When Vancouver-based songwriter and musician Daniel Maté wrote on his public Facebook page that he had declined an invitation from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver to accompany some singers on Yom Hazikaron, since he “couldn’t in conscience do that as long as we don’t honor the far more numerous victims of the terror ‘our’ side inflicts,” he received an invitation from an Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) member to get involved in their group.
Sarah Levine was that IJV member. “It’s important to me to stand with other Jews who are working for Palestinian human rights,” she told me. “I think we have a particular role as Jews to think critically about Zionism, since the state of Israel often claims that it does things ‘in our name’ and with our support.”
Along the political spectrum of Jewish groups in Canada devoted to matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine, IJV – which bills itself as a human rights organization – tries to carve out a space rejecting traditional Zionist principles. In an organized Jewish community where conservative positions on Israel prevail, this doesn’t make it many friends.
Writing in the Huffington Post, IJV campaigns coordinator Tyler Levitan cites the silent treatment he regularly receives from an array of Jewish institutions when he seeks to publicly debate issues including Jewish National Fund discriminatory land-lease policies and the boycott, divestment and sanction movement. IJV considers BDS “a last resort,” as the group’s website says, and, while most observers would characterize IJV as anti-Zionist, it says that it “does not define itself in terms of Zionism.”
I spoke with Levitan. “Eroding that support base [for political Zionism] would be weakening the glue that binds the community,” he said. “That’s the fear. But we at IJV feel that having difficult and honest conversations is what makes the community stronger.”
For several years, I’ve watched IJV operate from close quarters. As a self-defined progressive Zionist, I have not signed onto IJV’s platform. But, as someone who values serious debate within the Jewish community, I have twice participated in an IJV-hosted forum. Mostly, I find it a sign of community weakness that most of the engines of the Jewish community attempt to shut IJV out of the conversation entirely.
Some Jewish papers (namely this one and the Jewish Post & News in Winnipeg) are open to including IJV perspectives, but the Canadian Jewish News and the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin keep a wide berth around IJV. Yoni Goldstein, CJN’s editor, will not grant IJV editorial space. As Goldstein put it, “… even though we promote inclusion as a virtue, there are limits to how inclusive we’re willing to be. Abetting BDS and rejecting Israel’s future as a Jewish state crosses the line.” Goldstein added: “Independence has its benefits, but the comfort of community is not usually one of them.”
With the exception of the Peretz Centre in Vancouver and the Winchevsky Centre in Toronto, no Jewish community locale will host IJV events – or even rent space to them, according to Levitan. But they’re not giving up on trying to be heard within Jewish community walls. “We’re persistent,” he said.
To reject Zionism indeed does place IJV outside of the mainstream community tent. It is this way, but should it be?
Like all political “isms,” Zionism’s meaning comes from the effects of the policies with which it is associated. While the debate between statist Zionism and those who foresaw other possible arrangements for Jewish liberation in the early 20th century was robust and active, non-Zionist voices receded as Jewish statehood emerged. But now, almost seven decades later, Israel is in crisis. It may be time to ask whether Jewish privilege should be rolled back in favor of some more inclusive and democratic arrangement. A frightened community, however, may view this very question as akin to treason.
IJV’s adherence to the Palestinian right of return is the biggest stumbling block for those who support Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. But even here, consider the wording on IJV’s website: “Peace will only be possible when Israel acknowledges the Palestinian refugees’ right of return and negotiates a just and mutually agreed solution based on principles established in international law, including return, compensation and/or resettlement.”
Any solution – even a two-state one – will likely involve some return, some compensation and some resettlement. While IJV does speak in terms of “rights,” in practice we might see their call as somewhat more pragmatic than many assume.
The thing is, even reasoning out these complicated dilemmas as I’m trying to do here is well-nigh impossible as long as groups like IJV remain excluded by the sort of herem (excommunication) with which they’ve been saddled. One thing on which Levitan and mainstream Jewish community leaders seem to agree is that there’s a lot of fear. And, sadly, we know all too well the kinds of politics to which fear can give rise.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is a columnist for Canadian Jewish News and contributes to Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications.