To say Rebecca Vilkomerson, the head of the pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace organization, is a controversial figure in the Jewish world would be an understatement.
She triggered anxiety in mainstream American Jewish circles with a 2016 Washington Post opinion article titled “I’m Jewish and I want people to boycott Israel.”
As head of JVP though she is one of the greatest instigators of BDS around the world today and specifically in the US. While some people are on this list due to the positive impact they are having on Israel, the world and the Jewish people, Vilkomerson is not. Nevertheless, she is here since JVP is the catalyst for a large part of the BDS activity today against Israel. In Vilkomerson’s opinion, her work and beliefs are earnest, sincere and good for the Jewish people, “inspired by the Jewish tradition to work for equality of all people in Palestine and Israel.”
Given that BDS is now largely recognized as a movement that mobilizes antisemitic forces, Vilkomerson as JVP’s executive director has become a lightning rod for mainstreaming BDS. The exploitation of pro-BDS Jews like Vilkomerson recalls a bitterly polemical quote by Austrian Jewish satirist and humorist Alexander Roda Roda (1872-1945): “Antisemitism could really amount to something if the Jews would just take charge of it.”
Vilkomerson was raised in Princeton, New Jersey, and is married to an Israeli. “For myself personally,” she admits, “I grew up very attached to Israel.” She lived in Israel during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, but took away lessons radically different than the consensus view in Israel about Hamas rocket attacks on civilians in southern Israel. She protested against Israel’s counterattacks on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Now back in the United States, Vilkomerson said JVP works “to change US policy. The US is playing a linchpin role through economic and military support” for Israel, so JVP seeks to disrupt the solid US-Israel relationship. JVP’s core issues, according to Vilkomerson, are ending “the occupation” and returning Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War of Independence (and their descendants) to Israel and the disputed territories.
Though the so-called “Palestinian right of return’’ would spell the end of a Jewish democratic state, BDS is JVP’s blunt instrument to bring about this goal. Vilkomerson claims JVP scored successes in its efforts to stymie federal anti-BDS legislation. “We have had senators pull out of support” for the anti-BDS bill, she declares.
JVP, which adheres to the international BDS Movement platform enacted in 2005, has faced criticism for going to great lengths to support convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh at a JVP event in Chicago in April. A Jerusalem court convicted Odeh for her complicity in a 1969 bomb attack that murdered two Hebrew University students and wounded nine in Jerusalem.
Vilkomerson vehemently denies that Odeh is a terrorist. “Odeh is a respected community activist in Chicago. Her confession was obtained under torture,” said Vilkomerson about the Israeli judicial process.
A US judge ordered Odeh’s deportation from America in August for lying about her criminal conviction when she entered the US. When asked by The Jerusalem Post whether JVP would host Leila Khaled, a convicted Palestinian terrorist from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Vilkomerson said, “We invite people who share our values and principles.” When pressed in follow-up questions about BDS supporter Khaled, she declined to comment.
JVP has a sizable budget and membership, according to Vilkomerson, with 70 chapters, 250,000 people on its mailing list and some 500,000 Facebook followers. JVP’s budget is $3.2 million and has paid staff spread across offices in New York, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Boston. JVP also receives money from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and individual donors. Private single donors account for 93% of the organization’s budget.
JVP’s new BDS campaign is to convince young American Jews to not participate in Birthright Israel trips. Vilkomerson said additional JVP campaigns involve drawing attention to alleged Israeli abuses of Palestinian children and adolescents in prisons, as well as lobbying US lawmakers to get Israel to drop criminal charges against Issa Amro, an anti-settlement Palestinian activist charged with entering a closed military zone.
Her organization, she said, has a focus on the progressive caucus in Congress, because “They are most likely to be friendly to our concerns.” When asked about the Senator Bernie Sander’s criticism of antisemitism within BDS and his opposition to the movement, Vilkomerson said she does not agree with him.
In an interview with MSNBC in 2016 Sanders said, “I think there is some of that [antisemitism], absolutely,” in BDS. Vilkomerson said that she does “not see elected officials as arbiters of ethical behavior.”
When questioned whether JVP has ejected any “Jewish antisemites” from its membership, she cited British-based musician Gilad Atzmon, who has said Israel is worse than Nazi Germany. Vilkomerson said JVP rejects the widely praised International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Vilkomerson has also welcomed the decision of Arab singers and other artists who pulled out of a pop concert festival in Berlin in August, because the Israeli Embassy paid 500 euros for the travel costs of an Israeli singer.
She views BDS activity as a part of a growing trend. However, a week after her Post interview, the social democratic mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, announced a fierce crackdown on BDS because BDS “stands with antisemitic signs in front of Berlin shops” and embody “the intolerable methods used in the Nazi era.” Müller said he will ban city space and rooms for BDS activity.
The State of Israel recently blocked JVP member Rabbi Alissa Wise from entering the country, because of her significant role in advancing assaults on the existence of the Jewish state. The government enforced the law barring BDS leaders from entering Israel.
When asked whether she has concerns about traveling to Israel, Vilkomerson said she is “weighing options” about visiting.