What distinguishes the Union of Progressive Zionists from other campus organizations? Some might argue it is our politics, but I believe it is much more. The UPZ is sponsored by four Progressive Zionist organizations who have a long history of Zionist activity within Israel and abroad. Many UPZ students come from two of the oldest Zionist youth movements, who are not only partly responsible for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, not only built Kibbutzim in Israel beginning from the turn of the century, not only run the longest continual year long Israel program for college aged North Americans, but also currently send garinim to Israel to continue this legacy. Our students are well versed in Zionist history, their own personal and familial stories. Our students are not simply concerned about being pro-Israel, but are concerned Zionists who love Israel. Therefore they care about what kind of Zion we as the Jewish community around the world are supporting and creating.
Breaking the Silence, the group of former Israeli soldiers who speak out about the moral cost to Israel of the forty year military occupation, share this concern. Much has been said about this group in the past few weeks, and their activities this past semester in North America. When a similar debate occurred in Israel, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv put it well, “Over the past few days a pointed argument has been taking place, about the revelations by members of ‘Breaking the Silence’, a group of patriotic Israelis who are exposing the folly of the occupation. They were there. They did the deeds. They’re not willing to remain silent. They’re not members of the order of self-hating radical leftists, who want to destroy Israel. They are patriots who wish to repair the flaws that threaten to destroy our home.” (Ben Dror Yamini, December 3, 2004).
The Breaking the silence program had a profound effect on the campuses at which it appeared with The UPZ. The event allowed UPZ students to begin a very important conversation with their peers. Jodie Honigman from the University of Wisconsin, Madison explained, “I think Breaking the Silence opened up a door at the Hillel of Wisconsin, a door that had been closed (and nailed shut) for far too long. It allowed people to talk honestly, and showed many people that simply opening up about difficult topics can be really healthy. Those who came might not change the way they present their views on Israel, but at least now, somewhere in their minds, the memory of Breaking the Silence will remain and influence the decisions they make about being honest with themselves (and others) about Israel.”
Our Progressive Zionists students ask their Hillel’s a simple request. They want a space to present their perspective. They want to discuss difficult issues because they don’t believe the unblemished perspective presented by others, and they are uninterested in promoting it. Moreover as new members of intellectual society, UPZ students are interested in the opportunity for free thinking, open dialogue and a chance to explore, connect and learn about Israel and their Jewish identity. As Ben Wolff, the president of the University of Maryland UPZ group put it, “While fierce left and right and “pro” and “anti” debates rage over the Mideast Conflict, Breaking the Silence seeks to bring one thing to the fore about the Israel occupation of Palestinian territories: truth. The truth of what the occupation does to the Palestinian people, what it drives Israeli soldiers to do, the thin line between life and death in the territories, and the emotional baggage the entire Israeli nation must carry as a result of the occupation. Their presentation made no political indictments nor prescriptions. It left those conclusions to the audience. As The Jewish people we can no longer ignore the truth of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza. For this reason, Breaking the Silence is invaluable by saying what many cannot or will not say. Their bravery and loyalty to the Jewish Community must not be overlooked nor condemned.”
These are only two examples of students who belong to a compassionate and sophisticated group of Zionists. I do not think anyone on the Israel on Campus Coalition or beyond is interested in pushing these self proclaimed Zionist students outside of the Jewish community. In addition, I do not think we, as the Jewish Community, derive any benefit from pushing Breaking the Silence out of our community. In Israel there are clearly a variety of perspectives about the conflict, and we within the Jewish community must be open to all of them. Breaking the Silence, and groups like it, have no trouble finding a venue to speak at college campuses. If Hillel sponsors more programming that includes this variety of perspectives, that engages this discussion, then Breaking the Silence would not turn to other groups to sponsor them who may not have precisely the same goals. I would much prefer we bring groups like Breaking the Silence, that we bring the concerned Israeli soldiers, that we not hide from their important perspectives and insights, so it can come from a Jewish context, and not an antagonistic one. This is why UPZ has sponsored the program in the past, and why it has been so successful.
In fact, we are very proud that we can sponsor such thoughtful Israelis. It shows integrity on our part when we are willing to engage the challenges Zionism faces today. As Yonah Prital, the central shlicha for Habonim Dror North America, one of the four UPZ sponsors, noted “I felt that ‘breaking the silence’ is evidence of the strength of the Israeli society, as a society which strives to fulfill Jewish humanistic and democratic values, by allowing self criticism and questioning of moral situations. I felt that it was a great opportunity for young American Jewish and non-Jewish students to share with their Israeli counter-part the same values and dilemmas. Being a Zionist from my perspective is being deeply involved with the future of Israel. ‘Breaking the silence’ offered this opportunity for the students who participated in the event. We need to expose our students to the real issues and challenges that Israel and the Zionist Movement are facing these days. We recognized since the second Intifada that there is an urgent need to take responsibility in creating opportunities for many Jewish students to re engage with Israel and Zionism by dealing with these challenges.”
While within Israel and on the ICC the Progressive Zionist perspective appears to be on the left, on North American campuses and the wider global community we sit in the middle. From this vantage point we understand many of the concerns presented by both the Jewish community and those worried about Palestinian human rights. While certain groups in the Jewish community view UPZ students as only presenting unsettling truths to the Jewish Community, they do not see the other side of the coin. It is only our students who can approach the curious students on North American campuses. These students are intelligent, and are unwilling to ignore problematic situations which they hear and read about. It is only our students, by acknowledging their concerns not denying them, who can explain the necessity of Zionism as well as a fair and just two state solution. For this the entire Israel on Campus Coalition, and anyone concerned with Israel’s reputation in the world, is indebted to them.
I will leave you with a quote from a celebrated Israeli Author, Amos OZ.
“We can all agree, without difficulty, that what Zionism means is that it is good for the Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel and it is bad for that people to be scattered among the nations. But from that point on-we disagree. I have stated many times that Zionism is not a first name but a surname, a family name, and this family is divided, feuding over the question of a “master plan” for the enterprise: How shall we live here? Shall we aspire to rebuild the kingdom of David and Solomon? Shall we construct a Marxist paradise here? A Western society, a social democratic welfare state? Or shall we create a model of the petite bourgeoisie diluted with a little Yiddishkeit? Within the Zionist family there are some members who would be happy to be rid of me, and there are some whose familial relation to me causes me discomfort. But the pluralism is a fact. It is imperative that we come to terms with it, even if with clenched teeth, and not get caught up in excommunications and ostracisms and banishments beyond the Pale. This pluralism follows from the multifaceted experience of the Jewish people and of modern Israel, regardless of whether it pleases us or worries us. I myself am pleased by it. I do not see pluralism as a ‘necessary evil’ a temporary transition phase until ‘all eyes are opened’ and we all converge around the truth, the genuine article. I believe in spiritual pluralism as a desirable condition: an abundance of approaches, trends, traditions and opinions, life styles – including spiritual ‘imports’ – is a potential source of creative spiritual tension, the proper ground for a creative life. If there are people who would ‘cure’ us of the curse of pluralism, and open, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, the eyes of whoever does not see the light as they do, then there is bound to be an ugly, even a dangerous, struggle. If the confrontation is a matter of lobbying, with recognition of the legitimacy of differing positions, and a willingness to be persuaded, then there will be fertile, creative tension.” – Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel