From the Jewish National Fund to Jewish Voice for Peace and BDS
by Seth Morrison
Moderator Grant F.Smith: I think I’ll just start off, then, by introducing our next speaker, Seth Morrison, who’s held leadership posts in various local, regional and national Jewish organizations, starting in college as a youth leader in Young Judaea. He’s currently active in Jewish Voice for Peace. He’s serving in the DC Metro Chapter Steering Committee and on the National Congressional Outreach Committee. In 2011, Seth resigned from the Washington, DC board of the Jewish National Fund in protest over Israel’s repeated evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. At this point, we’d like to hear from Seth Morrison. Thank you very much.
Seth Morrison: Good morning. How many people will be joining me on Sunday evening as we watch the next round of “Game of Thrones”? Not too many. It’s a fascinating show, and it’s really a chess game between various factions trying to take power in this mythical kingdom. I think that’s a good analogy as we look at the American Jewish community, along with Christian Zionist groups and other allies, and how they’ve become so powerful.
Grant gave us a fascinating picture, and I have to admit I’ve learned a few things from it, even though I was actively involved in these groups. He’s shown us the financial and legal side of how our community has become quite powerful. What I’m going to do today is really the opposite, in that I’m going to focus on the social side and the community side, and talk both about my own experiences and what I’ve gone through in my transition, and also what I’ve seen and learned about our community. I guess in some ways, you could consider this competitive intelligence.
One thing I want to start with is a realization that I’ve had on some of the work I’ve been doing in the last year is that a major reason why our community is so strong on the political side and in the financial side is that in the ‘30s and ‘40s, we were a total failure. And if you think back, those of you who have read history, who have studied the Great Depression, who studied World War II, you know that we talk in the Jewish community a lot about the Holocaust. But in the 1930s, especially the latter part of the ‘30s, it was pretty well known that the Holocaust was really bad. We didn’t know that there were mechanized death camps, but there were a lot of stories about how serious the situation was, but at that time the U.S. had clamped down on visas.
My four grandparents all came from Eastern Europe before World War I, but those who stayed back and tried to get in later couldn’t do so. Basically, our community, even though we were thriving and doing well economically, we didn’t have political influence. Then during World War II, when we knew about the death camps, our greatest leaders went to [President Franklin] Roosevelt and said, “Bomb the rail lines, save some lives, stop people from going to the camps,” and Roosevelt said no.
We talk today about the power of our community. We talk about the fact that the presidents and Congress take direction—but understand that that came from colossal failure. That colossal failure motivated our community and the leaders at the time to sit down and say, “Okay, guys, how are we going to overcome this?”
So, taking that personally, I was born in ‘51, and when I started Sunday school in my synagogue at age three, we marched around in blue shorts and little white caps playing Kibbutzniks. We were told how these wonderful, brave people were out there saving our people and creating a homeland. All of the clergy members and religious schoolteachers in my synagogue and in most of the other synagogues were Holocaust survivors. Now, it was sort of a charitable thing. These people came through utter terror. They hadn’t gone to college. They needed jobs. We found them jobs. As kids, I have to admit, we were pretty cruel. We made jokes about their accents and all of that, but the lesson also came through that these were people to be revered and refute terrible things.
We also knew that you didn’t really talk about being Jewish too much outside of the home and the synagogue. I mean there wasn’t a lot of anti-Semitism on Long Island in the mid-’50s and ‘60s, but we were aware that we were different. But suddenly came June of ‘67 and everything changed phenomenally with the Six-Day War. We won. We were victors. We were no longer victims. And that made a tremendous difference to our community, it took on a whole different light.
That caused me to get involved in Zionist youth work and become very active in it in high school and college, and that was of course pure indoctrination. I mean the only mention we had of the Palestinians came with the word terrorist or with the word refugees, because they voluntarily left Israel on their own because Israel was going to be driven into the sea. You have to understand that this was what I’d been hearing since I was three years old. This is not something that was new. This was our life. This was our family. This was our history. When we had family gatherings, we talked about the cousins who made it out and the cousins who didn’t. We talked about cousins who lived in Canada because they couldn’t get into the U.S. This was a major indoctrination.
