Amid solidarity rallies, protests, Jews debate limits of dissent

NEW YORK — Seattle is rocked by the arrest of peace activists at a pro-Israel rally and the local Jewish paper's coverage of the event.

At a national pro-Israel rally in Washington, some demonstrators cringe when Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz is booed for mentioning Palestinian suffering.

And as solidarity rallies abound throughout the country, a question is surfacing in the pages of Jewish newspapers and around Jewish kitchen tables: Are there boundaries to Jewish activism at a time of crisis for Israel?

Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, describes a "continuum" of acceptable behavior that permits criticism of Israel but precludes anti-Zionism, comparisons of Israelis with Nazis and delegitimization of the Jewish state.

But it is perfectly appropriate to question Israel's policies and recognize the difficulties Palestinians endure, he said.

Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, a philanthropic organization, agreed with Raffel's parameters, but added that those who "cross the line" should be "disowned and denounced."

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, former chair of Americans for Peace Now and a founder of Ms. magazine, firmly disagreed. "I want to hear what people have to say and I want to have the opportunity to shout them down," she said. That gives others a chance to evaluate opinions in the "marketplace of ideas."

According to John Ruskay, executive vice president of the UJAFederation of New York, the more interpretations there are of what it means to be pro-Israel, the better.

"Under the broad umbrella of standing with Israel, more ideological flags can be a sign of health for the community," he said.

Jewish leaders agree that the current crisis has created some of the broadest community consensus in years, with Jewish groups committed to fighting terror and fortifying Israel's security.

However, there are no guidelines on how to translate pro-Israel words into pro-Israel deeds.

Greenberg thinks it should stay that way. The current consensus is enforced by "moral power," not instruction, he said. The "pressure for uniformity" or against statements that "could rock the boat" is wrong.

But certain behavior, like booing Wolfowitz — who is considered one of the strongest supporters of Israel in the Bush administration — "undercuts our own credibility" and "embarrasses the cause that we support," Greenberg said.

Indeed, Donna Gordon Blankinship, editor of the Jewish Transcript in Seattle, said the paper's coverage of the city's Israel solidarity rally led to accusations that she was anti-Israel. "I am a Zionist," she said, "an ardent Zionist."

At the community's rally in April, members of a Jewish group called Pursue the Peace began "pulling down Star of David flags held by Israeli demonstrators," according to a police report.

Those members were asked by police to join the counterrally across the street, and they complied.

However, two members of the group, not accused of destroying Israeli flags, were arrested when they refused to join the counter-rally or remove their signs — which called for supporting "the people of Israel," as opposed to the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and for supporting "Palestinian rights."

Demonstrators asked the two protestors to leave, with many shouting, "They do not belong here," according to the police report.

The Jewish Transcript's coverage of the 1,500-strong rally, the largest pro-Israel rally ever in Washington state, featured the incident and reported that rally organizers had called for the two protestors to be arrested.

However, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which organized the rally, denied any involvement in the arrests and demanded that the paper apologize for skewed coverage.

In its current issue, the Transcript responded with a clarification: "The person police consulted prior to the arrests did not represent either the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee, the two coordinating organizations."

Though all sides are trying to move forward, distrust and hard feelings remain.

The arrests were symbolic of the way some voices have been silenced in the Jewish community, said Adkins, whose group wants the AJCommittee and ADL to admit they made a mistake.

While the heads of both groups wrote a letter in the Transcript expressing their "regret" that individuals felt excluded, both groups maintain they did nothing wrong.

"This rally" and "a lot of other rallies around the country" have revealed the harassment of Jewish groups outside the establishment, Adkins said.

"The crux of the matter is that while we are all unified by our concern for Israel, and everybody says that they want peace, there is considerable fragmentation within the community," he said.

"It doesn't help build a shared sense of unity" with the Israeli people, he said.

The strife has created a chasm between the paper and the ADL and AJCommittee.

"I feel that the article did a disservice by inflaming the community, and now six weeks, eight weeks later, we'll get some kind of correction" on the back page, said Brian Goldberg, the director of the ADL's Seattle office.

Blankinship said the Transcript aims to provide information and let others "figure out how to think. We've always done a very good job of that, and I'm proud of that."

Meanwhile, Blankinship still can't resolve why Goldberg's name is listed on police reports if he wasn't involved in the incident. And she's outraged that she was asked to leave a community healing forum, at the request of the AJCommittee and the ADL.

A reporter from the non-Jewish media was allowed to stay.

"We need to come up with some kind of definition for what is pro-Israel activity in our community," Goldberg said, suggesting that the broader Jewish community would be wise to do the same.

Goldberg acknowledged that individual rabbis have tried to address the issue.

He has reached out to Pursue the Peace for dialogue, a move the group applauds. However, Goldberg said, he hasn't seen organizations take concrete steps to move the community forward.