J Street U Takes on Jewish Community’s 'Hypocrisy' on Occupation

Liberal students aim to exploit concerns about the next Jewish generation to force a candid discussion of the community’s 'moral obligations.'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A file photo showing participants at a J Street conference in Washington D.C.
A file photo showing participants at a J Street conference in Washington D.C.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

J Street U will no longer make do with “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” activities on U.S. campuses and is setting its sights on the American Jewish community as a whole. The student body of the left-wing J Street lobby group intends to act against what it describes as the community’s “hypocrisy” and to galvanize it to speak out against settlements and occupation that “endanger the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

“The Jewish community was really silent and failed to show support for John Kerry’s peace efforts,” according to Noa Fleischacker, a senior at Ohio’s Oberlin College who is J Street U’s midwest representative. “We need to put more pressure so that a message is sent on our behalf that the status quo is not sustainable and that the Jewish community does not support occupation.”

Fleischacker and representatives of about 60 other J Street U branches took part in a four day seminar over the weekend at the American Jewish University in Bel Air, California, dedicated to honing their community organizing and interpersonal skills in advance of their planned foray into mainstream Jewish communities. Their intro? They are the kind of liberal and dedicated young Jews that the community fears are rapidly becoming extinct.

“Jewish communal institutions are very concerned about young people,” according to Sarah Turbow, director of J Street U. “That’s why we are now able to engage with Federation officials who have been reluctant to talk to us in the past. It is very difficult for them to decline invitations to speak to students.”

The objective to be pursued by the students was laid out in an October 2014 J Street policy statement: to persuade American Jewish communal institutions to “speak out strongly and clearly about the danger that settlement expansion poses to Israel’s future and its place in the international community.” Among the steps the Jewish groups could take, according to J Street is “using maps of Israel that show the Green Line, providing transparent accounting of funds that pass through their accounts to the settlements, and adopting policies that prohibit funds from flowing to projects that create obstacles to achieving a two-state solution.”

The students’ first major incursion into the sometimes-forbidding world of professional Jewish organizers took place in November, when a 25-strong J Street U delegation came to the Jewish Federation of North America’s 2014 General Assembly in Washington. “It was a challenging weekend,” Fleischacker said. “We tried to bring up the question of the occupation at various discussions and forums, but with very limited results.” Her colleague Ben Poor, another J Street U board member from Occidental College in Los Angeles is less diplomatic: “The whole thing was completely hypocritical: first they say they want students and young people to talk, but when we come and talk to them, they don’t want to listen.”

The J Street board members, who participated in this interview as a group, burst out laughing when they recall a GA panel in which “the adults," as they call them, repeatedly ignored students’ strong denials and insisted, as Katherine Muller of Cornell recounted, “that there was rampant anti-Semitism on campus and that we should be afraid."

Turbow cites another GA panelist who told a J Street U participant that his views on occupation and settlements were “parochial” and represent “only two percent of American Jewish students.” But “anyone who has any experience and contact with American campuses would know that that’s not true,” she says.

To prove the point, J Street U President Benjy Cannon, who studies at the University of Maryland, cites the 2013 Pew Study on Jewish Americans that found that only 26 percent of Jews aged 18-29 believe that the Israeli government is making a “sincere effort” to achieve peace and the number is even lower for 18-24 years old: J Street U, he insists, represents the clear majority. “By not listening to young American Jews, the American Jewish community is not only doing a disservice to itself, it is actually putting Israel in grave danger,” he says. “They support negotiations as long as things are going well but once the talks break down they revert to blaming the Palestinians and absolving Israel of any responsibility. They show a total lack of understanding of what it means for the moral state of our community that we choose to support the status quo.”

Catie Stewart from Brandeis University points to the “frustration” she feels at the fact that the community “throws its progressive values out the window” when it comes to Israel. “I went to the GA to confront the fact that not only do they not care about young people, they don’t care about young people who try to explain what young people are thinking about the things that are most crucial to the future of the Jewish people.”

“But dialogue is not the end game for us,” Poor adds. “We want to end the occupation and we want the American Jewish community to stop its support for the occupation. They think that the reason that young people are not engaged is a matter of packaging and PR, but it’s not: it’s the policies itself.”

