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January 25, 2012

Opinion: The new defenders

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/the_new_defenders_20120125

David Suissa, President

David Suissa, President

How can you defend Israel without being accused of being a tribal loyalist? You know, the type who thinks Israel is unfairly maligned by most of the world, so they’re always pushing “the other side of the story,” which includes — surprise, surprise — a lot of positive items about the Jewish state.

If you exclude Christian evangelists, who defend Israel for religious reasons, most activists who defend Israel are Jews. This makes sense, of course. Why not defend your family if you think it is being unfairly attacked?

But Jarrod Jordan, an African-American activist from Atlanta, Ga., is neither a Christian evangelist nor a Jew. He didn’t study Zionism growing up and has no relatives in Israel.

And yet his organization, Vanguard Leadership Group (VLG), is a vigorous defender of the Jewish state. Last year, for example, VLG took out full-page ads in campus newspapers to counter the accusation that Israel is an apartheid state.

In an open letter to Students for Justice in Palestine, the group behind Israel Apartheid Week, VLG issued a scathing rebuttal:

“The use of the word ‘apartheid’ by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in its characterization of Israel is patently false and deeply offensive to all who feel a connection to the state of Israel. Your organization’s campaign against Israel is spreading misinformation about its policies, fostering bias in the media, and jeopardizing prospects for a timely resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Such irresponsibility is a blemish on your efforts.

“Playing the ‘apartheid card’ is a calculated attempt to conjure up images associated with the racist South African regimes of the 20th century. The strategy is as transparent as it is base. Beyond that, it is highly objectionable to those who know the truth about the Israelis’ record on human rights and how it so clearly contrasts with South Africa’s.

“Under apartheid, black South Africans could not vote and had no rights in a country in which they were the overwhelming majority of the population. SJP has chosen to manipulate rather than inform with this illegitimate analogy. Therefore, we request that you immediately stop referring to Israel as an apartheid society ...”

The letter goes on, but you get the idea. This was no soft and nuanced analysis of the “apartheid” accusation. This was vigorous defense: You hit me, I hit you back.

The ad caused a buzz in our community, because it didn’t come from the usual suspects: StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), etc. In this case, it was not easy to dismiss VLG as “tribal loyalists who believe Israel can do no wrong.”

So, why did they do it?

“We just wanted to protect the truth,” Jordan told me last week over breakfast at Jerry’s Deli. “Our group deals with plenty of other issues, but this one struck a nerve.”

In fact, the group was founded as an honor society to nurture future leaders in the black community. It attracts top students at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, who get involved with humanitarian and other worthy causes around the United States and the world. It has won many prizes and has a long list of prominent endorsers and successful alumni.

When Jordan visited Israel a few years ago as part of an AIPAC trip, he saw what he calls “the other side of the story.” That gave him and VLG the idea of countering the apartheid accusation with the campus ads. Since then, his group has attracted interest from several Jewish organizations. While he has no formal association with any of them, a few Jewish groups have used him as a speaker.

This is where I see an opportunity for the Jewish community to do…nothing.

Frankly, I think it’s better for Israel if we allow groups like VLG to do their own thing without too much involvement from the Jewish community. Let’s face it, they have a lot more credibility than we do.

Yes, let’s encourage gays, women, progressives and other minorities to visit Israel and see for themselves what is true and what isn’t. If they visit Israel and decide that it is an apartheid state, it’s our loss. But if they decide that the world has unfairly maligned the Jewish state, as Jarrod Jordan and VLG did, then it’s our win.

The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with fighting back when attacked. Groups who malign Israel during Israel Apartheid Week do not deserve nuance or even-handed engagement. They deserve a sharp rebuttal. 

But it’s a lot more effective when the rebuttal comes from a group who has no skin in the game, and can’t be accused of being tribal loyalists or a front for Jewish Zionist organizations.

Jordan told me he’s planning to bring one of America’s most popular black radio DJ’s to Israel, and, eventually, to bring other prominent members of the African-American community there as well. Let’s cheer him on quietly from the sidelines, and wish him well.

This might be a case where staying away from the Jews is good for the Jews.

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