J Street chief Jeremy Ben-Ami.
(photo credit: COURTESY J STREET)
Since its inception, J Street has received a cold reception from the establishment Jewish community for a variety of reasons, both legitimate and otherwise. The liberal lobbying group has, at times, prioritized seeking a two-state peace over more immediate security concerns, to the chagrin of traditional pro-Israel organizations. Its ongoing campaign in favor of the Iran nuclear deal has, unfortunately, exacerbated these tensions.
This longstanding tension was underscored during an icy meeting between J Street student leaders and Hillel’s CEO, Eric Fingerhut. After encouraging J Street students to continue investing in campus anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) efforts, Fingerhut was told by J Street U’s new leader, Amna Farooqi, “We are not here to talk about the pro-Israel conversation on campus. We are here to talk about the occupation.”
Although we sympathize with J Street’s policy goals, this response strikes us as wrongheaded and counterproductive.
For J Street, and especially J Street U, a good, proactive and strategic relationship with the American Jewish community is necessary to accomplish their most basic goals. J Street U has made little secret of its strategy since the crash of the Kerry Initiative in the spring of 2014: using student activism and pressure to hold Jewish communal institutions accountable in their financial support of the settlement enterprise. This policy, adopted at last year’s J Street U Summer Leadership Initiative meeting, is a noble and worthy goal, and has already had some success in the more liberal hubs of the United States.
However, in light of the recent rise in tension between J Street and the American Jewish establishment, we worry that J Street is marginalizing itself in a way that is not productive for its underlying strategy. Instead of making unrealizable demands of the American Jewish establishment, J Street should actively seek a rapprochement with establishment groups such as Hillel. Not only will this create a better environment for progressive pro-Israel students, but it will also do more to advance J Street’s goals than its current strategy.
There are three steps can J Street can take toward a serious effort at peace with the establishment. The first is to continue its investment in the campaign against BDS. The boycott movement, typically led on campuses by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), is successfully dominating the discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the multi-million dollar efforts by establishment and rightwing Jewish organizations to combat it.
We believe BDS is succeeding because they speak in the language of the Left, which is the only political discourse that matters on the contemporary campus. J Street U students are best placed to fight BDS precisely because they are well to the Left of the average pro-Israel student. J Street should continue to demonstrate its value by seizing the initiative and crafting its own anti-BDS, pro-peace campaign.
Second, following the likely failure to override a presidential veto on the Iran nuclear deal, J Street should place itself on the forefront in pushing for improved security cooperation between the United States and Israel. In being one of the few Jewish organizations to publicly side with the administration on Iran, J Street is in a unique position to put to rest the widespread anxiety that Israel is losing its friends in the Democratic Party. A combined push for both the Iran nuclear deal along with open and enthusiastic support for increased aid to Israel could do wonders for J Street’s reputation.
Third, J Street must begin to divest itself from the Obama administration and work on formulating a strategy for the next administration, which will likely be more traditionally pro-Israel then the Obama administration has been. J Street can start by reinventing the traditional pro-Israel voice outside of Washington, a move where J Street U could be enormously helpful. We applaud J Street’s work in seeking to hold Jewish federations responsible for complicity in the occupation; however, providing more educational materials, reinventing traditional celebrations of Israel to fit a “pro-peace” line, and battling for an evenhanded conversation on college campuses could well earn J Street and J Street U the respect it deserves.
We are concerned for the future of J Street as an effective lobby for the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. Although J Street U’s frustration with the stalemate in the peace process is understandable, we urge patience and empathy in dealing with the establishment.
Abe Silberstein lives and studies in New York City. His articles on Israeli politics and US foreign policy have previously appeared in The Daily Beast, NOW Lebanon and The Times of Israel.
Josh Freedman is a former J Street U campus leader at the Ohio State University.