Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Look for the black and yellow logo. People keep giving to the other Citations Needed. Don’t do that. Give to us. I had another friend recommend our podcast to someone else and they listened to the other one. I want to apologize for that. We probably should not have used that name, so be cognizant of that and give to our Patreon, you know, help us out.
Nima: It keeps the show going, guys.
Adam: I’m just kidding. But really do it.
Nima: So this is actually going to be, this is Part II of our deep-ish dive into Israel/Palestine. The common tropes and narratives that we hear, the talking points, the reiterated phrases that are ubiquitous in our media and our political discourse, which include ‘Middle East Peace Process’, ‘two state solution’, ‘honest broker’. We’ve broken a lot of that down in the first episode. I would urge everyone listening to this episode, if you have not yet heard last week’s, please go listen to it. Um, you may very well enjoy it.
Adam: Go listen to it. This one’s going to be a little bit non sequitur if you don’t go listen to that one, so go listen to it. Go back and listen to the previous episode, please.
Nima: Please. And, so, we were joined last week by Noura Erakat, human rights attorney and Assistant Professor at George Mason University. It was amazing to talk to her. This week we will be joined by Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice For Peace.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: The interesting thing about Israel and about, maybe about Jewish people in general, is that you get to sort of be the David and Goliath. So you maintain your sense of victimhood while also having a lot of power. We as JVP and we as the Jewish community who want to see real fundamental shift in the way that we see these issues and not believing that a Jewish home necessitates or could ever justify the repression of another people. We really need to be pushing on that. And not allow people’s sense of victimization, which especially for white Jews here in the United States is not based in the reality of our positionality anymore that we really need to be pushing back against that sense of victimization, which is then used to justify any sort of action and having the power to implement those things.
Nima: So, before we get to our interview with Rebecca, we just want to recap a little bit of what we talked about last week.
Adam: Generally, the narrative around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that comes up a lot, it’s a central part of American politics. U.S. is a major sponsor of Israel both in terms of funding and arming. It is a central point of conflict in the quote unquote ‘Middle East’ and time and again it’s surrounded, it’s sort of shrouded in these vague terms and we deal a lot in language in this show. So we wanted to sort of get into the weeds of them. One of them is the idea of the ‘two state solution’, which is something every good high minded liberal and every moderate and even conservative in this country is supposed to support. Right you need a ‘two state solution’. Everyone from George W. Bush to John Kerry to-
Nima: Barack Obama.
Adam: Barack Obama. The ‘two state solution’, right? It’s this thing, it’s this mantra and then the not so distant cousin of that is the ‘peace process’, it’s called the ‘peace process.’
Nima: Which is how you get to the ‘two state solution’.
Adam: Yeah, and you can go to Wikipedia and look at the Israeli-Palestinian peace process section. It’s a process, it’s happening. The general theme of the show was dissecting these terms and how they’ve kind of become thought-terminating clichés that prevent us from having an honest discussion about what’s really going on and I think the world would benefit greatly if the term ‘peace process’ and ‘two state’ solutions would be flushed down the toilet and we can have to grapple with the reality instead of letting these terms kind of do the thinking for us. In Part I, which again you should listen to, we really went into the weeds about that and the history of that.
Nima: So, today we will be speaking with Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. She’s going to join us in just a sec.
Nima: Joining us now is Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. So great to talk to you, Rebecca.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Thanks so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, thank you for coming on our show. The episode is focusing on some of the, um, I guess tropes and sort of shorthand people use to describe what we’re sort of generically calling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but of course even that’s problematic because it implies a degree of symmetry.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right.
Adam: Primarily we’re focusing on two things, the ‘peace process’ and it’s antecedent the ‘two state solution’. Can you talk about what the gap is between what people hear when they hear things like ‘peace process’ and what the reality is from your organization’s perspective?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yes, of course. Um, so yeah, I think one of the interesting things about the word ‘peace process’ is that it’s a phrase that’s been used by both Israel and the United States to imply that there is a negotiation happening when actually nothing is happening and at the same time as facts on the ground are changing so that Israel has more and more control over land and people. And I think actually one of the interesting things that’s happened in the last few months is that the Trump administration has sort of proven without a shadow of the doubt, because we have David Friedman, who’s a settler, who was the ambassador to Israel. Of course, we have Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who also has given money to settlements. We have Trump himself who declared Jerusalem, unilaterally, the capital of Israel. So I think one of the things that’s actually positive that’s happened because of all these things, obviously it’s caused a lot of pain in Israel/Palestine itself, but what’s one of the things that’s happened is it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the United States actually is not an ‘honest broker’ and has taken the side of Israel. And the fact that the United States actually gives more military aid to Israel than any other country in the world, that we give economic and diplomatic support Israel pretty much regardless of what they’re doing, that we actually played that role of allowing Israel to continue its policies, that’s becoming more and more clear, I think, in the public narrative. And so I do see that as a positive outcome of a really bad move on the part of the Trump administration.
