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Pro-palestinian Jews Take Lead in Organizing Anti-israel Conference

November 5, 2003
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Pro-Palestinian activists from around the country will flock to Ohio State University this weekend for the Third National Conference on the Palestine Solidarity Movement.

And the man who helped bring them here is a Jew.

In fact, Joseph Levine, faculty adviser to the Committee for Justice in Palestine, the local group hosting the event, says he grew up steeped in Judaism as a yeshiva student in Los Angeles. Levine nearly immigrated to Israel in the early 1970s.

But after reading more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Levine says he came to feel that the Israel he had learned about as a child was “mythology.”

Today he an atheist and a professor of philosophy at Ohio State.

“We have a hard time seeing ourselves as the white men” oppressing supposedly indigenous Arabs, Levine says.

“We essentially expelled the people that lived there,” and “then we complain that they hate us,” he says. “We’re not looking at ourselves honestly.”

Levine shares that feeling with other Jews mobilizing on behalf of the Palestinians.

Ora Wise, 22, head of the New York-based Jews Against the Occupation, worked with Levine to create the Committee for Justice when she was an Ohio State student.

The daughter of a Cleveland rabbi and a Jewish educator, Wise says her community and, at times, her family, accused her of being a “traitor or self-hating or brainwashed” when she “started extending my concept of social justice to include Palestinians and to hold our state accountable for its actions.”

Wise, who helped plan this weekend’s conference, says her organization has quadrupled to 100 members in the past year.

Both Levine and Wise say their Jewishness helps them to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

Levine says he is working to get the pro-Palestinian movement to issue a statement that “unequivocally condemns attacks on civilians on both sides.” And he hopes Jews will reconsider what he calls their “knee-jerk” rejection of the pro-Palestinian movement.

Toward that end, Levine wrote an editorial in the Cleveland Jewish News last week.

“Voice for Peace” — a California-based Jewish peace group — “and a host of others here in the U.S., as well as numerous Israeli peace organizations, speak to the depth of Jewish-Palestinian cooperation,” he wrote. “Anyone who hasn’t visited the website of Gush Shalom or Rabbis for Human Rights should see for themselves what committed Jewish activists are saying. You may not agree with their views, but you’ll see at least that the idea that this is all fueled by Jew-hatred cannot be reasonably sustained.”

According to Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group for 26 Jewish organizations, there’s a clear difference between Levine and people who criticize Israeli policy but still support the Jewish state.

“Anyone who is a critic whose intention is to legitimately strengthen an Israel living in secure and recognized boundaries is a legitimate critic,” Firestone says. “The problem with the position taken by a lot of these organizations is that they only seek to condemn Israel.”

For example, calling on universities to divest their holdings in companies that do business with Israel — the key theme on the conference’s agenda this weekend — is a way to “punish and unfairly single out Israel to undermine her,” Firestone says.

Levine’s optimal endgame is a single state for both Jews and Arabs — a concept many supporters of Israel consider state suicide, rendering Jews a vulnerable minority among an Arab majority that has shown it does not respect minority rights.

There would “obviously have to be protection for Jews if they became a minority,” Levine concedes.

Levine says it is precisely his Jewishness that drives him to scrutinize Israel so closely.

As a Jew, he says, he is responsible for monitoring the actions of the Jewish state. And as an American, he must examine Israel, which receives more U.S. aid than any other country.

Tamar Rudavsky, another philosophy professor at Ohio State and director of its Melton Center for Jewish Studies, agrees with some of Levine’s criticisms, but takes issue with his goal and his group’s tactics.

“Joe and I share a lot of the same concerns with regards to the direction Israel has taken with the Palestinian people,” Rudavsky says, suggesting that Israel be more humane in its treatment of Palestinians waiting to cross West Bank checkpoints.

“I think the critical difference is that Joe has no interest in the survival of Israel as a Jewish state,” Rudavsky says. “He would be just as happy to see Israel disappear off the face of this earth.”

Additionally, Rudavsky says, the pro-Palestinian group on campus stifles dialogue.

“By presenting a slanted, one-sided, biased version of contemporary events, it threatens to undermine the very conversation we faculty are so diligently trying to foster among our students,” she says.

Levine’s immediate goal is for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders, allow the Palestinians to establish a capital in eastern Jerusalem and dismantle all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Asked about concessions Israel offered in previous peace talks — which the Palestinians rejected before turning to violence — Levine says Israel was not serious about peace.

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