A Response to Jonathan Tobin

Categories: Personal Stories of Zionism, Israel and Progressive Identity
By Gil Browdy

This article raises interesting questions, but not the questions the author himself poses, but rather questions related to the nature of the author’s critique.

The first question to be asked is: Is it acceptable for a columnist in a respected internationally distributed newspaper to write a report riddled with outright falsehoods?

The most blatant piece of misinformation that is referenced more than once in this article is the idea that the ICC in some way paid for or sponsored or even lent their name to the Breaking the Silence event. The ICC did no such thing, and David Harris, the executive director of the ICC, immediately sent a letter to the editor criticizing Tobin for this outrageous oversight. Considering that this was very much a premise of his article, namely, are “pro-Israel advocates” (scare quotes, not citation quotes) OK with this program on their dime, this lends a certain air of illegitimacy to the whole thing.

The second question that is raised, which is related to the first, is: Is it acceptable for a person with no direct contact to any of the organizations or topics being discussed to write such an opinionated article?

Of course everyone has the right to their opinion. The problem here lies with the fact that Tobin’s presentation makes it abundantly clear that he in fact has almost no grasp on the situation and is merely using it as an opportunity to defame the left (and distance himself from the ZOA, pretty sneaky!). Allow me to illustrate further:

Tobin writes, “The premise of the UPZ and its supporters is that their goal is to educate students about the diversity of Israeli opinion. In an environment in which anti-Zionism is the norm, they reason that putting forward a leftist critique of Israel from an Israeli frame of reference is the best way to reinforce support for it.”

This in no way represents any goal of the UPZ, stated or otherwise. Frankly, I cannot even figure out how he inferred such an off-base idea. One need only go to the UPZ’s website, an easy Google search away that even a 5-year-old could manage, to find the UPZ’s actual premise:

“The Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ) is a network of student activists organizing on campuses across North America for social justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. The UPZ was created to provide guidance, education and resources to students who seek to impart a progressive voice into the campus debate on Israel. Extremist voices pushing rigid “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” positions have come to dominate the discourse on many campuses across North America, obscuring the issues and alienating significant numbers of Jewish and moderate students.

Because of our connection to Israel, we believe it is our duty to create a new vision for the Jewish state. As campus activists and members of the Jewish community, our strength lies in our ability to be active and critical leaders. We are committed to creating an alternative approach to Israel advocacy that embraces open dialogue and constructive activism, and that warrants critical analysis of policies, whether Israeli, Palestinian, American or other. “

One may or may not agree with this premise, but it is clear that Tobin’s characterization of the UPZ is altogether skewed. The UPZ seeks to give a more balanced and nuanced view of the situation, not, as Tobin says, “the diversity of Israeli opinion.” The UPZ seeks to use honesty as the strongest tool against extremism on both sides, not, as Tobin says, “putting forward a leftist critique of Israel from an Israeli frame of reference is the best way to reinforce support for it.” I am simply shocked that Tobin would come forward with a column that is based on a completely misinformed perception of the relevant parties. Even the slightest modicum of research would have given him a more factual understanding of the UPZ.

Another area in which Tobin seems to be woefully misinformed is in the nature of Breaking The Silence’s presentation. I have spoken to numerous people who attended different presentations, I have read testimonies from others, and I have read one of the presenter’s personal responses to this whole situation, and none of them seem to match Tobin’s characterization of them.

Based on my personal research, which includes, again, a quick Google search of their website along with the collection of stories of those who witnessed the actual presentation, I will give my personal description of Breaking The Silence. The goal of Breaking the Silence, as their name clearly denotes, is to expose people to stories they may never hear otherwise. The stories told are personal testimonies of the speakers themselves, and if not those, personal testimonies of others which the organization verifies as best they can. The stories are of actual events that transpired, of actions taken by the individuals themselves, which they found to be wrong, immoral, or dehumanizing.

