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Berkeley’s Jewish student union says ‘no’ to J Street U

by dan pine, j. staff

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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.

Alon Mazor
Alon Mazor
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.

Simone Zimmerman
Simone Zimmerman
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.”


Posted by Jack Kessler
12/01/2011  at  07:42 PM
A Huge Improvement

This is simpler than J Street wants it to be.  The enemies of our community are not part of it. 

Their talk about “being part of the conversation” is hypocrisy.  J Street and their ilk are not looking for a conversation - they are looking for a platform for their anti-Israel propaganda.

This is a demonstration that Jewish students at UC are no longer so naive as to believe people who lie to them to their faces about being pro-Israel. 

As to J Street’s hurt feelings—poor baby!
Let them refer to how the rest of us feel when they join Palestinians and other anti-Semites to vilify Israel and Israelis. 

This is a huge improvement from when a largely Palestinian group, SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine), a virulently hostile-to-Israel group, was welcomed to Hillel and held its organizing meetings there.

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Posted by Jack Kessler
12/01/2011  at  07:53 PM
This is leadership from the rabbi?

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the director of Hillel, could not find a space in his busy schedule for this important event, and gave a weasel’s excuse for not showing up.  He abdicated his responsibility as an exemplar to Jewish youth by being mealy-mouthed and apparently too spineless to take any stand at all.

Even without taking a side he could have at least offered useful advice to the students.  Instead he blathered platitudes, restated the obvious, and basically said nothing.  He squirted ink and ran away.

The first requirement of a rabbi is not scholarship, as is widely believed, but moral authority.  I don’t see that Adam Naftalin-Kelman demonstrated that.

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Posted by Steve Berley
12/02/2011  at  10:27 AM
JSU is student run

As its name implies, the Jewish Student Union is a student run organization.  Given this, Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman’s participation in meetings is not required.  I would even say that his presence is not appropriate.

However, I take great offense at Mr. Kessler’s posting attacking Rabbi N-K.  The J’s comments policy says “Be civil” and goes on to ban name calling, etc.  It’s a shame that his ad-hominem attack was even allowed on the site. 

The students interviewed for the article showed great maturity about disagreeing on issues but still accepting one another in the community.  It’s unfortunate that the same is often not the case among off-campus members of our Jewish community. 

If only we could put as much energy into battling people in the Bay Area who actively seek Israel’s destruction, as we do in attacking one another about who’s the true Zionist.

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Posted by DaveM
12/02/2011  at  06:44 PM
J Street and JVP

People seem to be confusing these two organizations or think they are about the same. That is not so. J Street opposes BDS. JVP supports it. BDS is a key issue and we need all the help opposing it we can get.

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Posted by Matan Lurey
12/02/2011  at  11:53 PM
Very Dissapointed

This is is an extremely disappointing decision coming from CAL - somewhere not only where students are normally very progressive, but when compounded with the spirit of Jewish brotherhood I cannot see how this was a positive outcome.

Sure, it’s easy to go on a “smearing” spree, and find quotes or speakers that you disagreed with, but at the end of the day JStreet is represented by their official spokespeople (Ben-Ami is the best example) and national charter (which is closer to AIPAC than JVP or SJP).

I hope their will be an appeal process .In Israel, there is room for wide criticism - and there are Zionist parties from the left to right that disagree on the peace process but agree on the important stuff.

The same spirit that Israeli democracy and media has (critique and dialogue) should easily be transferable to CAL campus.

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Posted by Ethan W
12/05/2011  at  10:40 AM
Decision is Alienating, Self-Defeating

As a leader of J Street U on a different campus, I cannot help but feel the weight of this decision hundreds of miles away.

When the Jewish Student Union levied their decision, they immediately alienated a vast group of young Jews who look for a way to support Israel, but who do not feel 100% at home with traditional pro-Israel. Those students see the self-defeating nature of the traditional pro-Israel arguments, and advocate for the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic homeland in a different way.

Were it not for J Street U, I would not be lobbying my Congresspeople to support Israel. Were it not for J Street U, I would not have remained engaged with Israel two years after a Birthright trip. Were it not for J Street U, I would not have stepped into a conversation so polarized and alienating - both sides have views I could not share entirely - a conversation which, as we speak, is turning young Jews away from Israel on a daily basis.

I hope dearly, for the sake of my friends at Berkeley, the university there, and Israel, that the Jewish Student Union reconsider their decision.

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Posted by eileen.auerbach
12/06/2011  at  02:58 PM
Berkeley's Jewish Student Union rejects J Street

I was surprised to read that the usual left-leaning, democracy supporting, populist Berkeley-ites were framing J Street U policies as anti-Israel. However, the most surprising was the way I heard about it: in the Dec. 6 column of the Israeli newspaper “Ha’aretz”‘s journalist, Bradley Burston. Check out the link:

I believe that J Street’s humanistic, inclusive, democracy-supporting influence among American Jewish youth is going to continue to grow, and I’m going to make a prediction that in next year’s vote, J Street U will be included in the Jewish Student Union.

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Posted by Janice
12/06/2011  at  03:49 PM
Shame on Berkeley

As a Jew and a Berkeley graduate I am appalled at the decision by some of the Jews on campus to bar J Street from their organization.

Whether or not these brain-washed students want to hear it, J Street is pro-Israel. They are not just virulently opposed to peace with justice with the Palestinians as some Israeli Firsters appear to be.
They also will not keep their mouths shut over Israeli policies that do nothing to foster peace but only continued enmity.

But hey, maybe continued enmity is what some in the Jewish community, such as these totalitarian minded students, want. Atter all, if there were peace Jews could not continue to play the victim card and to beg for money for the nuclear armed country with the world’s 4th most powerful military.

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Posted by walt kovacs
12/07/2011  at  03:48 AM
janice proves that the jsu was right

“israel firsters”? a phrase coined by pat buchanan…a virulent anti semite

brainwashed? so being pro israel and having issues with a group that invites virulent israel/jew haters to speak to them are now considered brainwashed?

and what jew would accuse other jews of playing the victim card? janice would have made a fine capo

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Posted by walt kovacs
12/07/2011  at  03:49 AM
shouldnt janets comments be striken?

i shouldnt have replied to her, as her entire diatribe breaks the rules of this paper

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Posted by aunursa
12/07/2011  at  10:23 AM
I'm glad to see that

I’m glad to see that the Jewish Student Union at my alma mater retains standards.  Just as they wouldn’t accept for inclusion a “Messianic” group that claims to be Jewish while evangelizing for Christianity, they are correct for rejecting a group that pressures only Israel for concessions - but not Palestinians.  “We’re not as bad as JVP” is not a ringing endorsement.

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Posted by DaveM
12/08/2011  at  11:43 AM

BDS is a huge problem. We need a big tent to fight it, especially in the SF Bay Area and on the Berkeley campus. J Street helped fight the Berkeley divestment resolution and other such efforts in this area. They should not be ostracized by Pro-Israel Jews.

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