Roundtable on the Palestinian solidarity movement and Alison Weir – Adam Horowitz/Mondoweiss
This summer some in the Palestinian solidarity community have been involved in a debate over Alison Weir of If Americans Knew following Jewish Voice for Peace’s decision to not work with her and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation’s decision to ask her organization to leave its coalition due to violation of its anti-racism principles. Several readers have asked why we haven’t covered it and the simple answer is that we have devoted our time and resources to other important news stories which we have viewed as a greater priority, the Iran deal and increase in settler violence to name a few. However, we understand that this site plays a role in the Palestine solidarity movement as a place to reflect and debate, not only on the news of the day but on the movement itself. For that reason we are publishing the following three submissions we received on the division within the movement.
Why Some of Alison Weir’s Work is Antisemitic and Why It Matters
By Jennifer Hitchcock
The recent decisions by Jewish Voice for Peace and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation to end their association with Alison Weir and If Americans Knew has reignited a debate within segments of the Palestinian solidarity movement as to whether expressions of antisemitism and other forms of racism should be tolerated within the movement for Palestinian rights.
Even though both organizations tried to deal with Weir quietly and behind-the-scenes, she chose to publicize their actions, thus compelling both organizations to release statements explaining their decisions. Both organizations also carefully avoided labeling Weir herself as antisemitic.
However, I argue that a significant amount of her work does suggest antisemitism and that, along with her troubling associations and choices of interview platforms, this is a problem.
Some of her supporters online have argued that it is “a waste of time” or a “distraction” to deal with such matters at best—and a “Zionist plot” at worst. Some have questioned the intentions and commitment of JVP and US Campaign to the Palestinian cause. Some well-meaning people who have signed onto a letter in defense of Weir may be unaware of her entire body of work and affiliations or misinformed about the reasons for the actions by JVP and US Campaign.
Those who support these recent decisions to disassociate with her have argued that such actions, though regrettable, are necessary to stay consistent with the anti-racist principles of the movement.
While there are some legitimate points of debate regarding this issue, including where to draw the line for bigoted speech and actions and how to most appropriately address such instances, anti-racist principles need to be applied consistently and universally for the sake of the BDS movement’s ethical coherence and potential for continued growth and success.
A Few Bad Apples
The vast majority of BDS and Palestinian solidarity activists are not antisemitic, and many activists are understandably tired of being constantly charged with antisemitism simply for criticizing Israel or supporting BDS. But anyone who had done significant activist work in the Palestinian solidarity movement would have to admit that the movement does occasionally draw a few unsavory characters here and there, including people who come out of the woodwork online, to defend figures like Gilad Atzmon, Israel Shamir, Greta Berlin, and now Alison Weir.
Many of these people and their supporters don’t seem primarily focused on Palestinian rights and universal anti-racist principles as much as they are on demonizing Israel and Jews. In some cases, they also support “US interests” and can’t seem to see any relation between the settler-colonialism and racism of Israel and the history of the US.
The rare presence of a few of these types does not mean that antisemitism a big problem in the movement or in general. And antisemitism is not as much of a problem in the cause for Palestinian rights as Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism, which are clearly much worse in regard to continued Western and US support for Israeli oppression of Palestinians. And fears of antisemitism are often unfounded and overblown.
However, there is such a thing as real antisemitism out there, and the Palestinian-led BDS movement has a unique antisemitism problem.
It’s not that there is a significant presence of antisemitism within the movement, but that the movement frequently has to deal this charge in a way that has not been the case for other similar anti-colonial and civil rights movements of the past. White apartheid-supporting Afrikaners, American Segregationists, and other colonial and civil-rights-denying Europeans did not enjoy the same level of international sympathy and support for nearly as long as the Israeli regime has.
While sympathy for Jews in Europe and the US has decreased in recent decades as Jewish weakness and persecution has been replaced by Jewish acceptance, success, and influence—and as knowledge of the reality of Israeli oppression of Palestinians becomes more widespread—sympathy for Jews and sensitivity to antisemitism still remains generally strong. The history of antisemitism and Jewish persecution, mainly in Europe, also inspired the Zionist project to begin with and continues to undergird most international support for Israel today.
