Over the last couple of years, the Zionist Freedom Alliance (www.zfa.org.il) has been taking American college campuses by storm with a message of Jewish rights not heard for many decades. Led by veteran IDF soldiers and activists in Israel, the ZFA presents Zionism to the youth as a revolutionary struggle for national liberation.
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Unlike most pro-Israel advocacy organizations that present Israel as a democracy or focus on the Jewish state’s willingness to surrender territory, ZFA speaks of Israel as a Middle Eastern nation with a legitimate moral and historic right to its land.
“We tell young people about the fight for freedom from British rule,” says ZFA leader Yehuda HaKohen. “And we explain how we are still fighting against nearly the entire world for our right to live freely in the whole of our country. Educating young people to the history of our struggle creates a paradigm shift in how they view our situation today. If people know two basic facts – that this really is our country and that we fought the British Empire to free it – their understanding of the Middle East conflict is revolutionized. Suddenly the Jewish people are the natives in the story and international pressure to shrink our borders is an act of Western imperialism against an indigenous population.”
HaKohen currently lives in Jerusalem but grew up in New York City and often travels to the United States to organize ZFA activities. While some mainstream Jewish groups focus on Israel's security needs, HaKohen's message to campuses is one of Jewish rights. “We must make the world understand that the Jewish nation, like any other nation on the planet, has a right to self-determination in our country. Not in half of our country, but in our whole country. We have nothing against any other peoples, but the world today has no shortage of Arab states. 77% of Palestine (the territory east of the Jordan River) was made into an Arab state, and we are at least entitled to the remaining 23% that was left us by international law to be a Jewish state. No power on earth has the moral authority to rob us of our land.”
HaKohen is no stranger to bold declarations, having repeated the same simple message on campuses across the United States and Canada. While other pro-Israel organizations attempt to rationalize or depreciate the stridently nationalistic aspects of Zionism in order to court the favor of high-profile skeptics and to make their message palatable to wealthy and influential benefactors, HaKohen says that his group has learned out of necessity to work on a shoestring budget rather than alter their message. ZFA activists take no pains in concealing their belief in the unequivocal right of the Jewish nation to the entire Land of Israel. And the movement puts forward this message in a clear and simple yet powerful language that resonates with young people across North American campuses.
The movement includes an eclectic mix of activists from various backgrounds. When asked what stream of Zionism (Religious, Socialist, Revisionist) they belong to, HaKohen calls the ZFA “Revolutionary Zionism”.
“History is full of great revolutions. And although many of these revolutions have succeeded in impacting the future course of world history, all of them pale in comparison to the Zionist revolution,” HaKohen argues. “Only the Zionist revolution aspires to ingather a scattered nation from the four corners of the earth, to revive a dead language to everyday use, to liberate a homeland from under a mighty world empire and to create a moral society that will serve as an example to the human race. Zionism is the greatest revolution in the history of man, and the ZFA sees it as our mission to drive the revolution forward.”
Having been raised and educated in the West, many ZFA leaders are sensitive to the reality of the political culture that dominates American campuses. Therefore, the movement is careful not to align with “Right-wing” campus groups, and instead targets students active with the Left. HaKohen defends this position by arguing that “there is nothing ‘Right-wing’ or ‘Conservative’ about wanting to keep our homeland free from foreign rule. If we are truly the indigenous natives in the conflict, then our cause should really be championed by liberal students everywhere. Especially since the Bush administration that occupies Iraq and imposes a Patriot Act on the American people is the very same administration pushing to ethnically cleanse the Jewish people from portions of our homeland."
It is for this reason that ZFA avoids anti-Arab rhetoric and instead focuses its attacks on Western powers and global corporations who have special interests in forcing Israel to surrender land. The group defends this position by claiming that if the Arabs remained the security problem that they are but all international pressure would cease, Israel would immediately take the necessary measures to defend herself and ensure long term survival. But if the Arabs in Judea and Samaria would somehow disappear, the Western world would most likely find another excuse to shrink and weaken Israel. The true enemy of Zionism, according to the ZFA , is not radical Islam but globalization, which seeks to amalgamate continents into unified blocks and threatens Israel’s existence as a small Jewish state situated in a mostly Arab region. ZFA activists argue this to be the true motivation behind international pressure on Israel to make concessions and that the eventual goal of Western governments is for Israel not to exist.
While this message has angered many American Jewish groups who tend to see Israel and America as allies in a global war against Islamic terrorism, it has actually earned the ZFA support from students who oppose globalization and America’s War in Iraq. And it has neutralized anti-Israel voices who accuse “Zionists” of pushing America into a war that benefits Israel. In fact, most ZFA leaders oppose the Iraq War and see it as an aggressive act of neo-imperialism. And many of the students joining the ZFA today are young Jews who view themselves on the political Left. HaKohen attributes this support not only to his group’s unique message, but also to their efforts to reach beyond the Jewish community.
Many ZFA programs, including the “Israel Liberation Week” event, is geared towards promoting Jewish rights on college campuses and educating the general student public to the justice of the Zionist struggle. “Israel Liberation Week” includes a hip hop concert (featuring Jewish and non-Jewish artists), speeches, information campaigns, historical films and an art exhibit honoring the Jewish underground fighters who were executed by the British administration during the struggle for Jewish statehood. By securing strong support from non-Jewish students on many campuses, the ZFA makes it socially acceptable and desirable for Jewish students to support the Zionist cause.
HaKohen believes that if young American liberals really understood the history and reality of events in the Middle East, they would naturally support Israel’s rights to Judea and Samaria. The problem is that the anti-Israel propaganda and often even the pro-Israel propaganda have worked to present the Jewish state as a Western power occupying indigenous Arab natives. HaKohen argues that nothing can be further from the truth. “The Jewish nation is a Middle Eastern nation and the true native sons of our land. As a result of an injustice perpetrated against us by the Roman Empire, many of us suffered a long and difficult exile. But now we’ve come home. Israel is our country and like any other people we have a right to freedom in our country.”
The ZFA chose a kafiyah (Middle Eastern head dress) with blue Jewish stars as a symbol of the Zionist revolution. The "Jewish kafiyah," as well as t-shirts and other items, will be available on the ZFA website later in July when they launch their online store.
The ZFA’s cutting edge message and methods have proven successful in taking the wind out of anti-Israel sails. But the movement is small and has been unsuccessful at persuading more established Jewish groups to follow their revolutionary lead. Therefore, says HaKohen, the movement works slowly, one campus at a time, to promote the Zionist revolution as a politically correct struggle for social justice.
For more information, visit the ZFA online at http://www.zfa.org.il