Peace Front Faces Schism Over 'Right Of Return'
By ERIC MARX
FORWARD CORRESPONDENT - Nov 5, 2003
Arab groups are threatening to quit the country's largest anti-war
coalition unless it does more to support the Palestinian cause, but
Jewish members say that such a move would lead them to break ranks.
Several Arab and Muslim groups announced last week that they would
drop out of United for Peace and Justice, a leading American-based
coalition opposed to the Iraq war, unless the umbrella group
explicitly endorses the Palestinian "right of return" to Israel. But
Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor of Tikkun Magazine and chairman
of the Tikkun Community, which is part of the anti-war coalition's
steering committee, said he would quit if such a position is adopted.
The complaints from pro-Palestinian groups come despite their gains
in recent months. United for Peace and Justice, which brought
together 650 local and national groups from 38 states last October to
oppose the invasion of Iraq, has formulated a pro-Palestinian stance,
arguing that American political, economic and military aid to Israel
is underwriting the occupation of Palestinian territory. Still, at
its June conference in Chicago, the anti-war coalition refused to
explicitly endorse the "right of return" for Palestinians out of fear
of alienating the bulk of its members with a phrase that's commonly
associated with the eventual demise of Israel as a Jewish state.
Coalition leaders also rejected a description of Israel as
an "imperialist" state and opted not to join what many Jewish groups
say was an anti-war demonstration deliberately scheduled by pro-
Palestinian groups to take place later this month during Rosh Hashana.
The debate over such decisions played out last week in postings to an
Internet message board operated by members of United for Peace and
Justice. The dispute could end up undermining both the anti-war
effort and the Palestinian cause, but Palestinian solidarity groups,
including Al-Awda, Badil, and International ANSWER, say settling for
anything short of an endorsement of the "right of return" would
be "morally repugnant."
"Right Of Return [ROR] is the litmus test of whether one really
supports the cause of Palestine or not," wrote one Al-Awda
member. "What we are witnessing today is the mushrooming of Arab and
Palestinian voices calling for outright abandonment of ROR as defined
by the refugees themselves. Others are trying to dilute and weaken
ROR by de-linking it from the issue of occupation.... This is
something which Al-Awda, by definition, must not tolerate and
Some activists countered that, though in principle they supported
such demands, pro-Palestinian groups could end up isolated if they
push the issue too hard. Other anti-war activists warned that
adopting a more anti-Israel measure would undermine general support
for the anti-war cause.
"The underlying issue is one of strategy," said a member of the anti-
war coalition, also known by its acronym, UFPJ. "How should those of
us on the left of the American political spectrum, including to the
left of most forces in the anti-war movement, build support for our
politics to where we can actually impact national politics?
"UFPJ is a critical united front where we work and struggle with
groups who may not agree with our full range of politics. If you set
the bar too high and expect everyone else to be where you are
overnight in the country with the most reactionary politics of any
industrialized nation we'll end up talking to ourselves."
The Al-Awda member responded that working to change the organization
from within would only provide the anti-war coalition
with "legitimacy and political cover."
"In other words, trying to influence UFPJ is a double-edged sword,"
the Al-Awda member said. "In the process of advancing its agenda
within the group, Al-Awda is helping to advance or legitimize the
UFPJ's agenda as well, an agenda which, to my knowledge, includes
support for the 'road map,' and tolerance of, if not outright support
for people like Rabbi Lerner, whose hostility towards ROR is
Tikkun Community's Lerner said that his group was "concerned" about
the rhetoric used by some members in the anti-war coalition to
"We've been concerned about some people in UFPJ speaking in a
language that seemed demeaning to Israel or insensitive to the people
of Israel and... we won't stay in the organization that continues in
that tenor," Lerner said. "But what we've found in the past few
months is that most people don't feel represented by language that's
demeaning to Israel or the Jewish people and so that's been
Leaders of United for Peace and Justice said that support for a
resolution favoring a Palestinian right of return to Israel
represented a minority position within the anti-war coalition.
Mazin Qumsiyeh of Al-Awda papered over the dispute, saying the anti-
war support for equality under international law included the "right
of return." "But ask me for my own personal political solution,"
Qumsiyeh said, "international law recognizes any negotiations between
occupied and occupier [as] null and void if they trespass on basic
unalienable rights such as the 'right of return.'"
Charles Lenchner, a member of the anti-war coalition and president of
Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, said the debate could prove
to be a positive development if it ended up producing a majority in
favor of the peace process and a two-state solution.
"Some people are calling for the destruction of Israel," Lenchner
said. "On the other hand, there are many more that are saying that
Israel has the right to exist but that its policies should be
Lerner painted a mixed picture.
"These groups are not in the majority at this moment, and if they
were, we'd be out," Lerner said. "We're not willing to be a part of a
group that's overly demeaning of Israel. That's different than being
overly critical of the Israeli government's policies."
In the end, Lerner said, "I'm positive, but concerned and watchful."
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