Some Jewish Voice for Peace Members Worry About Workplace Reprisal

At the group’s biannual gathering—which the Israeli government condemned as a “hate conference”—some attendees are concerned about retaliation for their Palestinian solidarity work.

Eli Massey April 10, 2017

JVP member wearing "another Jew supporting divestment" shirt. (Photo by Jewish Voice for Peace)

From March 31 to April 2, approx­i­mate­ly 1,000 peo­ple gath­ered in Chica­go at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place con­ven­tion cen­ter for the bian­nu­al nation­al mem­ber­ship meet­ing of Jew­ish Voice for Peace (JVP), a human-rights group that sup­ports secu­ri­ty and self-deter­mi­na­tion for Israelis and Pales­tini­ans” and oppos­es the Israeli occu­pa­tion. (Note: This author is a mem­ber of JVP Chica­go and vol­un­teered at the conference.)

“I am not on a blacklist yet, and I know I will be soon."

The con­fer­ence fea­tured an array of speak­ers (includ­ing Lin­da Sar­sour, Ras­mea Odeh, Judith But­ler), pan­els and dis­cus­sion groups. One sole pro­test­er from J Street, a lib­er­al pro-Israel orga­ni­za­tion, turned up, and Stand­With­Us, a right-wing, pro-set­tle­ment, pro-Israel orga­ni­za­tion held a vig­il in a suite at the same hotel as the JVP con­fer­ence. Both made clear their dis­sat­is­fac­tion that Odeh was speaking.

In the days lead­ing up to the gath­er­ing, JVP was crit­i­cized in the Chica­go Tri­bune and else­where for host­ing Odeh, a Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er who had been con­vict­ed in an Israeli mil­i­tary court for her alleged involve­ment in a 1969 bomb­ing. (JVP respond­ed to these alle­ga­tions here and here.)

The coals were fur­ther raked when, days before the con­ven­ing, the Israeli gov­ern­ment con­demned the con­fer­ence as a hate con­fer­ence” and denounced a hand­ful of high-pro­file par­tic­i­pants, whose names were near­ly all misspelled.

Because of the immense media cov­er­age and the enflamed polit­i­cal ten­sions around this issue, some indi­vid­u­als were reluc­tant to speak pub­licly about attend­ing the conference.

At past con­fer­ences, indi­vid­u­als who didn’t want to be pho­tographed would indi­cate so with a green stick­er on their name tag. This year, how­ev­er, the orga­ni­za­tion ditched that approach. Pro­vid­ing no-pho­to stick­ers felt like an out­dat­ed recre­ation of the cli­mate of fear and polit­i­cal silenc­ing that peo­ple expe­ri­ence in oth­er polit­i­cal spaces,” says Nao­mi Dann, JVP media pro­gram man­ag­er. She explains that the conference’s goal was to cre­ate a space where peo­ple could be their full polit­i­cal selves confidently.”

Dann cit­ed the unprece­dent­ed size of the gath­er­ing, the grow­ing sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights” and the Boy­cott, Divest­ment, and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment as evi­dence that these polit­i­cal posi­tions are much more wide­ly accept­ed” these days.

While the vast major­i­ty of con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants seemed to agree with Dann’s assess­ment, some, aware of the poten­tial con­se­quences that their atten­dance at the con­fer­ence might have in their pro­fes­sion­al life, agreed to speak with In These Times only on the con­di­tion of anonymi­ty. (To be clear, these indi­vid­u­als were not rep­re­sen­ta­tive; most of the peo­ple in atten­dance did not express con­cern about work­place retaliation.)

One con­fer­ence-goer, a 30-year-old PhD stu­dent at a uni­ver­si­ty in the Mid­west, hopes to enter the teach­ing mar­ket in the near future. 

He wor­ries that his activism would make it more dif­fi­cult for him to get and keep a teach­ing posi­tion, but express­es ambiva­lence about not being more pub­lic with his Pales­tin­ian sol­i­dar­i­ty work. I don’t total­ly know where I stand. I’m sort of pub­lic and sort of not,” he says. It’s a real con­tra­dic­tion, because the work that we do is all about get­ting ideas out there.”

The stu­dent under­stood that the anx­i­ety he and oth­ers in the acad­e­my felt under­mines the pur­pose of our uni­ver­si­ties.” For exam­ple, he admits self-cen­sor­ing his aca­d­e­m­ic work.

On cam­pus he says he hasn’t tak­en on much of a lead­er­ship role in BDS cam­paigns and has stayed qui­eter” at the advice of fac­ul­ty mem­bers. But he rec­og­nizes that it will only be a mat­ter of time before he catch­es the atten­tion of Canary Mis­sion, the Amcha Ini­tia­tive (“Amcha” is Hebrew for your peo­ple”), or anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion that tracks and brands stu­dents and fac­ul­ty involved in Pales­tin­ian sol­i­dar­i­ty work. Such orga­ni­za­tions com­pile dossiers on indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions that fre­quent­ly rely on inci­dents report­ed through web­sites sub­mis­sions forms or by sur­veil­lance of an individual’s social media accounts. Fund­ing struc­tures for these orga­ni­za­tions are often opaque, but when they can be traced are usu­al­ly and unsur­pris­ing­ly linked to pro-Israel donors.

