A national pro-Israel campus group took a risk when several of its chapters brought former Israeli soldiers to their campuses to expose their country's military practices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Now, it might be paying the price.
The Union of Progressive Zionists, some of whose chapters and affiliates brought the "Breaking the Silence" tour to places like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Maryland, is a part of the Israel on Campus Coalition. This December, the 30,000-member Zionist Organization of America (an ICC member) sent a letter to the ICC demanding that the UPZ be removed from the coalition because of this tour. Other ICC members include the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). UPZ is an affiliate member.
The speaking tour, which was covered in the mainstream media, featured former Israeli soldiers who served in the occupied Palestinian territories. The project has also interviewed former combat soldiers and has drafted testimonials of what goes on in the occupied territories. During the tour, participants also showed photos of what they considered excessive force and unethical military behavior.
This is a big problem for Morton Klein, the president of the ZOA. In reference to "Breaking the Silence," Klein maintains that when Israeli soldiers talk about the brutal things their military does to innocent Palestinians, they are only reporting isolated incidents and are painting an inaccurate, unfair picture. "Israel has the most humane army on earth," he says.
Klein's objections are strategic as well as substantive. The ICC, which is partnered with Hillel, aims to increase advocacy of Israel on American college campuses. It was launched in 2002, two years after the first intifada in Palestine broke out, when college groups critical of the Israel occupation started to become more vocal and better organized. To have events like this that align with some of the rhetoric in pro-Palestine groups, Klein warns, is a conflict. "This is not the mission of the ICC," he says.
The D.C.-based ICC is conducting an investigation and the leadership may hand down a decision regarding the UPZ's status at its meeting later this month. The ZOA will drop their demand that the UPZ be expelled from the ICC if their chapters cease bringing "Breaking the Silence" to campuses. And if UPZ is kicked out of the ICC, it will continue to operate as an independent organization.
Klein says his organization is dedicated to fighting what it calls anti-Israel biases in schools and in the media. He refers to the West Bank by the Biblical names, "Judea and Samaria," and doesn't consider them or Gaza to be places occupied by Israel, because they weren't an independent country before 1967.
Tammy Shapiro, the director of UPZ, thinks the ZOA has misinterpreted the message of "Breaking the Silence" and why UPZ chapters and affiliates brought it to their campuses. "We think that there is definitely a plurality of views in the coalition," Shapiro says. "Our students are doing this out of love for Israel." Zionism historically has been made up of a variety of ideologies, some religious and some secular, and the politics of Zionism run the gamut from left to right.
Shapiro believes that the ICC is supportive of her organization's cause, and is optimistic about its pending decision. "It doesn't look good for them to oust Zionist students," Shapiro says.
Pro-Israel groups have often been accused of chilling speech concerning the Middle East conflict. "My own experience of American Zionist organizations is that they are becoming increasingly intolerant and bullying," Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan and author of the blog Informed Comment, writes in an email. "So the UPZ is just being treated as everyone else is that does not toe the ZOA party line, which is: no criticism of Israel is allowed by anyone, ever, and where someone dares engage in it, they should be relentlessly marginalized and punished."
Shapiro values UPZ's affiliation with the ICC, even though it could operate independently. She believes the UPZ is the only Zionist campus group that can reach Arab students, because of things like "Breaking the Silence." She thinks the pro-Israel community needs that, as without them, Arab students would only interact with anti-Zionist groups. A group like the UPZ in the coalition enables dialogue between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine communities on campuses around the country, she argues, helping to achieve the goals and vision that the UPZ shares with the other members. If the ZOA has its way, it will have a chilling effect on speech and activity within the pro-Israel community. This case may be a big test for campus Zionism's dedication to real debate.
"As long as we believe in support for a Jewish and democratic Israel," Shapiro says, "we will not be outside the big tent they are trying to create."
Ari Paul writes frequently about politics and religion. His articles have appeared in In These Times, Z Magazine, and openDemocracy.net.
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