Since the Berkeley Jewish Student Union refused to grant the campus chapter of J Street U a seat on the 12-member JSU board on Oct. 9, many have voiced their adamant opposition to this decision. But they have based their entire criticism on a secondhand account appearing in the student newspaper the Daily Californian.
As the president of Tikvah: Students for Israel, the pro-Israel student organization at U.C. Berkeley, and a JSU group leader, I am shocked at the misrepresentations of the meeting and the reasons we decided not to endorse J Street U’s controversial message.
Until now, there has been one reason given in the media for the JSU’s vote: J Street U’s work with Breaking the Silence, the organization of Israeli soldiers who testify about alleged abuses seen during their military service in the Palestinian territories. While this relationship is unacceptable for an organization applying for a role in JSU leadership, it is also critical to note that this is just one example of the larger reason behind the JSU’s decision.
J Street U was excluded from being a voting member on the JSU because of multiple experiences that student activists — including myself — have had working with J Street U, most recently culminating in the student senate’s decision in April to pass an anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions resolution. These experiences led me to the definitive conclusion that J Street U’s claims of being a pro-Israel organization are nothing but a farce, and, as such, the Jewish Student Union cannot endorse this message.
In the lead-up to the BDS vote, Jewish student leaders attempted in good faith to work with J Street U, under the impression that we shared common ground in combating such a hateful movement. While some of us still had reservations, we chose to invite J Street U’s leadership to planning meetings as a means of uniting the community behind one message. However, these meetings showed just how far from “pro-Israel” J Street’s position was.
This truth must be made clear: J Street U did not oppose the libelous accusations against Israel in the BDS bill. In fact, J Street U members actually defended the bill’s accusations, claiming that Israel employs elements of apartheid policies and promotes “systemic oppression and racism” against the Palestinians. J Street U members found fault only with the tactic of divestment — not with the false accusations leveled against Israel.
While they ultimately opposed the divestment effort, J Street U activists were quoted in J. as calling it “a well-intended effort to end human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories.” This kind of messaging played a part in the student government’s decision to pass the BDS resolution.
J Street U is not an organization that seeks to show the real Israel. It is an organization dedicated to criticizing and bashing Israel at every turn while hiding behind a slogan of “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”
Saying no to a group of Jewish students was a painful experience, and not a decision we made lightly. In the end, JSU decided that the integrity of the organization’s mission to stand for the Jewish people and for the Jewish state could not be maintained with J Street in a JSU leadership role.
J Street members are not barred from participating in any JSU activities. J Street U is by no means silenced. But an overwhelming majority of JSU officers and member organizations believed that its political agenda was incompatible with the JSU’s mission, which is to be the voice that can speak for us on campus. Only two voting members out of 12 disagreed.
No one who considers a motion calling for the end of the Jewish state “well-intended” deserves a position of leadership in the Jewish Student Union. Those that voted against J Street U will always welcome its members at Shabbat dinner and other community functions, but they are unfit to lead. The day they begin to live up to their slogan, I will be the first to welcome them to the ranks of JSU leadership.
I know it comes as a shock to those living in the world of Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben-Ami, but young Jews in the United States — and even in Berkeley — actually want their leadership to stand up for Israel.
Avi Levine is a third-year political economy major at U.C. Berkeley and president of Tikvah: Students for Israel, the pro-Israel student organization on campus.