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Birthright to Boycott

Crossposted from Mondoweiss:

A recent post by Adam Horowitz asked what it will take for liberal Zionists to come around and support a boycott. My mind was changed by going to Israel on a Birthright trip and seeing firsthand the effects of the wall and checkpoints. However, I doubt that a full scale boycott of Israel will catch on in the American Jewish community. My recent project, the Boycott Toolkit, enables an open discussion of what exactly a boycott of the occupation should involve, lets users choose their own level of involvement, and lists concrete steps for action.

I was brought up in a religiously conservative but politically liberal Jewish community. While I was aware of and interested in politics, I didn’t consider myself an activist. Like most American Jews, I was aware of the ongoing peace process and lamented the inability of both sides to resolve their differences. A trip to Israel and the West Bank shattered my preconception of the two parties as equal antagonists, and convinced me to become more politically active and outspoken.

I joined a Taglit-Birthright trip in the summer of 2007 after graduating from college. Along with a group of twenty other young American Jews, I went to Israel for the first time and we did all the things that are supposed to connect us to our cultural and religious heritage. We met soldiers, visited Yad Vashem and cried at the Wailing Wall. We climbed Masada at dawn and surveyed the beautiful land that was once promised to our people, and was now ours.

However, while walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, or driving along highways to the Dead Sea, I could see that not all was well in this beautiful land. From a vantage point atop the ancient stone walls, a new concrete wall snakes across the landscape, and settlements stand out starkly on hilltops. Our bus was protected by an armed guard at all times, and he warned us sternly not to venture into Palestinian territory. Danger awaited there, kidnapping or lynching was possible, hatred and discrimination a certainty. He could not have been more wrong.

After the planned activities of the trip were over, we were released from the protection of the tour guides and guards. I returned to Jerusalem with two friends and took a bus to the Bethlehem checkpoint. We approached the monstrous concrete and steel gates with trepidation and entered the maw of the security zone. With our American passports, we were waved through by bored looking young women, really girls no older than I was, but who were surrounded by thick glass and armed with automatic weapons. The Palestinians were subject to more stringent checking, including a biometric scan of the veins in their hands. When I put my hand in the scanner, the guard gave me a withering look, as if it should be clear that I wasn’t subject to the same rules as everyone else in line. This sort of racial profiling may be effective, but it made my stomach churn.

Leaving the checkpoint, we entered a different world. While the Jerusalem side has a proper bus turnaround, in Bethlehem the road dead-ends into the wall and a throng of taxi drivers stand waiting for business. We were approached by a man with a yellow Mercedes, a baseball cap, and large weary eyes. Communicating through his broken English and our worse Arabic we negotiated a tour of the town, learning about its millennia of history and how it had changed since the wall cut it off from Jerusalem. We passed dozens of shuttered businesses and were taken to a dusty souvenir store that opened just for us. I bought ornaments I didn’t need to show my gratitude.

We only spent a few hours in Bethlehem that first time, and were relieved when we crossed the checkpoint back to Jerusalem. We would never see the city the same way again, knowing that an entirely different world lay on the other side of the wall. I have since returned to Israel and the West Bank many times, but crossing checkpoints still gives me the sense that I am crossing a land divided against itself, and that a great injustice is being done in my name.

Returning to the United States, I began graduate study at the MIT Media Lab with the Center for Future Civic Media. Research here is focused on building online tools for organizing real-world communities, and I set out to apply this knowledge to my community of interest: American Jews. I have released three projects that speak to this audience, which grew progressively more action-oriented.

In January 2009 I created VirtualGaza, a space for Gazans to break the information blockade by telling their own stories without a media filter. I spent the following summer meeting with Israeli and Palestinian activists in the West Bank. GroundTruth aggregates geographic information, the path of the wall and the green line, the location of Palestinian neighborhoods and Israeli settlements, the hundreds of checkpoints that disrupt traffic, and displays it in an interface familiar to users of Google Maps. Most of this information is published there for the first time in a reusable and open format. This project provides a local geographic context that is crucial to understanding the reality on the ground.

