The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the first pro-Israel group to be organized in the U.S., was founded in 1897. ZOA’s stated goals are to educate the public, elected officials, the media and college and high-school students about Israel’s challenges with the hostile countries that surround it; to promote strong relations between the U.S. and Israel; and to protect Jewish college and high-school students from harassment and discrimination.

Recently a group of Israel supporters gathered in Brookline to lay the foundation for a Boston chapter of ZOA. Rabbi Jonina Pritzker, ZOA executive director of Boston, is leading the effort. Describing herself as “a former pulpit rabbi,” Pritzker said, “I do have a pulpit; it’s a Zionist pulpit. We need a place to be able to talk about our Zionism.”

Pritzker offered the group a brief history of the founding of the State of Israel. In the modern era, Jewish rights to the land were codified in international law through a binding agreement regarding the future of the Ottoman Empire at the San Remo Conference held in Italy in 1920. The San Remo Conference was an international meeting held after World War I to determine boundaries for territories captured by the Allied forces. “They reconstituted what was the Jewish homeland, including what is now Jordan, the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria, the native land of the Jewish people. You can’t occupy what’s yours legally, religiously and historically,” said Pritzker. She also pointed out that the League of Nations validated the San Remo Conference, as did U.S. President Warren G Harding.

Pritzker went on to explain that in 1945 the United Nations took over the obligations of the League of Nations, committing themselves to the obligation to support the establishment  of a Jewish homeland in the native land of the Jewish people.  “There are always those who seek to deprive Jews of their native homeland,” said Pritzker. “We have to will our hearts and minds to speak the truth. No one hears these facts.”

Rabbi Pritzker then introduced attorney Susan Tuchman, director of ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice. Much of Tuchman’s work involves helping Jewish college students who experience intimidation and discrimination on campus and in classes. “It’s an abomination that Jewish students who support Israel feel scared. They are verbally and physically harassed. Jewish students have been told they can’t serve in student governments.” Pro-Israel speakers and programs have been overwhelmed by violent protests and in some cases shut down.

Tuchman’s on-campus work began with what she called “the horrifying situation at UC Irvine.” The Muslim Students Organization hosted programs and speakers that demonized Israel. “They called Zionism ‘America’s disease,’” said Tuchman, “and portrayed Jews as Satan and as Nazis.” She talked to Jewish students who were afraid to wear a kippah, to admit to being pro-Israel, to go to Hillel events or to be identified as Jewish. There were threats and in some cases physical assaults.

Starting in 2010 Tuchman fought for the rights and safety of Jewish and pro-Israel students through Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “If you receive federal funds, and all schools do, you can’t discriminate in any of your activities and programs,” said Tuchman. “The U.S. Office of Civil Rights had not been protecting Jews historically. This was a groundbreaking case, the first case investigated by the U.S. government that dealt with campus anti-Semitism.” After a six-year battle, ZOA won the case. “The result was a Dear Colleague letter to campuses explaining that anti-Semitism was not allowed,” said Tuchman. “But it is still a tremendous challenge to get the government to enforce the law.”

ZOA also stepped in to support a Northeastern University student in a case of what Tuchman called “inside-the-classroom anti-Semitism.” The case involved a professor who would not accept a student’s paper that asserted that Hamas is a terrorist group. “When other groups are targeted, the government jumps in; with Jews they say it’s a First Amendment issue.” Tuchman is still actively working to make sure that Title VI is enforced. “ZOA needs to have a presence in the Boston area,” she asserted.

At the end of the program Rabbi Pritzker told the group about ZOA’s annual lobbying mission on Capitol Hill, during which ZOA members meet with legislators to lobby for Israel’s security. Participants also meet with ZOA members from around the country to discuss related issues. This year’s mission takes place on May 9, and student discounts are available.

For more information on ZOA and the May 9 mission, visit zoa.org or contact Rabbi Pritzker at jpritzker@zoa.org. For information on ZOA Campus, visit campus.zoa.org or contact Susan Tuchman at stuchman@zoa.org.

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