January 26, 2007

AJCongress Did Not Leave Campus Coalition

The American Jewish Congress has not, as a January 19 article reports, resigned from the Israel on Campus Coalition (“Campus Coalition Split Over Progressive Union”). The letter cited in the article was sent by an assistant regional director acting without clearance from national headquarters, or even from her regional director. That is not to say that we weren’t disturbed by the decision by the Union of Progressive Zionists to sponsor a campus tour by leaders of the Breaking the Silence movement.

Our position is that Union of Progressive Zionists members have every right to promote the Israeli cause in a way that appears best to them. We think those on the pro-Israel right, like the Zionist Organization of America, have the same right. In fact, ZOA, which was the one group calling for the ouster of the Union of Progressive Zionists from the campus coalition, has sponsored campus activities opposing Israeli government policies, especially surrounding the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

But while those on the left and right have every right to present programs that attack the current government of Israel, I wonder whether university students who are not already committed to one side or the other should be initiated into the pro-Israel discussion by introducing them to the left or right or religious or secular critique of Israeli policies, such as they are.

Of particular relevance to the Israel on Campus Coalition, it seems odd that members of the coalition would present such an approach, given what we understand were the purposes for its formation. When we were initially approached to join the Israel on Campus Coalition, we understood that it would be to provide services for pro-Israel campus activism including a harmonious message, which would of necessity hew to a centrist or consensus course. In the context of the debate over Breaking the Silence, we have been informed by coalition officials that in practice they have now concluded that such harmony and consensus of message is not possible to achieve.

Rather, the group can serve as a forum for discussion, exchange of ideas, dissemination of information and provision of services to those groups working on campus. Naturally, given this significant change in our understanding of the Israel on Campus Coalition mission, it calls into question whether we should continue as a member. On that basis, and not as a specific protest against a specific group’s activities, we are revisiting the question of our continued role.

Editorial Does Justice To Martin Luther King

A January 19 editorial refreshingly goes beyond the usual, and sadly shallow, honoring of Martin Luther King Jr. (“King’s Last Message”). The editorial implicitly raises the question: What is it about oppression that brings out the worst, as well as the best, in people?

The editorialist references “a strike by sanitation workers, most of them black, who were seeking to form a union… opposed with iron determination by the all-white city establishment.” I know of a similar story: another southern city, a Jewish mayor, the same Jewish labor leader taking advantage of the opportunities to organize in the South, which the civil rights movement had opened — and a stubborn refusal by the mayor to apply his progressive, liberal, civil-rights beliefs to the workers’ rights to unionize.

Atlanta, one year after King’s assassination, elected its first Jewish mayor, Sam Massell, and simultaneously its first black vice-mayor, Maynard Jackson. Jerry Wurf — an old “Yipsil” (from the Young People’s Socialist League) and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — saw an opportunity to replicate the federation’s success in Memphis, Tenn. So he told his Jewish organizer in Atlanta, Morton Shapiro, to organize a strike by sanitation workers, most of them black, to form a union.

After the strike began, the reformist Massell decided to prove to the WASP business community — which would not admit him to their clubs — that he was “safe,” and so refused to recognize the union. Jackson, still influenced by his experiences as a National Labor Relations Board attorney, supported the municipal workers against city hall, of which he was part boss.

Wurf flew to Atlanta and, trying a different tactic than the one that failed him in Memphis, confronted the mayor: “You are the kind of Jew,” he told him, “who Hitler used as guards in concentration camps. I feel sorry that your wife and children have a husband and father like you.” That tactic worked no better than the one tried in Memphis, and the strike continued until King’s father finally brokered a settlement.

An election later, Jackson challenged Massell and won. Now he was the boss, sitting at the negotiating table with the new, militant black leader of the union. Jackson made a last-and-final offer, which was rejected, and the workers struck. A public employee strike was illegal in Georgia, and Jackson enforced the law — and fired folks. A boss is a boss is a boss, religious or racial identity be damned.

I have frequently felt the opinions and statements of many of Brooklyn’s Jewish leaders to be single-issued and insensitive to the feelings and aspirations of blacks and Latinos. At the same time, I am sure that Brooklyn Jews often feel the same way about black and Latino leaders.

So it was a pleasure for me to read your January article on the Memphis strike. The Forward’s report on black and Jewish leaders working together for the same cause in Memphis is the type of positive story that needs to be told more often.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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January 26, 2007

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