For most of you the term General Assembly and its abbreviation GA probably denotes the UN’s main body, but for American Jews GA also refers to an additional and entirely different phenomenon. In the Jewish world the GA is the biggest annual meeting of North American Jews, American Jewish organizations and American Jewish leaders. It’s the big dance, the Super Bowl of American Jewish communal and political life. This year’s GA took place this past week in New Orleans and was dubbed NOLAGA, you may have seen twitter traffic with that hash-tag.
So what Sarah? Why are you telling me this?
Well, something happened at NOLAGA on Monday, something that I don’t recall happening at past GAs, something that is making the rounds on the Internet. A group of young Jews who are associated with Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) repeatedly interrupted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s (Bibi’s) keynote address. You may have seen the video on YouTube, or on my blog. And if you haven’t see the video yet I suggest you check it out, the actions of the demonstrators as well as the reactions of Bibi and the crowd are telling.
This incident raises two separate issues for those of us on the left who refuse to exclude Israel from our overarching political paradigm and “be left on everything except Israel”: tactics and message.
The matter of tactics is neither small nor insignificant. For organizations, activists and social movements the tactics they employ, the mode of procedures used for gaining advantage or success, matters a great deal. If one’s tactics do not create an advantage or lead to success they are ineffective, if not counterproductive. I am of two minds when it comes to the tactics employed by the JVP activists at NOLGA. First and foremost, it is always important to speak truth to power, but this principle in and of itself is not a tactic, it is a philosophy for creating just change. When I first watched the Bibi’s speech live on the web I thought, “Good. Right on. That needs to be said. And the mainstream Jewish community needs to hear it.” That’s the rabble-rouser in me.
But on further reflection I’ve come to a second opinion (I am Jewish after all); that such an action was not an effective tactic. I don’t think it accomplished the presumed goal of getting the mainstream audience in attendance to question the normative narrative of Israel prevalent in the American Jewish community. I don’t think that interrupting a speech that an audience is predisposed to agree with is a good way to get that audience to hear your message. The protests not only didn’t change anyone’s mind but they elicited increasingly harsh, silencing, mob behavior and violence. Most of the people in the NOLAGA hall wanted to hear what Bibi had to say. Interrupting him went from an annoyance to a rallying cry to silence any criticism of his message. The tactic was counterproductive in that this specific choice of action made it less likely that the target audience would take the message seriously.
The message on the other hand was strong and clear. It is a message I not only agree with but also hope that more of the Jewish community will come to take seriously. “The loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel.” “The Occupation delegitimizes Israel.” “The settlements delegitimize Israel.” It is Israel’s actions, and not anti-Semitism, that damages Israel’s reputation and standing in the world at large. And it is those same actions that run counter to Jewish values and liberal and progressive politics that leads many Jews to question and criticize Israeli policies and actions. The loyalty oath flies in the face of being a true democracy while the Occupation and the settlements violate international law and human rights.
Yes, we all need to speak truth to power. We all need to say to our leaders both domestically and in Israel that the loyalty oath, Occupation, settlements, home demolitions, home expulsions and Separation Barrier do not represent our values or ideals. Those of us who disagree with those policies must not remain silent, but we also must remember who our audience is and play to them. We need to bring our analysis to them in a way they can interact with, digest, and ultimately embrace. Our message is one that reflects a largely silent majority in the American Jewish community and a significant portion of the Israeli Jewish citizenry; many of Israel’s policies relating to the Occupation are wrong, Israel should change those policies, and we have an obligation to help change those policies.
My favorite musician has a line in one of her songs; “I love my country/ by which I mean/ I am indebted joyfully/ to all the people throughout its history/ who have fought the government to make right/ where so many cunning sons and daughters/ our foremothers and forefathers/ came singing through slaughter/ came through hell and high water/ so that we could stand here/ and behold breathlessly the sight/ how a raging river of tears/ is cutting a grand canyon of light.” That’s the way I feel about both the US and Israel. We have the duty to fight the government to make right, but at the NOLAGA our fight was counterproductive, the message was not heard. We need to retain our message while crafting different tactics that will allow more people to hear it. The GA is the right venue, and we have the right message, now let’s figure out the right tactics. It is not just the message, which most definitely needs to be said, but also how that message is delivered that is important.
Sarah’s conception of who the audience was is a very narrow one, and thus I believe that the premise of her piece and its conclusions are mistaken. She seems to assume the audience was limited to the people at the GA, and seems to exclude the obvious reality that a major part of the goal was to publicize the disruption worldwide, and educate and mobilize people who were not in the room.
The literalmindedness of Sarah’s belief that when you speak truth to power, you have an impact on the people in power is also mistaken.
Lastly, this is an incremental struggle that will go on for years. Speaking at the GA could not have been conceived of as an intervention that would suddenly transform the views of those present. Sarah seems to believe that there is such a transformational intervention possible at this moment in history, and implication in her critique is that she could conceive of it and I imagine therefore lead it. Again, she is way off. The tide is turning slowly, and speaking out the GA was one small current contributing to that shift, on a worldwide basis and at the GA itself.