Nima: Yeah, definitely. I think something we’ve been, we’ve been talking about on this show in particular is those kind of ubiquitous, perennial death knells for the ‘two state solution’, the, uh, you know, “Ooo, time is running out, better get a deal because otherwise”, you know, and then it goes like, dot dot dot. And the answer is obviously, like, apartheid, but they don’t really like to say that all that much. And then when anyone from Jimmy Carter or John Kerry actually says that word in addition to, you know, dozens of Israeli writers, journalists, politicians who have already said this, um, but somehow that’s like some big mystery here in the United States. Can you talk about how we’re always on the cusp of losing this perfect deal that will then bring magical peace and harmony to Palestine and what that signifies how, like, what is the purpose of always saying we’re really close but not quite there?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right. It’s a great question because I think, again, the word ‘peace process’ and the way that two states is used as sort of this litmus test for the ‘peace process’. What it basically does is just enable the status quo to remain. So if you’re ‘waiting on a peace process’ and you’re ‘trying to allow the peace process to run its course’ and ‘things have to be negotiated in the final rounds of the peace process’, you know, those are the sentences you hear over and over again, then basically the idea is it’s okay what’s happening right now because there’s going to be this ‘peace process’. You can’t see my air quotes, but you know there’s going to be this ‘peace process’ where things are going to get solved. But the reality is that ‘peace process’ is first of all, so enormously unbalanced that’s impossible for anything good to come out of it for the Palestinians and also as the peace, this quote ‘peace process’ is continuing, Israel is creating facts on the ground more and more and more and more settlers, um, which now number, you know, getting close to the million people mark, which makes it impossible for certainly for a two state solution, but also for any just solution potentially. So now have settlements all over the West Bank and the whole area completely, you know, bifurcated by, um, Israeli security, Israeli-only roads and all the sorts of things that make actually do make the, the, the idea of a two state solution sort of ludicrous.
Adam: Yeah. So we, earlier in the show, we discussed the, um, the raw numbers in terms of settlement increases. Uh, they’re up about 9X, um from 2008, uh, almost hitting that million mark. Uh, they’re strategically placed throughout Palestine to prevent a contiguous Palestinian state. Um, you know, that obviously speaks to intent and the Netanyahu government has gotten behind a hundred percent settlements um of what they call ‘Judea and Samaria’. So, in terms of faith, in terms of reading good and bad faith, it seems like the people who are actually involved, no one really takes the peace process seriously and it’s this canard our media has to sort of maintain because to not do that is to play the tape to the end, which is two options, which is either a one state solution or full on ethnic cleansing. Does JVP have a one state solution policy or is it sort of, I mean, are you kind of still open to the idea of two states in theory or is that…?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah, we are. We don’t have a position on one state or two state. And you know, I should also say that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement doesn’t either.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And I think actually I would love to see the whole framework of the number of states being the judgment of whether they’re going to be just or fair to people to be gone entirely because actually there are settlers who would love to see a one state solution. You know, just a total annexation and apartheid state with second-class citizenship for Palestinians. And that would be a one state solution.
Adam: Yeah, sure.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: You know or there’s like a one bi-national, secular democratic state. And similarly with two states, at least theoretically, like I was saying before, it gets harder and harder all the time to imagine it, but at least theoretically, it could be possible to have two states where um, theoretically again, where, you know, where that, where everybody’s rights could be respected, but it’s very, very hard to imagine under the current circumstances. Um, and then of course, what seems much more likely to happen is a series of very tiny Bantustans which have no, no autonomy whatsoever. Um, and then there’s the, you know, of course other kinds of solutions that people are talking about like federations and confederations and various different ways of putting things together. I think that are you know interesting. At least it’s good that there’s different ideas being talked about. So, so yeah, so I think the whole framework of the number of states, it’s actually we should be talking about rights as opposed to number of states. And I think the whole discourse would shift actually if we were talking about rights. And I think it would actually also be very helpful for an American audience thinking of it as like a civil rights discourse and a human rights discourse as opposed to a discourse about a number of states, I think is a very abstract to people and also feeds into that peace process, um, narrative. You know.
Adam: I think the, the thing where the states comes into play is that because the two state solution is sort of this mindless mantra, from you know good liberals to George H.W. Bush even Netanyahu says he wants two states.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Mhmm.
Adam: That it assumes that, it effectively puts the blame on Palestinians for not having a Palestine because they haven’t done all these sort of, you know, they haven’t accepted Israel is a Jewish state, which is, you know, as opposed to a state for Jews, which if you do that as effectively accepting its own de-legitimacy and its own, its own extermination. And of course, you know, even when they do accept it as a Jewish state nominally, like Hamas has done. It doesn’t matter. There’s always some other thing they have to do. Um, so I think the thing is that, the reason why it seems interesting to me is because will Israel or Netanyahu ever truly allow an independent Palestinian state with its own security and own military and own missile systems? I think that’s never going to happen and it seems deeply Pollyannish of have anyone to kind of assume that it will. I think to the extent there ever is a Palestinian state, it’ll be simply an iteration of what you have now, which is kind of like a viceroy-ship of patsies and kind of like PA, a collaborators-
Nima: Like a Vichy Palestine.
Adam: Yeah. Um, I know that just simply due to the fact that there’s so much power asymmetry and technological asymmetry-
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Exactly.
Adam: To me that’s, it seems why the ‘two state solution’ is kind of a rhetorical dead end. Again, theoretically I think it’s perfectly fine in the sense that it’s already kind of done, but it seems about as likely as North Dakota becoming Native American territory and everyone leaving.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah. I do think we need to separate out the I, the, I get the theoretical idea of two states from the ‘peace process’, which is, which is supposedly moving towards two states and that, like you said, that’s completely, um, you know, not real.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And also, like you said, a lot of myths have evolved around it. Like Israel keeps the ‘partner for peace’ and, you know, there’s, you know, there’s all these sort of like things about the ways the Palestinians have not, supposedly not been present at the table, which are really often exactly the opposite of, of the truth. So I think there’s all those pieces, of course.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think all those are these constant, constant talking points that we hear, and obviously our politics and also repeated in our press. I mean it’s like all these things or are these kinds of inverted realities, but talking about ‘reality’, that’s a word that has kind of come back into the discourse a little bit with the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And you know, a lot of the talking points surrounding that. Um, that decision in direct contravention of international law is that, “Well, hey look, it’s just the reality on the ground.” Do you think that that quote unquote ‘acknowledgement of reality’ can push toward a more just solution then the short term or maybe the long run because it actually is knocking down some of these canards or is it just going to be more illegality, more suffering, more colonization?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah, no, I think you know, it’s actually interesting. It’s one of the things that drives me most crazy about the Israeli discourse. Um, you know, when it comes up most often around the city of Ariel, which sort of bisects the West Bank and it’s become like a, a pretty good size Israeli city in the middle of the West Bank and people say all the time, it’s like, “Well the reality is Ariel is going to stay part of Israel.” And it’s just like, just because you say you want it to be doesn’t mean it should be or can be. And, you know, I think it was Ali Abunimah who first started talking about this analogy of the, you know, the people who are, you know, and it was about the ‘peace process’ also and the settlements and saying like, you know, “We’ll share this pizza as soon as we’re done thinking, as soon as we’re done with this conversation, but in the meantime you’re eating the pie.”
