Presidents Conference Rejected J Street — and Me

Originally published in The Forward on May 1, 2014.

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I’ve watched as millions and millions of dollars have been poured into youth leadership programs, summer camps, Taglit-Birthright trips and other “big initiatives” to foster identity amongst young Jews. And I’ve grown up listening to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations worrying that the Jewish community will collapse when my generation comes of age.

Well, when my friends and I, many of us products of such communal initiatives, watched as the Conference of Presidents voted to exclude J Street from their membership, we heard a loud and unambiguous message: the voices of thousands of young Jews are unwanted. It’s not very complicated: The fastest way to get Jews to disengage is through votes like this.

The Conference of Presidents vote was not a referendum on J Street representing thousands of American Jews. It was, however, a referendum on whether the Conference of Presidents wishes to be a relevant and representative body to American Jews.

While secret balloting and closed-door meetings might work for the 1950s old boys’ clubs, today it signifies weakness and decay in the Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is supposed to be comprised of organizations with grassroots bases in order to be accountable to the American Jewish public. But an intentionally opaque voting process undercuts the Conference’s supposed representative mission and is an affront to the individuals these groups purport to represent. For example, despite the involvement of many dues-paying AEPi brothers in J Street U, AEPi is not revealing whether its leaders voted against giving their students a seat at the table. Similarly, the JFNA represents Jewish communities across the U.S., with thousands of J Street U students coming under their representative umbrella. We deserve to know if our institutions voted to bar us from admittance. Why are these organizations afraid of transparency?

While some will try to assert that this vote proves that J Street is out of the mainstream, I’d suggest checking in with Jewish students on campus. Not everyone agrees with us, but most students believe in a representative community based on the values we learned at our synagogues, Hebrew Schools, and summer camps. Similarly, some of the largest establishment Jewish organizations came out in proactive support of J Street’s admission, including the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and more. While the final “score” was 22-17, many organizations in the Conference just do not represent a significant American Jewish constituency, though they hold the same voting power. As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly pointed out, J Street won a landslide of the popular vote.

Our work to achieve two states and end the occupation does not end with this vote. J Street U is already in the midst of planning our Summer Leadership Institute, where students from over 60 campuses will gather in August to plan and strategize for the next school year. Every day, more students begin fighting for a community in which our commitments to Israel, to changing broken political dynamics, and to our progressive values work together in concert. As more students recognize that the state of Israel’s future is inextricably tied to the dignity and freedom of the Palestinian people, J Street U will continue to grow.

Just as lavish hasbara efforts cannot protect Israel from dealing with its serious existential crisis, neither can votes like the Conference of Presidents protect the Jewish community from wrestling with the changing sentiments of American Jewry, particularly amongst young Jews. I wish they had voted differently, and I’m grateful to and proud of the organizations that did back J Street. But, at the end of the day, our work goes on.

 

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President Obama Can Ease Sanctions on Iran By Himself–But That’s Not The End of the Story

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on October 23, 2013.

Diplomatic talks between world leaders and Iran earlier this month ended on the highest note in decades. While Iran stopped short of pledging to freeze its uranium enrichment program and offered no public plan to dismantle its nuclear facilities—both deal-breakers for hardliners—a diverse coalition of countries has already begun urging the U.S. to begin lifting sanctions on Tehran.

The next round of talks, scheduled for November 7, is expected to further advance those initial diplomatic baby-steps, raising the question of whether President Obama, should he promise to lift certain sanctions, will be able to do so, or whether he’ll have to get Congressional approval. Who controls U.S. sanctions anyway?

The short answer is that, as of now, the president has substantial power to enforce, strengthen, and waive sanctions with a stroke of a pen. But, of course, as in all things D.C., it’s more complicated than that. The long answer is that it’s possible that the politics and power struggles surrounding this particular issue could tie Obama’s hands as the process moves forward. Here’s a crash course in how it all works.

