Rachel Weber knew she had to work fast.
Two months back, on October 19, the Northampton, Massachusetts, activist discovered through a public-records request that the police chief of her small liberal city planned to go to Israel on a police delegation sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The trip, billed as an all-expenses-paid opportunity to learn counter-terrorism tactics from Israeli police officials, was planned for December.
That October day, Weber got in touch with local allies, and scrambled to plan a course of action against the junket, which she found troubling because of Israeli forces’ involvement in a decades-long project of military occupation and dispossession of Palestinians.
“The folks on these visits, they go to sites where grave human-rights violations are occurring,” said Weber.
Five weeks later, she got word from Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz: He was canceling police chief Jody Kasper’s participation in the delegation.
“Chief Kasper and I have both come to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of our city that she not participate in the National Leadership Seminar in Israel,” he wrote to Weber, in an e-mail reviewed by The Nation.
It was a stunning turn of events for Weber and the Western MA chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the Palestinian-rights group with which she organizes. Nobody expected the mayor—who, some residents say, has a reputation for forging his own path without consulting others—to listen to them. (The mayor’s office declined an interview request from The Nation.) And nobody expected that the mayor and police chief would go as far as withdrawing from an already-planned trip to Israel—an action bound to spark backlash from Israel-lobby groups.
But activists say their success in Northampton—joined by the decision of a Vermont State Police colonel to likewise pull out of the ADL trip—is evidence of the growing strength of the Palestinian-rights movement in the United States. Capitalizing on widespread horror at Israeli human-rights abuses, advocates have successfully integrated Palestinian human rights into the larger progressive agenda.
“We’ve all seen how the exception to Palestinian rights that occurred on the left is disappearing. Palestinian human and civil rights are right there in the center of our work as we fight racism in the US, as we fight unjust immigration policy, as we fight for queer and trans rights—the intersectional movement building we see happening is very resilient,” said Stefanie Fox, the deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace.
The decisions by the Northampton and Vermont police to withdraw from the trip to Israel was only the latest example of how the landscape for Palestinian-rights activism in the United States is brightening at the local level. At a time when Donald Trump is aligning himself with Israel’s far right, and Congress is debating whether to criminalize the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel over human-rights abuses, local organizers are pushing their cities in the opposite direction—though advocates are the first to say there’s a lot more work to do to get their cities to respect Palestinian human rights.
In April, Durham, North Carolina, became the first US city to ban its police from training with foreign security forces—a decision made in response to a coalition of groups who focused on police trainings in Israel.
Last year, a Washington, DC, city councilman sharply criticized the DC police commander’s participation in a training delegation to Israel, while Portland, Oregon, agreed to divest city funds from all corporations as part of a socially responsible investment campaign that involved advocates for Palestine.
And in 2013, a coalition that included Palestinian-rights advocates successfully pressured Veolia, a French waste and water company that at the time operated in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, to withdrew from a contract with the St. Louis Water Division.
“For US foreign policy to change, lots of change will have to happen at the local level before change will happen at the national level,” said Tabitha Mustafa, the co-founder of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee.
(The local organizing in the United States also parallels efforts across Europe. Earlier this year, the Spanish state of Navarre endorsed BDS, while the Dublin City Council likewise voted to back BDS and divest from Hewlett-Packard because of the company’s contracts with Israel’s military.)
Many of these victories at the local level came as part of JVP’s Deadly Exchange campaign. The initiative, launched last March, is part of an effort that is trying to shut down the frequent trips by American law-enforcement personnel to Israel, where they learn from Israeli forces about counter-terrorism tactics and tour sites under Israeli military occupation and Israeli prisons.
“[The delegations are] harmful to Palestinians and Israelis impacted by state violence, like Jews of color, and they’re harmful to our communities in the US,” said Fox, the deputy director of JVP. “They rebrand and market Israel’s tactics of occupation and apartheid as ‘successful models of policing.’ We don’t want to be part of seeing that whitewashed, and we don’t want to see the deepening of relationships between those individuals and institutions responsible for state violence in both places.”
