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Free speech at issue in campus Israel wars

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A protestor is removed by campus police after disrupting a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the University of California, Irvine, on Feb. 8.

In the wake of the arrests of 11 University of California, Irvine students for disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Shalom Elcott, the president and chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, Calif., threw down the gauntlet. (See The death of academic discourse and ‘Contemptuous behavior must prompt penalties.’‘ )

UC-Irvine has long been caught in the thicket of the Israel wars, its campus notorious in the pro-Israel community for the intensity and often confrontational quality of discourse on the Middle East. But while some Jewish groups have pushed the administration to condemn inflammatory speakers sponsored by Muslim students, the university previously had been willing only to issue generic condemnations of hate speech on campus.

News Analysis

This time, the Jewish community will “intensely monitor” the response of the university, Elcott told JTA.

“While it’s nice to condemn hate speech in general, we expect a very specific response from the University of California leadership based on what transpired in that room,” he said.

In addition to prosecuting the students “to the fullest extent of the law,” Elcott told JTA he expects future activities of the Muslim Students Union to be closely scrutinized and would like to see their programming stripped of public funding.

Civil discourse on college campuses, or the lack thereof, has been a source of concern for some time. But two distinct strategies are now taking shape, seemingly informed by the recourse available to both sides.

Jewish groups increasingly are pressing their case directly with universities and relevant government agencies, serving notice to university leaders and major donors that they expect strict enforcement of campus codes of conduct. Some even have sought to have speakers disinvited whose views are deemed beyond the pale.

Meanwhile, Israel’s critics have stepped up efforts to actively disrupt speakers defending the Jewish state.

The differing tactics in many ways reflect the methods that Israelis and Palestinians, by virtue of their power differential, have been led to adopt in their own confrontations.

Jewish groups, possessed of greater political and financial strength, have sought to exert pressure on an institutional level, seeking governmental investigations and leveraging relationships with university officials and their deep-pocketed supporters. Pro-Palestinian groups, generally outmatched at that game, have employed methods more reminiscent of guerrilla politics — disrupting speeches, creating political theater on campuses, and being arrested.

On Tuesday, the Zionist Organization of America called for donors to stop supporting UC-Irvine and for Jewish students not to apply there.

Such tactics have surfaced at other campuses as well.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement protesting an appearance scheduled for Tuesday night at New York University by Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist whose report on Israel’s conduct of the 2008 Gaza war sparked vitriolic condemnations. In Philadelphia, several pro-Israel activists protested the decision by the Hillel chapter at the University of Pennsylvania to host an event organized by the group J Street, which backs U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. And across the state, in Pittsburgh, the roles were reversed: Local J Street supporters initiated a campaign to stop the Hillel chapter from hosting a speech by Israeli hard-liner Effi Eitam.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure put on this organization, on a variety of levels, in an attempt to force us to cancel the event,” said Aaron Weil, the local Hillel director in Pittsburgh.

For their part, pro-Palestinian students have repeatedly disrupted speeches by Israeli speakers, including one last week by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, at Oxford University. At UCLA, a coalition of pro-Palestinian student groups affixed duct tape to their mouths and disrupted a lecture by another Israeli official on the same night as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was nearly shouted down at Irvine. And at the University of Chicago, hecklers made it exceedingly difficult for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak in October, interrupting his talk repeatedly with cries of “war criminal.”

Even as they seek to disrupt Israeli speakers, the pro-Palestinian students are being cast, by themselves and by some supporters, as representing the cause of free speech.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council has called for an investigation into the arrests at the UC-Irvine campus of the students who disrupted Oren’s talk. A spokesperson for the group, Edina Lekovic, told JTA it was unclear exactly what law the students broke and that there appeared to be a “selected application” of university policy.

Lekovic declined to comment directly on the acceptability of disrupting a public university lecture. But the Muslim Council’s executive director, Salam Al-Marayati, seemed to defend those arrested, saying in a statement that the students “had the courage and conscience to stand up against aggression.”

The students, Al-Marayati said, were exercising their First Amendment rights.

UC-Irvine’s Muslim Student Union has maintained publicly that notwithstanding that its president, Mohamed Abdelgany, was among those arrested, the group did not orchestrate the disruptions. The MSU, however, has not condemned the disruptions either, even though it has long been a target of the ZOA — a campaign the student group has described as an effort to obstruct its right to free expression.

“It is ironic that the university would honor the representative of a country that brazenly stands ‘above the law’ and punish the students who would rightfully protest his presence as a representative of Israel’s illegal and inhumane policies, including documented war crimes,” Hadeer Soliman, the MSU spokesperson, said in an e-mail.

Hillel President Wayne Firestone joined the Ocean County federation in its call for a harsh reaction from the university.

Firestone, who in 2008 presided over a discussion in Washington about civil discourse that featured UC-Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake, said he has been satisfied generally with the administrative response to such incidents. But he would like UC-Irvine to “come down hard” to send a message about the importance of civility on campus.

“I do believe that strong disciplinary procedures by the university, whether or not they’re prosecuted criminally, is in order here,” Firestone said.