The backstory

The U.S. has had various sanctions on Iran since 1979, but economic sanctions on firms and countries conducting business with Iran really kicked off in 1996, with a law known today as the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA). We’ve upped the ante over the last few years with the passage of several more laws—the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), the Iran Threat Reduction Act (ITRA), the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act (IFCA) and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—which together significantly expand the scope of ISA and give the president the authority to increase penalties on firms and countries making deals with Iran. The result? A beleaguered Iranian population and an economy with inflation rates of almost 40 percent and unemployment reaching almost 20 percent.

Built into all that legislation is also quite a bit of presidential flexibility. Using what’s known as “waivers,” as well as special rules and exemptions that are written into the laws, Obama can decide whether to lift or implement certain sanctions, when, and to what degree. These tools fall into two main buckets: fact-based exemptions and discretionary waivers.

Fact-based exemptions give the president some wiggle-room, should certain, Congressionally-defined situations arise. For example, if a country is caught importing Iranian oil, but can demonstrate that it’s taking steps to reduce its imports, the president has the power to exempt those countries from sanctions if he wants. (Obama has used this type of exemption to avoid sanctioning countries in the European Union, as well as countries like India and China.)

Discretionary waivers are more powerful and act as a kind of executive safety valve. They give the president unilateral authority to waive sanctions, typically for six months at a time, should he decide that doing so is “vital to the national security interests of the United States.” The language is intentionally vague.

There’s also other language in the sanctions legislation that gives the president power to act unilaterally. For example, in the NDAA, Congress included a series of “presidential determinations” giving the president the power to decide whether the oil markets can bear the implementation of the sanctions prescribed.

So that’s the short of it. “Can the administration act by itself to take advantage of its discretion? The answer is yes,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, who played a major role in implementing and enforcing financial sanctions on Iran. But, Rosenberg warns, political missteps could complicate Obama’s ability to use that discretion. She says that unless Obama manages his relationship carefully with lawmakers in the next few months, as diplomatic talks with Tehran begin to progress, certain hawkish members of Congress could take steps to make his life difficult.

Sabotage

One big factor is that there is no rule requiring Congress to include presidential discretionary measures in sanctions legislation; it’s just been custom. So Congress could, for instance, pass more financial penalties on Iran and limit the scope of, or eliminate entirely, the waivers, exemptions and presidential determinations.

It’s a trick they’ve tried before. In July, just days before Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was sworn in, the House overwhelmingly passed the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 (H.R.850), which called for increased sanctions on Iran and—perhaps more importantly—limited Obama’s ability to use the fact-based exemption. (While the language gets technical very quickly, a lobbyist who monitors Iran legislation and who would speak to me only off the record summarized it like this: If H.R. 850 were to become law, it “doesn’t get rid of the waiver, but it makes it essentially useless.”)

It’s unlikely that H.R. 850 will become law in its current form, but the specter of limiting the scope of the exemptions in current or future sanctions legislation remains important. According to Ken Katzman, an expert on Iran at the Congressional Research Service, Congress has made efforts to demonstrate that it is well aware it has this authority.

For example, in the original version of ISA, passed in 1996, the language of the law indicates that the president has the power to waive sanctions if he decides that doing so would be “important” to the U.S. national interest. With the passage of CISADA in 2010, Congress changed that language to say that the president has the power to waive sanctions if he decides that doing so would be “necessary” to the national interest. With the passage of ITRA in 2012, Congress further tweaked that language, replacing “necessary” with “essential,” and, in some sanctions, with “vital.”

So what’s the point of all that thesaurus-wielding? Essentially it boils down to muscle-flexing. The lobbyist who works on Iran legislation put it like this: “The difference between ‘vital’ and ‘essential,’ or whatever it is, is legally meaningless. The change in wording is done by the proponents and the pressure groups of the bill just as a warning to the President—a show of political power—that they can tinker with this waiver too, if they want to.”

