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. We are pleased to welcome as our guest today Seth Morrison, a representative of the nonprofit organization Jewish Voice for Peace where he serves on their Congressional Outreach Committee. Welcome, Mr. Morrison.
Seth Morrison: It’s my pleasure.
Jan Paynter: 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, as I just noted, 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. Our program Politics Matters focuses on principled engagement with our democracy with the idea that people can actually live up to and into their ideals, that criticism of one’s government may be viewed as an essential form of patriotism rather than an abandonment of one’s country, its ideals or indeed its very being. America and its staunch and deeply valued ally Israel each honor a tradition which supports and defends vigorous and robust political debate even as viewpoints on the issues may at times widely diverge or disquiet us. Democracy, as we understand only too well, can be at times a profoundly unsettling and challenging enterprise. Yet it both embodies and facilitates our greatest hope for the aspirations of freedom, social justice, diversity and equality for all who share our embattled planet. Most particularly at this time, in the wake of the profoundly tragic Charlie Hebdo attacks and the unimaginable deaths of hostages by the group calling itself ISIS. We felt that it might be valuable to offer for your consideration today the viewpoint of the nonprofit organization Jewish Voice for Peace. Welcome again, Seth.
Seth Morrison: Wonderful. Looking forward to it.
Jan Paynter: Seth, before we begin our discussion today concerning the work of Jewish Voice for Peace, what it seeks to accomplish and its goals, etc., share with us if you would a little about yourself and what brought you to your commitment to this enterprise.
Seth Morrison: Sure. Well, first thank you for having me here today. It’s a great privilege. I hate to age myself but I think that really the first thing that got me involved was the Six Day War. I was in junior high school and Israel had this phenomenal miracle of going from a little beleaguered country to winning this great, miraculous war. That got me involved in Zionist youth groups and later in leadership in Zionist groups and as I moved around the country for my professional career and would go into a different Jewish community would invariably get involved with the local organizations as a way to meet people and form a community. And I always just found I enjoyed being involved.
Jan Paynter: I see. Now, turning to Jewish Voice for Peace. When was it founded, by whom, what is your mission and what are your long term goals?
Seth Morrison: Sure. JVP was founded in 1996 by a small group of activists on the west coast and the goal is really to end the occupation and ensure that Palestinians, whether they are living in Israel or in the occupied territories, have full and equal rights with everybody else living in the region.
Jan Paynter: Where did the activists come from, Seth? Are they secular or religious in orientation?
Seth Morrison: You know, it varies. I would say they’re probably a slightly higher percentage of secular but we have rabbis and people who are observant of the Sabbath and observant of Kashrut and other religious laws. But I think we all come out of versions of the Peace Movement. We went through the Vietnam War, we went through so many trials and tribulations that this country has suffered and I would say the group is primarily from the peace activist camp.
Jan Paynter: And what faith based organizations do you work with, if any?
Seth Morrison: We work with a number of other religious groups; the Presbyterian church, the Methodist church, the Society of Friends all have groups active in this area as well as many secular groups; Muslim groups, peace groups around the country.
Jan Paynter: Who are some of the people on your advisory board and what is—tell us a little bit about their varied backgrounds if you would.
Seth Morrison: Sure. Karen Ackerman is the chair of our group and she is retired, worked with the AFL-CIO in their government relations area so she’s very politically savvy. Estee Chandler is a movie producer and activist living in Hollywood. Then we have a few JVP staff members and we have a couple other committee members who are also very politically active. One is a lawyer for example who’s done a lot of this type of work.
Jan Paynter: I see. So it’s very varied. I was—in looking over some of the people who participate in Jewish Voice for Peace I noted Adrienne Rich who is a marvelous poet and she notes that she sees the ending of the occupation as the embodiment of an ethical Judaism and she includes a passage which I found very moving. “Which is hateful to you, you do not do to others.” And then playwright Wallace Shawn, who we were talking about before the program, states that, “Anyone who learns more about what has happened can’t help but realize that the anger of Palestinians cannot be ended by ending their children. That is a fantasy. Human beings simply aren’t made that way.”
Seth Morrison: Absolutely. That’s–
Jan Paynter: And then very, very powerful words also you had—there was a video done I believe in 2014 in which among others Gloria Steinem participated, Jonathan Demme and spoke out about Palestinian human rights while Shawn who I just mentioned supplies the voiceover for the video and he goes on to say something which I also found very powerful. He says, “Our message is that securing freedom and justice for Palestinians is the only pathway to a lasting peace.” Seth, what has been the focus of some of your protests?