Firestone also condemned efforts within the Jewish community to disinvite or disrupt speakers, saying it makes it harder for the community to press the importance of free speech.

JTA

 
 

Federations, JCPA teaming to fight delegitimization of Israel

The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs are launching a multimillion-dollar joint initiative to combat anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.

The JFNA and the rest of the Jewish federation system have agreed to invest $6 million over the next three years in the new initiative, which is being called the Israel Action Network. The federations will be working in conjunction with JCPA, an umbrella organization bringing together local Jewish community relations councils across North America.

The network is expected to serve as a rapid-response team charged with countering the growing campaign to isolate Israel as a rogue state akin to apartheid-era South Africa — a campaign that the Israeli government and Jewish groups see as an existential threat to the Jewish state. In fighting back against anti-Israel forces, the network will seek to capitalize on the reach of North America’s 157 federations, 125 local Jewish community relations councils, and nearly 400 communities under the federation system.

“There is a very, very high sense of urgency in [fighting] the delegitimizing of the State of Israel,” the JFNA’s president and CEO, Jerry Silverman, told JTA. “There is no question that it is among the most critical challenges facing the state today.”

In fact, Silverman added, Israeli leaders identify this as the second most dangerous threat to Israel, after Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Under a plan approved in late September during a special conference call of the JFNA’s board of trustees, the JCPA’s senior vice president, Martin Raffel, will oversee the new network. He will be working in concert with the head of the JFNA’s Washington office, William Daroff. Over the next several months, Raffel will be putting together his team, including six people in New York, one in Israel, and one in Washington.

The network will monitor the delegitimization movement worldwide and create a strategic plan to counter it wherever it crops up. It will work with local federations and community relations councils to enlist the help of key leaders at churches, labor unions, and cultural institutions to fight anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.

Organizers of the network are looking at the response to an attempted boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival last year as a model for how the system could work.

When the festival organizers decided to focus on filmmakers from Tel Aviv, more than 1,000 prominent actors and filmmakers signed a statement saying that the organizers had become part of Israel’s propaganda machine, and they threatened to boycott the event. In response, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles worked together to come up with a counter-statement supporting the festival. The counter-statement bore the signatures of even more prominent Hollywood figures, including Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Alexander, and Lenny Kravitz.

“The partnership started last year around the Toronto international film festival,” said Ted Sokolsky, president of the Toronto federation. “We jointly produced an ad saying that we don’t need another blacklist.”

Sokolsky went on to say, “I spoke to Jay [Sanderson, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles] and said, ‘Here, there are a lot of prominent Hollywood types on the delegitimization protest. Can you reach out to the Hollywood community and find some pro-Israel leadership?’ He reached out to some key leadership in Hollywood. And it was like waking up a sleeping giant. Then we realized we can’t all fight this alone.”

He added, “It was a great lesson and set a template on how to respond because clearly, the other side is running a linked campaign with international funding and global strategy but local implementation.”

When similar delegitimizing attempts erupt, leaders of the new network plan to respond early, according to Silverman.

“If the community in Chattanooga all of a sudden is faced with [a boycott of] Israeli products in the mall, they should be able to call the [Israel] Action Network and have response and implementation within 12 hours, and not spend time thinking about how to do it,” he said. “We should be able to do that in every community.”

Toronto and Los Angeles are two of the largest federations in the JFNA system, but the smaller federations feel that the network will benefit them as well.

Michael Papo, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, said that Indiana has not yet witnessed a full-fledged anti-Israel boycott campaign.

“But it could happen,” he said. “It could happen quickly. It could happen on our college campuses, and it would be helpful to have that national network to call for help.”

Papo said he sees the network as being able to provide guidance when his federation has to face situations such as the one it faced several years ago, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) pursued a divestment strategy against Israel. At that time, he and his colleagues were able to influence local Presbyterian churches in Indiana to vote against the divestment campaign at their national convention.

“As a Jewish community, we have a huge range of contacts in the general community,” he said. “We are connected politically, culturally, socially, academically, and in the business world — anyplace we work and live, we have connections with neighbors.… If and when we need support, we are quite capable.”

Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said that federations and their local partners are uniquely positioned to take on delegitimization campaigns against Israel.

“A top-down approach cannot fully comprehend or appreciate local nuance, and after each and every incident, when the headlines recede, it is the local community that is in the best position to strengthen the community for the future,” Nasatir said in an e-mailed statement. “Over the past few years, active local federations have countered the boycott of Israeli products by buyout of those same products. They have demanded that university institutions require civility from anti-Israel protestors trying to drown out Israeli speakers. And, through ongoing contact with local elected leaders, they have sensitized public officials and institutions to the need for fairness, civility, and appropriate monitoring of anti-Israel thuggery.”

While other groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, and J Street, focus primarily on influencing the political arena, and others, such as the Israel Project and CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), key in on the media, the new network will aim to influence civic leaders.

The Jewish federations have agreed to give the JFNA $1.6 million to fund the project fully in its first year. In the two subsequent years, the federations will split the cost 50-50 with JFNA.

