Campus coalition: Don’t boot critics

A former Israeli soldier talks to a college campus group in a program organized by the Union for Progressive Zionists.   (Union for Progressive Zionists )

A former Israeli soldier talks to a college campus group in a program organized by the Union for Progressive Zionists.

(Union for Progressive Zionists )

NEW YORK, Jan. 24 (JTA) — The Israel on Campus Coalition will not kick out the Union of Progressive Zionists for sponsoring a program that accuses the Israeli army of human-rights abuses. In a unanimous decision, the ICC’s eight-member steering committee rejected a request from the Zionist Organization of America to expel the union for sponsoring “Breaking the Silence,” a program that brings army veterans to campus to speak about alleged Israeli abuse of Palestinians.

The committee — whose rotating membership currently includes the Anti Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — also elected not to establish a mechanism to monitor programming of coalition members or to revise the coalition’s membership criteria and mission statement.

A coalition statement released Monday urged member organizations to “think carefully about the programming we bring to campus, and how that programming will affect the campus climate and students’ understanding of and support for Israel.”

It also reaffirmed the coalition’s commitment to “the spirit of pluralism and cooperation.”

The decision did little to quell disquiet within the 31-member coalition, which was created in 2002 to advance a pro-Israel agenda on campus.

Stand With Us, a Los Angeles-based organization that also complained about the Union of Progressive Zionists, responded with an online campaign to encourage Israeli army veterans to renounce allegations made by “Breaking the Silence.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and initiator of the campaign against the union, was dismayed by the coalition’s decision.

“We’re supposed to all be in this together to enhance Israel’s reputation on campus,” Klein told JTA. “And the principle should be — and we thought it was — that you do not harm Israel’s reputation by using falsehoods and by making presentations without context. And that’s exactly what UPZ’s ‘Breaking the Silence’ does.”

Klein also lashed out at members of the steering committee, in particular the ADL and the AJCommittee, for failing to defend Israel against the charges leveled in “Breaking the Silence.”

“Their mission includes fighting incitement, and yet we are astonished that they would ignore this incitement by Israelis against Israel,” Klein said. “ADL especially is supposed to be fighting defamation, and now they’re condoning defamation against Israel. We’re absolutely perplexed.”

Michael Salberg, the ADL’s director of international affairs, said the program does not accord with his organization’s position on Israel, but he maintained that diversity of opinion in the Jewish community is a healthy thing.

“We’re troubled by it,” Salberg said of the program. “But I wouldn’t put it in the category of delegitimizing or demonizing or even defaming Israel.”

Klein’s campaign against the progressive union appeared to have found some initial support when a letter surfaced from Gary Ratner, national director of the American Jewish Congress, saying his group was withdrawing from the Israel on Campus Coalition in protest.

David Twersky, the AJCongress’ director of international affairs, said this week the letter did not reflect the group’s views, attributing it to an overzealous assistant who had overstepped her bounds. The assistant was no longer with the organization, Twersky said.

The Union of Progressive Zionists and its supporters hailed the decision as an important victory and a principled stand at a time when, it said, some Jewish groups are trying to restrict the airing of views that don’t fit their agenda.

“I’m feeling really positive,” union director Tammy Shapiro said. “I think there was a lot of requests from much older, better established, better financed organizations to remove us. I’m really happy they decided to listen to the youth on this.”

But Klein was undeterred by his defeat.

“ZOA is used to being in the minority on issues concerning the Arab war against Israel,” Klein said, “And tragically, we’ve been right every time.”

NEXT STORY