Seth Morrison: You know, I think building on the language that you used, one of the things that makes this situation so hard for us as Jews and as allies is that our history is one of oppression. We’ve gone through as a people so many trials and tribulations, the Holocaust being the most recent. Yet somehow, in Israel, the government of Israel has turned this around and the oppressed have become the oppressor and that’s why we have so much sympathy for the Palestinian people. A story of my own a couple years ago. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of young Palestinians working in the environmental movement and I was hosting a Palestinian graduate student, happened to be getting a PhD in ornithology. And he was on a speaking tour helping us raise money for the environmental programs but we had a day off and I live in DC so I said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Let’s go to the Smithsonian. We’ll be tourists.” Of course we had to go to the Natural History Museum but after we did that he said, “You know, I see on the chart here that there’s a Holocaust Museum. Can we go there?” Now this is a 20-somethng Palestinian man who’s lived his whole life under occupation. So of course I said yes and we went through the museum. And we came out of the museum and we were both somewhat in tears and I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “You know, I’ve heard this all my life. I’ve heard this thing that justifies and that the Israelis talk about as to why we have to live under oppression and I never really understood it and now I do and I’m deeply moved.” But then he said, “You know, how does that justify the way they treat me at the checkpoints?” And to me that really says it. So in our protests and in our actions, our goal is to educate people that there’s another side to the debate, that this is not black hat and white hat, it’s not good and evil. It’s oppression and until you acknowledge and understand that oppression we’re not going to change it.
Jan Paynter: That’s fascinating. I was going to ask you also a little bit more about the Talmudic tradition and how it accords with your—and supports your position if you wanted to speak about that.
Seth Morrison: Sure. I don’t consider myself a religious scholar but one of the things about our people is that we are deeply committed to learning and understanding and we have a tradition of debate. There’s a story about the ancient rabbis who spent hours arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. Minutiae of course but that same level of argument is devoted to political issues and to lifestyle issues and to dietary issues and it’s a part of what keeps us as a people and it’s that debate that I think that we want to engage in.
Jan Paynter: So is your messaging organized mostly around protests? You spoke about education, social events, is it a mix?
Seth Morrison: It’s very much a mix. Our chapters do a lot of educational events. We bring in speakers. In DC where I live we’ve been doing a film festival. There are some wonderful Palestinian films that we’ve been taking around and showing in the community.
Jan Paynter: Oh, that’s wonderful because I would think not a lot of people have the opportunity for that exposure.
Seth Morrison: Exactly.
Jan Paynter: So that’s terrific. Playing devil’s advocate a bit, you spoke about the oppression which is clearly going on. On the other hand, many people have talked about the barrage of Hamas rockets fired from schools, building—apartment buildings, mosques, civic centers and in 2013 there was a Voice of America news item by Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and he put it this way, “Hamas is as anti-Semitic, anti-Western, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-Christian terrorist group and Israel is a liberal democracy fighting for its very life in a very bad neighborhood. At the same time, this issue is not going to be resolved except by political negotiations where both sides have to make significant compromises. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going anywhere. They have nowhere else to go.” How do you respond to his statement?
Seth Morrison: Well, he said a lot of things there and I’ll break it down. There’s no question that Hamas and Hezbollah are violent and terrorist oriented groups and we condemn all violence. But I think we’ve lost perspective and the perspective is that with all of those rockets, most of which are homemade toys, up until the attack on Gaza in that period leading up to it over the summer, no one was killed and there was no significant property damage. Now that doesn’t justify rockets but you have these homemade explosives that are lobbed mostly into empty land and then you have billions of dollars worth of the most sophisticated fighting equipment in the world—jets and rockets and drones. You have a country that has nuclear weapons, that has chemical weapons that the U.S. has just blinked its eyes at and the imbalance is what we have to take into account. Now the other thing is, while I hate the violence of Hamas, and as a gay man I definitely can’t stand what they do, I also know that they’re backed into a corner. Israel for 40 years has been killing them and oppressing them and has created this situation where they feel they have no option. Yet when you dig down into the news there have been a number of conciliatory statements by Hamas throughout the process in the Gaza Strip and people don’t really talk about the fact that the whole Gaza war this summer was totally contrived. Hamas did not order the kidnapping and killing of those three Israeli teenagers and Israel knew that from day one. Yes, the people who did it happened to also be Hamas supporters and were radicals and were horrible people who deserved what they got. Israel used that as an excuse to create a war and I’m talking about my people here. I’ve visited Israel 10 times, I have family and friends there so it hurts me to criticize them but we’ve got to tell the truth.
