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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Discussion on Zionism at UC Irvine

Recently I reported that the newly established Center for Jewish Studies at UC Irvine was holding a panel discussion on April 16 on the question of American Jewish support for Israel and Zionism and what would the next 30 years look like. Last night, I attended the event. Prior to attending, I knew that the three announced panelists were no supporters of Zionism. My question was whether the Center for Jewish Studies would sponsor speakers in the future who were supporters of Zionism and Israel. That is still my question.

The panelists were Noam Pianko and Liora Halperin from the University of Washington. The third announced panelist, Hasia Diner, from New York University, was a no-show. It was announced that she had a family illness to attend to  though we have learned that there was some opposition to her appearance from the Jewish Federation.

The crowd consisted of some 50-60 students and community members. Many of the attendees were a political science class under Professor Jeff Kopstein. The moderator was Matthias Lehmann, head of the  Jewish Studies Center.

I will not go into detail on what Pianko and Halperin had to say,  rather I will summarize. Though neither speaker explicitly stated their opposition to Zionism or the policies of the Israeli government, the implications were fairly clear. I should note that while Pianko is an official with the left-leaning, Palestinian-leaning New Israel Fund, that fact was not mentioned either by Pianko nor Lehmann in his introduction.

Pianko gave a historical description of support of American Jews from Zionism during the 20th century and to the present. There were some left-handed swipes at conservatives and one at the  Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) whose head, according to Pianko, in 1956 took the position that American Jews should tell Israel when it was wrong. In contrast, Pianko told the audience that the current head of ZOA (Mort Klein) had hosted Steve Bannon. (What did Bannon have to do with this issue?) He also pointed out that the white nationalist Richard Spencer considered Israel a "model".

Halperin could have saved everyone a lot of trouble had she merely passed out handouts of her presentation so that we could read them at home rather than listen to her. In other words, she basically read it. (We call it a manuscript lesson plan.) Her presentation consisted of listing 6 groups of American Jews who were concerned with the issue of Zionism from committed Zionists to secular Republican Zionists to Orthodox to leftist anti-Zionists. In this last group she mentioned organizations like "If Not Now", Open Hillel, and Jewish Voice for Peace, the latter "which has become recently much more vocal".

That is an understatement.  JVP engages in disruption of pro-Israel events and does not respect the freedom of speech of those who are pro-Israel.

The 6th group was the unaligned.

During the Q and A, I said that since the panelists, including Ms Diner, were anti-Zionists, when would the Center for Jewish Studies sponsor speakers who were pro-Zionists and defenders of Israeli policies. I directed the question to Dr Lehmann. He, instead, immediately passed the microphone to Pianko, who went on an irrelevant discourse about who had the right to say who was pro-Zionist or anti-Zionist. It may have had something to do with my statement about the panelists, but it had absolutely nothing to do with my question. Anyway, the audience applauded his non-answer. Then Lehmann said something about how future events depended on donor contributions. Question not answered.

After the event, I engaged with a member of the advisory board of the Center and repeatedly asked the same question. Would they bring in pro-Zionist, pro-Israel speakers to balance what the audience heard? I got no clear answer.

So the question still remains: In the future, will the Center for Jewish Studies host speakers who are pro-Zionist and defenders of Israel's policies? I fully understand that Jewish studies entails much more than than the question of Israel, yet it is the elephant in the room-especially on college campuses. Perhaps, the Center realizes that any pro-Israel speaker will likely be disrupted by the campus Muslim Student Union or Students for Justice for Palestine. That is no excuse.

The students who attended last night's presentation have a right to hear the other side. That is what universities are supposed to stand for. If the Center for Jewish Studies, of all people, having shown their willingness to bring in speakers who are anti-Zionist (which is their right), cannot or will not sponsor speakers with a different point of view, then this Center does not deserve the financial support that Dr Lehmann wants.

We will be watching.

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