Peace Front Faces Schism Over ‘Right Of Return’

By Eric Marx

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.
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Arab groups are threatening to quit the country’s largest anti-war coalition unless it does more to support the Palestinian cause, but Jewish members say that such a move would lead them to break ranks.

Several Arab and Muslim groups announced last week that they would drop out of United for Peace and Justice, a leading American-based coalition opposed to the Iraq war, unless the umbrella group explicitly endorses the Palestinian “right of return” to Israel. But Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor of Tikkun Magazine and chairman of the Tikkun Community, which is part of the anti-war coalition’s steering committee, said he would quit if such a position is adopted.

The complaints from pro-Palestinian groups come despite their gains in recent months. United for Peace and Justice, which brought together 650 local and national groups from 38 states last October to oppose the invasion of Iraq, has formulated a pro-Palestinian stance, arguing that American political, economic and military aid to Israel is underwriting the occupation of Palestinian territory. Still, at its June conference in Chicago, the anti-war coalition refused to explicitly endorse the “right of return” for Palestinians out of fear of alienating the bulk of its members with a phrase that’s commonly associated with the eventual demise of Israel as a Jewish state. Coalition leaders also rejected a description of Israel as an “imperialist” state and opted not to join what many Jewish groups say was an anti-war demonstration deliberately scheduled by pro-Palestinian groups to take place later this month during Rosh Hashana.

The debate over such decisions played out last week in postings to an Internet message board operated by members of United for Peace and Justice. The dispute could end up undermining both the anti-war effort and the Palestinian cause, but Palestinian solidarity groups, including Al-Awda, Badil, and International ANSWER, say settling for anything short of an endorsement of the “right of return” would be “morally repugnant.”

“Right Of Return [ROR] is the litmus test of whether one really supports the cause of Palestine or not,” wrote one Al-Awda member. “What we are witnessing today is the mushrooming of Arab and Palestinian voices calling for outright abandonment of ROR as defined by the refugees themselves. Others are trying to dilute and weaken ROR by de-linking it from the issue of occupation.… This is something which Al-Awda, by definition, must not tolerate and support.”

Some activists countered that, though in principle they supported such demands, pro-Palestinian groups could end up isolated if they push the issue too hard. Other anti-war activists warned that adopting a more anti-Israel measure would undermine general support for the anti-war cause.

“The underlying issue is one of strategy,” said a member of the anti-war coalition, also known by its acronym, UFPJ. “How should those of us on the left of the American political spectrum, including to the left of most forces in the anti-war movement, build support for our politics to where we can actually impact national politics?

“UFPJ is a critical united front where we work and struggle with groups who may not agree with our full range of politics. If you set the bar too high and expect everyone else to be where you are overnight — in the country with the most reactionary politics of any industrialized nation — we’ll end up talking to ourselves.”

The Al-Awda member responded that working to change the organization from within would only provide the anti-war coalition with “legitimacy and political cover.”

“In other words, trying to influence UFPJ is a double-edged sword,” the Al-Awda member said. “In the process of advancing its agenda within the group, Al-Awda is helping to advance or legitimize the UFPJ’s agenda as well, an agenda which, to my knowledge, includes support for the ‘road map,’ and tolerance of, if not outright support for people like Rabbi Lerner, whose hostility towards ROR is legendary.”

Tikkun Community’s Lerner said that his group was “concerned” about the rhetoric used by some members in the anti-war coalition to describe Israel.

“We’ve been concerned about some people in UFPJ speaking in a language that seemed demeaning to Israel or insensitive to the people of Israel and… we won’t stay in the organization that continues in that tenor,” Lerner said. “But what we’ve found in the past few months is that most people don’t feel represented by language that’s demeaning to Israel or the Jewish people and so that’s been reassuring.”

Leaders of United for Peace and Justice said that support for a resolution favoring a Palestinian right of return to Israel represented a minority position within the anti-war coalition.

Mazin Qumsiyeh of Al-Awda papered over the dispute, saying the anti-war support for equality under international law included the “right of return.” “But ask me for my own personal political solution,” Qumsiyeh said, “international law recognizes any negotiations between occupied and occupier [as] null and void if they trespass on basic unalienable rights such as the ‘right of return.’”

Charles Lenchner, a member of the anti-war coalition and president of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, said the debate could prove to be a positive development if it ended up producing a majority in favor of the peace process and a two-state solution.

“Some people are calling for the destruction of Israel,” Lenchner said. “On the other hand, there are many more that are saying that Israel has the right to exist but that its policies should be opposed.”

Lerner painted a mixed picture.

“These groups are not in the majority at this moment, and if they were, we’d be out,” Lerner said. “We’re not willing to be a part of a group that’s overly demeaning of Israel. That’s different than being overly critical of the Israeli government’s policies.”

In the end, Lerner said, “I’m positive, but concerned and watchful.”

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