Democracy takes a hit in vote to ban J Street U

The news that the Jewish Student Union in Berkeley has rejected membership for the campus J Street U chapter is an ominous sign of deteriorating tolerance in our community for a diversity of views. Just two years ago, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation excluded from funding groups that advocate boycott or divestment from Israel or “advocate or endorse undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a democratic Jewish state.”

As many predicted, with these seemingly innocuous words began the descent down a slippery slope.

What are the sins for which the J Street group must be banished? According to a spokesperson for the Jewish Student Union, it is that they are “anti-Israel.” And what is the evidence that they are anti-Israel? That they support a two-state solution and have the temerity to advocate that position in the public square? But since a consistent majority of the Israeli public and most Israeli governments (including the present one) over the last two decades have also supported a two-state solution, would the Jewish Student Union consider them “anti-Israel” as well?

The J Street group invited a member of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, which protests the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem. Anti-Israel? Two prominent participants in these demonstrations are David Grossman, one of Israel’s foremost writers, and Martin Peretz, former editor of the New Republic and one of Israel’s staunchest defenders in the American media.

The Berkeley campus is undoubtedly polarized between a hard anti-Zionist left and certain right-wing Jewish students. But J Street U — a basically moderate, pro-Israel, pro-peace group — is a strange surrogate for those who want to attack anti-Zionists. Or maybe not so strange, since the very success of J Street is ultimately much more threatening to those on the right than the anti-Zionist left, which has so little purchase on American public opinion.

University students have a propensity for radicalism (full disclosure: I was a student at Berkeley 40 years ago, but I don’t remember any of us behaving in such an exclusionary fashion against those with whom we disagreed). However, these right-wing radicals are not making this up on their own. There is an anti-democratic wind blowing out of Israel and it has provided them their incentive and legitimation.

In February, U.C. Berkeley J Street U member Simone Zimmerman (center) appears at a J Street conference in Washington, D.C., on a panel titled “Who’s Afraid of BDS?” photo/jta/j street

The Knesset recently has passed a law criminalizing those who advocate boycotts of settlements in the West Bank and is considering proposals to target human rights NGO’s in order to throttle Israel’s vibrant civil society (Israel’s attorney general recently declared these proposals patently unconstitutional). The Knesset also is considering a host of measures designed to humiliate Israel’s Arab minority, against a backdrop of Orthodox rabbis forbidding Jews from renting to Arabs and even socializing with them.

In the United States, funders increasingly tie their donations to loyalty oaths to Israel, with the funders determining who is loyal and who isn’t. On the university campuses, the free debate of ideas is threatened by the attaching of such strings. In a meeting some years ago of directors of Jewish Studies programs from around the country, virtually every director testified to intimidation and interference with their Israel-related programming, either from donors or other members of the community.

So the worthy students of the Jewish Student Union are in good company. But those who sow the wind will inherit the whirlwind. The long-term impact of this act of exclusion — and the many others like it — will drive out those young people who care deeply about both Israel and their Jewishness. They will conclude that if this is what Israel represents and if this is the definition of what it means to be Jewish, then they will wash their hands of it. Recent studies suggest that it is already happening and it will only accelerate as the delegitimization of Jews like those who belong to J Street picks up steam.

It is not too late to stop this train wreck. But to do so, those in positions of leadership in the Jewish community — communal leaders, rabbis and philanthropists — need to break the conspiracy of silence and speak out against assaults on democracy both here and in Israel. They need to muster the same outrage they demonstrated against the recent misbegotten ad campaign trying to get Israelis living in America to come home. The stakes here are much, much higher.

In the struggle between democracy and dictatorship, democracy always wins because tolerance of debate and disagreement strengthens a society, while stifling of opinion weakens it.

The challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people are grave. It is always tempting in such times to suppress democracy, but that which we might suppress is exactly what we need if we are to meet these challenges and persevere.

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and chair of the history department at U.C. Davis.