Tinkering with the language of the waivers and exemptions aside, Congress also has a few other disruptive tools up its sleeve. It could, for example, pass a joint resolution of disapproval of Obama’s use (or disuse) of the sanctions legislation. With a veto-proof majority in both chambers, joint resolutions carry the same legal weight as a law. Jamal Abdi, the Policy Director at the National Iranian American Council, also points out that it’s within Congress’ power to sue the U.S. government for not enforcing its laws. Both courses of action would require majority support in the House and Senate, That is, of course, unlikely at this point, given the fact that Obama’s cautious strategy enjoys the support of most Democrats and a war-weary public.

That support, however, does not preclude Congressional Republicans, and their allies on the right, from doing their best to throw a political tantrum should Obama agree to begin raising sanctions before Iran has suspended its nuclear program entirely. It’s possible, for example, that the House could continue to pass new sanctions legislation, as it did this past summer.

“You’re going to see more leaders like Mark Kirk (R-IL), publishing pieces wherever they can calling Obama an appeaser and bringing up the usual Nazi and Munich analogies,” said Matthew Duss, a National Security Policy Analyst for the Center for American Progress. In fact, Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a resolution for more sanctions just last week.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the hardline lobbying group that enjoys an extraordinary amount of power in Congress, has argued repeatedly that the U.S. should not allow any loosening of sanctions until Iran has verifiably suspended its nuclear program. And Cliff May, the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) has called for an increase of sanctions on Tehran as soon as possible. He told the Washington Post that an increase “may push Iran dangerously close to the edge,” but that’s what’s necessary to make Iran realize that “smiles and empty rhetoric about ‘trust-building’” isn’t enough.

Anne Applebaum, a foreign policy columnist for the Post and Slate also expressed deep skepticism about lifting sanctions, citing the fact that hardcore Islamists still dominate much of the politics in Iran. “Talking is fine. But the negotiators in Geneva should leave any optimism at the door,” she wrote in Slate.

While Democrats in the Senate aren’t likely to allow new sanctions legislation to pass anytime soon, the discussion in the news—or a constant onslaught of new legislation passed by the House—might be enough to shake Iranian resolve. Abdi worries that if the US appears un-serious about dismantling sanctions, then Iran may be unwilling to make serious concessions in return.

Ultimately though while it’s not “beyond the scope and interest of this Congress” to make things difficult for Obama, it’s probably not “strategically wise” for them to choose that battle, either, Rosenberg says.

Obama’s strategy—cautiously considering winding-down sanctions against Iran in exchange for diplomatic cooperation—enjoys fairly robust popular support right now. In terms of those who back the renewed negotiations, “it’s a lot wider of a coalition than many people understand,” said Dylan Williams, the Director of Government Affairs for J Street. Anti-war coalitions, the U.S. business community, and the U.S. security establishment have all voiced support for negotiations. And according to the latest CNN/ORC poll, 78 percent of Americans are in favor of direct diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Iran—anything, it seems, to avoid another military engagement in the Middle East.

Duss, of the Center for American Progress, added that this could be an important victory for Obama. “I would just that note ever since Obama came into office, he’s been called naive, a dupe, an appeaser,” he said. “But here we are, five years later, and with regards to the position of Iran, there’s no way to say that this policy hasn’t succeeded in many ways.”

Far-Right Pro-Israel Group Rallies Against Vaunted New York Jewish Institution

Originally published in The Daily Beast on August 12, 2013.

The 92nd Street Y bills itself as a “proudly Jewish organization,” one that “enthusiastically welcomes people of all backgrounds and perspectives.” That seems to be exactly what’s got the American Jewish far-right so upset.

On Thursday evening, around fifteen people gathered outside the Upper East Side institution, under umbrellas, to stage a protest against the cultural center. Despite the small crowd, the energy and frustration were palpable. Led by Richard Allen and Helen Freedman, the mostly middle-aged demonstrators were joined by a few elderly people, and two or three young children who came with their parents. The rain and humidity would not deter their plans.

