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.)
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 “Providing no-photo stickers felt like an outdated recreation of the climate of fear and political silencing that people experience in other political spaces,” says Naomi Dann, JVP media program manager.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.