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Is Tough Love for Israel Still Love? Question Splits a Campus Group

December 20, 2006
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The Zionist Organization of America is spearheading an effort to have a left-wing group expelled from a pro-Israel consortium for its sponsorship of a program that brings Israeli army veterans to college campuses to speak about alleged army abuses. In a letter sent last week to the executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, ZOA National President Morton Klein said the program, Breaking the Silence, “promotes outright falsehoods” and is at odds with the coalition’s mission of promoting a positive image of Israel on college campuses.

Klein told JTA he has no firsthand knowledge of the accuracy of Breaking the Silence’s presentation. But according to reports he has received, the program does not provide the necessary context for understanding the conflict, instead portraying a few isolated incidents of Israeli misconduct as indicative of a military culture that brutalizes Palestinians.

Breaking the Silence was sponsored on several campuses by the Union for Progressive Zionists, a liberal member of the ICC, a coalition of 31 pro-Israel organizations founded to promote an Israel-friendly environment on campus.

In a radio interview last month, Yehuda Shaul, a cofounder of Breaking the Silence, explained the group’s purpose as ensuring that Israelis take responsibility for the army’s actions. He also wanted the American people, whose government gives billions of dollars in aid to Israel each year, to know what the Israeli army is doing.

The dispute highlights the often contentious nature of discourse about Israel at American universities and exposes the fractures within the Jewish community, with some groups presenting a more critical view of the Jewish state.

Right-wing groups like the ZOA argue that Jewish money should not be spent on programming that provides fodder for Israel’s most virulent critics. The Union for Progressive Zionists and its supporters say any criticism is offered out of love for Israel and concern for its moral rectitude.

Both sides claim to be acting in Israel’s best interests and believe that their viewpoints are marginalized on campuses.

“Israel is condemned every day in newspapers around the world, by Arab groups around the world, by left-wing groups around the world,” Klein said. “[The Union for Progressive Zionists and its supporters are] implying that it’s not happening and this is a new breakthrough. But they’re just adding to the already loud chorus of condemnation of Israel that we’ve been experiencing for many, many years.”

But Tammy Shapiro, the union’s executive director, argues that Breaking the Silence fills an important gap, particularly for Jewish participants in Hillel, who she says rarely hear about how Israel’s actions in the territories hurt both Palestinians and Israel itself.

“There isn’t that conversation happening in Hillel because the Jewish community is so reactionary and so defensive we become deaf,” she said. “We are breaking the silence and we’re venturing into territory that people are afraid to talk about.”

Despite the claims of falsehoods and distortions, critics like the ZOA and Stand With Us, another Israel advocacy group that complained to the campus coalition, are hard-pressed to provide examples of untruths presented by Breaking the Silence.

Klein says the falsehood lies in the implication that a few individual cases of abuse are suggestive of the whole Israeli military.

Roz Rothstein, national director of Stand With Us, says the fact that the program’s rhetoric matches with Israel’s harshest critics belies the claims that these individuals are motivated by their love for Israel.

Like Klein, Rothstein has not seen the Breaking the Silence presentation, but says her group has received several complaints from students who have. She says her group ends up having to expend resources to undo the damage caused by another group in the campus coalition.

The core problem, Rothstein says, is one of context: Israeli military excesses are detailed with no mention of the terrorism, suicide bombings and rocket attacks that make them necessary.

“The pattern is that there’s fact woven in with fiction,” she said.

Rothstein declined to say whether she supported Klein’s push to expel the union from the ICC.

Shapiro says that far from demonizing Israel, her group presents a more honest picture of Israeli society that is more credible than efforts to portray Israel as a moral exemplar.

“We think that we create a much less hostile environment to Israel because UPZ students are engaging the people who would otherwise turn toward a more anti-Zionist perspective,” Shapiro said. “It’s extremely important that there’s that voice on campus because that’s the only way they’re going to change their mind.”

The ICC, which is funded by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Charles and Lynne Schusterman Family Foundation, a major donor to Jewish causes, is committed to the notion of a “big tent” in which a diversity of Jewish views of Israel can find expression.

But the Breaking the Silence program has severely tested that commitment and forced the ICC’s executive director, David Harris, to navigate a controversy the 4-year-old coalition has never faced.

“It is not the place of ICC to govern the content that individual member organizations move forward with,” Harris told JTA. “It is within the purview of the ICC to know that members’ stated purpose and goals match our collective goals.”

Harris said he is in the midst of a fact-finding process and expects the organization’s steering committee to take up the issue at its January meeting. He hopes the coalition ultimately will hold together.

“The strongest role that the ICC can play, our greatest value to the Jewish community, is working together on areas of commonality, not the discrete issues that divide us,” Harris said. “It’s these areas of commonality where we all see eye to eye and can work together that are the greatest strength of our coalition.”

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