At a meeting Sunday that was by turns tense and respectful, J Street U students met with Barry Shrage, president of the Boston Jewish Federation, trying to persuade his organization to distance itself from West Bank Jewish settlements and make clear that the occupation is an obstacle to peace with Palestinians.
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At a concurrent event in New York, J Street U students met with leaders of Jewish groups from Philadelphia, part of J Street U’s campaign pushing for Jewish institutional transparency so that donors know if their money is going to support settlements beyond the Green Line.
The recent meetings are an indication of a growing dialogue between the Jewish establishment and J Street U, which many Jewish leaders view as instrumental in the fight against BDS on campus. In an exchange of sorts, the students of J Street U have been allowed to voice their objections to occupation and settlements and to present their campaign to prevent communal funds from going over the Green Line.
Two other groups, T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and members of the World Zionist Congress, have also recently begun efforts to press for funding transparency on the part of Jewish groups in the U.S. and Israel.
Sunday’s meeting at Harvard Hillel, which involved about 100 J Street U members from around New England, included several respectful but tense moments between student speakers and Barry Shrage, the long-time president of the Boston Jewish federation Combined Jewish Philanthropies (or CJP).
Shrage made clear, at the meeting and in a subsequent interview with Haaretz, that he regards it as a priority to include students in conversations about Israel even if he doesn’t always agree with their thinking.
“The essence of our Federation is engagement and inclusion and we're particularly interested in our college age students, many of whom are just back from Israel and feeling Jewish for the first time,” he told Haaretz. “We are always open to discussion with our very diverse student population of which J Street is a small part. Of course we won't compromise our strong support for Israel and we won't agree to anything that doesn't make sense.”
At the Boston meeting, Shrage chastised the J Street U students several times for some of the group's activities but also validated that they are pro-Israel and Zionist, and so deserve a place at the Jewish communal table.
Students at the Boston meeting talked about feeling alienated from the Jewish mainstream because being identified as a Zionist means being implicitly aligned with the Israeli government policy of building new housing for Jews in the West Bank — which J Street views as an obstacle to future peace with the Palestinians.
Concurrently, J Street U students from the Mid-Atlantic region met with leaders of Philadelphia’s Jewish community at Columbia University's Hillel in New York.
“I can’t tell you how many students have approached me worried they’ll be associated with a set of political beliefs” they don’t agree with if they’re involved with Hillel, said Joanna Kramer, president of Brown University Hillel. “I have learned in my presidency that recognizing the fact that there is an occupation, speaking openly and honestly about these issues” is needed. “I’m wondering what is preventing CJP from doing the same.”
“I don’t know how somebody can feel left out if the president of Brown Hillel is involved in J Street,” said Shrage, without directly answering Kramer’s question about making CJP’s policy more explicit.
“We don’t send money over the Green Line because it’s not the way we spend money,” Shrage said. “We cut our ties with the formal Jewish Agency, we’re disentangled from the government. Most of our overseas money goes to economic development in Haifa."
Shrage later told Haaretz that CJP shifted the way it funds projects in Israel in the early 1990s. Of the $55.7 million CJP raised last year, about $12 million went to Israel, including travel-related programs, he told Haaretz. Some $3 million went to Haifa, which is CJP’s sister city.
At the Boston meeting, a J Street U member read aloud a letter signed by 800 New England students and sent to CJP. J Street U has also solicited several hundred people, so far, at the organization’s regional meetings and at the recent Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial conference, to sign a postcard calling for transparency.
“While so many of our leaders understand the negative impact of Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank, the organized Jewish community rarely takes leadership on this issue as it does regarding other matters," J Street U’s letter says.
“In making such a statement, CJP has the opportunity to establish that it is possible to both support Israel and acknowledge that the status quo in the West Bank is simply untenable. Without such a demonstration, groups that aim to delegitimize the entirety of Israel on the basis of its ongoing settlement project only become stronger. At present, settlement expansion puts the future that we strive for in danger.”
Eliana Leaderman-Bray, a senior at University of Massachussets-Amherst and vice president of J Street U’s Northeast region, explained why the group feels it necessary for Jewish federations to take clear positions opposing the Israeli government’s policy of expanding the settlements in the West Bank. “The more the community conflates being pro-Israel with being pro-settlement, sometimes with silence, it leads to some pretty serious alienation,” she told Haaretz. “Those willing to have public conversations around BDS are hesitant to identify with the label ‘pro-Israel’ because it feels like being pro-settlement.”
“Any dissent or criticism of Israel is totally out of the question” in spaces like Hillels, she said. “That’s led students who would potentially be fighting BDS on campus to disassociate with the issue entirely.”
Shrage told students that it is not CJP’s role to convene a community-wide discussion of settlements, though, he said, he and other CJP leaders agree they pose an impediment to peace and “regularly” communicate their perspective to Israeli leaders.
As a Jewish federation “we have avery delicate role,” he told the students. “We need to be extremely careful about giving advice on matters of life and death and military matters. Where we have a duty to give advice is if the government is pushing Americans away from Israel. People are worried it provides an excuse and a rationale for anti-Israel activity that perhaps is not in Israel’s interest.”
But, he said, “Israel is a democratic country and they chose their leaders. It’s their country. If they want better leadership it’s up to them to produce better leadership.”
Shrage also chastised J Street U. “J Street should have been a little more careful about the advice it gave during the Gaza War. Sderot was bombed for 8 years before Israel took action. I’m not sure bringing Breaking the Silence around then was a good idea,” he said, referring to the organization of IDF combat veterans who speak against the occupation to student and other groups.
“The world is piling on Israel and you want to be careful not to pile on the lynch mob, which is sometimes what the world looks like,” he told students.
He also criticized the letter they read aloud, noting CJP’s policy of not spending money over the Green Line except for mental health services for traumatized Israelis who live there, just as for those who live in Israel proper.
"Since we don’t currently do any of that stuff it just seems not very meaningful to get involved in that kind of discussion that all of us feel pretty similarly about,” he said.
Nevertheless Shrage, who has been CJP president for 28 years, said, “We will present it to the board for discussion. I will come back and talk to you endlessly about the specific issues that are really at stake here, what’s really going on here.”
He said, at the meeting’s end, “I think you make occasional mistakes that are pretty egregious but I know you think we make mistakes that are pretty egregious, so we can continue talking.”
After the meeting, Shrage told Haaretz, “It’s not quite as simple as what they sayIt would be counter-productive to have a big discussion about something that doesn’t exist.”
“Somehow they got it into their collective minds that this has something to do with CJP’s allocation policies, and nothing we say helps them to generally change their minds,” he told Haaretz. “We do nothing that they disagree with. Why this ended up focusing on our allocation policy is sort of a mystery.”
The parallel Sunday meeting in New York included Dan Segal, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Philadelphia and chair of the Philadelphia regional council of The New Israel Fund. Other participants were Rabbi David Straus of Mainline Reform Temple and Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
Out of that meeting came commitments to help the J Street U students secure meetings to discuss funding transparency with the heads of UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, said Samantha Glass, a Rutgers University Junior, who attended.
J Street U declined to discuss who from the federations would participate or when the meetings would take place.
“For a student like me, who’s grown up hearing about the federation and family members who donate, if we are going to continue to be supportive of the federation and other organizations, we want to know where the money’s going,” Glass told Haaretz.