At Berkeley campus, Jewish students on far left and far right on Israel talk about their motivations

It’s March, which means the days get longer and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heats up on campuses across North America with the annual staging of Israel Apartheid Week.

Last year, pro-Israel activists countered Apartheid Week events ranging from anti-Israel speeches to the staging of mock Israeli army checkpoints with pro-Israel events on 28 campuses highlighting Israel’s diversity and progressive character. This year, more campuses are expected to join in.

One of the most politically active campuses in the nation has been the University of California, Berkeley. Last year it was the scene of a protracted debate over an anti-Israeli divestment bill that tore apart an already fractured campus community and left many students shaken, others angry and still others too exhausted to care anymore.

In recent days, JTA spoke to four Jewish student activists at Berkeley about what motivates them on Israel-related issues. The students span the political and religious spectrum, from an ardent Zionist to a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, from Orthodox to secular. They all have strong Jewish backgrounds—three are day school graduates, and the fourth is an Israeli army veteran.

Here are their stories:

Jacob Lewis, leader of Zionist student group

Jacob Lewis (Photo by Matthew White)

While 100 people chatted noisily in the crowded room at Berkeley where Arab affairs expert Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University was about to start his lecture, Jacob Lewis was off in the hallway quietly unfolding more chairs for latecomers.

That’s his style. The 20-year-old sophomore isn’t the firebrand one might expect of the president of Tikvah, an avowedly Zionist student group that broke away from Hillel three years ago because its founders thought the established Jewish student organization on campus wasn’t pro-Israel enough.

“We’re the Zionist voice at UC Berkeley,” Lewis says firmly. “We advocate for Zionism as the national movement for self-determination of the Jewish people in their homeland, Israel. We were founded because no one else on campus was making that argument. No one was standing up to the rhetoric.”

Tikvah brings pro-Israel speakers to campus. Its activists distribute leaflets next to Israel Apartheid Week events and spearhead letter-writing campaigns to protest anti-Semitism. But they also present the diversity of Israeli culture and society by hosting events like a recent demonstration of Krav Maga, a form of self-defense developed in Israel.

The point, Lewis explains, isn’t that Israel is all good, but that it’s not all bad either.

That’s his main beef not only with Israel’s detractors on campus, like the Apartheid Week activists, but also with Hillel-affiliated groups, like the one that brought to campus speakers from Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli army veterans who oppose Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Lewis said they “nitpicked details” of a very complex situation, and thereby generated anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hostility instead of thoughtful conversation.

“They make the delegitimization of Israel on campus much more legitimate because they’re seen as a mainstream group, part of Hillel,” Lewis charges of the group that brought Breaking the Silence to campus.

On the other hand, Lewis is wary of right-wing Jewish community members who spew anti-Islamic hatred at meetings attended by Tikvah students. He doesn’t want them controlling the Israel dialogue on campus either.

“We don’t believe Islam is the cause of our problems,” he says.

Referring to the adults from the larger community, Lewis adds, “When people come and talk about ‘what all the Arabs want’ or ‘this is what Islam says,’ that’s difficult for us to deal with.

“We walk a very fine line,” he acknowledges. “Different elements from the community want us to do different things. But we’re 100 percent a student organization. We don’t really care what other people think we should do. We know what we need to do.”

Tikvah exists only at Berkeley, Lewis notes.

“Berkeley is an absolutely crazy place,” he says. “The rhetoric is much more venomous. The campus is much more sympathetic to a leftist worldview. And we don’t get the same support from the Jewish community that you might get on other campuses.”

Yet Lewis chose to attend Berkeley after 12 years of Modern Orthodox day school in Chicago precisely because of the Bay Area’s diversity.

“In high school I was surrounded by people who believed like I did, but I was usually to the left of my friends,” he says. “Then I got to Berkeley and I got involved with Tikvah right away. I feel like I’m wrong no matter where I am.”

Noah Stern, student body president active in Hillel

Noah Stern (Noah Stern)

Noah Stern has many demands on his time. The 21-year-old senior is an active member of Hillel, a fraternity brother at Delta Chi—and president of the student body. Plus he tries to squeeze in a little skiing.

Stern is the third Hillel activist in 10 years to be elected student president.

“We’re all Jewish guys from Los Angeles, and all in the same frat,” he says.

As president, Stern must navigate between his responsibilities to the entire student body and his personal Jewish convictions. It was easier last year, he says, when as a student senator he could represent his own constituents during the acrimonious debate over an Israel divestment bill.

Stern voted against the bill and went on to co-author a substitute resolution that did not single out Israel. The first bill passed but was vetoed by his predecessor; the second was voted down.

Now as president, Stern is happy the issue hasn’t resurfaced this year.

“My feeling is there’s acknowledgment that perhaps the [student assembly] is not the most appropriate venue for international politics,” he says.

Stern has a fine pedigree for a student activist: His father is a Reform rabbi, his mother works for the Jewish Federations of North America, and he attended Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camp throughout his childhood. He spent a year after high school in Israel with Kivunim, a Jewish program that encourages multicultural literacy and understanding.

In the same vein, last year he and a Muslim student co-founded Breaking Bread, an organization that sponsors coexistence dinner discussions on campus. The Jewish-Muslim dinner last December focused on cultural and religious similarities rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I won’t pretend it solved the conflict, but this is how I prefer to engage with the issue,” Stern says. “In general I’m not a protester. It presents a black-and-white position on issues that are very gray.”

As student president, even if he liked holding signs on Sproul Plaza, the arena of choice for Berkeley protesters since the early 1960s, he would be enjoined from lending his voice to a particular cause.

Israel Apartheid Week doesn’t stress him out, and he’s equally sanguine about Jewish students who protest Apartheid Week events.

“These are students that believe adamantly in their causes and are visible about it,” Stern says. “That’s how we do it here. Israel Apartheid Week, Israeli Peace and Diversity Week—it’s the Berkeley way.”

For his own part, he is way too savvy to speak, or act, off the cuff.

Asked about Peter Beinart’s New York Review of Books essay, which raised establishment hackles by suggesting that young Jews don’t have the same attachment to Israel and the Jewish community as their elders, Stern says Beinart was right on.

“I don’t think the adult Jewish community is as in tune with Jewish college students as they sometimes think,” he says, measuring his words carefully. “Strategies that might have worked in the past don’t necessarily meet the needs of today’s students.”

Not all Jewish students care about Israel, Stern says, nor should they be forced to. Those who do care don’t always agree, and that’s fine, too.

“The fact that different Jewish groups with difference stances on Israel exist on campus shows there’s a need,” he says.