A conference at Columbia focused on comparing Israel to apartheid is an outrage, says Jarrod Jordan, executive director of an Atlanta-based group that promotes leadership among African-American college students.
The Students for Justice in Palestine National Conference, to be held Oct. 14-16 at the Morningside Heights campus, will feature speakers, training sessions and workshops on topics including “combating the myths of Zionism,” implementing divestment campaigns against Israel on campus, and planning for an international Israeli Apartheid Week next February.
“It’s equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan holding a conference at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a total affront to Jewish culture and identity,” said Jordan. As a result, his organization, the Vanguard Leadership Group (VLG), which identifies itself as “a leadership development and honor society for top students at America’s historically black colleges and universities,” has come to Israel’s defense.
VLG sought to run a full-page ad in The Columbia Spectator in the form of an open letter to Students for Justice in Palestine, asserting that its use of the word “apartheid” in referring to Israel is “patently false and deeply offensive to all who feel a connection to the State of Israel.”
The letter accused the pro-Palestinian group of “spreading misinformation” about Israel’s policies and fostering bias in the media by “playing the ‘apartheid card’” and seeking to associate Israel with racism.
The ad has run in the past year in the college newspapers of UCLA, the University of Maryland and Brown University, in conjunction with the pro-Palestine group holding conferences on those campuses. But The Spectator turned the ad down when Columbia was the site of the group’s conference last year, and again last week.
The Spectator's editor in chief, Samuel Roth, told The Jewish Week "the ad was rejected because our staff judged it to be political."
(The ad appears in The Jewish Week on page 21.)
A 1996 graduate of Clark Atlanta University, Jordan said VLG was founded in 2003 to train high-achieving minority students for leadership roles on campus and in careers as “global leaders.” He joined as a sophomore and is now its professional head.
Jordan noted that while resources are available for minority students with financial problems, little attention is given to minority students doing well academically and who “need to be challenged to realize their full potential in life.”
VLG has about 50 students, mostly in the Atlanta area, enrolled in its programs and about 50 alumni, Jordan said.
He acknowledges that “Israel is not a kitchen table topic in the African-American community,” but he said it is an important one, particularly in light of the strong relationship between Jews and blacks in the civil rights movement.
“We appreciate the support our Jewish friends have given for more than 100 years in our struggle for freedom,” Jordan said, “so we are helping our Jewish friends now in their time of need.”
He said VLG’s position on Israel receives much praise and support from the Jewish community, and “a lot of negativity” from elements of the African-American community. “Some people say were are selling out the legacy of African-American leadership and those who fought for freedom, but that doesn’t deter us from doing what is right.”
When AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, heard about VLG and its interest in Israel, it invited members, including Jordan, to visit Israel in 2009. He said he was “amazed” by the experience, especially by “the resilience of the people” doing their best to carry on normal lives during the Gaza war at the time of his visit.
He and VLG’s founder Darius Jones were invited to speak at the AIPAC national conference that year, and VLG students have been attending, with AIPAC’s help, since then.
VLG has been influential in the passage of legislation, first by the Atlanta City Council and later by the nearby DeKalb County Council, supporting divestment against Iran and Sudan.
An AIPAC official said the pro-Israel lobby is pleased to have an ally in VLG, but there are no financial ties between the groups, other than providing stipends to allow VLG students to attend the AIPAC conference in Washington.
Jordan said the mainstream media often portrays Israel unfairly, and VLG, in its open letter and other forums, makes the case that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, has freedom of speech, freedom of religion, has Arabs in the Knesset, and an Arab on the Supreme Court. These issues aren’t addressed by the Students for Justice in Palestine,” he said, “and they don’t talk about how Palestine would not allow Jews to be citizens,” making it an apartheid state.