Jan Paynter: So with that in mind, what would you like to see in terms of changes to U.S. foreign policy?
Seth Morrison: Well, first of all, the U.S., when we give money to other countries, has firm conditions of how that money is used. With every country except Israel. Israel is the only country that gets a blank check. $3.1 billion a year with no restrictions, with no control over how it’s used and that money is enabling Israel to be the oppressor. I think what the U.S. has to say to Israel is, “Yes, we support you. Yes, we want to have a western democracy but we are not going to support the occupation and until you stop building settlements and until you start truly negotiating in good faith, we’re not going to keep sending more money and more arms.”
Jan Paynter: So what specific recommendations does Jewish Voice for Peace have concerning human rights?
Seth Morrison: Well, I would say they’re not super specific in that what we want is for the Palestinians to have full equality and that means that they can vote for their government, that means that they can speak freely and write freely and advocate freely. And we’re not at a point where we can sort of micromanage that.
Jan Paynter: We talked about some changes that you would like to see in terms of U.S. military aid to the Middle East and elsewhere. What do the Arms Export Control and Foreign Assistant Acts mandate?
Seth Morrison: They pretty much mandate that the U.S. government ensure that these weapons are only used for defensive purposes and for programs that the U.S. sanctions. Particularly interesting is something called the Leahy Law. Senator Leahy passed a law about six years ago that said that anytime a military unit or a police unit in a country that gets U.S. aid uses that aid to oppress that that money can be cut off and in every other country the military aid has to be tracked by a military unit–except Israel. Israel is not required to say, “This rifle or this drone went to that unit.” So in South America, in Africa where some of our allies have done that, the State Department has cut off aid to that police unit or that military unit but it has never been applied to Israel and in spite of the fact that the U.S. State Department has condemned settlement building and condemned Israel’s actions, they do nothing.
Jan Paynter: And why do you think that is?
Seth Morrison: I think because we have a political lobby called APAC that is very strong and that has frightened too many American politicians into shutting up on Israel.
Jan Paynter: Okay, let’s discuss the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. What is it, when did it begin and what does the movement seek to achieve?
Seth Morrison: The movement began in 1997 at the request of the Palestinian people. Palestinian leaders got together and said, “Look, folks, all the stuff you’re doing isn’t working. These negotiations are a sham and we have to take concrete action.” And they looked at South Africa and they saw a case where boycott, divestment and sanctions finally over time persuaded the South African Whites that they could no longer hold power and the Palestinians have asked the world to take that call up and JVP is one of the groups that accepts it.
Jan Paynter: How does your organization respond to critics who view divestment or boycott campaigns as anti-Semitic?
Seth Morrison: I’m glad you asked because it’s important that people hear this. First of all, boycott as a target is totally American and totally common. Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott, Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, Martin Luther King. We sanction boycotts all the time. I think unfortunately that the people of Israel who have been victims of anti-Semitism and there’s anti-Semitism in the U.S. today, we know that and we hate it. But as my mother said to me many times growing up, two wrongs don’t make a right and we are very careful in our boycott to focus on the occupation and to focus on companies and institutions that are profiting from and supporting the occupation. We’re not against the Jewish people, we are Jewish people but when people do something wrong, you have to deal with it.
Jan Paynter: Are you therefore advocating for at this moment for complete U.S. and international divestment from Israel?
Seth Morrison: That’s one of those terms that’s so broad. We believe in positive interactions. Many of our people visit the region and tour the region and that’s healthy, if they go to Palestine as well as to Israel. So we’re not saying don’t go to Israel. We’re saying, get both sides of it. And what we’re saying is that where there is profit from the occupation, where there’s the opportunity to influence the government to end the occupation, that is where we boycott. It’s not trying to be all things to all people.
Jan Paynter: I see. I see. And how might multi-national corporations play a more positive role in the interests of Middle East peace in your view?
Seth Morrison: Well, one of our targets is Caterpillar. And people say, “Well, they just make bulldozers. Why should you worry?” Caterpillar takes their traditional bulldozer and customizes it to make it armored like a tank so that it can destroy Palestinian homes. Is that 1/100th, 1/1000th of Caterpillar’s profit? Are they going to lose money if they stop customizing bulldozers to destroy Palestinian homes? I mean, take a stand for what’s right.
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: Well, first of all, the main thing that’s reduced terrorism in the last five years is the Palestinian authority. 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: I would like to thank our guest Seth Morrison of Jewish Voice for Peace for taking time out of his schedule to inform us about the work of this organization. Thank you at home for joining in our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topics 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 or concerns for future broadcasts. We encourage you to email us at email@example.com. 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.