Campus Coalition Split Over Progressive Union

By Rebecca Spence

Published January 19, 2007, issue of January 19, 2007.

As members of a coalition of pro-Israel organizations debate whether to oust a dovish Zionist student group accused of bringing Israel-bashers to American campuses, at least one national Jewish organization has already pulled out of the coalition in protest of the dovish group’s activities.

The American Jewish Congress recently tendered its resignation from the Israel on Campus Coalition, a 31-member alliance of Jewish organizations working to “foster support for Israel on the college campus.” The resignation comes amid complaints lodged with the campus coalition over the activities of the Union of Progressive Zionists, a 60-campus student network sponsored by several Labor Zionist organizations.

The Union of Progressive Zionists was criticized last month by the Zionist Organization of America, another member of the coalition, for sponsoring campus appearances by Israeli ex-soldiers who speak out against alleged Israeli military abuses in the Palestinian territories. The soldiers are part of an Israeli organization called Breaking the Silence.

The ZOA originally called for the progressive union to be expelled from the campus coalition, but later backtracked and demanded that the progressive group sever any ties with Breaking the Silence.

The progressive group has rejected the demand and is planning future activities in cooperation with Breaking the Silence. On January 12, a delegation of 33 students affiliated with the union toured Hebron with members of Breaking the Silence. “No matter what happens from the ICC end, we will not compromise our programming,” said Tammy Shapiro, the union’s executive director.

The ZOA, AJCongress and several other coalition members charge that visits from disaffected Israeli ex-soldiers damage the country’s image, in direct contravention of the coalition’s mission to bolster campus perceptions of the Jewish state.

“We should not sponsor groups that add to this vilification or bring young men and women, who are disgruntled with the IDF for whatever reasons, to speak on behalf of the ICC,” wrote Gary Ratner, West Coast regional director of AJCongress, in his group’s resignation letter.

The AJCongress decision to leave the coalition highlights the deep divisions among pro-Israel groups over how best to advocate for the Jewish state. Coalition members espouse a common goal of promoting support for and identification with Israel on campuses, which in recent years have emerged as hotbeds of anti-Israel sentiment. However, groups are sharply divided over whether to air public criticism of Israeli practices and policies. Some contend that it is in the best interests of the Jewish state to scrutinize its military actions toward the Palestinians in order to show Israel’s openness and robust democracy. Critics of that approach say that doing so only plays into the hands of those who seek Israel’s destruction.

A small flurry of letters both in support of and against the union have been sent to the coalition’s membership and to its executive director, David A. Harris. Letters drafted by the groups Stand With Us and the Jewish National Fund echoed the ZOA’s criticisms of the progressive group’s actions, but stopped short of calling for the union’s ouster.

The World Zionist Organization, by contrast, wrote in support of the progressives. “It is important to engage as many students as possible within the Jewish community. Provided the programs come from a love of Israel, we feel that programs like these must have a place within the ICC,” wrote Ofer Gutman, executive director of the University Student Division, the North American arm of the Jerusalem-based WZO’s campus affairs department, and Elon Shore, mid-Atlantic regional director.

In addition, letters in support of the progressive union came from individual chapters of the union and from former Birthright Israel participants. A group of some 100 Israeli academics wrote to the ICC to support the work of Breaking the Silence.

Critics claimed that Breaking the Silence has advocated indictment of Israeli officers for war crimes in international courts. Shapiro, the union’s director, said the soldiers’ group had never taken such a position.

The organizations that sponsor the Union of Progressive Zionists, including Ameinu (the former Labor Zionist Alliance), Meretz USA, Habonim-Dror Labor Zionist Youth and Hashomer Hatzair, did not write letters in support of the union, arguing, in the words of Ameinu president Kenneth Bob, that direct contact with the ICC was the job of their campus arm, the UPZ.

“Kicking the UPZ out of the ICC would be tantamount to excluding the Labor Zionist voice that founded the state of Israel,” Bob said.

Harris of the campus coalition said that the ZOA was the only organization in the coalition that has demanded the union’s removal. “There is no precedent for it,” he said.

A conference call of coalition members was held in early January, and was largely sympathetic to the progressive union, according to a participant who asked not to be identified. A second conference call is scheduled for January 19.

Harris said that there has been a “very full public discourse” on the matter. He said a decision would be made by the coalition and its steering committee.



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