Progressive Zionists Go Back to School

New Organization Hopes To Fill a Void in Campus Discourse About the Middle East

By Ethan Porter

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
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Anti-Israeli student activists have grown increasingly vocal on college campuses in recent years, but in many cases the only organized pro-Israel response has been from right-wing groups. Other Jewish students — equally pro-Israel but far more liberal — can find themselves without a voice. Liberals say an essential part of the discourse is being silenced.

“There’s a real threat of losing progressive Jews in their campus years,” Ken Bob, president of the Labor Zionist Alliance, told the Forward.

To address this situation, the LZA has joined with three other organizations to create the Union of Progressive Zionists, a campus group aimed at correcting what they see as a widespread misconception: that Zionism and progressive politics are incompatible.

LZA and Meretz USA will provide financial and structural support, while the Labor Zionist youth movements, Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim Dror, will be primarily responsible for student outreach.

UPZ’s adult sponsors said they decided to launch the new group after years of hearing students say that there was no alternative on campus to the polarized politics of Students for Justice in Palestine on one side, and Aipac on another.

“We want to talk about being Zionist but being against the occupation,” said Chaya Rubin, UPZ’s conference coordinator and, in many ways, the de facto leader of the fledgling organization. “There is no middle ground” in campus debate on the Middle East, Rubin added. By defining Zionism in a way unfamiliar to many young people, the new group plans to offer such a middle ground.

The group will be launched officially when the new school year begins next month. In preparation, organizers visited the campuses of Brandeis, McGill, Wesleyan, Bard and New York University this spring. Rubin and Bob say they were encouraged by what they saw, and students who met with them were impressed, as well.

“I know that UPZ will be filling a void in Israel groups at NYU,” said Rachel Seville, a Habonim Dror alumna and current New York University student eager to begin working for the nascent organization. “While there are occasionally events on campus that could be considered to give a ‘progressive Zionist’ view, there is not any sort of official and ongoing group. Hopefully UPZ can successfully fill that space.”

As Bob explained, the organization will be neither a political advocacy group in the mold of Aipac, nor an apolitical organization centered on Jewish culture, like Hillel. Instead, he said, the organization will function as a “network” of progressive college Jews who feel alienated by both sides of the divisive debate. It hopes to sponsor tours of prominent speakers and to provide chapters with information to counteract the extremism on many campuses. Perhaps most important, activists hope the mere existence of the UPZ network will galvanize a more progressive version of Jewish identity among students. However, Bob said, these goals are akin to a first draft; in the end, students themselves will set UPZ’s agenda.

“We want to reach thousands of students,” Bob said. “I think the word ‘progressive’ is not a scary word to students.”

In today’s campus atmosphere it is the word “Zionism” that most often carries negative imagery, especially to those less historically informed. For that reason, UPZ face an uphill battle convincing its prospective constituents that progressivism and Zionism can go hand in hand. Much of the dialogue during the preliminary meeting at Bard focused on the tensions surrounding the word.

How does UPZ plan to change this belief? By demonstrating, through historical illustration and contemporary political analysis, that progressivism is embedded in the foundation of Zionism, leaders say.

“When we talk about fair play to all people, democratic values, that can be very attractive to people,” Bob asserted. “Surveys show students, especially Jewish students, are essentially liberal.”

The precise degree of liberalism adopted by each chapter will be left to the discretion of its members. Students at Brandeis have said UPZ will be the most progressive Israel-related organization on campus; that might not be the case at a school more engaged in left-wing politics, such as Wesleyan. Rubin hopes the chapters will work together when needed, but concedes there will be issues on which various chapters, owing to the diverse ideological profiles of the campuses, cannot find significant common ground. The four groups supporting UPZ will not dictate any chapter’s agenda, unless one verges so far off the basic message — if say, a chapter advocates exterminating Palestinians, an example offered by Rubin — that the word “progressive” no longer can be considered applicable.

If all goes according to plan, UPZ will hire a permanent coordinator by the end of the summer. Then, in mid-October, UPZ will hold its first annual conference, where students are expected to draft a constitution and develop the organization’s short-term and long-term goals. Progress, in this case, seems to mean a steady march to reclaim the history of a very common word.

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