Fight against BDS

The students, in fact, are concerned that they have been spending far too much time and energy on “dialogue” and on gaining an entry ticket to the proverbial communal “tent” in places such as Hillel branches on campus and, in the outside world, to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which rejected J Street’s membership application in April 2014. “We’re not focused on whether the Jewish community is open or exclusive: we want to influence its actual positions” says Stewart.

And they are increasingly apprehensive that the discernable thaw in the community’s attitudes towards J Street U in the past two years is only because the group is increasingly being viewed as an effective ally in the fight against the boycott Israel movement known as BDS.

“When BDS first came to our campus,” Katherine Muller of Cornell recounts, “the right-wingers asked us to help. We were excited, but that was that: we defeated BDS and then the dialogue was cut.” The students’ cite a speech recently given by Hillel President Eric Fingerhut - not one of their favorite Jewish leaders, to say the least - who told Hillel’s First International Global Assembly that “on many campuses, students from J Street U have also joined in the coalition against BDS,” but made no more mention of the group one way or another.

“That offends me,” Cannon said. “We’re not here to fight BDS, but to ensure that Israel has a Jewish and democratic future. The battle against BDS is not an end for us, only a means.” They are also put off by Fingerhut’s attacks on BDS supporters as “morally and intellectually bankrupt”: “It’s the way American Jewish leaders deliberately prevent any conversation with those who think differently,” Poor says, “by intimidating.”

“I think the far left and Fingerhut are similar in that way – they make the attack the issue. That’s what’s most frustrating,” says Amna Farooqi, a first generation Pakistani-American Muslim from Potomac, Maryland who is a member of the J Street U board. Gabriel Erbs of Portland State University concurs: “The right says that if it even smells like BDS from a million miles away we’re not going to touch it and people who favor Palestinian solidarity tell you were not going to be with you if you don’t support BDS. And all of this is just a distraction from the two-state solution.”

Attacked on all fronts

Increasingly, J Streeters are getting attacked from both sides: they are too Zionist for leftist purists, too leftist for right-wing ideologues. The left accuses them of enabling the occupation; the right describes them as collaborating with enemies. But all of this has not prevented them – and in fact may be helping them – to grow at what they describe as a dramatic pace: at the upcoming J Street conference in Washington in March they hope to bring up to a thousand student delegates. Turbow says there are many campuses on which J Street U is “by far the largest Jewish group”: she cites Berkeley, Maryland, Michigan and North Carolina, among others, as universities in which J-Street’s presence is especially large.

But the J Street students’ confrontations do not necessarily stop at campus’ edge: even those who come from liberal backgrounds often encounter sticky situations back home. “There are very few members who go back home and are congratulated for being involved in J Street U,” Stewart says drily. “Even if it’s alright with your family, it gets more complicated with the community at large. And some people are told by their families not to bring up politics or their activities in J Street when they’re on vacation in a family dinner.”

How do you answer the claim, that you must hear often, that Israel is not to blame because there is no Palestinian partner for peace, I inquire. “We disagree,” says Muller flatly. She recounts her excitement at hearing Mahmoud Abbas’ speech in September at Cooper Union in New York in which he explicitly mentioned the contribution of J Street U. “That meant a lot to all of us in the room,” she says.

“But even if there no partner,” adds Stewart, “there is still the overriding problems of settlements and occupation and the moral character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” And Cannon adds, “We’re looking for responsibility. It’s not enough to put your hands in the air and say well there’s no partner so well just stay here and watch Israeli democracy burn. We want the Jewish community to be productive and useful and morally righteous player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he adds.

Most of the board members have spent significant amounts of time in Israel or are otherwise involved with their Jewish identities. I ask them whether they consider themselves Zionist, and they all laugh at my ignorance and answer in the affirmative, though they clarify that “we are engaged now with achieving a two-state solution for both Israelis and Palestinians, not with Zionism.” I ask them whether they are all pro-Israel, and they nod without hesitation or qualification. Of course they’re pro-Israel, otherwise why spend so much time and energy on J Street U?

And then I ask myself what kind of destructive virus has entered the bloodstream of Jews around the world that would induce life-seeking and otherwise liberal communities to rebuff these energetic, youthful, dedicated, well-informed, idealistic, and possibly, but wonderfully, nave young adults. I am at a loss, but Cannon helps me out: “It’s because by acknowledging us, they acknowledge the need to talk about the occupation; they admit that they are not living up the values of their own community. And they’d rather not face that.”

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