As a student leader of J Street U, I was really looking forward to my first national conference in DC. Now that the conference has come and gone, I head back to campus feeling inspired and exhausted. I also feel motivated to try and figure out how to improve our organization in light of new challenges that became more evident at the conference.
Some major developments took place:
Just generally, the fact that over 650 students showed up, making up a quarter of the conference’s entire turnout is incredible. Over 125 campuses were represented, which is a testament to J Street’s message resonating with students all across the country.
At college all the time we hear from certain Pro-Israel advocates about how there simply is no partner for peace. How the failure to reach a peace agreement is completely at the fault of the Palestinian people. It was refreshing to hear Israel’s current President, Shimon Peres, say unequivocally to 2,500 of us that not only are most of the Palestinian people and the heads of the Palestinian Authority convinced that peace is the best answer, but that peace is achievable.
Likewise, hearing from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that, “There is a partner for peace. Don’t tell me there is no partner,” was important and motivating. He argued that his many lengthy meetings with Mahmoud Abbas affirmed his belief that the Palestinian Authority renounces violence and desires peace.
Beyond Peres and Olmert, the list goes on. We heard from Knesset members. Israeli social activists. Members of the Obama administration. American military experts. And what I’m most proud of the conference for is that while of course the threat of Iran’s nuclear developments was rightly discussed and debated, the urgency and importance of a two-state solution was brought back to the forefront of the conversation of Israel’s security and safety—which has been drowned out in recent months by other issues.
So what could be improved about the conference?
I realized after these past few days that a real challenge J Street U faces and needs to learn how to handle as we move forward and grow as an organization is how we strike the balance between our essential Jewish community involvement and also engaging with those who do not feel as emotionally tied to the Jewish community.
J Street U was founded in 2009, and while there were 7 chapters in September of 2010, 38 chapters exist officially today, with a dozen more currently in the process of becoming official. At J Street U’s conception, there was a lot of backlash from individuals within the organized campus Jewish community who doubted J Street U’s Pro-Israel commitment. J Street U was branded as “bad for the community.” Because of this, J Street U has made many attempts to say to the Jewish community that not only are we committed to peace, justice and security for the state of Israel, but we also believe a refusal to engage with us is antithetical to Hillel’s message of pluralism.
And J Street U, in my opinion, is succeeding in this regard. The strong and respectful persistence of J Street U leaders on campuses to meet with their Hillel staff and other Pro-Israel leaders is proving to yield results. So many members of J Street U are campus Jewish leaders in their community in other ways too, from interns to religious chairs to LGBT activists. Major publications have written about our fight, ranging from Haaretz to the Atlantic. The fight for acceptance within the Jewish community is one that is really being recognized.
But what we’re realizing now is that while the fact that more than half of the major leaders in J Street U are graduates of Jewish Day Schools and Jewish summer camps is a truly great strength, it can also at times be a source of weakness.
The 2 and a half hour J Street U session presented student after student making speeches that explained what brought them to the organization—be it their strong Jewish background, their commitment to Jewish values, or their love and devotion for the state of Israel and its future. The student session featured Hillel leaders, Israeli international students and other respected Jewish activists.
We know based on polling and experience that the majority of young Jewish Americans align themselves politically with J Street U. They believe in open discourse and debate, they don’t believe that to support Israel means you must support every policy of the current Israeli government. They want to see justice and human rights guaranteed for Palestinian people and they want to see a secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. We know this.
We also know that the majority of young Jewish Americans do not attend Jewish day school and are not involved in organized Jewish Establishment life.
I went to public school. I went to a non-religious, sports-oriented summer camp for eight years. But my public school was over 60% Jewish, as were the majority of campers I spent my summers with. These are the types of Jews I now regularly engage with on my campus for my peer-network engagement internship. These Jews appreciate Jewish culture and ideas. They feel comfortable and enjoy spending time with other Jewish people. They have special affinities for social justice causes. But they aren’t cheerleaders for the Jewish community itself; they rarely go to Hillel and they feel no particular connection to it.
The student session struggled in this regard. I spoke to students after who felt alienated by the large presence of Jewish community leaders representing the face of J Street U. It made them question whether they belonged there at all because they didn’t have the same sentiments as the speakers.
I know they belong. We at J Street U know they belong. People come to J Street U for all types of reasons—among them, humanistic, religious, political, pragmatic, and intellectual reasons. And all of those reasons should be given due attention. I think we’ve definitely reached a point where we can worry less about what “the haters” might say, and make more concerted efforts to demonstrate the other important and integral voices of our organization too.
I know we will, and I’m excited for the future.