For my masters thesis, I am building an application to organize collective economic action, inspired by the BDS movement and the concept of smart sanctions. While a wholesale boycott of Israel can engender hostile feelings in even liberal American Jews, the Boycott Toolkit provides detailed information on specific companies and their relationship to the conflict. It asks users to take either positive or negative action by buying or boycotting products, and is open for community contributions. Building upon work by WhoProfits and Gush Shalom, the Boycott Toolkit already includes information on companies that are based in the settlements and industrial zones, vineyards in the occupied Golan Heights, and Palestinian products that support peaceful development. Stores that sell these products are listed and mapped, so consumers can alter their economic behavior to match their politics.

If you see products you recognize, please add stores in your area that sell them, so that we can track our impact in our own local communities. If you have other information about corporate complicity in the occupation, please add it so we can all benefit from your research. I know that these projects by themselves will not resolve the conflict. But if we can change the minds of other Jews like myself, who are vaguely aware of the issues but feel powerless to do anything about it, all our small actions taken together can bring us closer to peace.

Josh Levinger is a graduate student and researcher at the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT, where his work lies at the intersection of technology and politics.


I am a proud participant in the first annual Media Lab Mustache Extravaganza.

Stand in awe of my impending glory!


I’m back dating this post a bit, but this is the site I worked on all through IAP. And no, Grandpa, I’m not working for Al-Jazeera. I think my implementation is better than theirs.

Now I’m working on cleaning up the code for open release, and finding a host organization to sponsor me on a trip there this summer.

Virtual Gaza is an independent, civic media initiative established by a collective of scholars, media activists and Palestinian residents of Gaza in response to the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009.

For years, Israel has been gradually tightening its strangehold on the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, sealing its borders and cutting off adequate food, fuel, and medical supplies, bringing the economy and infrastructure to the point of collapse.

Israel has also sought to control how Gaza’s story is told to the outside — from its sophisticated ‘public relations’ campaigns to blocking the entry of foreign journalists.

Virtual Gaza is a space where ordinary Palestinians under siege can describe their experiences in their own words, and where the destruction of the Gaza strip can be documented by those experiencing it directly. The diary entries, photographs, and video material gathered here have been contributed by residents of Gaza. For safety reasons, authors are located in neighborhoods but their precise location is not shown.

Virtual Gaza invites you to help break the information blockade.

If I Can Dream

President Obama. I like the sound of that.

I wasn’t there, but Flickr user bluespf42 was. Who wants to go to DC for the inauguration parade?

Politics, Pageantry and Protest

Instead of enjoying my last two weeks of summer, I watched the political conventions with the help of a bottle of whiskey. To spare you from the same pain, I will summarize the festivities in brief.

The Democrats gathered in Denver to hear from their chosen one, who spoke with a combination of arena rock showmanship and thorough policy detail. Al Gore and John Kerry each displayed a vigor entirely lacking in their respective candidacies, leaving me to wonder where those speeches were when we needed them.

Hillary pretended she’s not still bitter, and tried to get the angry female contingent to unite around the uppity young man who dethroned her. When she rhetorically asked the crowd if they supported her to help the disenfranchised, or because she is a woman, they roared “for you”, confirming everyone’s fears that we truly live in a granny-ocracy.

Bill Clinton reminded us that some Democrats know how to run an economy, even though they decry NAFTA to woo blue collar voters. Jimmy Carter tottered around like a frumpy old man, but was denied a speech because he hates Israel. Joe Biden tried to get a call and response going with the crowd, but stumbled over himself trying to find the punch line. Ted Kennedy showed up just to convince everyone he is still alive. Michelle tried to portray herself as a loving mom, not a Harvard-educated, terrorist-fist-jabbing, honky-hater. She spoke passionately about her and Barack’s family story, all while wearing what is surely the tightest dress ever to grace a potential First Lady’s curves, with the possible exception of Arwen Kucinich notwithstanding.