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And so like, when you turned it to reality of course the people who have the most power are the ones who are going to win, you know, because they have the ability to control reality. And I think you were asking earlier about um, the fact that Netanyahu, and I would have to say like, obviously, is what our policies are not just under the Netanyahu government, it’s been under every single government, whether Labor or Likud or any of the other parties. So it’s, it’s pretty, um, a pretty unified view, you know, throughout Israeli history.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: But you know, I don’t think that there’s the, the change is going to come internally and that’s why there is a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in the whole purpose of it is to put pressure on it from outside. So just like in South Africa, you of course have a movement from the inside as well, but that the idea is that there, there’s gonna need to be pressure from the outside and that’s what we hear all the time from both Israeli and, Israelis and Palestinians who are supporting this movement is like, “Look, it’s not going to happen here.” And you can see the Israeli government is moving further and further to the right. Um, and so there needs to be a counter, a counter weight, um, that pushes back against that.
Nima: What we hear, I think, all the time directly in response to what you just said is this idea of, “You need this outside influence.” And part of that is also because Israel is a very much internationally created place. You hear from Israeli politicians a lot, “Oh, just, you know, leave us alone and we will figure it out.” But it’s like they’re not talking about then not getting $3.3 billion dollars in weapons every year.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right. Right.
Nima: They’re not talking about relinquishing the U.S. veto in the Security Council. They’re not talking about all of these things that are relied on, dating all the way back to 1947, ’48, I mean with it, with the Partition Plan, with international jurisdiction for Jerusalem with recognition immediately from the Truman government in May of ’48, like, all of these things have kind of built up Israel as this place that needs this, most often Western European and certainly American support, and so the idea that change is going to come from within when it was never designed to change. This is currently in effect the Zionist dream and it, and it is working out. This is not a bastardization of what the dream was and I think that there are certain commentators like Peter Beinart who are almost there, like you almost want to be like-
Adam: Yeah, Peter Beinart is always almost there.
Nima: It’s like ‘you’re so close and all you have to do is just kind of give up that last-’
Adam: He’s like that last guy like in the fourth grade who still believes in Santa Claus. Like, the last one you had to like talk around them while rolling your eyes.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Well, I mean, as someone who cares about, like, and thinks that’s important, the way the Jewish community moves. I think he’s a super interesting and worthwhile person to be reading because I think he’s like honestly grappling with these issues and he is moving, you know, it’s, it’s sometimes frustrating cause it’s two steps forward, one step back. But I also see the evolution of his thinking as and as sort of a representative of a certain kind of Jewish establishment. Um, I think he’s a real bellwether for the way things are moving.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And that’s worthwhile.
Adam: Yeah, okay.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And I think you know when you were talking about the fact that Israel is sort of both reliant on U.S. aid but also pretends to be independent and that they don’t want any help, it kind of reminds me of the discourse around welfare in this country where, you know, people, and again, so much of this is created by the media, you know, that you have the idea that individuals shouldn’t be getting handouts from the government, but of course, you know, farms are getting subsidies and military contractors are getting kickbacks and corporations can pay people minimum wage because they get food stamps, you know, in all the ways that those kinds of conversations and flat narratives and the media obfuscate the reality.
Adam: Um, as the resident gentile here, I have a question.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: (Laughing) I always love a question that starts that way! It’s gonna go great.
Adam: So, there’s the issue of like, of Jewish self-determination, this is sort of a very common, even kind of quasi left-wing argument, that if Israel becomes one state, it’ll cease to have a Jewish identity, which of course is an ethno-nationalist argument at its core, um, but they would say, of course, you know, Japan is an ethno-nationalist country, Sweden’s an ethno-nationalist country, which is sort of a true, abstractly. Of course, Japan and Sweden didn’t build their countries on another country, but that’s one of the major differences here. To what extent do you feel like that, the, that that fear of losing a kind of proverbial, sort of Jewish Alamo, a place you can always sort of go and defend yourself from the forces of anti-Semitism that seems to be part of that paranoia. Um, to what extent can organizations like yours and other, another, I guess sort of even Jewish American organization sort of ameliorate those fears and do you feel like those fears are justified or is it just kind of racist paranoia about what a, what a multi-racial, equal rights Israel would look like in the future?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: You know, the short answer is yes. To all of it. You know what I mean like a lot of it is just racist paranoia and some of that racist paranoia is also based in people’s real true histories of trauma. Um, and I think certainly people’s sense of Jewish communal people hood needs to be protected but it certainly not at the expensive and another people. And so I think there’s like a sort of amalgam there. Um, you know, and I think one of the things I’ve recently I saw that was, has been interesting is that the interesting thing about Israel and about, maybe about Jewish people in general, is that you get to sort of be the David and Goliath. So you maintain your sense of victimhood while also having a lot of power. We as JVP and we as the Jewish community who want to see real fundamental shift in the way that we see these issues and not believing that um a Jewish home necessitates or could ever justify the repression of another people. We really need to be pushing on that. And not allow people’s sense of victimization, which especially for white Jews here in the United States, is not based in the reality of our positionality anymore that we really need to be pushing back against that sense of victimization, which is then used to justify any sort of action and having the power to implement those things. You know. And again, here I’m a little bit maybe mixing up Jewishness and Israelness, which I always try very carefully not to do, but I do think there’s a psychological, um, connection between them even though I think it’s very important to keep those, those identities very separate actually, and that’s a separate conversation, but that sense both of like fear and power mixed up together I think is a dangerous combination that we need to fight back against. And you know, the, the size of Israel’s military is a real true fact. It can’t be avoided. And to talk, we need to be able to talk about that.
