Update: I’ve issued a correction to some of the information in this post.
I’m really impressed with the passion that the leaders of J Street U bring to their work. At the student session on Sunday night of the J Street conference, they emphasized the role that students can play in the larger movement. This is very satisfying to me personally, since I’ve felt in the past that J Street U was artificially separated from J Street. Organizationally, a certain amount of autonomy is important – the kerfuffle last year when J Street U dropped the term “pro-Israel” from their name (a decision I’m still grappling with, especially due to some really good conversation on it on Sunday night) shows as much, but I’m glad that J Street U is starting to focus on what students can do to help J Street at large.
J Street U has made remarkable progress in harnessing raw activist power from its students. People spoke with real passion last night about real, substantive changes that are going on on their campuses. Having been off-campus for the past year, I sometimes felt a bit out-of-place, but I also had an outsider’s perspective, and I’ll take the liberty of employing that to offer a view of what J Street U needs to focus on moving forward.
As with any grassroots organization with a national focus, the key is organizing. Daniel May, the director of J Street U, spoke to this last night. But due largely to circumstances beyond the control of the organizers of that session, many of the students were distracted, exhausted (the session was at the end of a very long and taxing day), or just not even there. So, moving forward, we need to turn the energy that so many students working with J Street U feel into substantive policy and program proposals. I think the national leadership needs to organize talkback sessions at campuses around the country, with local J Street U chapter heads and national staff in attendance. The aim of these sessions would be to gather feedback on J Street U’s campaigns, and to help bring the student activists together in understanding of what needs to be done to effectively carry out those campaigns.
For instance, at the end of Sunday night’s session, a few minutes were devoted to a brief update from each of the J Street U national student board’s committees on their current work. While it was great to hear from them, I would have preferred a format that a) allowed each of the committee representatives more than the about 30 seconds they were each allotted for their update, and b) was more of a two-way discussion. I can identify at least one proposed/potential program that was named there that I think is just a bad idea. I don’t know the political calculus behind this proposal, but that’s exactly the point. These are conversations we need to have.
J Street U has already made incredible progress. They’ve built a functioning national leadership structure mostly from scratch, gone through some very difficult political decision-making processes, and vastly increased their membership. They’re no longer a “new” organization. As such, they (the leaders, and we, as constituents) have some big choices to make going forward. The extent to which we’re able to inspire campus activists to look beyond the next campaign, the next speaker, the next debate, and to think (inter)nationally at this moment will make or break the organization in the future.
Daniel Levy said at the conference, “There won’t be another J Street.” The same is true of J Street U. The campus Israel-Palestine activism scene is crying out for a group like J Street U. We are positioned to transform the political landscape on Israel-Palestine and more, but we’re not going to get another chance. We need to get it right now.