Obama whistled for the last train to Hopesville, aiming to create change and a better future for the children of tomorrow. Naive hipsters formed lines miles long to get into the arena, only to be horrified by the sight of old white people dancing to Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and for hours. Louis Fernandes SB ’07, who attended the speech, said that “Obama gave me the audacity to hope that hope was enough to change. I found it incredibly moving… to my bowels.”

Across the plains, the Republican convention portrayed John McCain as a maverick, reminded everyone about his noble service when he got shot down in Nam, and put as much distance between himself and George Bush as possible.

Fred Thompson, displaying his classic Southern drawl, tried his hand as a stand up comedian, claiming Sarah Palin is the only vice presidential candidate who can dress a moose. I think he discounted Hannibal Hamlin, the 15th Vice President under Abraham Lincoln and a former Maine farmer, too quickly. And who knows what else Spirow Agnew was capable of.

George Bush phoned it in via satellite for a few minutes, because he was too busy trying to look busy as yet another hurricane barreled toward New Orleans. First Lady Laura took up the charge, reminding us that “our shared American ideals will always transcend political parties and partisanship.” Unless you are a terrorist-coddling-freedom-hater, in which case the gloves come off.

Joe Lieberman, channelling the unholy combination of Chancellor Palpatine and the Joker, tried to sever his last ties with the Democratic party, wishing he was the vice presidential nominee all the while. Luckily for everyone, he already had his chance and he is now forever removed from the political gene pool.

Sarah Palin tried to show that she is a smart pick, not just because she is a vagina-American and Miss Alaska 1984 runner up, but because her executive experience in Wasilla is greater than that of anyone else on the ticket in either party. She also nominated her husband Todd for “first dude”, citing his qualification as a championship snowmobile racer. I think they just won over the NASCAR dad voting block en masse.

Rudy Giuliani bared his snaggle tooth and decried the cosmopolitan, effete nature of the Democrats, which is perfectly in character for a man who has been in drag on national television being felt up by Donald Trump. And then the big hero, John McCain came out, and sounded the clarion call for change. No one seemed to question the fact that the audience was entirely made up of the very bigwigs and fatcats that he pledged to throw out. They cheered all the same, because he’s the only chance they have to keep the party going.

While the confetti fluttered inside and blazered bigwigs gulped champagne, a different kind of conversation took place across the river in Minneapolis. Groups of Ronvoys rolled to Ronstock to disgorge their load of Paultards for three days of peace, love and liberty. They were serenaded by such political luminaries as Tucker Carlson, Grover Norquist and Jesse Ventura. And still, no one takes them seriously.

Also outside the mainstream political coverage, various groups of activists protested both conventions. Fox correspondent Griff Jenkins waded bravely into the fray in Denver, only to be surrounded by a group of masked Zapatistas. His interview prompt was “do you believe in freedom?” He didn’t get very far before being drowned out by chants of “fuck Fox News.”

At both convention cities, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War conducted simulated exercises from their deployment experience. Holding their hands up as weapon surrogates, they patrolled urban streets in squad formation. Wearing full desert camouflage, they captured and hooded “Iraqi civilians” to the horror of passersby. The purpose of this street theater was to demonstrate the reality of the current occupation to the American public, delegates and elected officials. It’s not giant puppets or flaming effigies, but at least it was entertaining.

In the Twin Cities, massive preventive arrest sweeps were conducted against such dangerous radicals as members of Food Not Bombs, a bus full of environmentalists, and the National Lawyers Guild. As Glenn Greenwald at points out, this is exactly the same behavior that the mainstream media was decrying as China prepared for the Olympics. But when it happens in the United States the Washington Post hails it as law enforcement at work. Seemingly, those freedoms we all care so much about aren’t really respected when you want to do something so dangerous as hold an unauthorized street march.

After the balloons are cleared from the aisles, the tear gas canisters from the streets, and the bloggers all go back to their basements, the campaigns can begin their real work of putting obnoxious ads on television. Next week, everyone can go back to watching America’s Next Top Slut, but for two glorious weeks, the eyes of the world were fixed on our favorite whores in suits, and I watched it all so you didn’t have to.

Published in The Tech September 9, 2008

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