Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arrests Spark Jewish Debate on Limits of Activism During Crisis

June 24, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In Seattle, the community is rocked by the arrest of peace activists at a pro-Israel rally and the local Jewish paper’s coverage of the event.

In Portland, Ore., Jews are roiled by a local rabbi’s inflammatory quote and the e-mail campaign mounted in response by a federation employee.

And at the national pro-Israel rally in Washington, some demonstrators cringe when Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz is booed for mentioning Palestinian suffering.

At solidarity rallies, in the pages of Jewish newspapers and around Jewish kitchen tables across the country, a question is surfacing: Are there boundaries to Jewish activism at a time of crisis for Israel?

Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, describes a “continuum” of acceptable behavior that permits criticism of Israel but precludes anti-Zionism, comparisons of Israelis with Nazis and delegitimization of the Jewish state.

But it is perfectly appropriate to question Israel’s policies and recognize the difficulties Palestinians endure, he said.

There must be an “open and inclusive atmosphere within the community, so different points of view can be raised without concern that they’ll be condemned” — provided those viewpoints stay within the boundaries, Raffel said.

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, a philanthropic organization, agreed with Raffel’s parameters, but added that those who “cross the line” should be “disowned and denounced.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, former chair of Americans for Peace Now and founder of Ms. Magazine, firmly disagreed. There never are grounds for excommunication, she said.

“I want to hear what people have to say and I want to have the opportunity to shout them down,” she said. That gives others a chance to evaluate opinions in the “marketplace of ideas.”

According to John Ruskay, director of the UJA-Federation of New York, the more interpretations there are of what it means to be pro-Israel, the better.

“Under the broad umbrella of standing with Israel, more ideological flags can be a sign of health for the community,” he said.

“A unified front,” Pogebrin said, is a euphemism “for censorship, for bullying, for coercion.”

“Our strength lies in our diversity and our capacity throughout history to balance competing positions to arrive at a consensus through disputation,” she said. “We’re a disputatious people.”

Jewish leaders agree that the current crisis has created some of the broadest community consensus in years, with Jewish groups committed to fighting terror and Israel’s security.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations succeeded in drafting a solidarity statement signed by nearly every one of its 52 member organizations.

However, there are no guidelines on how to translate pro-Israel words into pro-Israel deeds.

Greenberg thinks it should stay that way. The current consensus is enforced by “moral power,” not instruction, he said.

The “pressure for uniformity” or against statements that “could rock the boat” is wrong, he said.

But certain behavior, like booing Wolfowitz — who is considered one of the strongest supporters of Israel in the Bush administration — “undercuts our own credibility” and “embarrasses the cause that we support,” Greenberg said.

Pogrebin seized on the same issue.

“What troubles me more than anything right now is the sort of ideological McCarthyism,” she said, where people “who have as much right to express an opinion as any other Jew, who have as much passion for the state and survival of the Jewish people,” receive hate mail for their viewpoints.

Indeed, Donna Blankinship, editor of the Jewish Transcript in Seattle, said the paper’s coverage of the city’s Israel solidarity rally led to accusations that she was anti-Israel.

“I am a Zionist,” Blankinship said, “an ardent Zionist.”

At the community’s rally in April, members of a Jewish group called Pursue the Peace began “pulling down Star of David flags held by Israeli demonstrators,” according to a police report.

Those members were asked by police to join the counter-rally across the street, and they complied.

However, two members of the group, not accused of destroying Israeli flags, were arrested when they refused to join the counter-rally or remove their signs — which called for supporting “the people of Israel,” as opposed to the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and for supporting “Palestinian rights.”

Demonstrators asked the two to leave, with many shouting, “They do not belong here,” according to the police report.

The Jewish Transcript’s coverage of the 15,000-strong rally, the largest pro-Israel rally ever in Washington state, featured the incident and reported that rally organizers had called for the two to be arrested.

However, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which organized the rally, denied any involvement in the arrests and demanded that the paper apologize for skewed coverage.