For BDS to be successful, Palestinian solidarity activists must effectively acknowledge and address the history of antisemitism and sympathy for Zionism—a settler-colonial enterprise that also closely mirrors US history. False charges of antisemitism against BDS may be tiring, but their ability to stifle discussion reveals how effective fears of antisemitism are at maintaining support for Zionism and Israeli colonialism.
The Case Against Weir
So was there any legitimate evidence that Weir has espoused or welcomed racist or antisemitic ideas? The US Campaign includes a well-documented list of the evidence upon which it based its decision, so it seems that there is something to the claims against her, despite the vocal protests of her and her supporters who argue that she has been unfairly accused in a “McCarthyist” manner simply through guilt-by-association.
For example, her 2009 article in CounterPunch (a questionable publication in its own right), “Israeli Organ Harvesting,” which was cited by the US Campaign, focuses on a handful of claims that Israel was harvesting organs from Palestinians in custody. She connects these accounts to other Jewish and Israeli instances of possible illegal organ harvesting and trafficking to infer that there is a pattern of Jews harvesting organs. She then addresses “charges” that this is a “new version of the old anti-Semitic ‘blood libel’” by including an extended discussion of a controversial book in which the author claims that “there were at least a few, possibly many, real incidents” of medieval Jewish ritual uses of the blood of Christian children. Weir clearly makes a point to selectively paint this as an Israeli and Jewish problem, ignoring the fact that organ harvesting is a widespread problem around the world, not just in Israel or Jewish communities.
To emphasize how problematic and antisemitic this narrative is, an analogy may be helpful. Imagine if someone had written a story about an alleged recent rash of sexual assaults by black men against white women in the US. The author ignores cases of sexual assault outside of the African-American community and portrays rape and sexual assault as primarily an African-American problem against white women. And, further, the author includes “evidence” that such assaults were a real, valid concern in the South back when frequent lynchings of black men for these claims were a common form of racial terrorism. Notice a problem?
Given the history of this trope’s use in racial terror against African-Americans—including its role in more recently inspiring terrorist Dylan Roof—would we be willing to overlook the racism in such an article? The history of false rape charges leading to whites lynching blacks parallels how the false charges of blood libel led to the deaths of many Jews in Europe.
This article is just one example of many that point to a larger pattern in Weir’s work. In her follow-up pieces on her blog, in which she stands by the validity of the article, along with many of her other writings and speeches, Weir has a tendency to focus on demonizing Israelis and Jews, rather than framing Zionism in terms of other settler-colonial projects throughout history as most Palestinian solidarity activists do. She is careful to usually say “Zionists” instead of “Jews,” and she also occasionally inserts half-hearted and obligatory disclaimers here and there asserting that she is against antisemitism and that not all Jews support Israeli policies, but a pattern begins to emerge when one looks at her body of work.
Not all of her work and associations suggest antisemitism. In fact, much of her work is completely legitimate and useful, but enough of her work is problematic that it rightfully warrants attention. Notice how I haven’t even brought up any of her associations or discussed most of the other examples presented to justify these decisions.
While it is understandable that someone working for Palestinian rights would develop hostility toward Israel and its advocates, activists must be careful to avoid tolerating, adopting, or repeating classical antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories, lest they end up doing more harm than good to the movement.
There are plenty of very real and credibly well-documented hardships and patterns of discrimination faced by Palestinians that activists can focus on without invoking antisemitic rhetoric: ethnic cleansing, land confiscation, settlement construction, home demolitions, curfews, checkpoints, regular night raids, administrative detention (including of children), torture, the siege and deadly assaults on Gaza, and myriad other forms of collective punishment and denial of human rights.
Why Does Any of this Matter and How Should It Be Addressed?
