'Traditional forms of Israel activism never really worked'

How ‘controversial’ J Street U keeps liberal Jewish students in the fold

For young Jews looking for something between disaffiliation and traditional advocacy, the progressive campus group is an increasingly important home for engagement on Israel

Students pose with signs at J Street U's West Coast workshop, a gather of top West Coast leaders for training and strategy meetings on UCLA's campus. (courtesy)
Students pose with signs at J Street U's West Coast workshop, a gather of top West Coast leaders for training and strategy meetings on UCLA's campus. (courtesy)

To celebrate Israel’s Independence Day two years ago, Jewish students at Stanford University decided to throw a party in the center of campus.

“It made sense to have one day to just celebrate Israel,” said Eva Borgwardt, a Stanford junior.

But the event’s festive mood quickly soured when Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) showed up to protest the event marking Israeli Independence Day.

“[SJP] did a ‘Die In.’ They wrote things about colonialism on their shirts and then lay on the ground and pretended to be dead,” Borgwardt said.

The students throwing the party didn’t know what to do.

“‘Should we continue, should we stop?’” Borgwardt recalled the organizers debating, eventually agreeing to ignore the protesters.

Soon, Jewish students were dancing the hora amid the “dead bodies” to the tune of “Hava Nagila.”

This Thursday, May 12th, on- and off-campus organizations sponsored an “Israel Block Party” on the Stanford campus to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. Students for Justice in Palestine chose to disrupt this event with a “die-in” in order to call attention to the fact that for Palestinians across the world – including students on this campus – the founding of the State of Israel is not an event to be celebrated, but rather a tragedy that resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the majority of the Palestinian population from what is now Israel. Those at the party both disregarded the protest and disrespected the Palestinian lives protesters represented. In the war of 1948 by which the State of Israel was established, 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what became Israel. After the war, those who had fled were barred from returning simply based on their non-Jewish identities, a historical injustice that to this day has not been rectified. Today, many Palestinian refugees retain the keys to their homes or to the homes of their parents and grandparents, even though most of those homes have been destroyed by the State of Israel.The founding of Israel was catastrophic for the Palestinian people. To celebrate such a tragedy with a foam machine, a DJ, and henna tattoos is disrespectful, distasteful and culturally appropriative, as well as unhelpful in promoting positive discourse on the Israel/Palestine issue on campus. We would have hoped that out of respect for the seriousness of what took place in 1948 and the negative consequences it had for hundreds of thousands of people, as well as in the spirit of open academic debate, the groups responsible for this event would have treated this day with more respect and chosen to instead sponsor a panel or discussion that might have promoted dialogue on a highly contentious issue.

Posted by Stanford Students for Justice in Palestine on Thursday, May 12, 2016

The following day no one remembered the foam machine or the shawarma. Indeed, all that was memorable was the Facebook video documenting the dancing spectacle, which Borgwardt saw students circulating in class.

Frustrated by the incident, Borgwardt turned to J Street U, a campus organization she was involved in, to get involved in planning future activities.

J Street U is the campus branch of J Street, a self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” liberal Washington, DC-based lobby organization which advocates for a two-state solution. There are currently 60 J Street U campus chapters nationwide and over 1,000 student activists attended J Street’s national conference in the nation’s capital in mid-April.

From that incident, Borgwardt and her J Street U chapter realized that they needed to take a more active role in planning future pro-Israel events to prevent such episodes.

The following year, thanks to J Street U’s input, festivities were held instead at Hillel, and involved a discussion on different Jewish and Palestinian experiences in 1948. The event culminated with the local SJP leader walking into Hillel — after lightly protesting outside — and joining in on the conversation.

This year to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, says Borgwardt, the pro-Israel coalition opted to have a party on campus as it did two years ago. As such, J Street U, which had suggested an event similar to last year’s Hillel discussion, chose not to co-sponsor.

Alongside the festivities, an anti-Israel demonstration hosted by SJP and Jewish Voices for Peace also took place, though it was not as disruptive as the one two years ago, Borgwardt said.

Not always accepted at the grown-ups’ pro-Israel table, J Street U has positioned itself as a home for progressive pro-Israel students on campuses across the US. And as a bridge in today’s increasingly polarized climate, the presence of the left-leaning organization may only become more crucial.

What the traditionalists don’t get

J Street U and its parent organization J Street are not universally appreciated within the pro-Israel community, as exemplified by US Ambassador David Friedman’s comments at the AIPAC policy conference in March.

“Saying that you are pro-Israel and pro-peace is disingenuous,” Friedman told the 18,000-strong crowd in a dig at J Street whose motto is “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”

“Using that phrase suggests Israel is not pro-peace. Saying pro-Israel and pro-peace is a redundancy,” Friedman continued. “If you support Israel, you support peace, and it’s dangerous to suggest otherwise.”

