Five annoying Jewish college kids disrupted a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (GAJFA) held this year in New Orleans. The five are all members of Jewish Voices for Peace, which opposes Israeli policies in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
Groups opposing Israel’s policies had hoped to have a voice at this year’s GAJFA but were refused. A major goal of this year’s assembly was to form The Israel Action Network aimed at combating the BDS campaign and opposing so-called attempts at “delegitimizing” Israel. Mainstream Jewish and pro-Israel organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) view any criticism of Israel as disloyal or worse and frequently accuse critics of being either anti-Semites or “self-hating Jews”. Any criticism of Israel is now described by these groups as nefarious, disguised attempts or campaigns to delegitimize Israel. The aim of The Israel Action Network campaign is to silence Israel’s critics and stop the BDS campaign. Reasoned discourse and dissent about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians apparently no longer have a place in the dialogue of mainstream Jewish organizations in this country.
Fortunately, the “Israel: Right or Wrong” attitude of mainstream Jewish organizations has alienated many younger Jews. Peter Beinart’s widely discussed recent essay in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment“, explores why Israel’s oppressive policies toward the Palestinians cause young American Jews, like the five who spoke out and disrupted Mr. Netanyahu at GAJFA, to feel alienated from Israel.
The GAJFA Five had a simple message: Israel is delegitimized, not by criticism, but by its own bad actions. One by one, at pauses in Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, a young male or female member of the GAJFA Five stood up, held up a banner, and chanted its message clearly and loudly until finally removed, often violently, from the convention floor. The statements were simple, direct, and very annoying to those present:
“The loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel”, “The Loyalty Oath Delegitimizes Israel”
“The siege of Gaza delegitimizes Israel”, “The Siege of Gaza Delegitimizes Israel”
“Silencing dissent delegitimizes Israel”, “Silencing Dissent Delegitimizes Israel”
“The occupation delegitimizes Israel”, “The Occupation Delegitimizes Israel”
“The settlements betray Jewish values”, “The Settlements Betray Jewish Values”
Rai Abileah, a Jewish-American of Israeli descent, was the final member of the GAJFA Five to stand up and protest. By then the crowd of GAJFA Jewish true believers had gone from annoyed to infuriated. Members of the crowd tackled her, one put her into a choke hold, and another shoved a towel into her mouth to gag her. She had deep scratches on her arm inflicted by other crowd members. The audience applauded in appreciation and chanted “Bibi, Bibi, Bibi” in unison in honor of their hero, Mr. Netanyahu. No one, apparently not even mainstream Jews, likes being interrupted and taunted by annoying Jewish college kids.
Despite their rudeness, the GAJFA Five come from a long distinguished lineage of annoying Jews: Annoying Jews who formed and led the labor union movement in this country. Annoying Jews who stood up for Blacks in the South during the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s. Fully half of the participants in the Freedom Rides of the 1960s and Freedom Summer of 1964 were Jewish college kids, annoying Jewish college kids, who, recognizing that Jews and Blacks shared a common history of oppression, could not and would not stand idly by as Black Americans continued to be oppressed by white bigotry in this country. While there were many annoying people from all races and creeds in the civil rights movement, Jewish participation and leadership in civil rights causes has always far exceeded their representation in the greater population which is less than two percent.
Some Jews and many Blacks paid the ultimate price for being annoying during the struggle for Black civil rights. Two Jews, Andrew Goodman, age 20, and Michael Schwerner, age 24, were arrested along with a young Black companion, James Cheney, while trying to organize Black voters in Mississippi in June of 1964. The local sheriff then released the three into the waiting clutches of the Ku Klux Klan, who promptly tortured and executed them then hid their bodies under an earthen dam.
Many of the same annoying Jewish college kids became dominant participants in the Vietnam antiwar movement. Annoying Jewish women were central figures in the suffrage movement and its revival in the 1960s and 1970s. Jewish women, such as Betty Friedan, the intellectual founder of modern feminism, and Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem, and others, were instrumental in the founding of the National Organization of Women, and in the struggle for equality for women in this country.
Loud, annoying dissent by Jewish college kids and their elders is a glorious Jewish tradition in this country. It is a tradition aimed at delegitimizing and stopping oppression, discrimination, racism, and other forms of contemptible social conduct. It is in the noble Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, the duty of Jews to come to the aid of the oppressed and to work to improve the world. The annoying Jewish college kids of the GAJFA Five are the latest proud manifestation of the Tikkun Olam tradition. They see Israeli brutality against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, discrimination and outright racism against Arab citizens of Israel, illegal Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands in Palestine, suppression of dissent in this country, and say “No, this cannot stand; this behavior is incompatible with Jewish values; we will not stand by and permit it to continue; you shall not continue to do this in our name.”
The GAJFA Five stood up to be counted; they spoke truth to the powerful in a convention hall filled with their self-satisfied, well-fed, well-off, misinformed conservative Jewish elders and were physically assaulted and booed out of the auditorium to shouts of “Bibi, Bibi, Bibi…” For shame. Does the tradition and obligations of Tikkun Olam to come to the aid of the oppressed not apply if the oppressors themselves are Jews?
Many of the annoying Jewish college kids who joined and led the successful civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s are now reaching retirement age. They think back fondly to those halcyon days as the high point of their lives, when they stood up and spoke truth to power against oppression and succeeded, penniless and powerless, against all odds, in making great social changes come about. Today they are the parents of the GAJFA Five and all of today’s annoying and enthusiastic Jewish college kids who are alienated by the “Israel: Right or Wrong” attitude of mainstream Jewish organizations.
Unfortunately, many, if not most of these former political activists, now parents, have become part of the great silent majority of American Jews who quietly ignore and remain unheard on the issue of Israel and its conduct toward the Palestinians; Jews who now silently defer to others to speak on their behalf and control the debate. It seems that one symptom of aging may be the gradual ostrichification of the moral conscience. Faced with an uncomfortable moral dilemma? Bury your head in the sand, and the discomfort will subside–for awhile at least.
No wonder these now silent activists of old feel uncomfortable. This is not a case of oppression of Jews by others. Instead, it is the impossible, the unthinkable: the oppression by Jews of others, the oppression by Israeli Jews of Palestinian Muslim Arabs. Standing up and accusing fellow Jews, Israeli Jews. of oppressing others is not a comfortable task, but it is a task that must be done. It is one of those annoying moral imperatives that springs from Tikkun Olam. It is a task perhaps made easier because the silent Jewish majority’s annoying activist children are now leading the way.
Let us hope that this great silent majority of formerly activist American Jews can still be moved and energized by the actions of their annoying children to become again involved in the struggle to aid the oppressed and stop the oppression, this time of the Palestinians by the Jews of Israel. Let us hope this silent Jewish majority is still capable of again becoming annoying Jews who cannot remain complacent and silent in the face of bigotry and repression.
It is an important task that may justify a brief postponement of retirement. Their presence, wisdom and experience is needed. The future and moral legacy of Israel itself is at stake.
Gil Maguire, an annoying Goy, and a semi-retired, civil rights attorney, still occasionally practices in Ventura, California. He is a contributor to www.mondoweiss.net and has a blog called, Irish Moses: – How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself: Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict which you can find at www.irishmoses.com. There you will see his writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as answers to questions such as “Who was the Irish Moses?” and “Why is this annoying Goy so interested in Israel?”