Alison Weir and her advocates have now launched an aggressive campaign on her behalf that includes some harsh counterattacks against JVP and the US Campaign. Some of her supporters have even claimed that JVP is run by ADL-style Zionists and that Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign is a “Zionist agent.” Such attacks are unfortunate. These Jewish allies have been essential parts of the movement. JVP activists have been indispensable at helping to get most divestment initiatives passed in universities, religious organizations, and other institutions across the US. These Jewish allies are not secret Zionists working to undermine the movement. They are essential partners that have fully endorsed the BDS Call and who consciously use their privileged position as Jews in the US to help shield the BDS movement from charges of antisemitism. Jewish BDS activists are also disproportionately represented in the movement.
Jewish feelings and “sensibilities” are not more important than the rights and feelings of Palestinians. But these activists are not people who are overly sensitive to criticism of Israel. Most of them are harsh critics of Zionism and Israel themselves. Thus, it seems unethical, unwise, and ignorant for Weir’s supporters to blow them off so easily and try to tarnish their intentions and dedication to the movement. The vast majority of Palestinian solidarity and BDS activists recognize this.
While antisemitic or racist speech and actions should not be ignored, condoned, or promoted, neither should someone be shunned simply for making a couple of questionable statements, especially when taken out of context. If someone makes an honest mistake or words a statement poorly out of haste or ignorance, then they should certainly not be written off. But people should also be willing and open to listen, apologize, and try to change their behavior to align more with anti-racist values when someone points it out to them.
Perhaps this all could have ended quietly if Weir had respectfully listened to the years of complaints from other activists and made more of an attempt to adjust the way she frames her statements and her choice of interview platforms. If she had, she probably would have been given the benefit of the doubt. But Alison Weir has remained defiant, and her and many of her supporters don’t seem to want to even entertain the notion that publicly associating with openly racist and antisemitic people like Clayton Douglas or publishing assertions about the possible “truth” and “evidence” behind the classically antisemitic blood libel charge might possibly be hurtful to Jewish activists and understandably perceived as antisemitic to most of the world.
The Steven Salaita case at UIUC is a good example of why it is wrong to take a couple of tweets out of context to try to paint someone as anti-Semitic whose body of work clearly demonstrates otherwise. Context is required. That is why JVP and the US campaign looked at context and multiple examples over time to make and justify their decisions, and why Ali Abunimah and Bekah Wolf did their research before calling out Greta Berlin. It is fine to discuss and debate these decisions, but it is more counterproductive and a waste of time to continue supporting individuals who have repeatedly demonstrated an affinity for racist or antisemitic speech than it is to call out such people whose presence will hurt the movement.
While reading Weir’s defense of her position and counter-attack of JVP, one is struck by how much she focuses on herself and how little she focuses on the stated goals of Palestinian activists and leaders. White allies need to be willing to defer to the goals and desired strategies of the BNC and other Palestinian activists rather than focusing primarily on their own agendas and reputations. Palestinians don’t need white saviors. They need white allies who will support rather than undermine the movement.
Not only is universally abiding by an anti-racist platform what Palestinian BDS activists have asked for repeatedly, but it is also more morally and ethically consistent for a nonviolent social justice movement—and ultimately much smarter in the court of public opinion, as most Palestinians are well aware.
Activists can and should debate when and how to most effectively address such instances. It is also legitimate to expect thorough research of the context and content of questionable behavior before taking action. It is, however, unfortunate but necessary to deal with these people to prevent them from tarnishing the credibility of the movement as a whole.
Jennifer Hitchcock has participated in Palestinian solidarity activism in the Washington D.C. area and is currently pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric, Writing, and Discourse Studies at Old Dominion University, working on a dissertation analyzing BDS discourse. She also produced and directed the 2011 documentary, Dreams Deferred: The Struggle for Peace and Justice in Israel and Palestine.
By Susan Landau
This posting is inspired by concern regarding the impact of three recent events on our movement for justice in Palestine: the process which led to the decision by the steering committee and board of Jewish Voice for Peace to sever all ties with If Americans Knew and its Executive Director, Allison Weir, which was then communicated in an internal email to local JVP chapters and also to If Americans Knew; the decision by the US Campaign to End the Occupation to expel If Americans Knew from its coalition; and the action of an ally in our movement, Allison Weir, who took her defense to the public domain, presumably feeling under attack with no other recourse.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I am a longtime member of the US Campaign to End the Occupation and a current member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Over many years, I have used research and information made available from If Americans Knew in educating others and myself about Palestine.)