A collective known as JCCWatch, a volunteer group that protests allegedly anti-Israel activity enabled by local Jewish community centers, organized the protest—the latest in a series against 92Y. In this case, the protests were against the 92Y’s “financially and morally corrupt” leadership, arguing that the guest speakers they invite are anti-Israel and many are actually leaders within the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. JCCWatch advertised the Thursday protest by posting a message on their website: “Enough! STOP HOSTING ISRAEL-HATERS WORKING TO DESTROY THE JEWISH STATE!”

Allen founded JCCWatch a few years back when he noticed that the The Other Israel Film Festival, a project through the JCC in Manhattan, partnered with groups like the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and the liberal umbrella group The New Israel Fund. JCCWatch’s website argued that these groups “actively partner with or link to groups that, in addition to their stated missions, support, fund, or closely work with” BDS groups. Since the JCC in Manhattan and the 92Y are beneficiary agencies of the UJA-Federation, a funder of Jewish communal causes, JCCWatch argues that under no circumstances should they “partner with, link, or in any way support any of these despicable BDS groups.”

The other protest leader, Helen Freedman, serves as the Executive Director of a group known as Americans For A Safe Israel, which was founded in 1970 as the American counterpart to the Greater Israel movement. The Greater Israel movement pushes for Jewish settlement and control throughout all of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Shouting into a megaphone at the protest, Freedman yelled, “The declaration that Israel is occupied is absurd. The declaration that settlements are an obstacle to peace is absurd. 92nd Street Y is an obstacle to peace!”  

The 92Y and UJA-Federation of New York seem intent on ignoring the protests. Neither returned requests to comment for this article. No one from the 92Y was willing to comment during Thursday’s protest either. I asked a protester on the street, who identified herself as Peggy, if there had been any response from the 92Y since the first protest and she said no.

While I watched these agitated people pass out flyers and attempt to talk to passersby, I couldn’t help but notice the way they were being ignored. “When we try to talk to them about it, they don’t get back to us!” cried Freedman into the megaphone. “Why are groups like my organization never invited to speak at the 92nd Street Y? We’re a national pro-Israel organization.” 

An elderly woman I spoke to named Charlotte told me, “We are objecting to the Y having so many entertainers and speakers against Israel and who are also for the boycott of Israel. We don’t want the Jewish charity money to be given to anti-Israel people.” Specifically she was referring to guests invited to speak like literary icon Alice Walker and former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, both harsh critics of Israel and backers of BDS. 

But JCCWatch’s objections weren’t limited to advocates of BDS gaining a platform at the 92Y: protesters railed against the decision to invite Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the pro-Israel lobby J Street, to speak this coming fall too. “Groups like J Street, The New Israel Fund, and B’Tselem do not care about Israel,” Allen shouted into the megaphone.

Because JCCWatch often professes views that fall outside the political mainstream, Jewish leaders and communal members tend to dismiss them. Yet whereas groups like J Street have repeatedly advocated for a “wider tent” and “a seat at the table” when they encounter opposition, JCCWatch takes a more hostile approach to the American Jewish Establishment’s efforts to marginalize them. 

“Nineteen U.S. embassies are closed right now,” Freedman said into the megaphone, referring to the mass-closure of American diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and North Africa on grounds of a security threat. “Americans are on the run because institutions like the 92nd Street Y fail in their responsibility to their donors and to their members. This is a disgrace.”

JCCWatch’s mission is to staunch donations to Jewish institutions like the UJA-Federation until they start inviting sufficiently pro-Israel speakers. “Please pay attention!” Allen said at the protest. “Know where your dollars are going. Close your wallets!”

On a civic level, their actions were wholly democratic. These were constituents with a grievance—local New York Jews, who were staging a non-violent protest to voice their concerns. Six NYPD officers were dispatched to supervise the event, and as one officer said to me, “This is their First Amendment right.” 

Yet notably, these individuals who hold oft-dismissed political views do not seem to care that Pro-Palestinian perspectives are also frequently ignored within the Jewish community. Suffice to say that marginalization and McCarthyite attacks occur from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. 

Whether or not the 92Y chooses to engage or respond to JCCWatch is unclear, but either way, their next protest will take place, as scheduled, on Thursday, September 12th.