Adam Basciano is the young adult coordinator for Israel Policy Forum, an organization that does advocacy, education and policy research on how to create a two-state solution in the Middle East. According to Basciano, particularly when it comes to the younger generation, discourse on Israel requires more nuance than the message, “If you support Israel, you support peace.”

Students understand that not acknowledging Israel’s complications “is not a realistic way of talking about Israel, let alone advocating about Israel,” Basciano said.

Pro-Israel students who hesitate to publicly critique Israel are placed in the increasingly complicated position of defending a right-wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seen to be in close alliance with President Donald Trump. By extension, the Israeli government appears to be connected with the president’s policies and statements against minority groups, and aligned with the alt-right.

This is not a popular stance to take on college campuses today, where just 18% of students feel positively towards Trump, according to the Panetta Institute.

A depiction of Donald Trump kissing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drawn on the security barrier in Bethlehem. (AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER)

This strained political reality is seen as one of the reasons why a growing number of young Jews are distancing themselves from Israel.

According to the San Francisco Jewish Federation’s new study, only 11% of American Jews ages 18-34 said they were “very attached to Israel” and a recent study coming out of Stanford found that Jewish students on California campuses are uninterested in engaging in debates around Israel and resist the “pro-Israel” label.

Referencing this study, Dr. Steven Weitzmann, a professor of Jewish and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “I think that [students’ growing disengagement from Israel] along with the fact that some people are now avoiding the subject because it is so controversial means that people don’t have opportunities to learn about Israel so there is a rising illiteracy about Israeli culture, Israeli society, the political conflict and other issues that Israel faces.”

Weitzmann also noted that “J Street U is trying to be a middle ground. Depending on the campus, I think they’ve made some progress along and some Hillels have taken some steps to try to include them more.”

Logan Bayroff, J Street U’s communications director, said his organization, instead of offering platitudes, is engaging with a generation of Jews who are uncomfortable with Israeli policy and put off by more mainstream pro-Israel discourse.

David Halperin, executive director of Israel Policy Forum agreed, saying,“I think the existence of J Street U is providing a platform for those sorts of students to engage, versus disengage from the discourse altogether [and] is actually quite important.”

The progressive middle ground

Stanford University’s Borgwardt, who now serves as J Street U’s vice president of the Northwest region, counts herself as one of those students who wouldn’t engage with Israel if not for J Street. Borgwardt said her initial distaste for Israeli policy grew from high school involvement with Black Lives Matter protests through her synagogue.

“I saw the connection that was being drawn in those protests to things that were going on in the West Bank,” she said.

This realization, Borgwardt said, “pushed me away from Judaism and Israel and then J Street U was what brought me back.”

Stanford activist Eva Borgwardt speaking at a J Street conference. (Courtesy)

Borgwardt said her trajectory is very similar to other J Street U activists.

“What J Street U is offering, which I think is helpful in this climate, is to say, ‘Hey look, you can be pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian at the same time. Here are concrete things you can do to express those values,’” she said.

According to Catie Stewart, deputy director of J Street U, the organization does not support Israel Apartheid Week or BDS campaigns and joins anti-BDS coalitions.

Borgwardt said that openly distinguishing one’s pro-Israel beliefs from the Israeli government isn’t weak public relationsbut a requirement to transparently engage with students. It is a particularly relevant distinction to make when BDS or Israel Apartheid Week comes to campus, Borgwardt said.

“For the majority of students on campus, BDS is about the occupation, and if we’re doing things to address the occupation, that’s extremely helpful in terms of acknowledging what is at the core of [pro-Palestinian students’ grievances],” said Borgwardt.

According to Israel Policy Forum’s Halperin, progressive, pro-Israel students such as the ones J Street U attracts can be the most effective in combating anti-Israel activity.

“Where we have growing concerns in terms of growing anti-Israel sentiment on campus is in the stridently progressive student circles. So if there are students who typically align with progressive policy circles or who can make a progressive case for Israel, it’s more credible,” said Halperin.

“J Street U and different progressive groups actually prove to be the most effective advocates against these types of initiatives on campus,” he said.

Nuance as a pro-Israel strategy

Today, a pro-Israel campus strategy that fails to acknowledge certain complexities is not a strategy at all.

A J Street U demonstration at Stanford University protesting potential demolitions in the West Bank. (courtesy)

As Ben Gellman, a senior at Johns Hopkins University and vice president of J Street U’s Southeast region, put it, “More traditional forms of Israel activism never really worked and definitely are not working now. People our age — they know about the Occupation, they know about the human rights abuses, they know about the West Bank and what a horrific situation it is in Gaza right now — and they aren’t satisfied with talking about how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and has all of these gay clubs in Tel Aviv,” he said.

Gellman said J Street U’s current nationwide campaign focuses on stopping demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank through raising awareness and pressuring the US government to act, particularly in the Palestinian village of Susya where Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that residents don’t have proper building permits.

Summing up J Street U’s strategy and why it resonates with young pro-Israel activists, Gellman said, “I want to make this about Occupation before the left wing base makes this about Israel.”

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