View from America: Who speaks for the Zionists?

Critics of Israel have just been given the OK to 'tell Israel's side of the story' on US campuses.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
It was one of those American Jewish dust-ups that play out along predictable lines and conclude 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 have 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 and controversial 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 or not 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. Their 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 Forces 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 the US - wherever people wish to listen to their message. BUT WHEN Klein - of all people - spoke up as their principle accuser in petitioning 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, two weeks ago, 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 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 to 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. YET 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 to promote 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 the US 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 a matter of not sponsoring 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 had voiced 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 campus coalitions ought to be doing is finding the courage to challenge this notion altogether. And if the Israel on Campus Coalition can't agree to do that, then, frankly, who needs it? The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.