Drawing Red Lines

Published December 29, 2006, issue of December 29, 2006.
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Even as college students enjoy their winter break, a nasty feud has erupted over Israel activism on campus. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on Page 6, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America is pushing for the left-wing Union of Progressive Zionists to be booted from the main umbrella body for pro-Israel groups on campus. At issue is the UPZ’s sponsorship of several campus appearances by Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who speak about abuses by the Israeli army in the territories. The ZOA argues that the program clearly hurts Israel’s image. The Progressive Zionists counter that Israel and the Jewish community benefit from looking honestly at Israeli actions.

Both sides certainly could learn something from the dispute: Hawks need to develop a greater tolerance for good-faith critiques of Israel; doves should do a better job of finding ways of highlighting Israel’s virtues and putting its shortcomings into proper context.

Thanks to the ZOA’s misguided campaign, however, the immediate issue is whether and where the Jewish community should draw red lines for debating Israeli actions. As a newspaper dedicated to open debate, we cringe at the ZOA’s throw-them-out approach. That said, if leaders of the Israel on Campus Coalition decide to act, they should start by articulating clear standards that hold both left-wing and right-wing groups accountable for their positions and actions. For too long, groups on the right, including the ZOA, have attempted to blackball political opponents without having their own controversial positions scrutinized.

For starters, almost all mainstream Jewish organizations have come out strongly against calls by some on the extreme right for a mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel or the territories. But the ZOA has pointedly refused to take a position on this issue, even as it railed against the Israeli government’s decision remove 8,000 Jewish residents from Gaza.

The ZOA also stands outside of the mainstream in its resistance to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is the outcome backed by the Israeli and American governments, the international community, and the bulk of American Jews and Jewish organizations seeking a formula for achieving security for Israel and full rights for Palestinians. In contrast, the ZOA fails to grapple honestly with the need to find a solution that will recognize the legitimate rights of Palestinians — a failure that undermines efforts to build support for Israel on liberal college campuses.

And then there is the issue of publicly criticizing Israel — the supposed offense for which the ZOA demands that the UPZ be ostracized from the community. In their zeal to oppose the Gaza withdrawal and the evacuation of Jewish settlements, ZOA leaders and other right-wingers waged a sustained campaign accusing the Israeli government of violating democratic norms.

So, again, while all sides would do best to learn to live together in a big tent, if those on right end of the communal spectrum are going to point fingers, they shouldn’t be surprised to find some pointing back at them.

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