I bring to activism a healthy regard for personal relationships, interpersonal and group dynamics, and communication. Life is a series of experiences from which we learn and grow as individuals, with detours and missteps as part of this non-linear process. So too it is with activism and organizational life. The synergy in building a movement for social change inspires comradery, creativity, and action emanating from the highest level of being human. Political connections provide support, meaning, purpose, and fuel solidarity and collaborative work for a better world.
I’m convinced that an appreciation of the impact of one’s words and actions has relevance and applicability beyond my psychotherapy office. People with different perspectives can build understanding by responsibly speaking and listening with compassion, without blame or judgment. This process helps families, friendships, and couples navigate difficult terrain. The template is readily transferable to our political groups.
How do we respond when a person or group within our movement does or says something that is seen as irresponsible and damaging to our collective work? All movements walk the fine line of building broad coalitions around shared demands without abandoning the visions of social justice that extend beyond those demands. There is no magic bullet for how to build a movement for justice in Israel-Palestine and promote our universal core values.
As activists, public shaming is a time honored and effective toolkit of choice employed against our external enemies: war criminals, racist cops, greedy corporate bosses, and other unsavory characters. What culture do we create when we use similar tactics on each other? Is there another way?
Palestine solidarity work is guided by a vision that Jews and Palestinians can eventually live together in Palestine, implement the Right of Return, and create a stable society with justice, equality, and peace. It doesn’t bode well for this outcome when groups doing solidarity work can’t get along
Just as some couples that enter therapy cannot resolve their differences, organizational splits may sometimes be inevitable. The process of engagement around differences is the heart of the matter here. Individuals as well as organizations have core values, boundaries that define who they are, that cannot be negotiated or violated. The cost paid when people or groups dig their heels in, alternating between criticism and defensive posturing is far reaching and outlives the conflict itself.
We are all familiar with accepted ground rules for taking personal responsibility in difficult conversations. When individuals or groups create safe spaces for honest engagement, everyone emerges with a deeper understanding of each other’s position, how things got to where they are, what can be changed, and what cannot. The integrity of all parties is intact. When splits occur, they are clean. Hopefully, everyone learns and moves forward with good will and minimal baggage.
Of course solidarity groups should conscientiously and vigilantly monitor and oppose anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, and racism. That organizations must respond to these oppressive thought structures is unambiguous; how we go about doing this is less clear.
Differences within our movement exist; we stifle them to our peril.
In an attempt to build and protect the integrity of our movement for justice in Palestine, galvanize our collective political power without compromising core values, and to learn from recent events, consider:
By what standards do we judge other solidarity activists?
What criteria do we set for messaging, actions, and collaboration, as well as for how we treat each other?
What are the parameters of engagement with people who don’t share our worldview?
How do recent splits impact the movement in general, and specifically allies who continue to work with IAK?
How do we make our Palestine solidarity activism and our communication nonviolent?
These are real questions. The urgency to reach, teach, and preach beyond the choir is now.
Let’s really talk to each other.
Lest we implode.
Susan Landau is a practicing psychotherapist who offers workshops on “Difficult Conversations” to both faith-based and secular groups as part of her commitment to educate, organize, and advocate as a non-Zionist Jew for a justice in Palestine-Israel.
Why I think JVP and the US Campaign are making a mistake regarding Alison Weir
By Russ Greenleaf
On June 15, 2015, the national office of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) publicly accused Alison Weir of endorsing anti-Semitism. On July 16, 2015, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation (USCEIO) publicly repeated the same accusation. The accusations by JVP and USCEIO are very similar, so for convenience I will refer them together as “JVP’s accusations.”
JVP’s accusations against Weir echo previous accusations made in two articles by Spencer Sunshine, titled, “Campus Profile – Alison Weir: If Americans Knew” (2014) and “Drawing Lines against Racism and Fascism” (March 5, 2015). Sunshine wrote those articles for the left think tank Political Research Associates (PRA).