I am not on a black­list yet, and I know I will be soon,” the stu­dent says. 

Anoth­er indi­vid­ual, in his late 20s, works in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the Mid­west and had sim­i­lar con­cerns about per­se­cu­tion by groups like Canary Mis­sion. How­ev­er, he feels con­fi­dent his work­place would sup­port him should he be attacked.

If any­thing did hap­pen I think [my orga­ni­za­tion] would stick up for me,” he says. I’ve built such a strong rela­tion­ship with hun­dreds of mem­bers. I have this rela­tion­ship and this rep­u­ta­tion. If there was an attempt to defame me, I think it would back­fire. It would be fod­der for groups like JVP.”

Even so, this Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty pro­fes­sion­al has embraced a care­ful and cal­cu­lat­ed approach to his advo­ca­cy work. He describes eval­u­at­ing the impact of his Pales­tine activism on his orga­ni­za­tion and the poten­tial dam­age it might have on his work­place relationships.

It’s ok for me to do things just as long as I’m…mindful of the fact that I have a pub­lic per­sona, and [am] being inten­tion­al about not con­flat­ing my affil­i­a­tions and my pol­i­tics and what I do pub­li­cal­ly with the orga­ni­za­tion as a whole,” he says.

He didn’t always feel this way.

After par­tic­i­pat­ing in a civ­il dis­obe­di­ence action in 2014 to oppose the Israeli assault on Gaza, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty pro­fes­sion­al said he thought he was going to lose his job. Since then, he says he speaks with his supe­ri­ors about his Pales­tine activism when he feels unsure as to whether it would have a harm­ful impact on his organization.

Over time I’ve got­ten a bet­ter under­stand­ing from lived expe­ri­ence in the work place, from con­ver­sa­tions that I’ve had with my super­vi­sor, with my exec­u­tive direc­tors, about what is ok to do,” he says. Nonethe­less, this indi­vid­ual cre­at­ed a sec­ond Face­book account the night before the 2014 Gaza war action, which he main­tains to this day, because he doesn’t want to cause his orga­ni­za­tion unnec­es­sary harm.

For an out­sider look­ing in, it’s a com­pli­cat­ed sit­u­a­tion rife with poten­tial con­flict and employ­er over­reach. But for the time being, this Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty pro­fes­sion­al seems con­tent with his arrange­ment. At the last JVP con­fer­ence in 2015, he opt­ed not to be a part of his chapter’s group pho­to. This year he joined the chap­ter for its picture.

Anoth­er indi­vid­ual In These Times inter­viewed was far more pro­tec­tive of her iden­ti­ty. An East Coast­er who also works for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, she ques­tioned In These Times about the pub­li­ca­tion, the sub­stance of the arti­cle and the extent of her anonymi­ty before con­sent­ing to be inter­viewed. She also asked to see her sec­tion of the arti­cle before it was published.

At one point, she observed, In some ways, I feel like you have your inter­view with me right now…that I would be ask­ing you all these questions.”

When asked about her cau­tion, she says, I don’t think I could be fired. I’m not vio­lat­ing any­thing. But I believe that some of my col­leagues would be very uncomfortable.”

While describ­ing her fear of being fired as irra­tional, she does not see it as base­less. In par­tic­u­lar, this Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty pro­fes­sion­al was con­cerned about the vil­i­fi­ca­tion cam­paigns that stu­dents, for exam­ple, face on cam­pus for their Pales­tin­ian sol­i­dar­i­ty work. I don’t want to make myself vul­ner­a­ble [to that],” she explains.

She says her work­place is not a con­ser­v­a­tive one. Most of her cowork­ers do not sup­port Don­ald Trump, and so she attends march­es with­out wor­ry. But the issue of Pales­tine is such a light­ning rod.”

Then again, she ven­tures, Maybe no one would care. It’s just not rel­e­vant to my work.”

She feels the absur­di­ty of her sit­u­a­tion keen­ly: I haven’t done any­thing wrong in my work. I don’t con­flate this. I don’t make this cen­tral to my work when it’s not. I’m not inap­pro­pri­ate…. [But] I got real­ly afraid. That’s crazy.” 

Giv­en the exceed­ing­ly polar­ized polit­i­cal cli­mate, in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in par­tic­u­lar around this issue, it comes as no sur­prise that some indi­vid­u­als are reluc­tant to go pub­lic about their involve­ment with the conference. 

One thing is clear: Regard­less of whether these indi­vid­u­als are war­rant­ed in fear­ing work­place reprisal, their right to free speech has been chilled.

Eli Massey is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, and researcher. His work has has appeared in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Cur­rent Affairs, Jacobin, Mon­doweiss, and else­where. He pre­vi­ous­ly was an intern at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies where he worked on Mid­dle East pol­i­tics and an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. Fol­low him at @EliJMassey
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