Jewish Student Union in Berkeley boycotts J Street

Posted: December 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

The isolation of J Street and other Jewish groups that are critical of Israeli policies is evidence of a growing moral crisis in the American Jewish community

This post was updated.

A couple of years ago, while spending some time in the States, I was invited to a dinner at a Jewish friend’s home. “Just one thing,” my friend, a smart liberal lefty, said. “Don’t mention Israel by the table. The inevitable argument will ruin the evening.”

This, and a few similar experiences, led me to offer my editors in Haaretz a story about the Jewish community’s “Israel problem,” i.e., the inability to engage in a serious discussion about Israel. The working title we gave the piece was “Israel – not at the dinner table.” It was published almost year ago, and since then, things seem to have gotten worse.

Last week, the University of Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union rejected a request by J Street to join. This was the first time a Jewish chapter was denied membership in the union. Jacob Lewis, one of the leaders of the opposition to J Street at the Student Union, told San Francisco’s J Weekly that he has been suspicious J Street ever since he attended an event in which the group hosted Assaf Sharon of the Sheikh Jarrah Movement as a speaker. Sharon said that “everything beyond the Green Line is a settlement,” and Lewis concluded that this was “a virulently hateful event about Israel.”

I wonder if Lewis is not that knowledgeable on politics, or if he has joined the war on reality that some advocates for Israel have recently declared. What would you call construction projects east of the Green Line if not “settlements?” And it’s not just Assaf Sharon stating this position, but also every U.S. Administration to date.

The fact is that by Israeli political standards – which have seen a dramatic shift to the right in recent years – J Street’s positions are part of the mainstream. But even the very limited debate that is taking place in Israel seems to be too “radical” for the taste of many Jewish Americans these days (And also for the taste of many Americans. Prime Minister Rabin used to say that the occupation fuels hatred for Israel and for Jews, but repeat this in Washington today and your career might be in danger.)

Still, how could we blame 20-year-old Lewis, if the leaders of his community are too afraid to engage in those questions? Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Hillel Berkeley, which funds the Jewish Student Union, wasn’t present at the vote on J Street, and his comments on the matter to J Week were so careful that you need another Rabbi to explain what he meant:

“We have to be very careful in how we talk about Israel and how we define our tent, because the stability and strength of Israel’s future is dependent on the strength of our Jewish community, and by that I mean every facet of our community. We always have to be careful about who we include and exclude.”

If this is all the Rabbi has to say to his students in one of their most important political decisions ever, why do you need a Rabbi at Hillel? And if students are not encouraged to deal with new – and even “radical” – positions when they are in their early twenties, what hope there is of developing a new generation of sensitive, smart and sophisticated leaders?

The debate regarding Israel is probably the greatest moral challenge this generation of Jews will face, and so far, things don’t look very good. In my last visit to the States, I got the sense that many Jews, especially from the liberal side, prefer to walk away from this problem altogether (something which is in direct contradiction to the growing interest non-Jewish liberals find in the Middle East, and in Israel/Palestine in particular). I was repeatedly told of Rabbis who wouldn’t host events on Israel, fearing that the internal debate they would spark would get out of control to a point that would endanger their own position.

The question of J Street in Berkeley is not very important for future political developments in Israel and Palestine. The resistance to the occupation will continue and the pressure on Israel is likely to grow – not because of J Street or anything else American Jews will or won’t do, but due to the simple fact that Palestinians will continue to fight for their rights as long as Israel denies them. What’s at stake in Berkeley – and in many other places all across America – is the moral integrity of the Jewish community, and its ability to examine conflicting values.

I am not a big fan of some of J street’s latest positions (which I have criticized) and still, one has to admit that J Street is trying to offer a space to engage with those issues in a way that goes beyond echoing Israeli talking points. The isolation of J Street, and other progressive Jewish groups is further evidence of the spiritual and moral crisis into which the Jewish community is sinking.

UPDATE: It seems that some people in Berkeley Hillel, including Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, regret not voicing a stronger opinion before the vote on J Street at the JSU. Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman and Barbara Davis, President of the Board of Directors of Berkeley Hillel, have sent this letter to the J Weekly (it is yet to be published):

Dear Editor

Berkeley Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic State with secure and recognized borders and as a member of the family of free nations.  Berkeley Hillel supports a range of student groups whose activities advance our mission.  The JStreetU chapter adheres to our Israel policy and Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines and will receive the support of Berkeley Hillel as do the broad spectrum of other Israel-focused groups working with Berkeley Hillel including, Bears for Israel (AIPAC group), Tikvah: Students for Israel,  Israel Action Committee, Tamid, and Kesher Enoshi.

We respect the right of the Jewish Student Union, an organization sponsored by UC Berkeley student government, to make its own decisions, but we encourage JSU to reconsider its vote and include JStreetU as a member.

Berkeley Hillel is committed to creating a pluralistic community that embraces the diversity of our Jewish tradition.  In honoring the spirit of college students, we work to guide, mentor, and facilitate their unique Jewish expression. At a time when Jewish students are seeking community, we are careful not to exclude Jewish students, and we embrace the wisdom of our namesake Hillel by embodying the value of an inclusive community.

