Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Anti-war but Pro-israel: What’s a Protester to Do?

February 12, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Adam Teitelbaum was probably easy to find when he attended a protest last month in San Francisco against war on Iraq: He was one of only six people marching behind an Israeli flag.

Teitelbaum said he wanted to make clear that he believes war against Iraq will be bad for Israel, but he said he also wanted to distinguish himself from anti-Israel protesters at the rally.

His goal, he says, was to prove that you could be a “pro-Israel Jew who is against the war.”

“I felt like I didn’t want to let the pro-intifada people link their cause to the war,” he said. “I didn’t want to let them dominate the discussion.”

Major protests against an anticipated U.S.-led war on Iraq are scheduled for this weekend in New York, San Francisco and cities around the world. Their sponsors include groups such as International A.N.S.W.E.R. and The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which call for an end to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and curtailing or ending U.S. aid to the Jewish state.

Even a Jew as liberal as Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun Magazine and a frequent critic of Israeli policy, claims organizers are forbidding him to speak at the San Francisco rally because he is too “pro-Israel.”

That has left Jews who oppose war in a conundrum: Do they align themselves with an anti-Israel crowd, or stay home and miss a chance to show their opposition to U.S. policy toward Iraq?

But there may be a middle ground. Jewish leaders are attempting to meet the needs of pro-Israel Jews who want to speak out against war by meeting with protest leaders and asking them to keep the Iraq issue separate from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re encouraging them to talk with people in the local communities who have connections to the anti-war leadership and educate them,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which serves as an umbrella organization for Jewish community relations groups.

Among the anti-war organizers targeted for dialogue are the Protestant community, the ecumenical National Council of Churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Sierra Club.

Rosenthal said she wants local leaders to stress that Iraq and Israel are “nonrelated issues” and to prevent these protests from mirroring U.N. conferences, where anti-Israel forces often inject the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into virtually any discussion related to the Middle East.

In early anti-war protests, numerous signs were displayed that criticized Israel and U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than the Iraq debate that ostensibly was on the agenda.

Jewish groups have had some success in making their concerns heard and stifling some of the anti-Israel rhetoric. But the presence of International A.N.S.W.E.R. as one of the main sponsors of this weekend’s rallies has left Jews feeling uneasy about the content of the protests.

A.N.S.W.E.R.’s Web site is consistently anti-Israel, calling Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “the other apartheid.”

A.N.S.W.E.R. is also the group that vetoed Lerner’s speech at the San Francisco rally, citing comments that Lerner had made against the group.

“I am a critic of Israel policy, but I also think Palestinian violence is destructive,” Lerner said. A.N.S.W.E.R.’S “hostility is complete; they don’t believe Israel has a right to exist.”

While Lerner says he would not have criticized A.N.S.W.E.R. at the rally, other organizers honored a previous agreement allowing any organizer to veto a speaker.

A.N.S.W.E.R.’s San Francisco office did not return calls requesting comment.

Despite the Lerner incident, San Francisco Jews will be on hand at this weekend’s protest, and again will carry Israeli flags.

“We’re not under any illusions that they will be dissuaded from incorporating an anti-Israel agenda,” said Rabbi Douglas Kahn, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, who is working with event sponsors to keep criticism of Israel out of the rally. “But we can reach mainstream groups that have joined in.”

The strategy seems to be have been somewhat successful in Florida. One rally organizer in Miami hung up on Luis Fleischman, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, when Fleischman called to talk about preventing anti-Israel messages.

But Fleischman did reach other local organizers, including some with Jewish backgrounds, and was able to make his case before a local protest last month.

“I just picked up the phone and called them,” Fleischman said. “They were extremely nice and said they understood the issue and were very open to our request.”

There was little mention of Israel at the local rally, and the organizer of a trip to the main Washington rally told Fleischman she would complain if she saw anti-Israel material.

Rosenthal says helping Jews who are against war find outlets to voice their opinions is not an endorsement of the anti-war movement.

“JCPA does not have a stand in favor of the anti-war movement or against it,” she said. “But as a community relations umbrella organization, we are encouraging our partners to use community relations strategy.”

There is concern that not speaking out against war with Iraq could hurt Israel. If the anti-war rallies are taken over by the anti-Israel crowd, Fleischman says, he fears people may be led to believe that the United States is attacking Iraq for Israel’s benefit — as some critics, such as conservative leader Pat Buchanan, charged during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

United for Peace and Justice, the main group organizing this weekend’s rallies, says the Israeli-Palestinian issue is distinct from a war on Iraq. But members of the group admit that individual protesters may try to muddy the issue.

“Obviously there are many people in the coalition, and I can’t say what kind of signs everyone is bringing,” said Leslie Cagan, the coordinator of the New York rally. “But we are not pitting people against each other.”

Cagan said she has heard from Jewish leaders who wanted a Jewish voice at the protests. Ruth Messinger, the president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service, is speaking in New York.

“As a veteran of a large number of speeches and demonstrations, I recognize there will be a lot of people who express views I disagree with,” said Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president. “Like all people, when I speak it will be to reach the audience and not in any way to give endorsement to any poster in the crowd.”

Messinger said she has little control over who else would speak at the event, but said she is confident that United for Peace would keep the conversation focused on Iraq.

Recommended from JTA