J Street's university arm has dropped the "pro-Israel" part of the left-wing US lobby's "pro-Israel, pro-peace" slogan to avoid alienating students.
That decision was part of the message conveyed to young activists who attended a special weekend program for students ahead of J Street's first annual conference, which began on Sunday.
Students are seen as a key component of the 18-month-old organization's constituency base and the conference itself. The multi-day event has incorporated new technology and interactive forums to harness their energy and garner feedback from the audience, which swelled to 1,500 on Monday and created overflow plenary and breakout sessions.
At their earlier weekend session, the 250 participating students mapped out strategies for bringing J Street's approach to college campuses and encouraging students to join in the effort.
"We don't want to isolate people because they don't feel quite so comfortable with 'pro-Israel,' so we say 'pro-peace,'" said American University junior Lauren Barr of the "J Street U" slogan, "but behind that is 'pro-Israel.'"
Barr, secretary of the J Street U student board that decided the slogan's terminology, explained that on campus, "people feel alienated when the conversation revolves around a connection to Israel only, because people feel connected to Palestine, people feel connected to social justice, people feel connected to the Middle East."
She noted that the individual student chapters would be free to add "pro-Israel," "pro-Israel, pro-Palestine," or other wording that they felt would be effective on this issue, since "it's up to the individuals on campus to know their audience."
Yonatan Shechter, a junior at Hampshire College, said the ultra-liberal Massachusetts campus is inhospitable to terms like "Zionist" and that when his former organization, the Union of Progressive Zionists (which has been absorbed into J Street U), dropped that last word of its name, "people were so relieved."
Shechter said that J Street U allows students who support Israel to have an address on his campus, adding that nothing more to the right exists or would be sustainable and the only other Jewish student group "is decidedly not political... they won't go beyond having felafel on Independence Day."
J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami said that when it came to his organization's work with the student groups, "If the way to engage the young part of our community is to give them space to work through their relationship with Israel, then we're going to do that. We're not going to shut them out, because the only way to keep them in the community is to give them the space to work that out."
J Street itself has repeatedly emphasized the pro-Israel aspect of its identity, stressing its stand in support of Israel and the need for a two-state solution in the face of criticism that it doesn't squarely support the Jewish state.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren declined an invitation to the conference after a spokesman said some of J Street's policies "could impair Israel's interests," though several Kadima and Labor MKs have flown in to attend the Washington convention.
Ben-Ami described himself as "concerned but realistic" about the students' choice to leave out the pro-Israel piece of J Street's slogan.
He added, "Some in the community might not want to hear that this is where a lot of young people have come to, but we have to deal with people where they're at and address their concerns."
The student sessions included activism training on using the media, building campus organizations and lobbying political leaders. They also addressed issues of concern, including "Anti-Semitism and Israel," a session described as focusing on the fact that "anti-Semitism does exist, even within progressive communities we often consider our allies" and asking how open conversations can still be promoted. Another event was titled "Reckoning with the Radical Left on Campus: Alternatives to Boycotts and Divestment," and called for "developing alternative methods for change."
One participant, though, expressed surprise when the latter session shifted from the advertised topic of countering divestment to a discussion of how to effectively call for divestment from products made in settlements without a broader call for divestment from all of Israel.
The participant, who spoke anonymously because J Street only authorized J Street U's board members to speak to the media, said the students at the panel were brainstorming ways to make the nuance of their position clear from broader divestment campaigns.
J Street did not respond to a question about the session by press time, but did note that the student workshops were closed door sessions.
Ben-Ami specifically welcomed students at the opening session on Sunday night, at which Barr spoke, though the crowd was dominated by older activists, many of them long advocates of an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinians and in favor of active American diplomacy in the region.
Later, Ben-Ami described his organization's goal as one that includes changing the nature of the debate about Israel in America to one of a big-tent approach where different viewpoints and perspectives were welcomed.
"It is our goal to change traditional conversations when it comes to Israel and to broaden the notion that there is only one way to express love and concern for it," Ben-Ami said to applause. "We are here to redefine and expand the very concept of being pro-Israel. No longer should this 'pro-' require an 'anti-.'"
He read letters of support from President Shimon Peres and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, neither of whom were able to attend but both of whom expressed support for including a wide swath of American Jews in the issues connected to Israel.
"For too long, our voice - the voice of mainstream progressive Jews on Israel - has been absent from the political playing field in Washington and around the country," Ben-Ami told the crowd, noting that many have focused on other issues.
"When it comes to Israel, our voices and our positions have been drowned out by those to our right with the intensity and passion of single-issue, single-minded advocates. As we care deeply about the State of Israel and the security of the Jewish people, so too does this passionate minority," he said.
He declared, though, that "we come here to Washington, DC, to make clear to politicians and policy-makers alike that no one group speaks for Jewish Americans as a whole."
The goal, he said, was "to make our voices heard and our power felt from the corridors of power in Washington, DC, to the campaign trails in all 50 states."
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