Dan Fleshler remembers how unprepared his daughter felt when she got to college and needed to respond to her left-wing friends’ “unrestrained fury about everything connected to Israel.”
“She didn’t know how to reconcile her identity as someone who cares about human rights and justice with her identity as a Jew who cares about Israel” — said Fleshler, a public-relations executive who serves on the boards of two progressive Zionist groups: Ameinu (“Our People”) and Americans for Peace Now,
With his daughter in mind, Fleshler drafted “Progressive Answers to the Far Left’s Critique of Israel,” a new guide published by Ameinu, part of its “Third Narrative” initiative. The controversial initiative also includes a website (www.thirdnarrative.org), educational programming and coalition-building activities.
Launched by Ameinu earlier this summer, the Third Narrative is meant to counter assaults on Israel’s legitimacy from the left, Fleshler said. But it does so by making its own, often sharp criticisms of Israeli policies and actions — an approach that has already generated ire from Zionists on the right. Those who feel the Third Narrative is too critical of Israel may also be angered by the fact that grants from several Jewish federations — UJA-Federation of New York, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco — helped fund the effort.
The Third Narrative is one of several new developments at the group, which is seeking to expand its focus to include domestic issues in the United States, establish a Washington presence, expand its number of chapters from eight to 12. The group recently hired a new high-powered executive, Gideon Aronoff, to implement the changes.
Aronoff headed HIAS, the international immigration arm of American Jewry, for six years, and was credited with guiding its evolution from a smaller organization that worked mostly within the Jewish community to one helping refugees of all faiths and backgrounds.
According to Ken Bob, Ameinu’s president, the Third Narrative is groundbreaking in that it addresses attacks on Israel from the left in a way that no other Jewish organization has done. Mainstream organizations like the Israel Action Network and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York “aren’t focused on speaking the language of the left,” as Ameinu is, Bob said. But even among other liberal Zionist groups that do speak that language, he added, none have specific initiatives like the Third Narrative.
Leaders at both IAN and the JCRC welcomed Ameinu’s initiative, saying they view the group as a partner in countering the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. Geri Palast, IAN’s managing director, told The Jewish Week that her organization has always worked with progressive groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, to achieve its goal. Hindy Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs at the New York JCRC, said in an e-mail that Ameinu’s guide helps draw “a clear line between criticism of Israel and delegitimization.” She added that she and her colleagues “are hopeful that it will serve as a useful resource to the pro-Israel, progressive community.”
Ralph Seliger, a progressive Zionist activist who writes for Tikkun, In These Times and other left-wing publications, said he could understand why mainstream Jewish groups might be reluctant to address Israel’s flaws, as Ameinu is doing. “It’s hard to criticize people you love,” he said, “and they’re afraid that admitting to wrongs on the Israeli side feeds into the narrative of Israel’s enemies.”
Ameinu is hardly the only progressive Zionist group out there. J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby runs a nonprofit education arm, including J Street U on college campuses. But it is the only one with a specific initiative to counter anti-Israel activities on the left.
Rachel Lerner, J Street’s senior vice president for communal relations, said Ameinu’s guide could help Israel’s advocates fight “baseless smears” against Israel “with reason and conviction.”
Similarly, Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said the Ameinu initiative’s “intent and principle are very welcome. The pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations ought to take on the unconstructive and sometimes even destructive activities that come from the radical left in America,” including the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement.
While those groups embraced Ameinu’s approach, the organization’s leaders also expected rebukes from both ends of the spectrum, Aronoff said. The booklet, for instance, rejects the description of Israel as an apartheid state, but it refers to discrimination against Israeli Arabs as “appalling.” It also calls the occupation of the West Bank unsustainable if Israel is to remain a Jewish, democratic state; says that advocates of a Palestinian right-of-return make “a powerful case”; and refers to the behavior of some Israeli soldiers in the 1948 War of Independence as “morally indefensible.”
Contacted by The Jewish Week, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, not surprisingly slammed the Third Narrative. “Under the guise of supporting Israel,” he said, what the initiative’s authors “are really doing is making it easier for people on the left to criticize Israel without thinking of themselves as being hostile to Israel.”
For his part, Fleshler, the guide’s author, said Zionists need to be honest about Israel’s failings if they hope to convince members of the left that “there’s no contradiction between being progressive and being pro-Israel. … To those who are critical of us giving some unvarnished truths about Israel even as we defend her,” he added, “all I can say is that to the vitriolic, anti-Israel left, there’s no difference between Ameinu and Mort Klein.”
At UJA-Federation of New York, David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People, said the organization’s leaders funded Ameinu’s initiative to ensure “a diversity of voices” in the debate around Israel. That diversity is necessary, he said, because people “at different points in the political/ideological spectrum” react differently to different arguments.
As for Ameinu’s decision to focus more on domestic issues, Aronoff noted that the group “is bucking the contemporary trend where organizations focus on a very narrow agenda.” The group chose that path, he said, because of “a need in the Jewish community for an organization that bridges our concerns for Israel and our desire to make a difference in our own country and around the world.”
Bob said Ameinu has always taken positions on domestic issues but never acted on them before or mobilized its 5,000 members around them. The group is most likely to get involved in economic-justice issues, such as the minimum wage, health care and spending priorities, he said. Bob emphasized that working on domestic issues with other progressive organizations could be a “synergistic activity,” allowing Ameinu to better convey its pro-Israel message.
The group has not yet raised money for all the changes, but one expert on Jewish communal life believes expanding from a small, marginal organization to a larger, more consequential one is quite doable.
“Small institutions have much more room to experiment than larger ones,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who added that they’re not as wedded to a particular agenda.
The histories of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, and J Street “illustrates that you can reinvent institutions” or build them from scratch, Windmueller said. “You can find a market niche that appeals to a particular constituency and build on that.”
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