About Our Guest
Seth Morrison has held leadership posts in various local, region and national Jewish organizations starting in college as a youth leader in Young Judea and he is currently serving on the Congressional Outreach Committee for Jewish Voice for Peace. In 2011 Mr. Morrison resigned from the Washington, DC Board of the Jewish National Fund in protest over what he viewed as the repeated evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem. He chaired the Washington, DC Metro Chapter of J Street in 2013 before becoming active in BDS, a global movement for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions urging Israel to comply with international law and Palestinian rights. His op-eds in support Palestinian and Bedouin rights have been published in The Forward, The Jerusalem Post and +972 Magazine. Mr. Morrison is also active in organizations and local politics in northern Virginia. Professionally he’s a consultant specializing in marketing and strategic planning in both for-profit and nonprofit organization.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I want to welcome you once again to our program Politics Matters. Today we are continuing our conversation with Seth Morrison of Jewish Voice for Peace. Welcome again, Seth.
Seth Morrison: Wonderful. Looking forward to it.
Jan Paynter: Seth, numerous critics have posited that reducing or cutting U.S. aid to Israel will in time lead to seriously increased terrorism and substantially reduce Israel’s ability to defend itself. How do you respond to this argument?
Seth Morrison: The Palestinian authority, and Israeli generals and security chiefs have admitted this in the media, is doing a tremendous amount to stop terrorism because they realize it doesn’t help their people. Second of all, you don’t stop terrorism with fighter bombers and super sophisticated weapons. You solve it with intelligence but more important with changing how you treat the people. Take away the motivation for terrorism. Over half the Palestinian population is young people who are unemployed and they don’t have jobs and so they sit around in cafes and they end up getting radicalized. Give them education, give them jobs, give them lives ‘cause that’s all they’re really asking for. Israel is the strongest country in the world second only to the U.S. and maybe China. I don’t want to see them endangered. I don’t want to see terrorism. God, my cousins are there. I’ll be back there one of these days. But you’ve got to fight it intelligently.
Jan Paynter: What are some of the peace organizations for which you raise money?
Seth Morrison: Well, actually most of the money that we raise is for ourselves. We’re a pretty small group and focus on that. We partner with many groups. One of the biggest partners is the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation. The U.S. Campaign is a consortium of over 400 organizations around the country working together to end the occupation and it’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, political groups and it’s very active and it helps coordinate our activities in D.C.
Jan Paynter: The NGO Monitor, which is a nonprofit watchdog group, released a report in 2013, which I know you know about, raising the issue, “The Jewish Voice for Peace’s funding lacked transparency and offered little or no information regarding its donors.” It further charged that JVP, in reality, is seeking the dismantling of the State of Israel. It also noted that after the recent Charlie Hebdo murders and the assault and murder at the Jewish deli in Paris, Jewish Voice for Peace downplayed the issue of anti-Semitism. What is your response to that?
Seth Morrison: Well, first of all, they’re not exactly a neutral organization. They are—they exist as part of a propaganda machine to stifle criticism of Israel. We’re a U.S. nonprofit. We file our 990s every year like every other nonprofit and we follow all U.S. laws regarding—regarding our funding. We don’t have a lot of money. We’re a small group. Most of our money goes to our staff. We’re Jews and we care about the Jewish people. Now we do not—this may be a little off your question but I think it relates—we don’t take a position on whether there should be a one state solution or a two state solution. We believe very strongly that all of the people with basically one person one vote need to determine their future. Now they may decide together that two states is the best, they may decide that one state is the best or they may decide on some kind of hybrid like in Belgium or in Switzerland. And because of that they—this gets turned around by the propaganda machine saying we’re anti-Israel. Whatever comes out of that region, as long as it’s democratic and all the people—half the people in Israel are Jewish and roughly half the Palestinians when you count the refugees. So we want them to work it out. So we’re not against Israel but what we are against is a powerful group dominating and saying, “Our way or the highway,” and that’s what’s happening. And there’s similar criticism against other NGOs, J Street, the New Israel Fund. These are more progressive groups that get very similar criticism from the NGO Monitor group to Jewish Voice for Peace.
