J Street U Was Rejected, but It Won’t Be Silenced

Stifling debate on Israel voids the Jewish community of pluralism; this closed-mindedness will damage our community if it alienates the passionate, concerned supporters Israel so desperately needs.

Jewish folklore tells of the Golem, the Frankenstein-like creature conceived to protect the Jewish community from anti-Semitism, but whose creator loses control over this mindless brute as the Golem begins to attack the people it was created to defend. Recent events within the Jewish community of the University of California, Berkeley, have forced me to think about the Golem in relation to today's struggle among American Jews over the soul of our community.

The vote to exclude J Street U as a member group in the Berkeley Jewish Student Union, the Hillel-sponsored umbrella organization for Jewish student groups on campus, is reflective of a problem that reaches far beyond my campus. Such closed-mindedness will damage our community if it alienates the passionate, concerned supporters Israel so desperately needs.

University of California Berkley
Falcorian / Wikipedia

For this reason I am appreciative that, in the face of the JSU's decision, Hillel's board affirmed that it embraces "the wisdom of our namesake Hillel by embodying the value of an inclusive community." The international organization for Jewish students on college campuses is named after Rabbi Hillel for a reason: Hillel valued a tradition of debate, rigor, inclusion and justice. I am a proud member of Berkeley Hillel, and I am proud that Hillel stood by the values it claims to represent.

While Hillel expressed support, others seek to rid the community of anyone who rejects their narrow vision of what it means to support Israel. They are not interested in discussions about how Israel was created to be a beacon of justice and Jewish values in the world, and about whether that destiny is being fulfilled. Their only mission is to defend one vision of Israel at all costs.

They use misinformation, half-truths and slander to replace rigorous, honest debate. Rather than engaging the substance of the arguments they disagree with, they attack those who make them. They mistakenly believe that their tactics are justified by their cause. I worry that the institutions we created to defend Israel and the Jewish community are, like the Golem, destroying the moral fabric of our community. While such efforts may serve the people in power, they do not serve our community, and they certainly do not serve Israel.

One example among many is enough to show the depths to which this discussion has fallen. While J Street U's first public act on campus was signing onto a communal letter of opposition to the BDS campaign of 2010, and while no founder or member of J Street U has ever endorsed the BDS movement, and many, myself included, spoke out passionately against it, these facts have not stopped many JSU leaders from claiming that we support what we in fact oppose.

Yes, J Street and its campus arm, J Street U, engage in debates with supporters of BDS. Asking the toughest questions and having the courage to seek answers is central to Jewish tradition. Every Talmudic mahloket, or debate, lists dissenting opinions alongside the concluding interpretation. One reason offered for why the Talmud usually follows the teachings of Rabbi Hillel, not his rival Rabbi Shammai, is that Hillel's students always studied both teachings and mentioned Shammai's before their own. Jews have never been afraid of controversy. In J Street U, we welcome a diversity of opinions; for us being pro-Israel means struggling with Israel's most serious challenges today.

Those who sought to exclude J Street U maintain that the JSU vote did not seek to silence us. If it did, however, it has failed: J Street U at Berkeley is now organizing more passionately than before. Yet this vote warps the conversation, seeking to distract us from the serious challenges facing Israel and forcing us into a tired debate about who is or isn't "pro-Israel."

The challenges facing us are indeed serious. J Street U believes that the occupation is leading Israel toward disaster. We believe that issues of human rights and democracy are integral to Israel's future as the secure homeland of the Jewish people. We believe that we cannot wait for perfect circumstances or partners to change course. We believe that Israel cannot afford to shut the door on passionate supporters who are nonetheless deeply troubled by the government's policies and believe in self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians.

At a time when many in our community are worried about the connection between young American Jews and Israel, J Street U has grown from seven chapters just last year to 34 today. Clearly there is a hunger to merge concerns about Israel with a commitment to Hillel's tradition of debate and justice. Attempts to stifle our growth have only further demonstrated the importance and validity of our cause.

I fear the Golem. I fear that it will leave in its wake a Jewish community devoid of critical thought and pluralism. Worse, I fear what it will do to Israel. I fear an Israel whose only value is security, an Israel of extremist settlers and Jewish-supremacists, an Israel supported only by wealthy American hard-liners - an Israel that no amount of public relations campaigns can save.

But I have faith in the teachings of Hillel, in our community's capacity to rise to this momentous challenge. The seriousness of the issue, the urgency of the moment, and the legacy of our rich tradition demand nothing less of us.

Simone Zimmerman is a third-year undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founding member of J Street U on campus.