Groups Flip Flop as Controversy Over Liberal Zionists Continues

By Rebecca Spence

Published February 02, 2007, issue of February 02, 2007.
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The imbroglio surrounding a pro-Israel campus coalition and one of its member organizations, a left-wing student group accused of bringing Israel bashers to campuses, continued to deepen this past week with a dizzying series of retractions and reversals from all sides.

The Israel on Campus Coalition, an alliance of 31 organizations working to promote Israel’s image in academia, has been pressured by hawkish members to expel the Union of Progressive Zionists, a left-wing group with links to Israel’s Labor party. Protesters, led by the Zionist Organization of America, complained that the progressive group had hosted campus appearances by Israeli ex-soldiers who accused the Israeli army of abuses.

Amid the dispute, the American Jewish Congress notified the coalition that it was resigning in protest over the progressives’ actions.

In mid-January, the coalition’s nine-member executive committee voted unanimously not to expel the left-wing group, despite the protests.

On the eve of the coalition’s January 19 vote, the executive director of AJCongress publicly disavowed his group’s resignation, saying that an assistant regional director on the West Coast had announced it without authorization. A week later, however, the director partly retracted the retraction, saying the resignation letter had indeed been authorized by a senior staff member, but that the resignation was still void. The AJCongress left open the possibility of resigning in the future for other reasons.

This week, meanwhile, an Orthodox group on the coalition’s executive committee announced that it was reversing its view and now favored removing the progressive union, ending the executive committee’s unanimity. The Orthodox group, Aish Hatorah, which specializes in outreach to nonobservant Jews, said via e-mail to coalition members that it “apologizes for not clearly stating our position during the official vote on the proposal. We should have known all the facts at the time.”

A source close to the situation said that Aish Hatorah’s reversal would have no practical implications, as the vote will not be retaken. Furthermore, the source said, a change in one vote would not change the majority decision.

In its original complaint, the ZOA charged that the UPZ had hurt Israel’s image, directly contravening the coalition’s stated goal of improving Israel’s image, by hosting the dissident ex-soldiers. The soldiers are members of an Israeli group called Breaking the Silence, which is described by critics as anti-Israel. The progressive group counters that the soldiers are Israeli patriots and that their campus appearances strengthen Israel’s image by showing its robust democratic openness. The ZOA said that the progressives should break ties with the soldiers’ group or be expelled from the campus coalition.

Critics of the hawks say that, in past years, both the ZOA and Aish Hatorah have run programs or distributed literature attacking Israeli government actions and policies — much as they accuse the progressives of doing, but from an opposite political viewpoint. Prior to the August 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the ZOA hosted student gatherings called “Orange parties” on American campuses to protest the forced removal of Jewish settlers. And at a December 2005 ZOA dinner, the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick, gave a speech deriding the Israeli political leadership for its policies, and accusing the government of abusing its opponents. During the Gaza disengagement, Glick said that the government denied civil rights to those protesting the pullout and that “thousands of people were arrested en masse, kept behind bars for weeks or months without trial or indictment for the ‘crime’ of opposing their government’s policies,” according to a transcript on the ZOA Web site.

Morton Klein, ZOA’s national president, defended his group’s critiques of Israeli policy and denied any resemblance to the activities of Breaking the Silence. Klein said ZOA’s claims that Israel is too forthcoming toward the Palestinians actually burnish the Jewish state’s image, while accusations of Israeli human rights abuses have a deleterious effect.

In a letter to the Forward about Breaking the Silence, Klein wrote that “ZOA’s campus professionals and leaders have attended this program and witnessed first-hand the condemnation of Israel that lacked fact and context, including calls for Israel to be brought before the international court at The Hague and charged with crimes against Palestinians.”

No group has been more rattled by the debate than AJCongress, which informed the ICC via e-mail shortly after the feud erupted that it was quitting the coalition because of the progressives’ actions. The e-mail carried the name Gary Ratner, AJCongress West Coast regional director.

Following initial press accounts of the dispute and the AJCongress’s resignation, the organization’s executive director, Neil Goldstein, wrote a letter disavowing the resignation. The letter, published in the January 19 issue of the Forward, claimed that a former assistant director in the West Coast office had sent the resignation letter without authorization.

But in a new letter, received January 26, Goldstein and David Twersky, AJCongress’s senior adviser on international affairs, explained that the assistant West Coast director, Allyson Rowen Taylor, did in fact have permission from Ratner to send the resignation letter over his signature:

“As a result of an internal miscommunication, we erroneously believed and therefore reported to the Forward and later to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that AJCongress’ purported resignation from the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) was written and sent by an assistant regional director acting without clearance from national headquarters or even from her regional director. We have now learned that she did in fact have the approval of the regional director who, being part of senior staff, felt he had the authority to approve the resignation message in an email to the ICC. However, that regional director had not consulted with the national Executive Director. Upon learning what had happened, the national Executive Director promptly rescinded AJCongress’ resignation from the ICC.”

The letter went on to apologize to Taylor for her being blamed for the fiasco. Taylor, who resigned from AJCongress in December to take another job, told the Forward that she had been shocked to read in the newspaper that officials of her former organization had claimed she acted without authorization. “I nearly fell off my chair,” she said. “I felt that the associations and allegations were a defamation of my character.”

In an e-mail letter to Goldstein and Twersky, Taylor wrote that the accusation that she “signed a letter for Gary without his knowledge is rubbish, and an outright lie.” She demanded a public apology, saying she would seek legal counsel otherwise.

Taylor said she left AJCongress when it shifted its focus toward international affairs and away from campus advocacy. She is now associate director of Stand With Us, a pro-Israel advocacy organization active on California campuses. “I want the record clear and my name clear, because we do amazing work,” she said.

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