In his recent Times of Israel op-ed, “Young Jews want to discuss, not pressure Israel,” David Project Executive Director David Bernstein writes that J Street is a growing force in American Jewish life – particularly among young people. He is correct. J Street U, J Street’s student organizing arm, has tripled in size over the last year, growing from 17 campuses at the start of this school year to 44 today. Soon it will be impossible to find a campus with a significant Jewish population where J Street U is not an important and valued presence.
Bernstein recognizes that this growth is based in part on J Street’s success in engaging members of our community who have been put off by the narrow conversation on Israel that dominates the vast majority of American Jewish communal institutions. But Mr. Bernstein is mistaken in his dismissal of J Street as an elitist alternative to a “consensus” that could attract these misguided youth if only it were able to broaden the discussion within its own ranks. J Street’s growth demonstrates that this “consensus” is an illusion. It has never existed; until now those who disagreed simply never had any place to go.
It is true that an emphasis on openness is important. College students are among the most inquisitive people in our society. We value knowledge, honesty, and nuance. As Jewish students who strive for truth in our studies, we will not stand for one-sided and incomplete rhetoric when it comes to something as important to us as Israel. But if Bernstein’s organization and others like it seek to replicate our success in opening up the conversation – and we would love nothing more than for them to do so – they will have to do more than merely pay lip service to “dialogue.”
A quick perusal of the J Street website will show you a nuanced and realistic accounting of the conflict, including the concerns and the failures of all parties. Conduct a thorough examination of the educational materials offered by The David Project and you will be hard-pressed to find any such nuance. Their story is always the same: At the end of the day, no matter the issue, Israelis are right, and the Palestinians are wrong. It was, in fact, my frustration with a drastically one-sided David Project seminar for seniors at my Jewish day school in Long Island, NY, that helped trigger my eventual involvement in J Street.
It is true that organizations like the JCRCs and Hillel have begun to open up their Israel conversations in the past few years; it doesn’t take the shrewdest observer to recognize that this has been happening not despite but because of the work of J Street during that same period. Even as Jewish organizations open up their conversation on Israel, however, they must recognize that students will remain turned off if, at the end of the day, only the same old conclusions and actions are considered acceptable.
The question that Bernstein cannot answer is why, if young people are simply hungry for an open discussion, has J Street U, with its explicitly political mission, seen so much growth? The answer is that students aren’t joining J Street U simply because they want to talk. They are joining because they understand that for Israel to survive it needs to exist beside a Palestinian state, and this truth upends the whole model that supporting Israel requires making the case that the Palestinians — and only the Palestinians — are responsible for ending the conflict.
Students are joining J Street U because they know there are important forces on both sides determined to prevent the two-state resolution upon which Israel’s future depends. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and citizens who support peace, desperately need the advocacy of American Jewry and the American government for their cause. Supporting their efforts is not “putting the screws to Israel.” It is what it looks like when we bring the values of justice and peace that we were taught in our day schools and synagogues to bear on behalf of the place that we were taught to care for above all others.
Are we prepared to express disagreement with policies of the Israeli government? Yes. Do we want to talk about the occupation, and call it an occupation? Yes. Do we do this out of love and concern for Israel and Israelis? Absolutely. Branding views supporting the status quo as “consensus” while treating J Street’s growing support base as somehow anomalous or elitist doesn’t sound like a commitment to openness. It sounds like the same old obfuscation and close-mindedness. J Street’s growth shows that the old model won’t fly with our generation. Its a new era for Israel advocacy. Hopefully, a new era for Israel won’t be far behind.