During a panel discussion, Michael Deheeger, a 32-year-old member of Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago, interrupted the speakers, expressing his support for Palestinian rights.
The mostly older audience responded with a staggering degree of hostility. Deheeger compared the audience to racist whites in the Jim Crow South.
“It was a throwback to pictures I’ve seen of white protesters in the South trying to uphold segregation,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
Three other activists had disrupted the conference before Deheeger – video of their action is below. “If there had been one person after me, I don’t know what would have happened,” he said.
In the video at the top of this post, Deheeger, who is filming, can be heard repeatedly declaring, “I am Jewish, I support Palestinian human rights.”
As Deheeger is carted out by police, camera in hand, one enraged person after another jumps out of their seat to taunt and curse at him.
“You support killing Jews!” says one man. “Get the fuck out of here!” says another.
Near the end, a woman shouts, “Hitler! Hitler!”
“They were so unhinged,” Deheeger said. “One guy even came up and punched me in the arm.”
The rage is striking given that Deheeger’s statement was hardly controversial. He was simply stating that Palestinians are people worthy of human rights.
“I’m not even sure if they see us as people any more when we stand up and do this stuff,” he added, referring to the hatred for anti-Zionist Jews espoused by Zionists who remain deeply invested in Israel’s colonial project. “They see us as race traitors.”
“It really just highlighted the amount of racism and violence that’s intertwined with the issue of Israel and Palestine in the Jewish community. And it’s passed down to kids,” said Deheeger, recalling his own support for Zionism when he was still in high school.
JVP-Chicago disrupted the event, said Deheeger, to show that “all these organizations claiming to represent American Jews and conflating anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism – they don’t speak for us.”
Wrong side of history
Chaired by the Republican congressman Bob Dold and Democratic state lawmaker Scott Drury, the panel at the conference included representatives from nearly every major Jewish communal organization across the political spectrum.
Dold is a chief sponsor of the Combating BDS Act of 2016, a piece of federal legislation that would authorize local and state governments to punish authorities that take measures against Israel or firms that abet its abuses of Palestinian rights.
A similar bill, which passed in Illinois last year, has been proposed in several state legislatures across the country.
Before being kicked out, Deheeger filmed this video of part of the panel discussion.Assaf Grumberg, a former communications officer in the Israeli military now working for the Israel-funded pressure group StandWithUs, can be heard advising Jewish students to “build relationships with other groups on campus besides what you feel comfortable with.”
“If you have a friend who’s African American, who’s a member of Black Lives Matter and you’re genuinely interested in their movement then you need to go to your friend and have a conversation” about Israel, Grumberg says.
Grumberg echoes concerns raised by Zionist organizations in recent years about Palestine solidarity activists forging ties with other progressive organizations, particularly Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights groups.
Among the topics addressed in the panel were the growing efforts to push universities to divest from Israel or firms profiting from Israeli apartheid.
Bemoaning the “emotional strain” BDS campaigns have exacted on pro-Israel students, one panelist concludes that the best way to break campus divestment coalitions between Palestinians and other non-white student groups is to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
“The debate in our student government became not about Israel, it became about race privilege,” the speaker says.
“Senators in our student government will say, ‘we’re not anti-Jewish’ … but they’ll be convinced that they shouldn’t be Zionist because Zionism is a form of colonialism,” the speaker states. But “if it’s a new form of anti-Semitism then I think many student governments will not be so swayed by the tactics of BDS.”
As the audience applauds, the panelists are interrupted by Jews who strongly disagree.
Towards the end of the video, three young JVP-Chicago activists pop up from their seats to declare their support for Palestinian rights and BDS. Before they can get a word in, the crowd starts booing. A few seconds later a police officer shows up to escort the protesters out.
“As young Jewish progressives we support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in bringing about human rights and equality for Palestinians,” said 22-year-old JVP-Chicago activist Eli Massey in a statement following the protest.
“We are here to say that organizations like the Jewish United Fund and StandWithUs do not speak for all Jews, and on this issue are on the wrong side of history,” Massey added.