Last month, the U.C. Berkeley chapter of J Street U failed to receive the majority of votes required for admission in the Jewish Student Union, the umbrella organization representing Jewish students on campus.
Since then, a number of opinion pieces — including one in the Israeli daily Ha’artez and an op-ed in j. by U.C. Davis professor David Biale — have admonished the Jewish Student Union (JSU) for its lack of inclusivity, urging the JSU to renege on its democratic decision. However, these proclamations fail to consider the more complex reality we students face.
Voting for exclusion is not a decision that I, or any other student at a progressive university like Cal, could take lightly. But after witnessing years of unabashed anti-Israel activity from within Hillel and the campus Jewish community, Jewish student leaders and member-groups of the JSU made the decision to take a different path.
While J Street supporters claim the decision was an attempt to exclude progressive voices on Israel, Kesher Enoshi, a JSU group, has spent the last several years demonizing Israel from within the Jewish community in the name of progressivism. There is certainly nothing wrong with being critical of Israel; if you want to see some of its harshest critics, sit in on a Knesset meeting.
Yet over the years, those claiming to be the progressive Jewish voice on Israel in Berkeley have repeatedly used their involvement in Hillel and the JSU as a basis for defaming Israel to the campus at large.
Two years ago, the pro-Israel community at U.C. Berkeley was in the news, that time because of a bill in the student senate calling for divestment from companies doing business with Israel. The effort was part of the larger boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign aimed at delegitimizing Israel.
Kesher Enoshi laid the groundwork for this effort by spending the year preceding the bill hosting events designed to vilify Israel on campus. They often worked alongside Students for Justice in Palestine, which openly declares that Israel has no right to exist.
The events Kesher Enoshi sponsored or supported included bringing to campus the Shministim, a group of young Israelis who refused to serve in the army in an effort to delegitimize the Jewish state; Breaking the Silence, a group that uses unverified testimony from Israeli soldiers as a means of demonizing the Israeli military; and a Palestinian rap group whose lyrics compared Israelis to the Nazis.
Then, when the bill was discussed in the student senate, leaders of Kesher Enoshi rose one by one to express their support for the BDS campaign, resting the legitimacy of their argument on the notion that they were representative members of the Jewish community at Cal.
This semester, the students who requested that J Street U be admitted to the JSU were the exact same students who currently lead Kesher Enoshi. Not satisfied with the existence of one organization whose sole mission is to bash Israel, now Kesher Enoshi seeks double representation within the tent of the JSU.
Recently, as more students have become involved in the JSU, the organization has become more strongly pro-Israel and support for Kesher Enoshi has waned. But given the actions of Jewish anti-Israel activists in the past, it should not be surprising that Jewish student leaders and the member organizations of the JSU now reject J Street U.
The exclusion of J Street U is not based exclusively in an opposition to the group’s policy. Many balk at the organization’s impossibly high standard for Israel or the implication that theirs is the only way to be both pro-Israel and pro-peace. But in addition to rejecting tactics so many of us find unacceptable, the JSU’s decision was a way of ensuring that the union remains democratic. The JSU voted to reject J Street U because the group’s request for admission was an attempt by a small group of students to unfairly represent their marginal agenda.
Opposing J Street U’s admission was not a means of shutting out disparate opinions on Israel. The vote does not serve to stop the group’s activity or prevent them from continuing to work with organizations like Hillel.
Instead, it was a way to make sure that the makeup of the JSU accurately reflects the JSU’s membership. It was a way of ensuring that an organization whose leaders were at the center of the divestment campaign does not command double its share of influence in the JSU.
And, on a campus rife with virulent anti-Israel activity and its fair share of anti-Semitism, it was a way of preventing yet another organization from damaging Israel’s cause in our name.
Jacob Lewis is a junior at U.C. Berkeley and co-president of Tikvah: Students for Israel.