In its current issue, the Transcript responded with a clarification: “The person police consulted prior to the arrests did not represent either the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee, the two coordinating organizations.”

Meanwhile, Pursue the Peace board member Rainer Waldman Adkins has a different explanation for the alleged destruction of an Israeli flag.

The flag was being used as a device to “block and harass” Pursue the Peace members, who in turn tried to break free. Adkins said he knows of no one who intentionally destroyed an Israeli flag.

Though all sides are trying to move forward, distrust and hard feelings remain.

The arrests were symbolic of the way some voices have been silenced in the Jewish community, said Adkins, whose group wants the AJCommittee and ADL to admit they made a mistake.

While the heads of both groups wrote a letter in the Transcript expressing their “regret” that individuals felt excluded, both groups maintain they did nothing wrong.

If the organizers would “take responsibility on some level,” it would help prevent such an occurrence from repeating, said Rabbi Jonathan Singer, who coordinated a forum to heal the parties’ bruised feelings.

“This rally” and “a lot of other rallies around the country” have revealed the harassment of Jewish groups outside the establishment, Adkins said.

“The crux of the matter is that while we are all unified by our concern for Israel, and everybody says that they want peace, there is considerable fragmentation within the community,” he said.

“There has not been sufficient space in the community to really have meaningful dialogue and calm down the rhetoric and to really try to understand what’s motivating different voices of concern,” he said. That deficiency has led to “demonizing and stereotyping people with different viewpoints.

“It doesn’t help build a shared sense of unity” with the Israeli people, he said.

The strife has created a chasm between the paper and the ADL and AJCommittee.

“I feel that the article did a disservice by inflaming the community, and now six weeks, eight weeks later, we’ll get some kind of correction” on the back page, said Brian Goldberg, the director of the ADL’s Seattle office.

Blankinship said she was following journalistic standards to “pay attention to the unusual part” of the rally.

The Transcript aims to provide information and let others “figure out how to think,” she said. “We’ve always done a very good job of that, and I’m proud of that.”

Meanwhile, Blankinship still can’t resolve why Goldberg’s name is listed on police reports if he wasn’t involved in the incident. And she’s outraged that she was asked to leave the healing forum, at the request of the AJCommittee and the ADL.

A reporter from the non-Jewish media was allowed to stay.

Down the coast in Portland, an ideological spat erupted at the community’s pro-Israel rally in mid-April when some demonstrators called for an end to Israel’s “occupation” of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Subsequently, Jewish Review editor Paul Haist published accounts by local Jewish leaders on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Given the tensions at the rally, Haist said he buried a quote from a local rabbi comparing the Israel Defense Force to the Gestapo.

But the quote spawned a mass e-mail by a federation employee urging a letter-writing campaign to the federation-owned paper condemning the rabbi’s statement.

The federation president later discredited the e-mail, saying that “no one at federation or at CRC intended or intends to attack the integrity or sincerity” of the rabbi, or to “stifle dissenting or differing viewpoints.”

The term “CRC” refers to a local Jewish community relations council.

Haist said he too was “vilified” by people accusing him of launching a “smear campaign” against the rabbi.

But Raffel says conflicts such as those in Portland and Seattle are rare and marginal.

Ruskay agreed.

“A few examples which ruffle a few feathers do not necessarily create a national Jewish problem,” Ruskay said. Such ideological flaps create “a little messiness which can, in my view, be more than tolerated given the overwhelming consensus that prevails.”

Community members in Seattle see the issue somewhat differently.

“We need to come up with some kind of definition for what is pro-Israel activity in our community,” Goldberg said, suggesting that the broader Jewish community would be wise to do the same.

Goldberg acknowledged that individual rabbis have tried to address the issue.

He has reached out to Pursue the Peace for dialogue, a move the group applauds. However, Goldberg said, he hasn’t seen organizations take concrete steps to move the community forward.

Recommended from JTA