Jan Paynter: Seth, how have you gone about—your organization gone about reaching out to public officials and members of Congress, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine for example and Mark Warner?
Seth Morrison: It’s taken us a while to get there. The Congressional Outreach Committee that I am now part of is about two and a half years old and we’ve had about 35 visits with members of Congress. We’re mostly working on Congress right now and the House of Representatives because it’s easier to reach them with 435 congressmen. Many of us have met with our members and talked about it and we’ve had some very frank meetings where they say—a number of them have said things like, “You know, we know you’re right but I can’t say that in public. I’ll be massacred if I do.” And there are plenty of examples of members of Congress who’ve been attacked by APAC if they just veer from the company line. But we just hired a new full time staff person who will be a federal policy organizer, who’ll be based in Washington, D.C. full time doing outreach to Congress. Our chapters are increasing our outreach. We’ve been very involved in the activities going on now about shutting down BB Speech and skipping the speech for example.
Jan Paynter: Yeah, that’s something I wanted to talk to you a little later on definitely. What domestic U.S. issues has Jewish Voice for Peace recently come out to discuss and support?
Seth Morrison: We don’t do too much on the domestic side, although we’ve been very interested in the overlap between Black Lives Matter and Palestinian Lives Matter.
Jan Paynter: That’s what I was going to bring up. Ferguson and your support of Ferguson.
Seth Morrison: Right. One of the things you find is that Israel has been supplying a lot of the crowd control equipment that U.S. police forces are using. This country which I love which has done so much cutting edge work on science and biology and electronics is also the cutting edge of riot control. That hurts and why is it that the U.S. has to go to Israel to get riot control equipment to use against Blacks?
Jan Paynter: And speaking to recent developments both in the U.S. and Israel, what is Jewish Voice for Peace’s position on the new sanctions against Iran and why?
Seth Morrison: We don’t take a specific position on the sanctions because we—what we do take is a strong position on democracy and on diplomacy and what we believe is that President Obama is doing the right thing by negotiating and sanctions are part of that. What we are adamantly against is the State of Israel trying to dictate policy to the U.S. and trying to drag us into a war. Netanyahu has been doing everything he can to get permission for himself or us to start a war and that’s not going to help anybody. And no other head of state would dare to come to the U.S. Congress and dictate to us what we should do. That’s not democracy.
Jan Paynter: It is unprecedented and it is interesting that John Boehner and he had this arrangement without telling the President. Looking at the other side on the other hand, is not the Israeli government and Netanyahu’s concern regarding a nuclear armed Iran a justifiable one when one considers the potential threat to the existence of Israel?
Seth Morrison: Oh, definitely it’s justifiable. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is something we have to stop and I applaud President Obama for working on this issue so strongly. But we talk about proliferation, how can we as a country not talk about Israel developing nuclear weapons? One of the things Iran says, and I don’t think there’s any justification for these weapons but they say, “Well, Israel ha it and you don’t say anything.” You have two kids, you can’t say one you can do this and one you can’t and that’s what the U.S. is doing.
Jan Paynter: I know a number of critics are concerned perhaps that if Israel bends too far in a sense it will break and that’s part of the I think reticence for a lot of people. Another thing I noticed in researching for this discussion with us today, I’m so glad we could have it, is that at least sometimes one might have the impression that these concerns regarding anti-Semitic activity are perhaps footnoted more than foregrounded by your organization perhaps then leaving your organization open to criticism of the less than even handed service on the issues.
Seth Morrison: Right. It’s—look, we totally condemn all violence. The Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Kosher delicatessen massacre in Paris, we hate these things as much as anybody. We’re peace activists. But we have such a dichotomy in the news media and such a dichotomy of public debate that one side gets blown out of proportion and one side gets ignored. Classic example is the tragic killing of these three young people in Chapel Hill. Now it took the media about 24 hours to really make this a national story.
Jan Paynter: That’s true.
Seth Morrison: And basically at the end of the story said, “And police say it may have been a hate crime.” Now turn this around. Three Jewish students at the university down the street here are shot and killed by an Arab, God forbid. I hate to even think of it. What would the news media say? “Arab Hate Crime, Islamic Terrorist,” would be all over the news in 30 seconds.