For years after the September 11 attacks, when law-enforcement delegations to Israel began, these trips, sponsored by the ADL and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a hawkish group promoting the US-Israel alliance, came and went with little notice. In the eyes of law-enforcement officers, Israel is seen as the gold standard for combating terrorism, a leader in using surveillance, profiling, and force to crack down on threats. And so, when federal and local law officers have traveled to Israel on ADL trips, they have received an Israeli military briefing at an army site overlooking the blockaded coastal enclave of Gaza, visited an Israeli policeman who works in the segregated city of Hebron and an Israeli military checkpoint in Bethlehem, and heard from a security official at Ben Gurion Airport, where racial profiling and harsh interrogations of Palestinians are routine, according to itineraries of the trips.
The trips have also bolstered Israel’s image in the United States among law enforcement officers.
“[They] come back and they are Zionists. They understand Israel and its security needs in ways a lot of audiences don’t,” David Friedman, then director of ADL Washington, DC, told The Jerusalem Post in 2015.
But thanks to JVP, and the Palestinian-rights movement they are a part of, the regular and unquestioned normality of police trips to Israel is now being challenged. JVP has combined aggressive use of Freedom of Information requests (to bring transparency to who is going on these trips) with behind-the-scenes lobbying and public actions to question such delegations to Israel.
Activists told The Nation that the recent success they’ve found in Northampton and Vermont is because of three factors: the element of surprise (they worked fast with little public notice); the absence of right-wing, pro-Israel groups with a strong presence in their communities; and the fact of organizing in an already-progressive area.
“We don’t have AIPAC,” said Kathy Shapiro, a member of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, which pressured Vermont State Police Col. Matthew Birmingham to cancel his participation in the ADL trip. “We’re in a bubble. Not that we don’t have opposition, but this is a very progressive little bubble.”
Organizers also said there was another decisive factor: the building of coalitions with immigrant- and civil-rights groups who are dismayed at local police officials’ decisions to travel to Israel to train with a force that commits human-rights violations. Activists said that this coalition building showed that the campaign was not centered on a boutique issue that is only of concern to a small group of people.
“You get people struggling on different issues [together],” said Ajamu Dillahunt, a member of the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project-100, which petitioned for the Durham City Council policy banning delegations that train with Israeli forces. “You get a strong and mobilized group of people that have different bases across the country and across the state.”
That’s not to say that Palestinian-rights activism at the local level is easy. Durham has been hit by a lawsuit prepared by the International Legal Forum, an Israeli firm, claiming that their ban on police delegations to Israel unlawfully discriminates against Israelis.
The New Orleans City Council passed a resolution in January promising to take steps to avoid investments in corporations involved in human-rights abuses—a measure championed by the Congress of Day Laborers, an immigrant worker–led group; the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace; and the New Orleans Palestine Solidarity Committee. But after a furious backlash from pro-Israel groups, the City Council rescinded the resolution.
And in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a nascent effort to pass a City Council resolution earlier this year to end the city’s contracts with Hewlett-Packard because the technology company has contracts with the Israeli army was stymied by an onslaught of opposition from Israel-lobby groups.
While debate over the resolution raged, residents got push-poll calls asking them if they would support a measure supported by terrorist groups—a seeming reference to the resolution on HP. Groups like the Israeli-American Council and Jewish Community Relations Council sent postcards and letters opposing the boycott effort to Cambridge residents.
“The other side was able to use connections with people in positions of power to put pressure on them,” said William Ruhm, a member of Mass Against HP, the coalition behind the bill. “The other thing they did was create so much noise, create this enormous climate of misinformation, and even a little fear and confusion among elected officials and among people in the city.”
Palestinian-rights organizers are also operating in a harsh climate at the state level. Twenty-six states have enacted laws against the BDS movement. In Texas, a children’s-speech pathologist lost her job because she refused to sign a statement, as a condition of her employment, swearing she would not boycott Israel.
But activists for Palestinian rights are used to going up against Israel-lobby groups who have long-established connections with politicians and then losing their campaigns.
The recent successes, on the other hand, are a new development—and a spur to keep pushing for cities to issue Durham-like resolutions that ban future police delegations to Israel.
“The legislation in Durham is a great model,” said JVP’s Fox. “We only expect [the campaign] to build from here.”
Activists are also hopeful their triumphs are a sign they can turn the tide at the local and federal level towards support for Palestinian rights and away from backing Israel’s occupation.
“There’s a growing number of Americans that are more critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians,” said Weber, the Northampton activist. “We’re more organized and more vocal and are building stronger coalitions to bring those criticisms to our elected officials.”