Nima: It’s actually a very fundamentally American thing, as well. That David and Goliath, that Americans are still the victims of the world, always battling back, always scrappy and meanwhile the only superpower. So I think you can see some of that political affinity in some of that. Also nation building mythmaking, which comes from colonial societies.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yes. Yes.
Nima: I mean, I think that that it’s fundamental to colonial societies and Israel and the United States are both that.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And I think that’s why the narrative is so powerful in this country because people identify with it. Essentially.
Adam: I mean, the Birthright trip is basically, I mean, half Holocaust. It’s born from a real trauma that’s very recent.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yes.
Adam: And I think that can be somewhat emotionally stirring. And of course this is something that organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, they traffic in a lot, uh, this conflation of attacking the state of Israel with attacking Jews as sort of their primary ideological charge, I think in a pretty cynical way.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yes.
Adam: Um, but you know, I mean, look, America was founded by a lot of refugees and a lot of religious people who were oppressed religiously. Not to draw a one to one comparison, but it didn’t mean we weren’t displacing Native Americans.
Adam: Um, you know, the shit rolls downhill generally.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah.
Adam: And I think that’s, you know, we’re in a situation now where that to the extent there was a moral justification for that kind of country or that kind of homeland. It’s, it’s, there are people who are still there and they’ve been displaced and continue to be displaced today. So.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah, when, I mean, I think what it made me think about was, you know, there is this whole theoretical construct which was very carefully built and pushed into a, um, a mainstream and accepted narrative to the point now where they’re trying to adopt it as the official definition of anti-Semitism in the United States and it’s called the ‘new anti-Semitism’. And what it does is it defines Israel essentially as the ‘Jew of the World’, um, and by Israel representing the ‘Jews of the World’, any attack on Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. And so what that does is it’s really dangerous because instead of treating Israel as a country like any other country, it says that Israel should get a pass from any kind of critique because it’s a form of anti-Semitism. And so it creates this bind where Israel isn’t a country like any other country. It has a special set of standards. And actually, you know, there was a thing that happened in New Orleans just last week where a, a resolution passed in the New Orleans City Council saying that the city should have standards around contracting and investments. Um, so that, to respect to human rights of countries around the world and it passed unanimously and then the ADL and some other Jewish organizations swung into action and it was completely rescinded the following week, um, you know, and their whole, the whole way they were arguing was basically that like if there’s a human rights resolution that’s being proposed that applies to the whole world, that Israel then gets an exception carved out. So it’s basically, its actually holding Israel to a lower standard than the rest of the world. And I think that’s, you know, the ADL supposedly being a civil rights organization saying like, “Well we’re against human rights if it’s going to affect Israel.” Like that’s really distressing.
Nima: We’ve seen that all over, like, bizarre legislation and rules being written somehow placed clearly by lobbyists through elected officials, stuff like that. City Council’s even, I mean, we saw, in Texas, if you were applying for [hurricane] relief in Houston, uh, you basically had to tick off a box saying that you do not support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement with regard to Israel. And what that has to do with getting hurricane relief I have no fucking idea. But it goes to show kind of how deep this is enmeshed into our own politics, into our own, even local government, not even at a presidential, AIPAC conference platform, but really deep. This runs very deep in our society and how that relates to what the United States does in relation to Israel, how it treats Palestine, you know, now we’re seeing the Trump administration take away funding from the UN refugee programs. I mean, this is all kind of one big story unto itself and to unravel it, it really takes some doing because I think it’s, it’s wrapped up into so much emotion. I mean, as you said, Rebecca, to make Israel not even a nation, but rather a symbol. Like, it’s just a symbol of things and if you’re offended by something that kind of relates to that symbol, then you take it upon yourself to make that a nationalist issue. And I think that’s just really, really problematic.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right. And I think, you know, you were talking about birthright earlier and I think of the many problems with Birthright, that’s one of them. And I think and more generally the Israel that sort of sold to the Jewish community, which is really like a Disneyland Israel, you know what I mean? It’s so this museum where they can sort of play, you can play out these sort of fantasies of, of um, hegemony and, and homeland without like sort of grappling with the realities of it. And um, you know, again, I, you know, I think back to my own Jewish education, which again was largely Holocaust-Israel-Holocaust-Israel and the connection very tightly made between the two, um, which encourages this again, this both a sense of like victimhood and need and fear. Um, that’s, that’s incredibly potent and that’s, you know, that’s a lot of that is what we’re trying to undo as our work at JVP.
Nima: So you actually lived in Israel for a number of years.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: I did, yeah.
