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Who Will Speak For The Jews?


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It was one of those American Jewish dust-ups that play out along predictable lines and concluded with a predictable outcome.

The left outrages the right, and the right responds in knee-jerk fashion by calling for banning the left from something that most people had never heard of. In the end, the left emerges with its right to speak triumphantly undiminished while the right skulks away muttering.

Seen that movie already? So have we all. Ad nauseam.

But sometimes, even these boring ideological struggles are worth looking into. And the more you think seriously about the underlying issues, the less comfortable you may be with the stereotypical outcome.

In one recent case, the role of the right was played by the Zionist Organization of America and its outspoken leader Morton Klein. Klein who has often been portrayed by rival groups and press critics as something of a bully and an enforcer of a pro-Israel standard that few support, was the perfect antagonist for the left-wing Union of Progressive Zionists as they battled recently over whether the UPZ should be allowed to remain part of something called the Israel on Campus Coalition.

The coalition is a group of 31 groups that says it seeks to advance a pro-Israel agenda on American college campuses, and is funded by Hillel and the Shusterman Foundation. Founded in 2002, its purpose was to make it possible for students to hear Israel’s side of the story at a time when anti-Zionist propaganda was drowning out the truth about the Palestinians’ terrorism and rejection of peace.

The controversy arose when the UPZ chose to sponsor a speaking tour of Israeli critics of their country’s policy in the territories on the coalition’s dime. The program, titled “Breaking the Silence,” repeats a view that is often heard on the extreme left of the Israeli political spectrum, and speaks of the nation’s measures of self-defense as illegitimate and illegal. The speakers are Israeli veterans who believe that the Israel Defense Force counterterrorism mission is, as practiced, dehumanizing and immoral.

And even though it seems to complement the well-publicized views of anti-Israel groups, there shouldn’t be any question of their right to be heard – both at home and in this country – wherever people wish to listen to their message.

But when Klein petitioned the coalition’s governing board to expel the UPZ for promoting an anti-Israel agenda, the reaction from other groups was eminently predictable. A committee that deliberated on the subject unanimously refused last week to contemplate banning the leftists. Nor was it prepared to revisit the coalition’s membership criteria or mission statement.

It’s no surprise that they wouldn’t listen to Klein, who has been playing the proverbial dog in the Jewish organizational manger since the signing of the Oslo peace accords. The fact that he was right about that issue hasn’t improved his popularity. In recent years, ZOA’s highly critical attitude toward the Israeli governments led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert has effectively marginalized it again. As such, the chances that most other groups would join ZOA to do something that could be labeled as censorship were slim and none.

But in this case, was he really in the wrong?

The premise of the UPZ and its supporters is that their goal is to educate students about the diversity of Israeli opinion. In an environment in which anti-Zionism is the norm, they reason that putting forward a leftist critique of Israel from an Israeli frame of reference is the best way to reinforce support for it.

They say that getting students to support Israel’s extreme left-wingers, who criticize the country from within, is far preferable to having them become activists on behalf of groups that oppose its existence in principle.

Since the playing field of academia is so skewed, seen this way, banning sponsorship of “Breaking the Silence” would be hamstringing the pro-Israel community’s best way of getting through to young people who will not listen to anything that doesn’t originate on the left.

But perhaps the question we should also be asking is: What exactly is the difference between a Jewish group bringing in Israeli extremists who bash Israel, and an Arab group bringing in a Palestinian to do the same thing?

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About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com, where this first appeared. He can be reached via e-mail at jtobin@commentarymagazine.com.


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