Jan Paynter: It was offensive to many people that the focus was on the trivial idea of a parking dispute which clearly is not.
Seth Morrison: Exactly. Right. Now… So what we say as Jewish Voice for Peace is yes, we do condemn these acts and we say so very openly. But we’re small. We have very few resources. We have—we have a lot of supporters in one sense but we’re not a major group and so our focus is to focus on the peace that’s not reported.
Jan Paynter: You mentioned the media and the different way in which the media reflected and there are two particular columnists who have very prominent voices in our world. One is Eugene Robinson, the other Charles Krauthammer, both of The Post. And just to exemplify what you’re talking about in broad ranging views, Eugene Robinson talks about the understandable worries visa vie a nuclear armed Iran as well as other regional powers concerned with Iran’s growing influence. Robinson cites Obama’s wish to give negotiations a chance in lieu of going to war, which you mentioned earlier. If then, as Robinson goes on, if negotiations fail or are drawn out, sanctions would be imposed. Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institute states recently in The Post that such congressional interference is unprecedented as you also mentioned. And Robinson makes a point, which is I think a transient one which is, ‘Note to all foreign leaders, we have one president at a time.’
Seth Morrison: Exactly.
Jan Paynter: On the other side of the argument, Charles Krauthammer who I just mentioned counters that anti-Semitism, while definitely on the rise in Europe, is most threatening in the Middle East. And he says, “In Israel the threat is of a different order—direct, immediate and mortal.” He further states that “the Iranian bomb is a national security issue, an alliance issue and a regional Middle East issue” and concludes that, “It took Nazi Germany seven years to kill six million Jews. It would take a nuclear Iran one day.” So therein I think is the argument laid out between these two.
Seth Morrison: Well, it is true, these weapons are terribly dangerous and it is true that there is a lot of anti-Semitism but violence begets violence and if we don’t break the cycle, if we don’t change the way this is addressed, then we’re just going to get more violence. Now, I hate to even say this in some ways because when you relate anti-Semitism to the occupation, right away you’re told, “Well, you’re just building anti-Semitism.” But the occupation is the problem. I have spent a lot of time in Palestine. As I mentioned earlier, I have a lot of Palestinian friends and we’ve had a lot of heart to heart talks sitting up late in cafes and there’s also been a lot of research done. The majority of the Palestinian people want what all of us want. They want a family, they want to earn a living, they want a job, they want kids, they want grandkids. They just want to live. And when you have millions of people under oppression, how can you blame them for being anti their oppressor? And it’s not anti-Semitism in the classic sense. It’s not biblical based or anything like that. It’s how can you blame African-Americans in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s for being critical of the White people because they were oppressed. So we’ve got to find a new balance and that new balance has to be based on peace and co-existence.
Jan Paynter: It is interesting also that Arabs and Israelis are both technically Semitic people.
Seth Morrison: Exactly.
Jan Paynter: So in that sense they are brothers really.
Seth Morrison: Exactly.
Jan Paynter: Which is—which doesn’t get discussed a lot. When one talks about anti-Semitism one could extend that umbrella as—if I understand what you’re discussing.
Seth Morrison: Exactly.
Jan Paynter: And I thought this was a very important piece by Nick Kristof discussing the slaughter of the three Muslim students at UNC that you mentioned by a man who expressed strong animus toward Islam among other faiths. And he discusses the fact, as he said, “The importance of resisting bigotry, of combatting the intolerance that can infect people of any faith or of no faith is key.” He goes on to say that, “It does seem useful for everyone to reflect on our capacity to otherize people of a different race, faith, nationality or sexuality and to turn that otherness into a threat,” which I think goes to the heart of what you’ve been discussing. On the other hand, I found—when I was reading The Guardian, the February issue of The Guardian, Germany has created a new commission, the second of two to study anti-Semitism. The first in 2011 with no particular results and on this commission there doesn’t sit a single Jewish voice and that is stunning and has not escaped many people. Seth, I wanted to mention a brief but thought-provoking book published by Jewish Voice for Peace entitled Reframing Anti-Semitism: Alternative Jewish Perspectives, which contains within it a compelling essay by Berkeley professor Judith Butler which discusses the importance of free, open and thoughtful debate in the public sphere, free from censorship. She raises the distinction between the anti-Semitic speech and speech that makes one uncomfortable, which I think is a really important point. She discusses the issue of the necessity of free speech and the embrace of debate which is itself, as we mentioned, part of the Talmudic tradition and that there it is critical that we speak up in a democracy. And this to me really does go to the center of what Jewish Voice for Peace stresses. Can one be pro-America or pro-Israel while vigorously disagreeing with their governmental policies? It’s a tendentious argument. Obviously one would have an answer to that, yes.