Nima: Tell us a little bit about the difference in discourse there as opposed to here and also how the media is able to talk about things and not talk about things. I think, you know, a lot of what we hear is there’s a stark difference, which doesn’t go in the way that most people think it might in terms of what is said in some of Israeli media.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah. I mean, one thing that’s sad is that, you know, the, what I used to be able to say unequivocally was that the discourse was more open in Israel and I think it’s still probably true, but just barely. Um, certainly like the word ‘apartheid’, you know, which was said by [Ehud] Barak when, I can’t remember now, if it was when he was Prime Minister or after he was Prime Minister, but, you know, by an extremely mainstream Israeli figure. That was years before, um, Jimmy Carter said, you know, “Peace not apartheid.”
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And got completely vilified for it or maybe around the same time, but it was like totally okay. It was like a word that was thrown around quite often.
Nima: And [Ehud] Olmert said the same thing when he was Prime Minister.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And Olmert said the same thing, exactly, a couple of years later. And so, you know, it felt like and my husband, who’s Israeli, um, you know, his famous story is that when he, his parents divorced when he was 10, part of the divorce agreement was that his father would pay for him to have subscription to all three of the major Israeli papers delivered to his home until he’s 18 years old. You know, that was like the level of, of um, intensity and commitment to the political discourse that people had, you know, even a little while ago and even when I was living there, which 10 years ago now. And I think the, um, it’s really shifting and some of it actually is very specifically through the media, like Sheldon Adelson created a free paper called Israel Hayom, which is now the biggest paper in Israel and it’s, you know, completely Adelson, right-wing, extremist agenda and Netanyahu agenda. So that has had a real, real impact on the discourse in Israel. And in general, it’s just now very, very hard to have a dissenting voice that’s taken seriously. Like there’s no serious discourse about BDS as like, as a valid tool, there’s no serious discourse about Palestinian rights. Every once in awhile something breaks through like this, this issue of the African refugees who are about to be deported I think is being seriously debated. But like Ahed Tamimi, who’s that 16-year-old girl who’s, who’s been sitting in jail or is now 17-year-old girl who’s been sitting in jail for the last month because she slapped an Israeli soldier who was, who had invaded her home. Um.
Nima: And, like, shot her family.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: And so many members of her family had been shot, but the, you know, sort of interesting, like an artist named Yehonatan Geffen wrote a poem about her and then, you know, one of the ministers of the cabinet got out, came up and said that Yehonatan Geffen should be boycotted because he wrote this poem in her defense. You know what I mean? Like the discourse has drastically narrowed in terms of what’s, uh, like seriously debatable. And I think that’s been very, very noticeable. Even from the time when I was there 10 years ago.
Adam: There’s a top like sort of top, more top-down direct censorship there. Right? Like I know like issues of military, they can tell papers not to publish things and that they usually abide by that. Is that right?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: That is right. Yeah. And so even, you know, Ha’aretz is sort of seen as probably the New York Times of Israel, but it’s a little bit better, I think, still. You know, they all voluntarily submit to the sensor so, you know, that makes a difference in terms of what’s out there.
Adam: Which I always find it interesting when American media uses Israeli media as a primary source.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah and also like its silly like all those rules started before there was an internet and so now they’ll do things that like say like, “it was reported, you know, on NBC that blahdy blah happened” and then they’ll say the thing that was censored. So you know, it’s obviously impossible to like close those gates anymore now it just feels kind of ridiculous.
Nima: Yeah. I’ve actually heard from a number of Israeli journalists off the record how much they are censored in their own reporting and that they’ve almost have to self censor at this point because of the editors will just do it anyway. Even just relating very, very basic facts about the occupation that they just can’t, can’t say it, it’s not going to make it into regular news coverage unless that coverage is like about the military or about the, you know, national security state, but when basic reporting that that just kind of can’t be seen as a basic fact of life.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Although I do wonder, I mean, I think sometimes they give themselves too much of a break by using that as an excuse. Do you know what I mean like?
Nima: (Laughing) Absolutely. Its like, “We wish we could but we can’t!”
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah, it just makes it, you know, in some ways that’s the whole point of having military censorship is that people start to police themselves.
Nima: Mhmm. Exactly. Can you talk to us a little bit about your experience in writing for more mainstream outlets here in the United States and who gets column inches in the Times, in the Post, and those very influential Op-Ed spaces and who does not?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yes. Um, my personal experience of more mainstream media has not been one of great success and I think it definitely has gotten better over the years and I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the IMEU, Institute for Middle East Understanding, they do work to get Palestinian voices specifically into the media. And I think they’ve done an absolutely wonderful job and it’s really shifted over the years. There’s more than there used to be. So we’ve gone from like zero to 10 percent or something. You know what? I don’t, I don’t. I’m sure there’s organizations that have done the analysis of the number of voices that are out there, but there is absolutely no doubt, you know, we read any article in The New York Times and there will be five Jewish or Israeli commenters for every one Palestinian. Um, and I think from the perspective of, of um, you know, so Palestinian representation is just completely under, you know, they’re just so underrepresented and it has gotten a little bit better over the years or there’s more Palestinian voices on the Op-Ed page then there have been but still not nearly enough considering, um, how many of the opposite there are. And then I would say that what’s most frustrating for me coming from, as representing an organization that’s, that represents a significant portion of the Jewish community, not the majority at all, but a significant portion is the way that the, you know, the rhetoric around this issue is, it’s always that it’s like, for example, the university is that, Jewish students object to say BDS things. And the truth is that the Jewish community is divided and often there’s many Jewish students who are working with Students for Justice in Palestine or whoever the local group is in favor of divestment. But there’s this flattening of the Jewish community, which reinforces that narrative that the Jewish community is united in support of Israel. And I think that is a real impediment to having an honest conversation and eventually a shifting in U.S. policy. So that I find incredibly frustrating. And then I think on the Op-Ed pages, you know, of the most recent and egregious examples, they just published this, this Op-Ed by Naftali Bennett. It was in the international edition of The New York Times, which maybe is a little bit different, but still Bennett, he’s a member of the Israeli cabinet, but you know what he’s most famous for in a lot of ways is this comment he made where he said, you know, “Yeah, I’ve killed a lot of Arabs and what’s wrong with that?” You know, that sort of encapsulates his worldview, so you have this sort of openly racist murderer, you know, being published to the pages of The New York Times to justify the travel ban and calling, and you know, specifically calling out Omar Barghouti, who is one of the founders of the BDS movement, and also myself, you know, and it’s like, what is The New York Times doing publishing a statement like that one? And I had actually, you know, I think this is how you reached out to me originally because I tweeted out when they published that, that I tried really hard to get to, to pitch to The New York Times when this new law banning travel to Israel through support the BDS movement to get it into the Times. And you know, I think I have a compelling personal story. My husband’s Israeli, my kids are Israeli, I’ve lived in Israel, my grandparents are buried in Israel. My friends and family are in Israel and Palestine and the ways, you know, a personal story that also represents, um, you know, uh, an illustration of the damage of this, of this law and they didn’t take me or anyone like me to tell that story or to present that position. And yet they’re publishing this guy who was just this open racist, you know, murderer. Without putting, yeah.
