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|NEW YORK – More than 1,000 people gathered at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago on Friday to attend Jewish Voice for Peace’s three-day biannual national summit, which caused much controversy with the announced participation of Rasmea Odeh, a convicted Palestinian terrorist.
Odeh is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She was sentenced to life in prison in Israel for her involvement with planting bombs that were used in 1969 in attacks in Jerusalem, which she confessed to.
One of the attacks targeted a supermarket where two students were killed and nine other people were wounded.
JVP said it is “honored” and “proud” to feature Odeh, describing her as a “deeply respected Palestinian organizer.”
Just before the event kicked off, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan issued a statement calling it a “hate conference,” saying its goal was to “plan the next steps in the delegitimization and boycott campaign against Israel.”
“As a Jew, I am ashamed that a conference filled with hatred for Israel, and that is hosting a terrorist as a central speaker, is led by a Jewish organization,” Erdan wrote.
But according to JVP executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson Vilkomerson, the minister’s statement was simply the latest attack on JVP “in an escalating campaign by the Israeli government to criminalize political dissent.”
“The stronger the BDS movement becomes, the more the Israeli government demonstrates its growing alarm about the power of the movement for Palestinian rights,” she said in a statement on the evening of the summit. “Our National Member Meeting, our largest ever, is proof that JVP is providing a political and spiritual home for a growing number of Jews who want to bring their full selves to this work.
“We push, we challenge, we are willing and able to keep evolving,” she said. “We are willing to be uncomfortable, and to make others uncomfortable, in ways that stretch and push the limits of our thinking, and encourage ourselves and others to challenge assumptions we have learned and move closer to embodying the vision we have for the world.”
The conference is focused on “building the power of movements for racial justice and equality both in the US and in Israel/Palestine.” It is the largest gathering of members to date, according to the organization.
Participants include JVP chapter leaders, rabbis, academics, students and healthcare workers.
“It is a scary time. We are facing threats that are coming at us faster and more intensely than any time I can remember,” Vilkomerson said in her opening remarks on Friday.
“The only way to fight and resist and organize in this time is to, not only knit ourselves closer together, to offer each other the support and love and sustenance we need to have the energy and spirit to continue the fight, but to consciously be part of knitting together the emerging broader movement.”
Vilkomerson spoke of JVP’s “key role in church divestment, campus divestment, cultural boycott and municipal boycott campaigns that have all contributed to making the BDS movement a global force to be reckoned with.”
She added that the backlash JVP receives from other Jewish organizations and from Israeli officials, especially after the announcement of Odeh’s participation, was “evidence of the growing power of [the Jewish pro-BDS] movement.”
According to a November 2016 Brookings Institute poll on American attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Vilkomerson’s estimation of the movement may be correct: The American polarization on how to react to Israeli settlements has expanded over the past two years, as 60% of Democrats now support imposing economic sanctions against Israel, or more serious action.
In light of Donald Trump’s election, JVP’s efforts have been directed to “making sure that Palestinian freedom is squarely in the center of the progressive agenda,” she explained.
Odeh is scheduled to be a panelist at the program’s final session on Sunday evening alongside three others, including anti-Israel activist Linda Sarsour.