Sunshine said the goal of his articles was to explain why “Far Right actors should not be allowed to participate in progressive circles, [and to] suggest criteria regarding where the line should be drawn in defining which politics are problematic enough to take action against.”
His articles are a major attack against Alison Weir, in which he classifies her as a right-winger who should be excluded from progressive circles. His 2014 article contains many of the same accusations JVP is making against Weir, including:
- She has addressed right-wing audiences.
- She was interviewed four times on Clayton Douglas’s radio show “The Free American.”
- She was interviewed once by “The American Free Press” radio show.
Sunshine’s article also recycles several Zionist propaganda attacks against Weir, including one by CAMERA. He says Weir’s focus on “the so-called Israel lobby in the United States” is evidence of her anti-Semitism. He condemns Weir for saying,“Israel’s core identity is based on ethnic and religious discrimination.” He says that statement is evidence of Weir’s anti-Semitism. (By Sunshine’s criteria, JVP would be anti-Semitic.)
JVP’s accusations against Weir seem identical to one of the accusations in Sunshine’s article: that because Weir has given interviews to right-wing radio shows, it means she is a right-wing anti-Semite who should be excluded from progressive circles. Both Sunshine and JVP have looked for reasons to exclude her, and both have decided that guilt by association is a good-enough reason. (In this case, association means being interviewed by a radio show.)
If JVP wants to say that people should only speak to progressive audiences, it has a right to say so.
But unless JVP has hard evidence that Weir has made anti-Semitic statements, it should not join Sunshine and others in accusing her of anti-Semitism, explicitly or by innuendo. I think JVP should not participate in what is clearly a long-running campaign in progressive circles to accuse Weir of anti-Semitism in order to delegitimize her and undermine her effectiveness as a Palestine solidarity activist. (This dovetails with a similar campaign in Zionist circles.)
JVP should be willing to live and let live.
Weir is educating broad audiences which JVP will not reach (including right-of-center audiences that are not racist or extremist.) I have never seen any anti-Semitism in Weir’s talks, writings, or interviews – including the ones that JVP cited as evidence against her. Close inspection of JVP’s evidence reveals no anti-Semitism by Weir.
JVP’s evidence consists of the fact that Weir was interviewed by two right-wing radio shows that air racist views. JVP says that during those interviews it has “not seen evidence that she has disavowed, debated, or challenged the thinking of any of these outlets,” and she “has consistently chosen to stay silent when given the opportunity to challenge bigotry.”
But when one actually listens to the Clayton Douglas interview of Weir that JVP cites as evidence, it is clear that she is speaking up to challenge bigotry. She can be heard cautioning Douglas to not make sweeping negative statements about Jews. She can be heard challenging bigotry and promoting tolerance multiple times throughout the interview.
What is left of JVP’s argument is guilt by association, based on the fact that Weir allowed herself to be interviewed at all. Those interviews are a small fraction of all the interviews Weir has given. The vast majority of her interviews have been given to progressive or mainstream audiences. Weir does not vet the media outlets that ask for interviews. Her stated policy is to talk to anyone who will listen, and to challenge racism when she hears it. That appears to be exactly what she has done.
In reality, Weir marched in the civil rights movement and continues to speak out against racism and anti-Semitism today. JVP and USCEIO have not offered any credible evidence that she has made (or endorsed) anti-Semitic statements. They seem to be repeating false accusations from a Zionist propaganda article.
I think it hurts the Palestinian cause when JVP tries to undermine the efforts of a sister Palestine solidarity activist just because her message and approach are not the same as those of JVP.
JVP and USCEIO are doing to Weir the same thing that J Street did to JVP regarding BDS: spending time and effort to delegitimize and oppose a sister group that is doing something that will help end the occupation. It’s fine to say you don’t share their approach. But it’s not OK to go out of your way to delegitimize them and obstruct their efforts to end the occupation.
JVP and USCEIO should stop, and should make peace with Alison Weir. Their divisive attacks are harming the Palestine solidarity movement and harming the reputations of JVP and USCEIO.
Russ Greenleaf is a Jewish peace activist and writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He started the Louisville Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and is currently a member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Kentucky.