During the brouhaha that followed the American Jewish Committee’s publication of Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld’s paper, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” the NY Times initially referred to the AJC as “conservative” rather than mainstream or centrist. The Rosenfeld essay had clearly left that impression, but AJC officials, whom I met with early this week at a two-day confab in their Manhattan headquarters, were all either liberal/left or moderate.
I came away from this event – including 40-50 Jewish professionals, lay leaders and friends discussing how to deal with the “Apartheid = Israel equation” – with a renewed respect for the AJC and a sense of gratitude for they’re having pulled this event together, along with its co-sponsor, the Canadian Jewish Congress, which likewise sent an impressive delegation. To the delight of the lefties among us, the presentations included two on US and Canadian trade unions and one that was a case study of Israel advocacy with an explicitly left-wing political party, Canada’s New Democratic Party, by a staffer of the Canadian Jewish Congress who is also an NDP member.
Ex-South Africans Benjamin Pogrund (an anti-Apartheid journalist who is now a writer and peace advocate in Israel) and Hebrew U. emeritus professor Gideon Shimoni were among the participants. About a year ago, Israel Horizons published a version of a comparative paper Pogrund did on Israel and Apartheid.
The level of the discussion was very high and well worth participating in. Among the guest speakers who dropped by briefly, were Columbia U. president Lee Bollinger (an impressively thoughtful individual) and Todd Gitlin (the 60s-era radical and today’s prominent liberal academic). Bollinger expressed concern about the need for students to feel safe in their views, not to be bullied by faculty, and for academic freedom to be safeguarded while also upholding academic standards that require reasonable argumentation and respectful discourse. He admitted that balancing academic freedom with academic standards is an art and not a science that can be measured with precision; he also spoke of the need to maintain the university as politically neutral but not necessarily without taking a stand on transcendent issues.
Gitlin spoke on the fallacy of arguing by analogy, that specific historical occurrences are never exact parallels of those from other times and places. This observation toward the end of the conference had been initially expressed by Prof. Shimoni on the first day, in the vocabulary of the historian.
Unlike what I had feared, the AJC gathering was not satisfied with simply bashing Jimmy Carter, but took seriously the real issues of occupation that Carter raised in his awkward and flawed way. The major distinction that was made is between those who use the Apartheid analogy for “eliminationist” or “unconscionable” purposes – with the intend of undermining Israel’s existence as a Jewish state – and those (like Carter) who employ the analogy for “conscionable” reasons, to eliminate the inhumane hardships and injustices that the Palestinians endure under occupation.
The main difference of opinion seemed to be on whether to simply refute or dismiss the Apartheid analogy or to allow the truth of valid criticisms of Israeli policies. In the end, there was consensus that a good response to the Apartheid analogy can be a nuanced statement that would contain the following elements: “Apartheid is not the issue” but the issue includes ending settlement expansion and occupation on the one side and the need to end violence/terror and to recognize Israel on the other. This concluding formulation was the product of a friendly collaboration between Meretz USA’s executive director Charney Bromberg and one of our new friends from the Canadian Jewish Congress, Manuel Prutschi.