“Israel’s government has been advocating for this, especially over the past six months or eight months,” Silverman said. “It has been in dialogue within our federation movement for a while, especially following the Toronto incident and the incident in San Francisco with the film festival, and divestment movements in the Protestant and Presbyterian churches. This idea was born out of the large city executives meeting that said, ‘It is time. And time is running out.’ We have to do this quickly and we have to be armed in our community and be offensive, not defensive.”

Silverman said that he expects the Israel Action Network to be fully staffed and up and running by Jan. 1.

JTA

 
 

New Pollard clemency campaign

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A new campaign to free Jonathan Pollard, shown with his wife Esther, is being seen as generating more momentum on the issue than any campaign on his behalf in recent years. JonathanPollard.com

NEW YORK – A new campaign for clemency for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has racked up a series of big name politicos in the last few weeks: former Vice President Dan Quayle, former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and Chicago Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of first lady Michelle Obama.

The recent successes can be traced not to Washington lobbyists or a New York boardroom, but to a small team of four activists whose doggedness, rather than political connections, has yielded results.

The four men, spread across America, have managed to generate more momentum on the Pollard issue — or at least more expressions of support for clemency from public figures — than any public campaign in recent years.

Foremost among the activists is David Nyer, a 25-year-old Orthodox social worker from Monsey, N.Y.

Nyer was the force behind a letter last November to President Obama from 39 congressional Democrats urging the president to grant clemency to Pollard, a civilian U.S. Navy analyst who received a life sentence in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Over the past few months, Nyer successfully elicited letters calling for Pollard’s release from Quayle, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, and President Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz. Korb went so far as to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formally call for Pollard’s release, which Nyer says is a key gain in the effort to free Pollard.

“It’s not really hard,” Nyer said of his ability to get powerful or once-powerful officials on the phone. “I myself was very surprised by all of this. I guess that’s the great thing about living in a democracy. The average citizen can reach a former vice president.”

Along with Nyer, the team includes University of Baltimore law Prof. Kenneth Lasson, Phoenix attorney Farley Weiss, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, a longtime Pollard advocate and executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel. Weiss is a second vice president of the council and the president of a Young Israel synagogue in Arizona, as well as a national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America.

The four activists say they are in regular contact, bouncing around ideas and names of prominent individuals to solicit for support.

Lasson has a long track record of involvement with Pollard, having written more than a dozen articles in the past two decades calling for his release. Weiss, a trademark attorney, has a history of activism on issues related to Israel. Weiss was instrumental in reversing the views of former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, who long had opposed Pollard’s release.

Lerner has tended to Pollard’s spiritual needs, acting as his rabbi and paying him visits at the federal prison in Butner, N.C.

It is Nyer, however, who has done much of the legwork in recent months.

His start on the Pollard case came in graduate school, when Carlos Salinas, a former Amnesty International official, presented a lecture at the school and Nyer pushed Salinas to review the case. Salinas went on to join 500 signatories, most of them clergymen, in a separate letter to Obama on Pollard’s behalf.

Among the letter’s signatories were Pastor John Hagee, the Texas minister who founded Christians United for Israel, and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official and now president of the conservative nonprofit American Values.

Nyer and company have been strategic in picking their targets.

They have recruited former officials who, like DeConcini, the former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, had access to classified material and can speak authoritatively on the appropriateness of Pollard’s sentence. The biggest score on that front was James Woolsey, the former Central Intelligence Agency director, who called on Obama in January to release Pollard.

DeConcini was a longtime opponent of clemency for Pollard, but he told JTA that he changed his mind at the repeated urging of his finance chairman, the late Earl Katz. He wrote to both Obama and former President George W. Bush on Pollard’s behalf at the behest of Weiss, whose credibility Katz had vouched for.

“He has been on my case for a couple of years,” DeConcini said of Weiss.

The group also has targeted those with particular influence on Obama, such as Harvard law Prof. Charles Ogletree, a mentor to the president, who wrote to the White House in January. Several sources said the group is seeking support from others who are personally close to the president.

The activists hope that all the letter writing will give Obama the political cover he needs to take the potentially controversial step of freeing the spy. The fight for Pollard’s release typically has been spearheaded by the pro-Israel right wing in America, but the congressional letter was signed entirely by Democrats.

Nyer suggested that a pardon could boost Obama’s standing with American Jews and Israelis in advance of the 2012 election.

“The first thing we wanted to do was to create a political climate which would be easy to grant clemency,” Nyer said. “It would be very easy for Obama to do it. He has all the cover.”

Neither Nyer, Weiss, nor Lasson was eager to speak about his efforts on Pollard’s behalf. They each said that the injustice of the case speaks for itself.

Pollard has served 25 years of a life sentence for passing classified materials to Israel — a longer sentence than anyone else convicted of espionage on behalf of a U.S. ally.

While the activists would prefer that their names stay out of the media glare, they say their efforts have raised hopes that Pollard’s life sentence might soon be commuted.

“In 25 years,” Lasson told JTA, “I’ve never seen this degree of momentum or widespread support from both within and outside the Jewish community, both nationally and internationally.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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