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New Campus Group Gives Voice to ‘progressive’ Zionist Students

October 26, 2004
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In the crossfire of rhetoric on college campuses surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ilene Arnsdorf feels intimidated — by her fellow Jewish students. A 19-year-old Cornell student, Arnsdorf said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has raised questions for her about Israeli policy.

She feels torn, she said, between the campus’ pro-Israel front and its movement for Palestinian rights.

Her roommate belongs to the former, which is “so organized,” Arnsdorf said, that “it’s been hard to be able to stand up to her.”

That’s why Arnsdorf joined more than 100 students from some 40 college campuses for the Oct. 15-17 founding conference in Newark, N.J., of a new movement, The Union of Progressive Zionists.

“We came to this conference to find our place,” she said.

Founded by left-wing Zionist groups such as Habonim Dror, Hashomer Hatzair, Labor Zionist Alliance and Meretz USA, the union aims to “support a two-state solution that ensures security and peace for both Palestinians and Israelis.”

The conference comes as the broader organized Jewish community shows fractures of its own.

In a recent meeting, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of 52 groups, erupted in emotional discussion over whether to issue a statement of support in advance of Tuesday’s Knesset vote on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Ultimately, the Presidents Conference issued a statement reflecting consensus support for the plan, but stopped short of an outright endorsement.

Left-leaning and centrist member organizations complained they were hamstrung by powerful hawks. In many ways, the conversation among left-wing Jewish students mirrors that point.

“AIPAC and the right wing don’t control American Jewish youth,” Noah Hertz-Bunzl, a Harvard freshman, said at the progressive union’s closing discussion.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which for years has cultivated a sophisticated student program, seemed to be a particularly attractive punching bag for the group.

But those students may be misinformed about the pro-Israel behemoth, said a national Jewish leader.

For one, AIPAC boasts a slew of progressive student leaders, and the organization itself has backed aid to the Palestinian Authority during the Oslo peace process, Israeli concessions for peace under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, and current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan, the longtime Jewish professional said.

New organizations often validate their purpose by casting aspersions on the current infrastructure, the professional said.

“Does anybody really believe that progressive Zionists don’t have outlets through Peace Now, through Hillel, through Hamagshamim?” he said, citing a few of the many Jewish groups on campus that welcome left-wing opinions.

At the same time, the leader embraced the new movement, saying more modes of expression strengthen an American Jewish campus community that is “radically pluralistic.”

Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella of 26 Jewish groups with campus programs, also welcomed the new group, calling it a “clear alternative for Jewish leftist students to raise questions and promote constructive critical discussion about Israel.”

Firestone told JTA there long has been a void in constructive Jewish criticism of Israel.

Since the Palestinian intifada began four years ago “there has been an understandable emphasis on protecting Israel and challenging its detractors, but that should not come at the expense of the vibrancy of support and interest in Israel among Jews with many views,” said Firestone, who addressed the progressive group’s opening meeting.

The Union of Progressive Zionism, which drew such speakers as Israeli legislator Naomi Chazan and Palestinian Authority official Yasser Abed Rabbo at its founding conference, hopes to join the fold of mainstream American Jewish organizations.

“We want to change the American Jewish community,” Hertz-Bunzl said. “The way to do that is to be a Jewish group inside other Jewish groups.”

But at a time when some believe the Jewish community must show a front to the outside world, will the new movement be reviled by mainstream Jewish groups?

“Ignoring legitimate voices within the community will only lead to their departure from the community and their disillusionment from the community, and so we need to be nurturing this,” Firestone said.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said there is no sense of unity today in the Jewish community, noting the controversy surrounding Israel’s Gaza withdrawal.

Every group should feel free to speak its mind — but that doesn’t mean he agrees with them, he said.

“My experience is that these Jewish groups who strongly criticize Israel for various policies almost never criticize the Palestinian Arabs for human rights abuses and for having created a culture that promotes hatred and murder of Jews, including suicide bombings,” Klein said. “That’s my problem with it.”

For Josh Rosenthal, a Brandeis sophomore attending the conference, criticizing Israel is linked to his love and duty toward the Jewish state.

“They’re my family to judge, more than the Palestinians are my family to judge,” he said. “We’re pro-Israel, but we think the best way to be pro-Israel is to make sure Israel is the best Israel it can be.”

The group’s meeting had a distinctly more bohemian and grassroots feel than the well-financed assemblies of AIPAC or Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

In one workshop, Joseph Grindi, 23, a recent Wesleyan graduate who works for Yale Hillel, led a variation on group therapy.

Acknowledging the conflicting emotions engendered by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Grindi rolled out a sheet of butcher paper — held down on the side by Birkenstock sandals — and gave students magic markers to express their feelings on paper, then write responses to others’ comments.

One student wrote, “Zionism is bad for Judaism,” to which another student responded, “Zionism is part of what defines my Judaism.”

Another said he felt betrayed by the left-wing community. And one asked, “How do I love my people and love the world at the same time?”

Brian Cohen, 19, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, said he feels pro-Israel activists label him as anti-Israel for criticizing the Jewish state.

Those same activists also label pro-Palestinian events as anti-Israel, which isn’t necessarily true, he said.

In fact, the same weekend that the Union of Progressive Zionists was meeting, the fourth annual conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, considered by most Jewish groups to be anti-Israel, was taking place at Duke University in North Carolina.

Gil Browdy, a senior at McGill University, and others refused to condemn the PSM conference.

There are “probably a lot of people in that group that share a lot of our views,” he said.

Those at the progressive Zionist meeting also differed starkly from many American Jews who feel torn in the upcoming presidential election — between their Democratic leanings on social issues and President Bush’s staunch support for Israel.

Hertz-Bunzl said many students at the meeting are disappointed in the line of both parties — that “America will always support Israel.”

“America unequivocally supports Israel no matter what it does, so Israel can behave responsibly toward the Palestinians or not,” he said. “We think we should have an American president that treats the Palestinians with fairness and equates and respects the human rights of the Palestinian people.”

Firestone said a broad spectrum of pro-Israel campus activism was welcome.

“Young people today value a Jewish community that respects and showcases tolerance,” he said. “Our community on campus, as well as outside the campus, will be strengthened where we strengthen responsible, credible organizations and movements that support this diversity.”

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