Seth Morrison: Right. Well, it’s interesting that in many ways the debate over the occupation is more vibrant in Israel than it is in the U.S. The peace movement in Israel is very small but people criticize the occupation all the time, there are people—there are Arabs in the Israeli Knesset, which some people don’t realize, who stand up all the time and protest. But in the U.S. the Jewish community led by APAC and led by the Conference of Presidents, has censored debate and there are rabbis who have lost their jobs because they dare to criticize Israel. There are Jewish teachers who are blacklisted and can’t get jobs because they’ve criticized Israel. You can’t be a member of JVP if you’re a professional working in the Jewish community and I myself have been thrown out of groups because I joined JVP and unfortunately the American Jewish community is afraid of that healthy debate, which is one of the things we are fighting against.
Jan Paynter: I mentioned Berkeley professor Judith Butler a minute ago and one of the things she discusses in this piece that I reference is the Lawrence Summers who was the Harvard University president roughly 10 years ago who basically stated that boycott was anti-Semitic in effect if not—I’m paraphrasing—if not in intent. And she took real exception to that and pointed out the need for free and open debate particularly in the academy as you’ve noted.
Seth Morrison: Absolutely. Are you aware of the Steven Salaita case?
Jan Paynter: Let’s talk about that.
Seth Morrison: Professor Salaita took a job at the—was offered a tenure track job at the University of Illinois. He left his job at I think a university in Florida, moved his family and during the war in Gaza he tweeted very critical of the war and the university revoked his offer. Now he doesn’t teach Middle Eastern Studies. He teaches Native American Studies. But because of tweets on Israel, they revoked his job, there’ve been demonstrations. He’s now filed a major lawsuit for breach of contract against the university. But this was not about his academic qualifications, it was about his political beliefs regarding Israel.
Jan Paynter: I want to thank you so much, Seth, for having this discussion with us today. It is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It is fascinating and wonderful to meet you and to hear about the valuable work that is done by Jewish Voice for Peace.
Seth Morrison: Well, thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here and I want to compliment you on being so well prepared. You’ve done a lot of homework for this discussion.
Jan Paynter: In closing today, whether one agrees with particular political policy decisions or strategies in their totality, in part, or indeed at all, the voicing of loyal opposition to those policies and objectives is an important and potent lesson in the value of citizen engagement, of making one’s voice heard and of the place for non-violent ascent in any democracy. I would also like to commend to everyone’s attention, if they’ve not already seen it, the 2014 HBO documentary Night Will Fall, which brings together previously unseen documentary footage of the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945 at the close of the war. It is a remarkable and harrowing piece of journalism that the UK and the U.S. worked on together but left unfinished and indeed shelved for 70 years. At the conclusion of the piece the Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz reads a powerful statement which has remarkable resonance as we bear witness to events unfolding throughout our embattled world. “This was the tragic fulfillment of a program of intolerance and arrogance. Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask the court to affirm by international penal action man’s right to live in peace and dignity regardless of his race or creed. Unless the world learns the lesson that these pictures teach, night will fall. But, by God’s grace, we who live will learn.” I would like to thank our guest today, Seth Morrison of Jewish Voice for Peace, for taking time out of his schedule to inform us about the work of his organization. Thank you at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org. We will be posting a number of books, articles and relevant links on many of the issues under discussion today there for you. You will also find a complete archive of all prior Politics Matters broadcasts which you may watch in their entirety at any time. We will be posting extended versions of the interviews online on our site as well and will continue to be adding more content. As always, we are very interested in hearing from you with any ideas, questions and concerns for future broadcasts. We encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org . We are on PBS-WVPT on the second and last Sunday of every month at 11:30 am. Thank you again and until next we meet, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.