Adam: I did two different studies. Um, one about when they did a retrospective on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. The ratio was 6-to-1, either a pro-Israel or Israeli voices versus pro-Palestinian or Palestinian voices.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Oh, I didn’t do bad. I said 4 to 5. (Laughs) Okay. I was guessing.
Adam: So you guessed right. And then I did one on BDS and so, um, that was, they went, I think it was from, they went three and a half years. They went from, I think, spring of 2014 to summer of 2017 without publishing a single pro-BDS Op-Ed.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Wow.
Adam: And in that time they had eight different anti-BDS pieces.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah.
Adam: Two of them by Roger Cohen, one of the columnist and one by Thomas Friedman.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah.
Adam: So you know it’s seven to eight to one. Um, everyone who is a columnist at The New York Times is a Zionist. Um, there isn’t one, I mean they’ll criticize in the margins - even like Roger Cohen will be like, “Guys, what are you doing?” when of course you saw this again with the US abstaining for the UN boycott in December of 2016, that there’s a kind of sense amongst liberal Zionists that whatever thin remains of their moral pretexts or sort of rapidly eroding and that liberal Zionism is predicated on this myth of a ‘two state solution’ or this myth of the ‘peace process’ and that the massive increase in, in asymmetrical body counts. Protective Edge was 250 to one civilian deaths, roughly 1500 to six. And I think one of the Israelis who died was of a heart attack.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right.
Adam: Um, so their moral claim is not, you know, this isn’t like the eighties where people are blowing up Sbaros and shit. This is just pure punitive bombing of Gaza.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right.
Adam: And so that moral pretense is going and I guess organizations like yours are helping to fill that gap. And do you think that liberal Zionism has, I mean what’s their play, propaganda-wise, moving forward? Are they going to sort of keep holding on to this two state talking point or what, how do you continue to spin this?
Nima: What is J Street even doing these days?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yeah, I mean, I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question (laughs) because it’s a question I would like to have answered myself. But um, I mean, you know, I thought it was interesting, Michelle Goldberg wrote this Op-Ed recently, and you know, she’s a new regular columnist at The New York Times and the headline of the article was, “Is Liberal Zionism Dead?” I think it was something-
Adam: Yeah. I think that’s what spawned the episode because we talked about how this is an article that gets written literally every three, like, every two months.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right. Well, that’s, that’s interesting because I, I actually saw it is a little bit of a, of a milestone because it wasn’t a guest Op-Ed, it was an Op-Ed columnist and it actually sort of posited that maybe liberal Zionism finally is dead. And I, I kind of saw it as a step forward so maybe-
Adam: I think that’s true. I think that’s true.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Maybe I was overly optimistic about that. But you know that seemed to me like I didn’t think that that was the kind of conversation that, um, was happening certainly from the regular writers. You know, you have Roger Cohen wrote one around the same time, which was sort of a classic thing that he does and other liberal Zionist does. Or He’s sort of like gnashes his teeth. But then he says like, “Well, if I had to choose, it’s okay.” You know, “Even though so many Palestinians are dying and I’m sorry about that.” You know? And I found that one super frustrating, but I thought that Michelle Goldberg’s was really, really good and was like an honest look at the pressures on liberal Zionism. And I do think there’s huge pressures and what, what I’m guessing is going to happen, like I don’t think the center can hold on liberal Zionism and it’s not just about what Israel is doing. I think it’s the nature of the discourse in the United States and the way that people are looking at intersectionality and are starting to hold people to being consistent in their politics and that if they’re going to support movements like Movement for Black Lives and immigrant rights and indigenous rights here in the U.S., then they can’t just sort of leave their values at the door when it comes to Israel. And so the combinations and the alliances of the Trump administration in Israel right now means that people are gonna have to choose. And so what I would guess what happened and what I feel like is happening is that liberal Zionists are going to be pushed and pushed and pushed until they’re forced to choose. And some of them will jumps ship, you know, and come to JVP and some of them will become more openly hard line. Um, you know, and there’ll be distinct, you know, diminishing numbers, who will try to continue to, um, and there still are some and there, you know, a lot of them are people that I like very much and I respect very much and love very much, you know, in my family, my friends, I, you know, I understand why they’re sort of holding onto the dream. Um, but I do think that the pressure on them is enormous and, and some will go one way and some of then the other and the big question is, you know, what the proportion will be.
