a group of American Jews, many of whom lost relatives in the Holocaust or pogroms, and see Jews throwing hatred back at another ethnic group was “heartbreaking.”

Surasky told that story April 29 in Oakland at the first national convention of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Berkeley-based group that opposes Israeli control over the Palestinian territories and works for human rights, peace and security in the region.

Jewish Voice for Peace is on the far-left fringes of the Jewish community. Some wouldn’t even call them part of it.

While many of its leaders come from strong Jewish backgrounds, have spent time in Israel and are deeply concerned for Jewish safety and promoting Jewish values of social justice, the group takes no stand on whether Israel should remain a Jewish state or be replaced by a binational, democratic nation.

“We need to keep our focus on ending the occupation, not whether it should be one state or two states,” said Mitchell Plitnick, the group’s policy and education director. “That’s for Israelis and Palestinians to decide, not Americans.”

With the group willing to join broad coalitions against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it has found itself on the same side of police barricades as those calling for the destruction of Israel.

That’s why Mike Harris of San Rafael was protesting outside the conference along with other members of Stand With Us/San Francisco Voice for Israel.

“It’s very disingenuous of them to say they’re not against Israel and then invite anti-Israel speakers to speak,’ he charged.

How far can a Jewish group go in opposing Israeli policies while still maintaining Israel’s right to exist?

Other Jewish progressives manage, says Naomi Paiss, communications director for the New Israel Fund, an organization that funds Arab-Jewish coexistence projects. “We stand for a Jewish and democratic state,” she said. “At the point where you say Israel can’t be democratic if it’s Jewish, you have moved out of mainstream Zionism.”

Some at the convention crossed that line. On sale at one table were T-shirts with the phrase “Anti-Zionist” written in faux Coca-Cola lettering, a parody of the Hebrew-language T-shirts many tourists bring home from Israel.

Some of the participants described themselves as “anti-Zionist,” although they explained that doesn’t mean they support Hamas, but rather they favor a state where Jews do not enjoy special privileges denied to others.

Most conference speakers and participants, however, expressed support for a two-state solution, a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside a Jewish state. This is, after all, the “Jewish” Voice for Peace; its members have chosen to work within a Jewish framework, with all that entails.

The dichotomy leads to much painful soul-searching, say some of the younger activists, who seem torn between their gut-level love for the Jewish people and Israel, and what they see as the injustices perpetrated in its name.

“If they’re going to call themselves a Jewish state, and I’m Jewish, then what they do represents me,” said David Basior, 28, a Jewish educator from Seattle.

Basior, who wore a knitted kippah and tzitzit, has led three Birthright Israel trips to Israel and spent last year studying in Jerusalem. He views his work with the Jewish Voice for Peace as “a way of being a practicing Jew.”

Although the term “Zionist” has “lost its meaning” for him, he is “not an anti-Zionist” and was taken aback to see the anti-Zionist shirts for sale.

“My gut reaction was ‘Aaggh,'” Basior said, throwing up his hands and making a gagging noise.

But, he continues quietly, “They can argue their case with justice.”

Many of these activists talk about the pain their activism has caused, how it has driven a wedge between themselves and their families or Jewish community.

“As you can imagine, I haven’t been the most popular rabbi around,” said Jewish Renewal Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who co-founded the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk as part of her anti-occupation activism.

“Every day in the office we go through our hate mail,” said Surasky, the group’s communication director. “It took me a long time to get used to Jews telling me I should burn in the ovens.”

Jess Weinberg, 36, of Tucson, grew up Conservative and recently spent two years in Israel researching her doctoral dissertation on the Israeli feminist movement. Like many of the younger activists who have grown up in the American Jewish community, she does not accept that Jews can be safe only if there is a Jewish state.

For these and other ideas, she has been called anti-Semitic.

“I’ve had that sentiment thrown at me in one form or another,” she said. “People who know me know I’m not anti-Israeli. My understanding of the situation is formed by Israeli activists.”

Despite the group’s relative isolation, its leaders insist that support for their position is growing, even though few Jews speak out about it. The group’s email list is up to 24,000, a 30 percent jump since last summer’s war in Lebanon.

“We are in every family,” Surasky said.

The important thing, she declares, is to keep the discussion open.

“Feelings are real. My family’s fear because of our history of repression is real,” she said. “I don’t laugh at it. My uncle, grandfather and I all want the same thing — a safe place for Jews. And equality for all people.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].