U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union includes groups such as Challah for Hunger, Bears for Israel and the Jewish Business Association.
J Street U will not be joining them.
At a Nov. 16 general meeting, the union voted to deny membership to the Berkeley chapter of J Street U, the college division of the left-leaning and often controversial Israel lobby. The final tally: nine for, 10 against, two abstentions.
It takes a two-thirds majority to approve membership. Representatives from each JSU member organization, as well as select individual members, have a vote.
Jacob Lewis, co-president of the pro-Israel student group Tikvah and one of those casting a “no” vote, said, “J Street is not pro-Israel but an anti-Israel organization that, as part of the mainstream Jewish community, I could not support.”
Now two years old, J Street U has chapters on 32 campuses across the country and a presence on many others. This is the first time a chapter has been denied membership in a Jewish student union, according to national director Daniel May.
The Berkeley chapter of J Street U has 11 members and has been active for more than a year, staging events and bringing guest speakers to campus. Israeli-born member Alon Mazor said he had been excited about “having a voice on campus and especially being part of the Jewish community. The obvious way was becoming a member organization of the JSU.”
He knew it would be no cakewalk. Mazor, 21, expected resistance from some within the JSU, which is why he and fellow J Street U member Simone Zimmerman prepared their case at the meeting.
“We presented our group, the mission and why we wanted to be part [of JSU],” he said. “There was a silence in the room. Then the discussion got more heated. A lot of people had prepared statements and quotations. It became a very charged atmosphere.”
Zimmerman, 21, also expected resistance but said she hoped to “appeal to students through framing it in the lens of J Street adding to the conversation. It’s OK to disagree with our political views, but we want you to recognize that we’re part of this community, and we have a right to have these conversations.”
Lewis, 20, said he had been suspicious of the group ever since attending a J Street U event last year. The guest speaker was Assaf Sharon of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement in Israel, which aligns with east Jerusalem Arabs who claim Israel is encroaching on their neighborhoods.
Lewis remembered Sharon saying Jerusalem “is a symbol of violence, and that anything beyond the Green Line is a settlement. It was a virulently hateful event about Israel.
According to the J Street U website, the group supports “Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, a democratic state, and a sovereign nation with the right to defend itself against external threats.”
Lewis stressed that it was not only his group, Tikvah, that opposed admitting J Street U, but rather a majority of voting members and representatives from JSU member groups.
“It demonstrates that this is pretty much a main view of the Jewish community,” he added.
Although the Jewish Student Union is an independent group within Berkeley’s Associated Students of the University of California, it is also affiliated with Hillel of Berkeley and derives some funding from that organization.
Hillel of Berkeley executive director Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman did not attend the Nov. 16 meeting, but he said Hillel has no say in how the Jewish Student Union runs its affairs.
“As any [Hillel-affiliated] group, they do have to follow our kashrut, Israel and spending guidelines,” he said, “but they are an ASUC group we support and fund. What their criteria are for adding groups, I can’t speak to.”
Though he wouldn’t comment directly on the vote, Naftalin-Kelman did say that “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.”
When the vote was announced at the meeting, J Street U’s Mazor wasn’t surprised.
“We were ready for it,” he said. “But it was very emotional because of the things that were said, like ‘We can’t trust you.’ To exclude people from the conversation doesn’t seem to be productive.”
Added Zimmerman, “It was hard listening to a group of people who don’t want us to be part of this community. We are going to continue … but I think it is a pretty serious blow that we were rejected from being part of the established community.”
Lewis said the vote does not deny individual J Street U members from participating in JSU activities or Jewish life on campus. He said, however, that Berkeley’s umbrella Jewish student group has a right to establish guidelines that “conform to a basic idea of being pro-Israel.”
“There’s a lot of room for criticism of [Israeli] policy,” Lewis said. “That’s a good thing. People will have a wide variety of criticisms. But it’s a matter of how and why you criticize.”