Adam: Yeah. Because it’s predicated on this kind of constant gas-lighting of Palestinians.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Yes. That’s a great way to put it. It’s a really great way to put it.
Adam: There’s this appropriate amount of acquiescence in nonviolence and then of course there is a sort of overtly non-violent tactic like BDS and I want to point out that it’s not like Palestinians didn’t do non-violence in the past all the time. They did.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right. Right.
Adam: Um, but then that’s now ‘terrorism’. So it’s like there isn’t even the sort of thin pretext of a kind of overt or even coherent military. There’s a few, you know, there’s a few glorified firecrackers that are thrown over Israel every now and then that they all fill their diapers over, but it’s really not even close compared to the shit they unleash on Gaza. So, uh, yeah, I don’t even know exactly what, you know, how you can sort of say they’re all a bunch of what, you know, crazy terrorists anymore is I think even that talking point has lost all purchase.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right. Well, I mean, I think it also goes back to the enormous Islamophobia that’s in the background of the entire U.S. discourse. And so there’s an essential dehumanizing of Palestinians and who are, in people’s minds equated with Arabs who in people’s minds are equated with Muslims. You know what I mean? And of course Palestinians are also Christian. They’re also other things. But the fact is, is that there’s this and again there’s what we call ‘Islamophobia Inc.’ and big foundations and big money-
Adam: Which is, not always, but very often funded by Zionists, I mean, for that very reason.
Nima: For that very reason exactly.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: You know, I just looked at that today. It’s a lot of right-wing Republicans and um, you know, there’s, there’s a number of Jewish organizations, but there’s a lot of Christian Evangelicals. It’s true that they’re all, I think they’re mostly Zionists, but they are, what a lot of them are more concerned about is creating this sort of clash of civilizations narrative.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Which serves both the sort of warmongering here and there.
Adam: I’m thinking more along the lines of the Steve Emerson, um, you know, kind of Rita Katz. They do a lot of the, like jihadi terror watching stuff and like you know tea leaf reading.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
Adam: And you know, obviously she’s ex-Special Forces intelligence and he’s, and he’s like a huge, huge pro-Israel guy. So it all kind of marries.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: The purpose of a lot of it is to like shore up US support of Israel there is no doubt about that.
Adam: Which also serves American interest. Right?
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Exactly. But it affects the discourse that people had these ideas in mind about like, like you said, a sort of a limited view of the humanity of Palestinians. And uh, you know, when you talk about Israeli security, why don’t we also talk about Palestinian security? You know, because there’s like a different valuing of each group that is never spoken about explicitly. It’s just implicit in the way it’s talked about.
Nima: Exactly which feeds directly into the idea that somehow it’s not an insane notion dismissed out of hand that a future Palestinian state would be demilitarized completely as if that isn’t part of the reason why Palestinians can’t even resist against their own oppression. They can’t provide enough self-defense for their families, for their communities, for their society, against the unleashed military might of Israel constantly in the West Bank and also Gaza. So I mean, it’s just, it just kind of all folds into this, whose lives matter, who is worth taking care of and whose rights matter.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Right, exactly.
Nima: So, yeah, I think we can leave it there. Thank you so much, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. It has been so great to talk to you about this. Thank you for joining us on Citations Needed.
Adam: Thank you so much.
Rebecca Vilkomerson: Really my pleasure. Thank you guys.
Adam: That was very informative. She has a command of the issues, obviously, she does it for a living and she really threads that needle because it’s a, you know, when you have an organization like that, you’ve got a lot of people watching you ready to pounce on you.
Nima: Yeah. Jewish Voice for Peace is a vital organization doing this kind of work and um, you know, like a lot of the Palestinian organizations that they work closely with, they are major targets all the time and so they’re up against a lot of pushback and they always, not only rise to it, but are able to effectively stave off a lot of propaganda and bigotry and bullshit thrown their way because uh, because they have the facts on their side.
Adam: What makes it so sad is groups like ADL who call everyone who criticizes Israel ‘anti-Semites’, because, you know, there is anti-Semitism on the left as there is anti-Semitism anywhere. They usually manifest itself, as we’ve talked about before, this idea that somehow Israel like controls our government and you see this a lot, maybe not necessarily on the left, but like in left spaces you’ll see it um maybe it’s a bit-
Nima: Like the wagging the dog thing and then-
Adam: Yeah the idea that like Israel is somehow corrupted in an otherwise benevolent American government.
Nima: (Chuckles) Right, if not for Israel, than the U.S. would have all the right thoughts.
Adam: Yeah, if not for evil Jews, yeah, the United States would be full of a bunch of yeomen farmers and um, and I think she does, she does a good job pushing back against a lot of that stuff because again it can get kind of lazy and people say, “Oh, it’s the, you know, neo-cons and Israelis who push America to war.” And you know, around the margins that’s kind of true in terms of Israel having some influence just as Saudis have some influence and Turkey has some influence.
Nima: Right, exactly, I mean there’s a huge synergy in terms of Defense Department, the CIA and foreign allies and that there are common goals and I think that it’s, it all kind of works in tandem. I think the idea of the Zionist blackmailing of politicians is an overblown talking point for sure, because I think-
Adam: It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Adam: It’s important to define what we mean by who the parties are though, right? Because people say, oh, well, you know, it doesn’t help Americans that we defend Israel and that’s sort of true, but no war really benefits Americans. It benefits weapons contractors, the Defense Department, the CIA.