After college, I did not move to Israel. I was sort of a failure in the Zionist world. I started my career in cable television, and my second job caused me to leave Long Island and move to Cincinnati, Ohio. In a new community—I knew a few people at work—what do you do? Well, you look for the Jewish community. I found a Jewish person at work and she took me to her synagogue one day and then I went to some other synagogues. You get involved in your community. I think it’s only a natural thing. What happens when you do that is suddenly somebody comes over to you and says, “Hey, welcome to town. This is committee. Maybe you want to help us out,” and, “Hey, I know you don’t have a lot of money. You’re young, and we’re glad to have you, but you’ve got to get used to giving. It’s our culture. It’s our history. And you can only give 25 bucks, give $25. We respect that.” It became an indoctrination.
I then moved on to Seattle/Tacoma, and there I was a little more senior. I’ve been promoted. I had a new job. They said, “Will you join our young leadership?” There’s some status, and you get more involved. And then they said, “We’ve decided that we’re going to do a young leadership mission to Israel.” I’ve been to Israel with the Zionist group. I’ve been there a few times, but suddenly I was official. You’re going on a mission. They took us to the Golan Heights and we looked down at the kibbutzim who were being bombed. They took us to Gaza, and we met with this woman who told us about how she was willing to live there with her young children even though it was in danger because this was our land. This was the fulfillment of our dream.
These things all made a tremendous difference, and they make an impression on young Jews, even those like me who were not particularly religious. It’s an involvement. It’s an identity. My career took me to the Bay Area, and really by coincidence, a couple of things happened at once. A friend of mine from the youth movement, who was basically a member when I was a leader—and I had sort of stayed in touch with—became a pro-Palestinian activist. He actually went out and learned Arabic and talked about the fact that, “You know, these aren’t bad people.” Frankly, he called me and asked for some money, but told me what he was doing and the work he was doing and basically said, “You’re not hearing the whole story.” That started a long round of changes.
Also, equally by coincidence, I met somebody who was involved in the New Israel Fund. For those of you who don’t know the New Israel Fund, it is a Jewish charity, an Israeli charity, that focuses on civil society, democracy, human rights. It supports many of the civil rights groups that are working on behalf of Palestinians. The one thing they do not do is support BDS, but they are very much progressive, very much in light of things that most of us in this room would support—but when you get into that question of what is a Zionist, they will tell you that they believe in a Jewish state.
But the biggest thing that happened to me is that I got involved in an organization called the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, also through ties from the youth group and family friends. Arava is university-level education on the environment for Hebrew speakers, Arabic speakers, Palestinians and Jordanians, and North Americans. That became my major personal fund-raising focus for a number of years, and it took me to Israel a few times and gave me the opportunity to meet many young Palestinians who were basically saying, “I’m so concerned about the environment that I’m willing to sit and live and work with Israelis so that we can work together on the environment.”
Many stories I could tell you, but the one I think hits closest to home is that a few years ago, we had a couple of Arava alumni, one Israeli-American woman and a Palestinian man—his name was Anton—who lived in Bethlehem and had studied at the institute. They were here on a fund-raising tour, and we had a day off here in DC. I said, “Okay, what do you guys want to do? You have all of DC. I’ll be your tour guide.” They both said, “We want to go to the Smithsonian. We’ve heard about these museums.” We went first to Natural History because Anton is an ornithologist and he wanted to see that collection. Then when we finished, we had a cup of coffee and I said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” We were looking at the map of the Smithsonian, and, to be honest, I almost fell off my chair because Anton said, “I want to go to the Holocaust Museum. I’ve heard all my life about the Holocaust and how the Holocaust is the reason for Israel and how the Holocaust justifies Israel. But I never really understood it. Can we go there?”
