Opinion: American Jews need J Street

As founders and leaders of J Street U college and university chapters, we expected the hardest part of our work to be confronting issues on campus like divestment at UC Berkeley, an unwillingness to engage with Israel at Occidental, or a polarized conversation at UCLA that had grown toxic after years of enmity. But in fact, overcoming skepticism, misrepresentation and opposition to our work has proved one of our greatest challenges. And surprisingly, this has come from within our own Jewish community — the very source of so many of the values that inform our passions for Israel.

Given the growing divide between American Jewish youth and Israel, one would imagine that the Jewish community would celebrate the growth of a new pro-Israel student movement. You’d think that, when 60 of our peers from 10 campuses in Portland, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles came together at Occidental College on Jan. 29 to say together, “We are going to build a community of deep devotion and obligation to Israel,” our first West Coast student assembly would be cause for celebration in Hillels and synagogues.

But this is not the case. Many in the Jewish community question our commitment to Israel and its future. Engaging them and securing our rightful place in this conversation has proved a relentless challenge.

Confronting this reality made Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s words at our assembly so inspiring. “No matter what they do to tell you to shut up, don’t shut up,” he told us. “They need you. The Jewish community needs you. Israel needs you.”

Why do you need us?

You need us because traditional Israel advocacy no longer works. It no longer works because it fails to acknowledge the trends that imperil Israel’s future. It no longer works because it doesn’t speak to the Jewish values upon which many of us were raised: to stand with those who suffer; to “repair the world”; to examine, debate and argue with intellectual rigor and respect. And it fails, as Rabbi Feinstein put it at Occidental, “to speak the language of ethical aspiration.”

You need us because pro-Israel advocacy that does not take human rights seriously will fall on deaf ears among our peers. We refuse to ignore or dismiss a human rights catastrophe in the Palestinian territories that, were it to happen anywhere else in the world, would be denounced by Jews everywhere. We refuse to equate the entirety of the Palestinian population with its extremist fringes, just as with Israelis. We will not dismiss a system of legal inequality nor an infrastructure of military rule that denies basic democratic freedom to those who live under it.

You need us because we reject the view that peace is impossible. When our peers approach this issue and say, “Israel is too complicated,” we embrace its complexity with nuance and passion. At a time when each side says the other is no partner for peace, we believe that Israelis, Palestinians, the international community and the United States can and must work together toward a lasting solution.

You need us because, while we are idealists, we are also not blind to the threats Israel faces. Many of us have family and friends in Israel. We understand that the threats are real. Yet just as real are the facts on the ground that threaten any chance of Israel surviving as both a Jewish and democratic state. So long as Israel rules over a people that cannot vote in its elections, the promises we so admire in its Declaration of Independence ultimately remain a dream unfulfilled. We were taught to be a light unto the nations, and we believe in challenging ourselves to answer that call. It is for Israel’s sake that we address its most deep and painful flaws.

We cherish the two great Jewish achievements of our time: the birth of Israel and the success of the American Jewish community. We aim to use our power responsibly. We recognize our privilege and our obligation, and so we relentlessly defend Israel. Yet we know that the right of self-determination is valid for all or not valid at all. We demand for Palestinians the right that we defend for ourselves.

Over the last month, hundreds of J Street U students in Boston; Washington, D.C.; St. Paul. Minn.; and Chicago gathered for assemblies just like ours, and in March, more than 500 more will come to the National J Street Conference in D.C. We invite you to attend. We at J Street U are your children, friends, classmates and fellow citizens, and we are the future of the pro-Israel community. You need us. And Israel needs us all.

Ethan Weiss (Occidental College ’12), Rachael Cameron (UCLA ’12) and Simone Zimmerman (UC Berkeley ’13) founded J Street U chapters on their respective campuses.