May 3, 2007
15 Iyar, 5767


 

Progressive campus Zionists unite in new group

By NAOMI LIGHTMAN
Special to The CJN

here is an urgent need to redefine Zionism on university and college campuses: that’s the message I walked away with from last month’s inaugural conference of the Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ), a new campus movement for left-wing students.

Speaking for myself, I’ve had enough of simultaneously defending Israel’s right to exist to left-wingers at McGill University, where I’m a student, while at the same time criticizing the blind patriotism espoused by many members of Hillel and groups on the right.

North American campuses are extremely polarized when it comes to the Middle East, but many Jewish students want to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine and not be excluded from the mainstream. As far as I can tell, this is where the UPZ intends to fit in.

More than 100 participants from some 40 universities and colleges across North America attended the UPZ conference in Newark, N.J., on Oct. 15-17. We were there to both show our support for Israel and to defend our right to criticize the policies of its government. Meretz USA, the Labour Zionist Alliance, Habonim Dror, and Hashomer Hatzair – the UPZ’s founding organizations – were the conference’s main sponsors.

Over the course of the weekend, we heard from a range of Israeli, Palestinian and Israeli Arab speakers. They discussed their views about the way forward toward peace and justice between Israel and the Palestinians. Most memorable were Amjad Atallah, a PLO advisor and peace activist who inspired us with his endorsement of the proposed Geneva Accord peace deal, and keynote speaker Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz MK.

Chazan spoke enthusiastically about the concept of the UPZ, declaring, to overwhelming cheers from the audience, that, “A two-state solution is the only way we can fulfill the Zionist dream!”

Workshops focused on topics such as “Socialist-Zionism, past and present”; “Confronting divestment”; “Transcending violence in the pursuit of peace”; and “Campus Activism 101”. Although there was some criticism about the lack of discussion time, the participants in all of the sessions I attended were engaged and dynamic.

Daniel Roth, 23, was one of 10 Canadian participants. He attends the University of Toronto and is the director of Hashomer Hatzair-Kidma on Campus.

Roth came to the conference to network with like-minded young people and said he was impressed with the balanced approach of the speakers.

“It was a positive feeling at this conference that we weren’t just a group of Jews saying ‘Yeah, we know how to communicate with the other side.’ We actually were communicating with the other side,” he said.

Roth believes Zionism must evolve to reflect today’s realities and that the only way to ensure Israel’s safety is through the creation of a Palestinian state.

“There’s racism in Israel now, there’s an occupation of displaced peoples, and there are problems with Israel’s economy. For me, Zionism is working towards the complete betterment of the state,” he said.

Tomer Chervinsky, 21, another participant and president of the Waterloo-Israel Public Affairs Club, said that in addition to being criticized by Hillel, he has felt very alienated from the so-called “progressives” at the University of Waterloo.

“There’s a lot of apathy and misunderstanding coming from the left at school,” Chervinsky said. “A hardcore, nationalist Palestinian group is a right-wing thing. Being left-wing is about building coalitions and working together for peace.”

Overall, I think that the opinions and backgrounds of the participants was one of the conference’s strengths. There can be no one model for UPZ campus organizations.

Those of us who attended the conference will be working on our respective campuses to seek out the many Jewish students who feel pressured to assume a particular political stance on the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, it is a confusing, emotional time for us as Jews. But the hope is that a progressive, redefined idea of Zionism can work to everyone’s betterment.

Naomi Lightman is a student at McGill University.