Barbara Davis
Board President on Behalf of the Board of Directors of Berkeley Hillel
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman
Executive Director

As I said, I have a feeling we will witness many more such cases in the months and years to come.


Further reading on this issue:
Bradley Burston in Haaretz: When Jews in Berkeley vote to cut support for Israel

Let’s not talk about it: American Jews’ problem discussing Israel

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: the US and us | Tags: , , , | 15 Comments »

My piece on last weekend’s Haaretz Magazine, and some other thoughts on the issue

USA and Israel Flags at Pro-Israel Rally in Downtown Chicago (photo: Josh.ev9/flickr)

USA and Israel Flags at Pro-Israel Rally in Downtown Chicago (photo: Josh.ev9/flickr)

While visiting New York last year, I got into a long political conversation with a friend, after which he invited me to dinner at his house. “But you must promise me we won’t discuss Israel,” he warned me. “It might ruin the evening.” About the same time, a friend wanted to introduce me to her new Jewish-American partner. “The one thing we can’t talk about is Israel,” I was told.

I wasn’t the last time I heard such comments. In other cases, I saw people get extremely upset, even hostile, when arguing about Israel. I knew that Israel was a complicated issue for Jews, but it seems that in recent years, the debate over Israel has become so polarized and tense, that it’s gotten to a point where many people would rather avoid it altogether.

When I got back to Israel, I offered my editors in Haaretz to write a piece about this issue. I spent a long time speaking to scholars, community leaders, activists and writers. Some of them were quoted in my piece, many weren’t. The interesting thing was that nobody – not even one person – denied the problem. Furthermore, once the article was published, people commented on one detail or another, but once again, the feeling that reform and conservative Jews have a tough time reaching a consensus over the role of Israel in their community was something that everyone shared:

“Our communities have really been torn apart surrounding Israel,” says [retired Rabbi Sheldon] Lewis. “People have attacked each other personally, friendships have ended, people have left synagogues because of it and have even disappeared entirely from the community. When I was a community rabbi I experienced that myself. The film festival may have been the most dramatic and well-known incident, but things have been going downhill for years.”

This is from writer Eric Alterman:

“In the past, you could say to liberal friends who criticized Israel ‘What would you do if you were in their place?’” says Alterman. “After all, no country would agree to undertake security risks [like] those that are required from Israel. But in recent years it’s more and more difficult to say it. It’s much more complicated to justify the raid on the Turkish flotilla, or the way Israel handled Gaza, or the attacks on human rights organizations. It looks like we we’re reaching a point where liberal American Jews will be forced to choose between their values and their emotional attachment to Israel. And many, alas, are going to stick with their values. There’s a sense of failure of an idea with regards to Israel. This is something very painful for me to say.”

You can read the entire piece here.


Defining the problem is easier than reaching a conclusion on its political implications. More than anything, I felt a growing cultural gap between Israel and American Jews, and cultural issues manifest themselves politically in unexpected ways.

What was most interesting for me was to hear so many people saying that violations of civil and human rights in Israel contradict Jewish values. I expected people to speak of political values, and identify themselves as Liberals, and therefore at odds with the current trends in Israeli politics, but I realized that what I call liberalism was, for many people I’ve spoken to, part of their cultural and even religious identity as Jews.

Which makes things even more complicated.

Israel was never a very liberal place. Until the 80′s, the Israeli left had nothing to do with liberalism (one could probably argue that the Likud was more liberal than Mapai, the old Labor party). Liberals (in the American sense of leftwing politics) took the lead in Israeli politics only for a brief moment in the 90′s, when, during Rabin’s government, they got some important laws passed and benefited from a very active Supreme Court.

By the end of the decade, it was all over. Netanyahu’s government with its racist laws and the toxic atmosphere it spreads is just part of a process that has been going on for more than a decade. In a way, I think that liberal Jews in the US wanted to see something of them in Israel, and recently, they are having a hard time finding it. That is the reason for all the anger and frustration.

I would be very careful to conclude that this process will damage Israel’s ability to gain political support in the US, or to advocate its policies in Washington. Many people I’ve spoken to said that the evangelical right more than makes up for the loss of Jewish support for Israel – if there is such a loss. I tend to agree. Also, Israeli politicians are extremely capable at manipulating the anxieties of American Jews, as Netanyahu’s successes in confronting pressure from the White House regarding construction in East Jerusalem has taught us. Yes, many Jews resent Avigdor Lieberman, but only a few would translate these feelings to positions that have something to do with the political reality.

This is not to say that Israel doesn’t face a major diplomatic crisis – only that this crisis has to do with the growing desire in other parts of the American establishment to see the end of the occupation. Even more important is the rest of the international community, which is clearly impatient with Jerusalem. But this dynamic won’t be affected by the difficulties of a Newton synagogue with hosting a political debate or by the backlash following a show at a Jewish theater in DC. The problem of liberal American Jews with Israel will remain what it is – a problem of American Jews.