New campus group counters J Street’s focus on politics
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New campus group counters J Street’s focus on politics

Launched this week, the student-founded Justice and Uniting the Mideast in Peace attempts to depoliticize and depolarize the liberal pro-Israel activist camp

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Illustrative photo of a November 2012 pro-Israel rally held in front of the student union at the University of Oregon. (courtesy of Oregon Hillel)
Illustrative photo of a November 2012 pro-Israel rally held in front of the student union at the University of Oregon. (courtesy of Oregon Hillel)

Liberal college students looking to express their commitment to peace in the Middle East just got a new pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian avenue. Launched June 1, Justice and Uniting the Mideast in Peace (JUMP) intends to take the polarizing politics out of the peace camp by concentrating on human rights throughout the Middle East.

The student-led initiative, set to open on some 20 campuses this fall, is founded by Boston University junior Raphael Fils, a self-avowed “Californian liberal” who feels his flavor of pro-peace activism doesn’t currently have a home on campuses.

Sure, there’s a plethora of programs already, from the conservative StandWithUS and Aish Hatorah’s Israel Hasbara Fellowship on the right, via the bipartisan AIPAC, to the liberal J Street U and extremist Students for Justice in Palestine (which has a high concentration of Jewish students) on the left.

Unlike these groups, says Fils, JUMP will contextualize the conflict — and act on many students’ impulses toward tikkun olam (roughly, making the world a better place) — while broadening its focus beyond the Israeli-Palestinian microcosm to human rights and justice in the entire Middle East.

Make no mistake: Fils has no love lost for J Street U, which has 60 chapters with some 5,000 students. He publicly denounces it and says is not a true pro-Israel group. His JUMP initiative is designed as a nonpolitical alternative for justice activists who are drawn to J Street U’s liberal line.

Controversial group J Street’s work is centered on lobbying the US government to press for negotiations toward the creation of a two-state solution. JUMP’s target is a grassroots awareness of human rights violations to create a balanced debate over both Israeli and Palestinian injustices.

JUMP founder and president Raphael Fils (courtesy)
JUMP founder and president Raphael Fils (courtesy)

“J Street is set on placing the majority of the blame on Israel,” says Fils. “We put blame on both sides and support negotiations without preconditions… Instead of placing blame and leaving it at that, we want to get to the root of the problem, which we believe is human rights. Not borders or the other issues J Street claims is the issue.”

Fils may be on to something: A May report from the Jewish People Policy Institute finds “the vast majority of Diaspora Jews feel close to Israel and hold a vision of the Jewish and democratic state that is not much different from the vision Israelis have of their country. Diaspora Jews deem it crucially important that all Israeli citizens, including those belonging to minority groups, have full rights.”

When asked about Palestinian human rights abuses, Fils cites the PA’s curriculum, which “teaches children to hate Israel and the West, and that’s a violation of their human rights to fair education.” The Israelis, on the other hand, need to work on respecting the rights of the recent African refugees.

‘JUMP is for liberal people who don’t feel comfortable joining J Street, who want action for Israel and action for human rights’

Also, unlike J Street, JUMP is not currently attempting to link itself to the Hillel International rubric and isn’t working with any other major organizations, is completely independent, and has as donors individuals whose pledges have reached some $150,000. Business students are doing the financials while a pro-bono lawyer takes care of the NGO paperwork.

“It’s for liberal people who don’t feel comfortable joining J Street, who want action for Israel and action for human rights,” says Fils.

His impetus? “Being from California, I’m really passionate about human rights, everyone being equal and stuff like that. I didn’t see any alternative that was not biased and was fair. AIPAC’s job is to focus on the American-Israel relationship, J Street is for pushing for their version of the two-state solution. There was no alternative for people who care about human rights, care about Israel, and the Palestinian people.”

Is J Street U just too political?

J Street U activist Joanna Kramer, a sophomore at Brown University, says her movement takes a more political tack than many of her “justice activist” friends may want. “Personally, I think J Street takes a more political focus, and some people aren’t comfortable with that,” she told The Times of Israel.

While she is currently working with J Street to push for a two-state solution within the American political system, “if I thought there was a faster way, I would look into that,” she says.