The speakers and the organization do not claim that the IDF does not have the right to defend itself. In fact, the soldiers did just this, they gave their blood and sweat in the defense of their country. The speakers do not claim that Israel does not have the right to exist, or that the country itself is immoral. Rather, they claim that they themselves have acted immorally and believe that it is in the nature of a generation of occupation that soldiers will fall into similar situations. They do not wish to demonize Israel or the IDF, they seek to open people’s eyes to the nature of the war on terror. In no way do they make moral equivalency to terrorism, they do not justify actions on any side, that is not the issue. The issue is to examine what these people’s generation is going through.

This seems to be far from Tobin’s description, which uses phrases like, “the extreme Left of the Israeli political spectrum”, “speaks of the nation’s measures of self-defense as illegitimate and illegal”, “Israeli extremists who bash Israel”, “disinformation and out-of-context stories”, “presentations that defame Israel”, “those who question the Jewish state’s right of self-defense”, “fan the flames of anti-Zionist propaganda”, and “a frame of reference that sees Jewish rights as inherently illegitimate and Israeli self-defense as morally indistinguishable from terrorism”. Again, I just cannot imagine where Tobin is getting his information, or on what basis he is forming his opinions.

Yet another example of Tobin’s utter disconnect from the situation is his description of the course of events. Tobin paints a picture of the ZOA as the lone banner-holder in a room of deaf ears. In fact, the ZOA was joined by the organization Stand With Us, who today on their website still is protesting Breaking The Silence (try Googling it!), and the American Jewish Congress, who threatened to leave the ICC altogether if the UPZ was not banned. Furthermore, the ICC’s steering committee did not make any decisions unanimously; one group, Aish HaTorah, changed their vote in the end.

What all this adds up to is an article that paints a pretty picture indeed, but not one that has any representation in reality. To use the popular terms of critics, he is building a strawman and knocking it down. Hardly a feat in and of itself, and on top of all that, it does a disservice to himself, his image, his point of view, and the debate at large.

The third question raised, which is the most interesting and relevant to us all, is: Is all left-leaning criticism of Israel and/or its policies to be derided as fanning the flames of Anti-Zionism, or fodder for our enemies (whoever they are)?

This is not a lone example of someone taking the left and portraying it as wholly Anti-Zionist in nature. Shortly after the ICC vote was announced, the American Jewish Committee website (I bet you can guess how to find it!) posted an article titled “Progressive” Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism. This entire article is devoted to making the terms “progressive” and “anti-Zionist” interchangeable.

The debate on college campus is an extremely important place for the Jewish community to be focusing its attention. This not because they are malleable and forming their opinions and need to be saved from the evils of the extreme left. It is important because university is an institution where young people are exposed to many different things and are able to use critical thinking skills to analyze things and form critical opinions. They may even change opinions at times. It is the entire idea of a B.A. to learn how to express yourself clearly and critically! To claim that any student is going to be swayed by one piece of information is simply narrow-minded. Students deserve a nuanced look at such a complex situation. They can identify when someone is hiding the truth by falsely portraying Israel as wholly demonic or as wholly angelic.

This is in fact the premise of the UPZ, of which Habonim Dror North America is a sponsoring organization — and proudly so, I might add as the National Director of Habonim Dror North America. Breaking the Silence seeks to ask a difficult question, namely: what kind of things is the occupation asking of 18-year-olds? How do we reconcile these things with the fact that Israel needs to defend itself? Does terrorism justify immoral actions by the IDF? No. Do immoral actions by the IDF justify terrorism? Absolutely not. Yet both things are still happening. What can be done? It’s a difficult question. It is not asking anyone to think Israel is awful, or illegitimate, or illegal.

My point is that if anyone is so stuck in their opinions that they cannot ask themselves these questions, which are not easy to answer from any side of the political spectrum, then you are hindering any process of change in your community, the American Jewish community, and Israeli society. These are the questions that must be asked, and our future, the university students of today, deserves to be asking these questions as well. To hide them is not only dishonest, but alienating.

So I thank the author for this article and allowing each of us to clearly ask these important questions about journalism, criticism, and Israel.

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