The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
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?
And if Jewish-Arab dialogue on campus, or anywhere else, is defined as Jews and Arabs agreeing that Israel is awful, then aren’t such exchanges doing more mischief than good?
Moreover, is it appropriate for a coalition that was created expressly for promoting Israel’s defense – at a time when the press and campus radicals were undermining it with disinformation and out-of-context stories – to pay to bring in speakers who echo the same distortions the group was founded to oppose?
It is all well and good for Klein’s critics to say the right shouldn’t be allowed to decide who is pro-Israel enough to speak. But where are supporters of Israel, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum, prepared to draw the line? If groups that are partners in this coalition, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, are okay with being effectively made co-sponsors of presentations that defame Israel, how can they complain when others do the same thing?
And if they agree there is a campaign to delegitimize Zionism that has seemingly won over mainstream opinion in Western Europe and established a foothold in this country principally on college campuses, how can they be unwilling to take a stand against those who question the Jewish state’s right of self-defense, even if they are Israelis?
This is not a question of it being okay to say something in Tel Aviv, but not okay to say it at a place like the University of Pennsylvania. Rather, it’s matter of those who purport to represent the community being willing to say their purpose is to bring the truth about the war against Israel, and not to sponsor those – however sincere they might be – who fan the flames of anti-Zionist propaganda.
Perhaps things would have gone differently if a group or a leader less controversial than ZOA and the pugnacious Klein were to voice these concerns. But that is the fault of the other groups, not Klein. The questions he raised deserve more of an answer than he received.
These days, Israel-bashing in academia requires no courage, even if it’s done by Jews who say they love Israel. What takes guts is to walk onto a campus and say that Israel is in the right.
Rather than acquiescing to a frame of reference that sees Jewish rights as inherently illegitimate and Israeli self-defense as morally indistinguishable from terrorism, what a group like the Israel Campus Coalition ought to be doing is finding the courage to challenge this notion altogether.
And if it can’t agree to do that, then, frankly, who needs it?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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