J Street may still be fighting for acceptance in the Jewish community almost three years after its founding, but there’s one place where that battle is over and the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group has emerged victorious: the college campus.
J Street U displayed its secure position in the established Jewish campus world today by organizing a panel at the J Street conference that included two J Street U college activists and two Hillel professionals. After an introduction by Yale senior Ben Alter, J Street U’s East Coast representative, each panelist spoke about his or her view on campus discourse about Israel. Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Hillel International’s director of campus initiatives, advocated pluralism in the campus pro-Israel conversation and stated Hillel’s much-publicized guidelines on which groups are and are not accepted in Hillel’s space. The clear implication was that J Street U, regardless of its criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights, falls within the bounds. Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, the executive director of the UC-San Diego Hillel, noted that even though Hillel does exclude certain Jewish groups (among others, JVP), every individual Jewish student is welcome in the community regardless of political affiliation. “Being part of the Jewish community does not mean you have to sign on a line that these are your values,” she said.
The J Street U panelists conveyed frustration over Hillel’s guidelines for inclusion, with one student–Princeton freshman Aliyah Donsky–noting her ambivalence about Hillel’s declaring “who was in and who was out.” Columbia freshman Cole Leiter spoke about facing tension from Hillel when the school’s J Street U chapter decided ot cosponsor a speech by John Ging, the head of UNRWA (the UN Palestinian refugee agency) in Gaza. Leiter said that the group’s board members had to sit down with Hillel staff and each state that they were Zionist, after answering a series of other questions. He added that restricting campus discourse is “un-American, undemocratic and simply not Jewish.”
But on the whole, the J Street U students seemed to have a good relationship with their respective Hillels. Donsky said that she became involved in Israel activity on campus because a staff person from her Hillel invited her to speak on a panel about the conflict. And Leiter noted that his group ultimately pulled their co-sponsorship of the Ging event because it recognized the value of staying withing Hillel’s community.
Other events speak to this recognition as well. While AIPAC won’t co-host events with J Street, a couple of months ago Leiter’s group hosted an Israel event with LionPAC, Columbia’s largest pro-Israel group. In September, Hillel President Wayne Firestone had a productive meeting with the J Street U student board.
To be sure, J Street U will face challneges in the future over its pro-Israel credentials, its commitment to regional peace or its Jewish values. Some donors to Hillel may pull their funding because of J Street U’s presence. But as it stands now, they’re in and there to stay.
This is a good sign for J Street regardless of its position on the hill. The organization has certainly placed much of its stock in college students–there are about 500 at the conference this year–and that investment looks to be paying off. We’ll see whether these student activists will end up being game changers in the American pro-Israel conversation down the line–if they aren’t already.