Welcome to the Conversation: A Guide to Left-Wing Israel Organizations on Campus

The first time I encountered a progressive view about Israel was when I went on my first college tour at the age of 16. On UC Berkley’s campus, across the Bay from my house, I noticed small black flags planted in the grass. A sign informed passersby that these flags represented the movement for justice in Palestine.

“I did not receive a balanced picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Hebrew School.” | [Public Domain], via Wikimedia

I felt like somebody had slapped me. Until that point, I had no clue that there was a pro-Palestinian movement in the United States.

As I wrote in September, I did not receive a balanced picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Hebrew School. I had only absorbed right-leaning, pro-Israel opinions. When I showed up at college, I found I did not have enough information to engage in thoughtful discussion on the topic – and I know that many Jewish students have a similar experience.

Luckily, college is an excellent opportunity for students to learn about Israel-Palestine on their own terms, and there are campus organizations to turn to for left-wing perspectives on Israel.

To help left-curious Jews who are new to the campus conversation, I’ve highlighted four groups (J Street U, JVP, Open Hillel, and SJP) that I wish I’d known more about before coming to school, groups that show progressive views on Israel can be part of a modern Jewish identity. I interviewed a student leader in each organization and asked them to describe the most exciting and challenging aspects of participating in their club. I also asked them to debunk some of the preconceived notions Jewish students may have about their organizations. While students emphasized that these organizations manifest differently at different schools, they shared ways their specific groups personally impacted their Jewish lives in college.

J Street U

Students should know that J Street U…

  • supports a two-state solution
  • is not a Jewish group. (Though many members are Jews, the “J” actually doesn’t stand for Jewish. “J Street” is named after a missing street in D.C.’s grid system, implying that the capitol lacked a progressive Israel lobby .)
  • publicly does not support BDS, though individual members take different stands on the subject
  • welcomes students who identify as Zionist as well as students who don’t
  • offers students opportunities to attend national conferences and leadership workshops

Ophir Gilad, Macalester College Class of 2019

Ophir Gilad has been involved in J Street U since she started college, serving as co-chair and working with the national organization, because she wanted to organize the American Jewish Community around a two-state solution.

Gilad said her favorite thing about J Street U is the community she has found there. She described J Street U as “a space for college students who are interested in this conflict to both learn and organize around it.”

J Street U also has its challenges. Because it’s connected to a larger lobbying organization, J Street, Gilad sometimes feels like their work has to pass an extra layer of red tape. “My least favorite part of J Street U is probably the bureaucracy that we need to go through, especially with J Street as out ‘parent’ organization,” she said. “It comes with some perks to be associated with J Street, especially in terms of credibility and funds, but can be really frustrating to work with.”

J Street U offers students a variety of ways to get involved. “[Student can be involved in] anything from signing petitions to meeting with communal members,” she said. J Street also offers educational programming, like a course called “Occupation 101,” to introduce students to the conflict.

Jewish Voice for Peace

Students should know that JVP…

  • does not take an explicit stance on a one or two state solution
  • fully supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS)
  • does not take an official stance for or against Zionism
  • has both Jewish and non-Jewish members
  • hosts educational events for students to learn about the Occupation, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and more
  • plans actions and demonstrations

Em Wilder, Stanford University Class of 2020

Em Wilder identified JVP at Stanford’s mission as three-fold: “To be an explicitly Jewish voice in active support of and solidarity with Palestinian liberation and liberation of every oppressed and colonized people; to be an organizing space for progressive Jews who may find themselves unwelcome, discouraged, or prohibited from existing Jewish communities [and] institutions because of their critical perspectives on Israel and Zionism; and to be a community in which Jewish students can comfortably and critically engage with and explore the questions surrounding Israel.”

Wilder said her favorite aspect of JVP is its diversity of members and perspectives. “I also love that we keep each other accountable to questioning and challenging our own politics,” she said.

But Wilder sometimes wrestles with JVP’s reputation in the wider Jewish community. “It can be very painful and difficult to be… unwelcome in many institutionalized and mainstream Jewish spaces because we demand more and better,” she said.

Wilder also emphasized that JVP has been a valuable community for her in college. “As a queer, leftist, Jewish student, I expected to feel very isolated from the broader Stanford Jewish community,” she said. “But after I discovered and helped build an alternative community of Jews, it really became my support system in exploring the causes I already cared deeply about.”

Open Hillel

Students should know that Open Hillel…

  • does not seek to replace or compete with existing Hillel chapters on campus, but rather asks chapters to “open” themselves up to more diverse perspectives
  • does not take a formal position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • does not take a formal position on BDS
  • is a student-led movement made of up of students, alumni, professors, and rabbis that hope to widen discourse on Israel within the Jewish community

Yosef Kessler, Hunter College Class of 2019

Yosef Kessler got involved in Open Hillel hoping to create a space for people with diverse opinions to talk about Israel. “Currently, Hillel International is prioritizing the political agendas of its donors rather than listening to its students,” he said. “Open Hillel promotes pluralism and open discourse on Israel-Palestine in Jewish communities, on campus, and beyond.” Open Hillel aims to eliminate Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities, which prohibit collaboration between Hillel affiliates and groups that support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Kessler explained that Open Hillel organizes on two fronts, first by encouraging Hillels to ‘open’ and stop adhering to Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. They also organize nationally to pressure Hillel International to adopt policies that allow for broader discussion around Israel-Palestine.

“Open Hillel workshops, rallies, and events have been the rare occasions in which I have ever been in the same room with folks with diverse range of politics on Israel-Palestine laughing, strategizing, and discussing important issues together,” Kessler said. “We are pushing to create an inclusive Jewish community on campus.”

Students For Justice in Palestine

 Students should know that SJP…

  • is in support of BDS
  • is an independent, grassroots organization
  • is comprised of 180 autonomous chapters, which means that chapters may provide radically different experiences from campus to campus
  • identifies as a intersectional, social justice movement

Roxy Rozo-Marsh, Scripps College Class of 2019

Roxy Rozo-Marsh was a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) steering committee last year. “I got involved because this is an issue I care about,” she said. “After going on Birthright, I realized more about my complicity in [the Occupation].”

Rozo-Marsh said the purpose of SJP is to stand with Palestinians in their struggle for freedom. “Our organization seeks to be in solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation,” she said. Despite SJP’s negative reputation in the mainstream Jewish community, she wanted to clarify that many Jewish college students are members and SJP is not an anti-Semitic organization.

Rozo-Marsh’s favorite aspect of organizing with SJP is the education she receives through activism. “SJP definitely has opportunities for learning and self-education,” she said. “Our actions, for example, are often educational, including open mic nights, workshops, and zine making, in addition to the more direct actions we have been involved with.”

Her biggest challenge as a Jewish member is the lack of support, or sometimes antagonism, that SJP receives from the wider Jewish community, she said.

Sarah Asch is a Middlebury College student graduating in 2019 with a major in English and creative writing and a minor in Spanish.


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