J Street U brings pro-peace, pro-Israel message to Wellesley
Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 22:02
On Sunday, Feb. 12, a group of more than 80 students from across New England gathered at Brandeis University to promote a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Organized by J Street U, a student-run network of young Jewish and non-Jewish activists who champion a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the event was entitled "The Future of Pro-Israel." Recently, J Street U has grown in prominence on college campuses throughout the nation. Although the Wellesley College chapter of J Street U is still in its fledgling stage, the organization was able to send a seven-member delegation to the event.
"I think that overall, the assembly was a huge success," Ariel Robinson '13, founder and co-president of the Wellesley College chapter of J Street U (WCJStU), said. "We reached our goal for attendance. We had some really great conversations with leaders and with our peers in the community who are also interested in finding a peaceful, sustainable solution to the conflict."
Back in 2004, left wing Israelis and their American sympathizers founded J Street U under the name Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ). The organization was created to provide a forum for college students who wish to engage in an open conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without feeling stigmatized for critiquing the traditional "Israel or bust" stance. UPZ became the J Street Education Fund, Inc. in 2009, and the branch of the organization that was responsible for on-campus activities is now known as J Street U.
"J Street U aims to provide a space where students can learn about and discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and where those who choose to can become effective activists for stronger U.S. involvement in promoting a two-state solution," Robinson said.
"J Street U offers a space for nuanced conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a forum in which to translate principles, like the importance of a Jewish and democratic Israel [or of] human rights and self-determination, into action," WCJStU's co-president, Hayley Malkin '13, echoed.
The assembly featured an array of student speakers and activities. Students were also given time to have one-on-one conversations with their peers.
During the first conversation, students were asked to share the reasons behind their commitment to J Street U. Becca Lucas '14, a member of WCJStU, shared her story with a student from Tufts University. "I grew up in a really progressive community, but Israel was one of those things where values such as ‘ask questions' and ‘figure it out' just disappeared," Lucas said. Lucas went on to describe an accepting community and family life that was not so accepting of a dissenting dialogue on the issue of Israel.
Dan Resnick '12, the Tufts student with whom Becca spoke, sympathized with her belief. "The funny thing is, in Israel, the dialogue about this issue is a lot more open than it is here [in the United States]." Resnick, who was born in Israel, added, "A lot of the grayness of the Israel-Palestine issue goes away when you're farther away."
Conversations similar to this one filled the room until three J Street U students took to the stage to co-moderate a panel with Larry Sternberg, the Director of the Brandeis Hillel, and Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Saini in Brookline, Mass., about their perspectives on J Street U's involvement in the movement toward a pro-Israel state.
In answering student questions, both Sternberg and Vogel shared personal anecdotes about their commitment to Israel and emphasized the importance of student activism in promoting a solution to the political issue.
"You're a bridge to Jews and a bridge outside the Jewish community," Sternberg said. "And no one does it better than passionate students informed by values."
Vogel reiterated Sternberg's points, while also emphasizing that students should make stronger attempts to learn more about Israel's past.
"Knowing your story, understanding where you come from, understanding your values and understanding your vision—I think that's really important," Vogel said. "Part of being pro-Israel is knowing the story of Israel's founding."
In his responses to student questions, Sternberg stressed the idea of balancing pro-Israel support with political pluralism. "A community that is at war with itself is not a community that anybody wants to join," Sternberg said. "There are substantial elements in Congress and within the [Obama] administration that already align with the J Street solution."
According to Robinson, Wellesley's chapter of J Street U also prioritizes the importance Sternberg places on non-polarizing discourse surrounding Israel.
"People are entitled to their own opinions; all we ask is that everyone treats each other with respect," Robinson said. "One thing J Street U really values is an open dialogue and conversation, which means there's room for people with all sorts of different opinions."
As for the future of WCJStU, Robinson and Malkin are hopeful. Malkin describes the organization as "growing," but Robinson states that she wants the organization to gain strength before they begin focusing on gaining new members.
"We've had a number of students express interest in our work, as well as support of it," Robinson said. "Right now, though, because we're so new, we've been working on solidifying our internal structure, rather than trying to expand our reach."
Robinson also underscored that J Street U is open to all Wellesley students, not only the Jewish community at the College. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is relevant to people other than Jews," Robinson said. "It is an important factor in American foreign policy, and affects internal politics in the nation as well."