College Organizing and the BDS Controversy

Originally published in The Daily Beast on February 6, 2013.

In thinking through the most recent BDS controversy now unfolding at Brooklyn College—where the political science department is co-sponsoring a panel in support of a controversial movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies—it is helpful to keep in mind some of the basic rules of college organizing. Students understand these intuitively, but adults often confuse them. The most important one, obviously, is that free food is the best recruiting tool there is to bring students to events.

But beyond food, students know that co-sponsorship does not equal endorsement. It has to be that way. If a student group contacts your organization saying they have a speaker they want to bring to campus and would like your co-sponsorship, how can you be sure their speaker will say 100 percent things your organization agrees with? You can’t. Thus it’s implicitly understood that you will co-sponsor on principle, because you believe this is the type of discussion or event that should be happening at your school. After the event, you have the prerogative of holding whatever debrief or critical analysis your group sees fit. You might also make a point to open the event with the acknowledgement that there are multiple perspectives on an issue. But you all agree that sharing views, whether or not they are your own, is a worthy thing to do in an academic setting. And you understand that working collaboratively on events is often the only way to afford any programming at all.

Last semester, a student group at Johns Hopkins (where I’m currently an undergraduate) organized an event called “Living Under Drones at JHU,” which was created to raise awareness about drone warfare and to start a public discussion about the role the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab plays in drone development. At the event, a petition was circulated to demand Hopkins halt drone research until more information is brought into the public forum. The Johns Hopkins Political Science department proudly co-sponsored this event because they support students organizing events like these. Everyone understood that that does not mean the Political Science department endorses anti-drone activity, or the petition itself, and that even if they did, they would not be able to go on record about it. I thought it was great that the school provided institutional support to student efforts, legitimizing the students’ drive to have conversation, while not endorsing any specific views.

A third rule of college organizing is that controversy sells. If BDS opponents think that a public uproar against it will make students uninterested in the material, then they should probably consider enrolling in Intro to Psychology. When the University President and Political Science professors support the event and government officials and activists oppose it, who do they think students will trust more? To be sure, the Brooklyn College Political Science department should make clear that there are multiple views on this issue and that they fully support events that present alternative perspectives.

I am against BDS, but I’ve reached this position through many long, difficult conversations trying to wrap my head around what it is about it that I agree and disagree with. I’m grateful that J Street U, the student wing of the liberal pro-Israel group, gave me the opportunities to hold those discussions, and even exposed me to speakers who do support it in order to challenge me. The BDS movement exists, it is influential, and it is growing. Trying to shove the issue under the rug does not make the ideas disappear. The only reason that I feel comfortable opposing BDS is that I’ve been given the honest chance to research, discuss and figure out what I really think about it.

Many of us grew up in American public schools where boycotts are taught as quintessential, proud staples of our country’s history. We’re raised to venerate the bus boycotts of the Civil Rights movement. We applaud labor boycotts as a non-violent means for workers to protest fairer conditions. We understand that the international boycott played a major role in helping to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.

My point is, if Jewish community leaders think it is self-evident that boycotts are a poor tactic for opposing occupation, they’re unfortunately mistaken. For many students, that question is confusing. So when Hillels across the country say they refuse to associate with BDS speakers or to even hold discussions about BDS because they’re “drawing a red line,” who do you then think will ultimately be left to influence students’ perspectives on BDS? Chances are it won’t be the pro-Israel students who didn’t come to the table. And that’s a real missed opportunity on the pro-Israel community’s part.

The real way to battle bad ideas is with better ideas. Hillels should feel confident in the merits of their arguments against BDS. Especially at college, when students are continually confronted with perspectives of the world that challenge, confuse and contradict what we think, we really need individuals who support us in making sense of it all, not those who dismiss or reject ideas from the outset.