Adam: The other day I was making the argument on Twitter that the U.S. had not lost because the RAND Corporation released a video saying that if we don’t prepare for another war, we’re gonna lose this war and people were snarking that we lost the last like three wars. But from RAND’s perspective, we didn’t lose the Iraq War. Uh, we sold a lot of weapons. We didn’t lose Vietnam. We killed a bunch of Communists. Um, there is no really losing wars when you’re, when you’re in the war-making business. War is by definition winning. And I think there’s a similar dynamic with how people view the relationship with Israel, where it benefits the people it needs to benefit. What you’re getting weapons contractors, the DoD, whatever the sort of nebulous military industrial complex is.
Adam: Um, it’s not, you know, whether or not it benefits Joe Schmo-
Nima: I think that there’s also a moral compromise aspect to this. There are bad feelings when there are inevitable reports of, because these are the facts, reports of egregiously imbalanced death counts, body counts, and that when you hear the fact about the Palestinians are being literally colonized and occupied and displaced and ethnically cleansed. And the other side has this very powerful, it is repeated constantly in our media, and especially in our pop culture, the Zionist exploitation of the Holocaust for sure.
Nima: And to stave off any frustrated listeners who say, “Okay, but Zionism predates the Holocaust,” I fucking know that. We could talk about, you know, nineteenth century colonialism and Herzl and the Dreyfus Affair. Like, yes, of course Zionism predated the Holocaust, but the Holocaust is used, especially in American discourse, primarily as this constant reminder of why Israel needs to exist. That’s like a common trope as this safe space and-
Adam: Yeah and you can kind of understand where that logic comes from.
Nima: Except at the same time, nothing makes Jewish people less safe than the existence of the state of Israel because when you create a place that is inherently, by design, a colonial settler state and you are imposing that upon an indigenous population with the most brutal of means and the backing, not only the world’s only remaining superpower, but also Western Europe and also a lot of other countries around the world. When that keeps happening, regardless of whatever is said in the UN, I mean, you know, a lot of resolutions can pass, but no one’s actually doing anything to stop this occupation, let alone the apartheid that is extant throughout historic Palestine, so that’s Israel and Palestine. There are dozens of discriminatory laws on the books right now, both within and you know outside the actual non-borders of Israel, because Israel doesn’t have any permanent borders, just like it doesn’t have a constitution, and yet American shared values are always talked about, right?
Nima: The idea that Israel should be safe is just yet another canard that I think just plays into propaganda that benefits very, very few and winds up hurting many.
Adam: Back to, you know, sort of what I said earlier, we talk a lot about cognitive dissonance on the show and how we will sort of do anything to make sure that America is not the bad guy, we’ll kind of reverse engineer history and morality around that fact. I think the, like, the trope about Israel sort of like determining American foreign policy and imperialism is just another iteration of that. Um like, Julian Assange has gone completely alt-right, completely Nazi, you know, I think he did it for, Saudi Arabia and Israel once again determine America’s foreign policy and it’s like what are you, what do they think we were doing before there was an Israel or Saudi Arabia? I mean, it wasn’t as if they weren’t imperialism, imperialist country before, you know, Spanish American War, colonial, colonies in Philippines, Latin America-
Nima: Right exactly, ask the Filipinos if there needed to be an Israel for them to be tortured-
Adam: Yeah it wasn’t as if after 1945 when we occupied Korea, we were, we turned around and said, “Okay, what do the Jews think about this?” I mean, it’s, it’s part of our DNA and Israel is just one iteration of that.
Adam: I think when some people criticize anti-Semitism on the left, I think there is that, like, that’s definitely a trope. Again, maybe it’s a bit of a tautology, but I don’t consider that the left by definition. There are people who definitely operate or speak in leftist spaces that I think can traffic in that kind of language. And, and I think that, um, organizations like JVP do a good job of making sure that those toads don’t try to take over the discourse because, again, I think it, you know, your average sort of politically underdeveloped white guy who may or may not, you know, watching South Park and may have, used to be a libertarian, really comes into socialism, I think can have a lot of bad habits.
Adam: About that. And it’s important that, I don’t know, even on this kind of podcast where we make clear that like, that’s not the way of looking at this.
Adam: And it’s a very undialectical and I think a very anti-Marxist way of looking at it.
Nima: And also winds up being very lazy and very ahistorical.
Adam: And racist. And racist. But yeah.
Nima: And so if you actually kind of, if you dig into the history a bit and you learn about where Zionism came from and how it’s been supported and the talking points that have always accompanied it, you can start to kind of break this down and see where those talking points really fit in to an American discourse and how they were picked up and used and exploited. But obviously as we said it, that doesn’t mean Netanyahu is, you know, the puppet master of Trump, they’re just two gigantic fucking assholes who love each other.
Adam: Yeah, and I mean there’s obviously a lot of overlap. I mean, again, Kushner’s family supported uh-
Nima: Settlements and-
Adam: Well, and actual terrorist organization in the West Bank.
Adam: Like a designated terrorist organization according to the Israeli government. So, um, yeah, definitely what we call in marketing: synergy. So I think that’s it for this one. This was, um, this was weighty. This was good. This was the second part of our two-parter. I hope you enjoyed it. We’re gonna probably go take a very long nap.
Adam: That was intense. Not exactly a beach read.
Nima: But of course thank you everyone for listening. It has been great talking to our guests over these two shows, Noura Erakat and Rebecca Vilkomerson. Thank you of course for all your support for the show, on Twitter: @CitationsPod; Facebook: Citations Needed; your support through Patreon: Citations Needed Podcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Special shout out of course goes to our critic-level supporters. Thank you for joining us. Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Music is by Granddaddy. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thanks for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, March 7, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.