Those of you who tried to go to the Holocaust Museum know that they’re sold out most of the time. You need tickets to get in. I sort of got my courage up, and I went up to the information desk and said, “I have a weird story for you. I’m Jewish. I don’t have tickets, but I have a Palestinian man from Bethlehem who wants to learn about the Holocaust. Can I please have some tickets?” The woman looked at me like I was nuts and she said, “Well, I have to talk to my supervisor.” But the supervisor came out and I told her the whole story, and she said, “Sure, we’re honored.” We did our tour. We came out, and we were both pretty emotional. You know what it’s like to visit that museum.
I said, “Anton, what do you think?” And Anton said, “I never knew. I never understood what this was. I never understood how horrible it was. Thank you for taking me. This is terrible.” But then he took a deep breath, and I’m glad he trusted me enough to say this—and he has, by the way, given me permission to share this story. He said, “But how does that justify what I go through at the checkpoints?” Brilliant. And I think that’s a very important learning, that we have to separate these things.
I went through that. I became a J Street activist. I got involved in JNF because of Arava, because Arava gets its funding from JNF and it was a way to bring more money in. Then I found out that the JNF was stealing homes from Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and I’d been told that wasn’t happening when I got involved, so I resigned there. But I stayed in J Street for a couple of more years, but then I started finding that J Street, while they’re saying all these wonderful things, is not getting anything done and is not willing to use the power that they had gained to really make change. That as long as they were unwilling to challenge aid, as long as they were unwilling to say veto these U.N. resolutions, I realized that J Street just wasn’t going to work. And that’s when I resigned and joined Jewish Voice for Peace.
It’s helped me over the last couple of years to understand a lot more about these organizations, about the structure. And while still respecting the Zionist idea, because that is part of my heritage and culture, I also have realized that the current situation is untenable. I don’t know how we’re going to solve this. One state, two states, there’s a lot of healthy debate, but it’s clear that strong, aggressive action is going to be required to make change. That’s what I think groups like JVP and others like most of you are willing to do.
Let me take this discussion back to the broad level and pick up where Grant left off. What I want to talk about is the group that really is responsible for the strength of the Jewish community. Most of you would probably say that that’s AIPAC, but I will respectfully say that that’s wrong.
The group that is really in charge that you don’t hear about very often is the Conference of Presidents of Major [American] Jewish Organizations. If you look at these slides, you’ll see on these slides 53 organizations that are every large Jewish group, with the exception of J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace. All of the synagogue groups, all of the fund-raising groups, all of the political groups, all of the influencing organizations, 53 people in one room control those groups.
How many people know who the board of AIPAC is? I have to admit, Grant told me this one when we were getting ready for this presentation. I still didn’t know it, but I didn’t realize it as directly. The Conference of Presidents, these 53 people, are the board of AIPAC. It is in that body that these decisions are made and that all of this confluence comes together. The synagogues get their marching orders, the universities get their marching orders, the charities get their marching orders, from those 53 people. And every once in a while, you’ll meet a liberal Zionist, like I was, and he’ll say, “We stood up and we argued for the Palestinians.” And you know what happens? They’re outvoted, 50 to 3, and they stand up and they say, “I argued for the Palestinians.” And they may feel good, and they go to all these fancy meetings, but the reality is that they’re ignored.
Let me just give you two conclusions that I hope you’ll keep with you throughout the day and throughout your work. One is that we have to understand who our opponents are, and we have to use the same skills. We have to find a way to unify our groups, whether it be church groups or peace groups or mosques, and organize ourselves as strongly as our opponents. Because they are strong, and they put together a wonderful organization that somebody could do a case study on. We must learn from them and use that.
The second thing is about the Palestinian initiative against what is called normalization. It’s a very valid issue, that says that Palestinians should not participate in activities that normalize the occupation or show them on the same level as Israelis because, clearly, they’re not. And I support that initiative, but I will also say that I would not be here today if I hadn’t met Anton and so many other Palestinians willing to educate me about their life story and about their history and about why there’s another side. Especially, as we look at American Jewish communities, we have to talk to them. We have to reach out to them, and it’s not easy, and you’ll hear things you don’t like. But especially we have to bring Palestinians to them and say why they’re mistreated and how they’re mistreated and share their stories so that we can all learn from each other.