At Berkeley, Love of Israel Means No Fear - Except Fear of J Street

What message is Berkeley's Jewish Student Union sending if it hails Israel's democracy while refusing to accept other points of view?

One of the hardest, one of the most intimidating places in America to be a person who loves Israel, and is willing to come out and say so, is the University of California, Berkeley.

So, you might wonder why the Jewish Student Union there would want to find ways to make it even harder. But that's what they do.

This month, for the second time in less than two years, the JSU, an umbrella organization for campus Jewish groups, voted to reject a growing, vibrant, explicitly pro-Israel organization as a member: J Street U.

You might expect that JSU – dominated by Tikvah, a right-leaning group - would be averse to the idea of voting for a boycott at Berkeley. JSU knows exactly where J Street U stands on the watershed issue for Jews at Cal – one-sided and dishonest resolutions to boycott, divest from, and confer sanctions on Israel.

J Street U's courageous and well-reasoned opposition to such measures, most recently just this April - alongside its no less courageous and unambiguous opposition to Israel's occupation - has been a vital part of the broad Jewish community coalition to confront these initiatives at a bellwether of American academia.

In 2011, JSU funder and host Berkeley Hillel took the extraordinary step of publicly urging the JSU to reverse its decision and to admit J Street U. Influential commentator Jeffrey Goldberg condemned the ban on J Street U as "appalling."

JSU for its part, based its rejection on J Street U's invitations to have Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers opposed to the occupation, speak to students,

At this point, I have only one question for the members of the JSU: What, exactly are you afraid of?

That students at Berkeley will be exposed to actual, flesh and blood Israelis talking honestly about their experiences serving their country?

JSU leaders told the Daily Californian last week that the picture presented by Breaking the Silence is unfair, and that "Jewish students with connections to Israel would be alienated."

“For a lot of members," said JSU President Daphna Torbati," the (Jewish Student Union is) the only place where they can express their love for Israel because of such an anti-Israel campus climate.”

“A lot of people have said that they want the (JSU) to stay a place they feel comfortable saying they love Israel.”

Take it from someone who moved to Israel right after graduating from Berkeley, who has lived in Israel ever since, and who never stopped loving this country:

There's a reason why Israelis - not just Breaking the Silence, and not just leftists, but Israelis across the political spectrum – speak up about their army service, and about what's wrong with occupation.

And there's a reason why it's in Israel's interest – yes, in Israel's direct interest - for people at Berkeley to hear them speak.

Israel is not a fun hobby, nor a travel poster, nor a place for only like-minded people to remind each other of how right they are, and how great that is. 

The fact that former soldiers and reserve soldiers speak up, demonstrate, talk openly and in detail about what they have lived through, is one important reason that tens of thousands of young Israelis - and reservists with families - are no longer wasting precious years and risking their very lives occupying southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip for no good reason whatsoever. None at all.

These Israelis, among them those in Breaking the Silence, don't want to see Israel come to harm. They want to see Israel thrive.

"The end of Israeli occupation is not only compatible with Israel’s continued existence; it is necessary for Israel’s existence," wrote Oded Na'aman of Breaking the Silence of the JSU decision. 

All over Israel, there are people who believe that part of loving Israel, part of helping Israel to thrive, is to look with compassion and honesty at all of what Israel is and does, and help to free the country of this terrible burden, this danger, this existential threat, this occupation.

I know this because I have come to know them. I know this because I've become one of them.

What message do you send when the JSU, in hailing Israel as a democracy, cannot accept other points of view?

What meaning will it have when, this March, Tikvah, the group that calls the shots in JSU, holds a week-long Peace and Diversity Week "celebrating the many different peoples of Israel and the nation's constant quest for peace" to "remind the world that Israel is a flourishing democracy," while declaring that there's no place for the half or more of Israelis who want to see two states and an end to occupation?

This is not love of Israel. It is fear of it. Fear of looking at Israel square on. Fear of Israel in all its complexity. Fear of the opinions of others who may love Israel exactly as much as you do, but happen to disagree with you. 

The fact is, though, that in the end, your actions have only made J Street U stronger. Your actions have rendered your own organization less representative, and thus less effective. Weaker.

You've made it abundantly clear that you and the JSU can afford to do without the kind of people you might find in J Street U, or in Breaking the Silence. But Israel cannot.

Bloomberg