Brown University student Joanna Kramer leading a segment of a J Street U 101 event on campus during the fall 2013 semester. (courtesy)
Brown University student Joanna Kramer leading a segment of a J Street U 101 event on campus during the fall 2013 semester. (courtesy)

Even while growing up Kramer was an involved Jew, but she says she was taught there’s only one way to support Israel. “A blind loyalty was demanded of me,” she says, which didn’t gel with how she was raised to assess the US political situation, where she could criticize and still be a patriot

“At J Street, I could be critical of Israel from a place of love and have meaningful conversation about Israel’s existence,” Kramer says.

Not all agree, however, that the conversation the group is sparking is meaningful.

J Street U, says outspoken pro-Israel Brandeis University student Daniel Mael, a writer for the conservative Truth Revolt website, is a bunch of empty slogans and buzzwords that give students the feeling of contributing to the peace process while doing nothing.

Pro-Israel Brandeis University student Daniel Mael courtesy)
Pro-Israel Brandeis University student Daniel Mael courtesy)

“Students are so proud that they’re doing work, accomplishing something, being useful… but everything they do and what occurs, they see through ideology — the ideology of leftism.

“I think the first and most egregious offense is their leftist moral argument — the way they structure opeds and events. They say everyone else is missing something, here we are with answers because we are the home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans, saying implicitly if you’re not with them, you don’t care because you’re the traditional establishment,” says Mael.

“I am really encouraged to hear about JUMP because there’s going to be greater awareness to the human rights issues — it’s a big part of what’s going on,” says Mael.

Mael grew up in a Modern Orthodox home and studied for two years at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was on the school’s baseball team. He says after a 2012 Taglit-Birthright Israel trip organized by the school’s Chabad House, Israel became his passion. He decided to leave athletics, switch to Brandeis University and devote his time to defending the Jewish state.

According to Sarah Turbow, the deputy director of J Street U, Mael’s “lightning bolt” experience is hardly unique. At college young Jews only begin to create an independent concept of what Israel means to them.

The young Yale graduate relates an anecdote about a J Street U student whose parents are Israeli expats, who grew up speaking Hebrew, was in Israel every summer, went to Jewish day school, and Hebrew school, and developed deep, meaningful connections to the US Jewish community and Israel.

‘If you walk into Jewish institutions, you don’t see maps with the Green Line and that projects a vision of Israel that is neither true to the facts on the ground, or the potential future’

When the student began studying Middle East issues at university, she was shown a map of the State of Israel with the Green Line clearly drawn on it.

“She was 18 years old when she first saw this map and she felt she’d been lied to her entire life,” says Turbow.

“If you walk into Jewish institutions, you don’t see maps with the Green Line and that projects a vision of Israel that is neither true to the facts on the ground, or the potential future. It doesn’t prepare young Jews for the future and they grow up thinking the West Bank is part of Israel,” says Turbow.

Generation gap?

Brown University’s Kramer says she sees a lot of criticism of J Street as a generational thing, “from a time when Israel’s place in the world wasn’t as secure.”

She says that since she has seen images from the Second Intifada, she can relate to how it shaped an older generation’s views on the need to defend the country.

“I understand and empathize with that and had those urges to defend Israel while growing up. But even though Israel is still not totally secure, the level is at a point that we can start reflecting upon what we’ve done and where we are and changing policies as we move forward,” says Kramer, who was in fifth grade when the Second Intifada ended.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and director, speaking at the group’s 2012 conference. (photo credit: J Street)
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and director, speaking at the group’s 2012 conference. (photo credit: J Street)

Head of J Street Jeremy Ben-Ami is well aware of the lack of historical context for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among today’s college students. In a clip from the controversial “J Street Challenge” documentary, he tells a group, “Those younger than me, for them the reality today is of intifadas, occupation. For them, Israel is no longer the David, it is the Goliath.”

Kramer visited Israel for the first time on a Birthright trip with the Brown University Hillel this winter. She says it handled talking about “the conflict” pretty well, but that initially, seeing the six uniformed IDF soldiers who joined the trip was “really hard.”

Because she generally associates the uniform with occupation, it was difficult for her at first to converse with the soldiers. On one occasion, however, she sat and had a deep talk with a soldier in a Bedouin tent.

“We didn’t agree, and everything he was saying is what I have heard before from a right-wing American Jew, but it was different hearing it from someone who is every day putting his life on the line. He’s my age and yet he’s in a completely different situation.”

Kramer is coming back to Israel for the fall semester “to talk with more people and try to understand life on the ground a bit more.”

In the meantime, for students interested in discussing Israel a little closer to home, look for a JUMP chapter on campus this fall.

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