On Thursday, March 27, I spoke at the University of Pennsylvania at a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia- sponsored event entitled “What It Means to be Pro-Israel.” The event featured a new film called The J Street Challenge and the other speakers were Alan Dershowitz and Charles Jacobs. The following column is based on my remarks that day.
J Street U, the student-organizing arm of J Street, purports to provide a “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” on campus. But is the organization true to their slogan? As a pro-Israel, pro-peace student, I have questions.
Anti-Israel activity abounds at American universities. The BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) openly asserts its opposition to the existence of a Jewish state and often relies on academic institutions and platforms to promote its cause.
In early December, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities. At the University of Michigan last week, pro-Israel students opposing a student government resolution to divest from Israel allegedly received death threats and were called “kikes” and “dirty Jews” by backers of BDS. This resolution represented just one of 67 attempted divestment resolutions at various universities since 2010. During 2014 alone, eight divestment resolutions were introduced.
Anti-Israel groups utilize other hate-filled tactics to intimidate pro-Israel students on campus. This month at Northeastern University, the school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) posted mock eviction notices on students’ dorm rooms – a tactic used by SJP on many campuses. Allegedly a replica of eviction notices used by Israel, the notices were filled with false accusations including the charge that Israel engages in ethnic cleansing.
Subsequently, Northeastern administration suspended the student group responsible for the evictions, citing vandalism of university property and a repeated disregard for university policy.
In this climate, it becomes increasingly important that students be well versed in the facts about Israel and its history.
Now, more than ever, pro-Israel students needs the support of pro-Israel campus groups to identify and speak out against inaccuracies and injustices that they may witness on campus related to the Jewish state.
But what does it mean to be “pro-Israel” and what role should a “pro-Israel” campus group play? Being “pro-Israel” does not mean that you are in favor of every policy enacted by the Israeli government. It does not mean that you are anti-Palestinian. In simple terms, being pro-Israel means understanding and asserting the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in Israel.
Given the extent of the forces aligned against Israel on campus, you would think that a pro-Israel organization would work to enable and encourage students to stand up against those seeking to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state.
While J Street U claims to be “pro-Israel,” unlike other pro-Israel organizations, J Street does not educate or equip students to distinguish between anti-Israel propaganda and fact.
Instead, J Street U partners with some of Israel’s greatest enemies on campus including BDS activists and anti-Israel faculty. In a recent example from March 6, the J Street U chapter at Smith College co-sponsored an event with Students for Justice in Palestine and Faculty for Israeli Palestinian Peace entitled “A Forum on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.” At Washington University at St. Louis last week, J Street U initiated and hosted an event promoting a speaker from Breaking the Silence, a group that partners with BDS and claims that the IDF systematically “violate human rights.”
When the Gaza war started in 2008, J Street did not distinguish between terrorists trying to murder Israeli civilians and the Israeli military trying to stop the attacks. J Street asserted that the IDF airstrikes would only “deepen the cycle of violence in the region.” While J Street remained silent while the citizens of Sderot were shelled for eight consecutive years by Hamas rockets, on the first day of the Gaza war, J Street immediately called for a cessation of the hostilities.
According to J Street U’s website, “J Street U holds the same policy positions as J Street.” Sadly, J Street seems to focus more on educating its constituents and students about how to defend the agenda of those who seek Israel’s destruction, instead of being honest about the facts on the ground and equipping young people with the tools necessary to stand up for Israel. This is a disservice at best, and a manipulation at worst, of the students who are attracted to J Street’s “pro-Israel, pro-peace” slogan and may sign up to be members of J Street U without knowledge of J Street’s true mission and tactics.
Moreover, instead of informing students about opportunities to support and partner with the multitude of movements within Israel that advocate for peace in the region, J Street encourages students to put pressure on Israel from afar. In a campaign entitled “We Can’t Wait!” on J Street U’s website today, J Street U calls on members of Congress to support the Obama administration’s policies “even when it means publicly disagreeing with both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
American Jews and students can and should be involved in the conversation on the future of the Jewish homeland, but should this include soliciting American pressure on the democratically elected Israeli government? When is it appropriate for an organization to intrude on a sovereign nation’s right to self-rule? The bar should be very high.
Given what we know about J Street and J Street U, does the organization deserve the support and backing of the pro-Israel Jewish community? BDS, most people agree, should not be included or supported by the Jewish community. An anti-Semitic organization that opposes Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state falls outside the boundaries of our community and should not be welcomed and endorsed.
If J Street wants to use and have access to the Jewish community’s platforms and institutions, why do they continue to invite BDS activists to speak at their annual conference and co-sponsor events with anti-Israel activists on campus? It is one thing to debate a BDS activist on neutral turf; it’s another thing to lend a “pro-Israel” organization’s name, legitimacy and resources to promote the BDS cause.
Rather than call attention to the challenges and regional threats Israel faces today – including terrorism and an impending nuclear-armed Iran – J Street spends its time lobbying Congress (and asking its student chapters to do the same) against resolutions condemning incitement in Palestinian schools, opposing the introduction of a Senate bill to impose new sanctions on Iran, and endorsing the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the United Nations Security Council.
If an organization is never willing to stand up for Israel, should they still be considered pro-Israel? J Street has a right to say and do what it wishes, but if J Street wants to remain part of the pro-Israel Jewish community, shouldn’t it demonstrate willingness to at times stand up for Israel, not just for its enemies? At a time when students need support to speak up for Israel on campus more than ever, shouldn’t J Street equip and encourage students to understand the reality on the ground and at times defend Israel, not only the opposite?
The campus Jewish Student Union at UC Berkeley voted this fall to deny membership to J Street U. The bylaws of the Jewish Student Union stipulate that a member organization must not host speakers who demonize Israel. Jewish Student Union members were uncomfortable with J Street U having invited among other anti-Israel groups, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement to campus, an organization that calls for the liquidation of the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund for encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel.
While student unions have the right to decide who should be in or out of their community, J Street U remains a student affiliate group at numerous Hillel Houses around the country.
Under Hillel International’s current guidelines for campus Israel activities, J Street U cannot be barred from becoming a member. With a stated mission of “pro-Israel,” “propeace,” even if the organization is not true to this mission, it is difficult to ban the organization from Hillel entirely.
J Street takes advantage of this position – attracting students with its tagline, while not being true to its stated goals. It is therefore only through education and the creation of alternative, productive forums to engage progressive pro-Israel voices on campus that students will hopefully come to see what J Street is really about. After all, as Daniel Gordis, Senior Fellow at the Shalem College, observed: “It’s one thing to put pro-Israel in your tag line, and another to be pro-Israel.”
The author is a graduate student at Harvard, pursuing a masters degree in business administration and public policy, and is on the Harvard Hillel board.