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They sat around a campfire, donning work shirts adorned with the Labor Zionist youth movement logo and T-shirts
urging coexistence between Israelis and their Arab neighbors. When they weren’t singing proletariat hymns like “The
Union Makes Us Strong,” they spoke lovingly about the Jewish homeland.
They may have resembled the pioneering Zionists of yore, who drained Israel’s swamps and plowed its fields, but most were college students reared in the late 1990s in comfortable American suburbs.
As they cuddled and chanted and reminisced about the time they spent working on kibbutzim, the young adults who gathered recently outside Baltimore for the second annual Union of Progressive Zionists conference seemed entirely removed from the campus wars that in the past few years have pitted against each other pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University, the University of California Berkeley and other institutions.
But Ben Meiselman, one of the students sitting around the campfire, said left-wing Zionists have been thrust into a two-front war at their colleges. While the two bitterly divided factions talk past each other, progressive Zionist groups are being challenged on both sides.
When Meiselman, a junior at the University of Maryland, attended anti-Iraq war gatherings on campus, for example, he defended Israel’s existence to vocally anti-Zionist students. When he attended gatherings of the student-run Israel public affairs committee, he would stress the Jewish state’s responsibility to leave the Palestinian territories.
“I was this lone voice,” said Meiselman, 20, who last year founded a left-leaning Zionist group at the University of Maryland that sponsored speakers from the Parents Circle, a group of Palestinians and Israelis who lost children to Middle East violence.
He may have felt like a lone voice, but he wasn’t the only one feeling trapped between his left-wing politics and his love for Israel.
Meiselman, who grew up attending Labor Zionist summer camps, found many kindred sprits last year when four progressive movements — Meretz USA, Ameinu, Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair — banded together to form the UPZ.
Whereas the battle cry of many mainstream Zionist groups is “support Israel,” the shibboleth of UPZ and its representatives on some 70 North American campuses is “support Israel but …” But speak out against what they see as oppressive Israel Defense Forces tactics; but urge the government to dismantle settlements; but protest the route of the security barrier being erected in the West Bank.
Many say the simpler “support Israel” mantra — touted by more centrist and right-wing Zionist elements — won out on college campuses because it is more easily digested.
Noah Schwartz, a Columbia sophomore, was among several conference-goers who complained that Zionism had been hijacked by right-wing interests. He contended, for example, that when Middle East studies professors at Columbia were beset with claims of anti-Israel bias and intimidation, neoconservatives rallying on behalf of those making the allegations attempted to strong-arm the academy to further their agenda.
“There’s a perception that the campaign against the professors has moved beyond Columbia and become a [vehicle] of the political right,” Schwartz said.
The campus wars, which grew increasingly bitter as the intifada intensified, created a quandary for left-wing Zionist groups on campus, said Wayne Firestone, the executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a 29-member consortium of pro-Israel campus groups including the UPZ.
Yet Firestone said the progressive Zionist movement, all but dormant for a generation, has re-emerged at a particularly opportune time — as violence in the Middle East ebbs.
“There is no question that during the intifada, it was difficult for progressive Zionists to find a comfortable and responsible voice, when so many of their concerns were being misunderstood and exploited at certain times,” he said.
“They got it from both sides, essentially. When they criticized Israel publicly, their points were used out of context to de-legitimize Israel. The [pro-Israel] side often intimidated them and said they were irresponsible for raising concerns given the violence in the region.”
During the two-day conference at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Md., students brainstormed ideas to build campus constituencies and discussed the inherent challenges of being a left-leaning Zionist.
They also listened to speakers like Philip Wilcox Jr., president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which opposes Israeli settlement in the disputed territories, and Yael Dayan, a radical figure in Israeli politics and the daughter of the late Moshe Dayan, one of the Jewish state’s founding fathers.
Critiques of the Jewish state in another setting might have been construed as brazenly anti-Israel, with terms such as “occupation,” “Israeli land grab” and “Palestine” a natural part of the discourse.
For example, Wilcox rejected the widely held notion that Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David was in the Palestinians’ best interest, and contended that “much of the [Palestinian] violence was provoked by very heavy-handed IDF” tactics.
And Dayan balked at heroic portrayals of Gaza settlers and asserted that the disengagement did not go as smoothly as reported.
“I don’t think it’s something that should be remembered as something we’re proud of,” she said, noting her disgust for parents who urged their children to wear orange stars, reminiscent of those Jews living under Nazi rule were required to wear. “I do consider it violent. Something was abused in a very deep way.”
Their messages found a sympathetic audience among conference participants, who seemed equally versed on the disparate historical narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. Attendees were both proud of the early immigrants to the Jewish state and empathetic to the plight of Palestinians who fled or left their homes in 1948.
Some students accused the Israeli right of stalling the peace process by demanding the Palestinian Authority meet unrealistic expectations before taking steps to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“We’ll never get there if Israel insists that the Palestinians meet obligations while continuing policies that make a two-state solution impossible,” said Schwartz, who opposes Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “Why does Israel continue to settle Jews on land they say they believe is part of a future Palestinian state? Israel establishes facts on the ground, and the Palestinians are expected to accept them.”
The push for a unified pro-Israel front on campus has been buoyed by recent surveys showing that Jewish college students are ambivalent about Israel.
Earlier this year a study spearheaded by Professor Steven Cohen of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem showed waning support for the Jewish state among American Jewish university students, with 43 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement “Israel feels to me more about my parents’ and grandparents’ generation than to me and my generation.”
Many centrist and right-leaning Zionist campus groups, therefore, resent UPZ’s efforts. Such groups contend that in critiquing Israel, progressive Zionist groups give credence to anti-Zionist claims and place the onus for reform solely on the Israelis without holding the Palestinians accountable for corruption and incitement in their society.
They scoff at the notion that UPZ is the “voice of moderation” it claims to be, calling it instead a voice on the left.
Julie Sager, director of campus activities for the Zionist Organization of America, a right-leaning, pro-Israel organization with about 50 affiliates at colleges and universities, said Zionist campus groups should devote efforts to developing programs that promote positive images of Israel.
“Given that Israel is being pushed to make concessions without any security guarantees in return,” she said, “we think that national Jewish organizations should be focused on urging the Palestinian Arabs to live up to fighting terrorism and stopping incitement of violence rather than pushing Israelis to make further concessions.”
Mairav Zonszein, UPZ’s executive director, sees things differently.
Far from giving credence to those who oppose Israel’s very existence, she said progressive Zionist groups “show people that there’s a third way, one that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian because it is pro-peace, which means supporting the rights of both Jews and Palestinians to a secure state of their own.”
“We, as Jews and advocates of Israel, need to worry about our own problems in the Jewish community and in Israel,” she said. “Our job is not to worry about all the problems in Palestinian society, but to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do differently?’ ”
Firestone agreed that there is room within the pro-Israel fold for students vocally critical of the Jewish state’s policies and practices.
The notion that such discourse could fan the flames of anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism is antiquated, he said.
College students, he said, “do not live in a ghetto.”
“Their roommates and classmates and on-line networks are filled with students who are diverse,” Firestone said. “To pretend that there can be a monolith of voices on any issue is not realistic. You don’t send your kid to a $40,000-a-year school to say ‘think critically on every issue but Israel. On Israel, you have to toe the party line.’ ”
Meiselman, sitting by the campfire — the flames staving off a late summer chill — said he’s determined not to toe any party line.
“Being a progressive Zionist means that I have a sophisticated love for Israel,” he said. “It means I appreciate it but still recognize its faults.”
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