Birthright’s Triumphs and Flaws

Op-ed published originally in JTA.
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WYNNEWOOD, Pa. (JTA) – After being privileged last year to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip with 40 students from Johns Hopkins University, last month I traveled with 12 other student leaders to Israel and the West Bank with J Street U. Since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on these two very different experiences.

Birthright helped to provide a stronger connection to my Jewish identity. After the trip, I began to take more Jewish studies courses and engage more with the campus Hillel. I took an internship with Hillel’s Peer Network Engagement Internship program and started organizing my own events.

I realize, though, that the Birthright model is not designed to instill a strong sense of responsibility in Diaspora Jews toward Israel. After all, it is rather easy not to feel responsible for issues that no one asks you to think about. Rather, the program focuses more upon fostering a general sense of connection. This dynamic often leaves students unable or uninterested in being the “ambassadors” that Birthright so often asks us to be back home.

Birthright prides itself on being apolitical, and indeed on the trip I learned little of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard arguments for why Birthright does not venture into exploring the conflict, and to an extent I understand why. The trip is targeting a broad-based group of Jewish people and there’s only so much that can be accomplished in 10 days.

But reflecting further, I can’t help but find it unsettling that Birthright takes tens of thousands of young, uninformed Jews to Israel without providing any real briefing or debriefing on pressing Israeli societal issues while all the while telling us to go home and “tell the truth about Israel” and “love Israel and be a proud Jew.”

We do fall in love with the land, with the Mediterranean Sea, with the food and with the Israelis we meet. We have energizing hikes and a lot of fun. Yet Birthright does not prepare us to engage with legitimate and difficult questions back at our college campuses and in our communities.

A few weeks after returning home from Birthright, I was telling some people about my exciting trip. A peer asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have been living on the land for generations that face burdensome restrictions of movement.

I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.

“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only wasn’t I able to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.

Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about with regards to “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew so little of “the truth” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked me and thousands of other participants at Birthright’s Mega Event to relay back on campus.

In contrast, while at times on the J Street U trip I felt uncomfortable by the Israel I saw, I left feeling deeply committed to its future. I saw Israel not simply as a place to which I wanted to return but as a story of which I wanted to be a part.

On the J Street U trip we met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, an Israeli scholar specializing in deligitimization, leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of Jews of the Diaspora. At the end of it all, we emerged exhausted, intellectually humbled and more motivated to work to help Israel.

J Street U refused to present Israel as what Ir-Amim founder Danny Seidemann called a “Jewish Disneyland.” And I’m grateful for that. I still love Israel, but confronting the challenging parts of the country compelled me to have a much deeper sense of responsibility.

If those same students from last year ask me questions now about Palestinian freedom of movement or settlement expansion, I’m not sure I would necessarily have all the answers. But I am positioned in a place where I am ready to seriously engage and grapple with the ideas, concerns, questions and consequences of the conflict. I am working to create a situation in which Palestinians, Israelis and I can all move more freely in peace and security, with self-determination for both peoples.

I am not suggesting that Birthright start distributing talking points on the conflict during their trips. But I am recommending that Birthright provide far greater opportunities for participants to struggle and engage with Israel’s real issues. Do not underestimate us. Then maybe we all can come home better equipped to be responsible ambassadors.

‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.

The Future of Pro-Israel

Today J Street launched its new national campaign: The Future of Pro-Israel

Photo Credit: Shereen Shafi

Hundreds of people, young and old, from all over the country, are writing short responses and recording videos about why they are the Future of Pro-Israel. Together we’re redefining the term. To be Pro-Israel no longer means you have to be “Anti-Palestinian” or place the conflict into a context of “good guys” and “bad guys”. People are smarter than that. People are tired of that. People know that for a complicated issue that has been going on for over sixty years, both sides have had their share of serious transgressions and mistakes. People want to start being intellectually honest, open and critical. People want to be Pro-Israel while still actively supporting a two-state solution.

Here are some videos from students I’ve met through my involvement with J Street U, that I’m proud to now call my friends. Maya Lee-Parritz from Bates college

Simone Zimmerman from UC Berkeley

Logan Bayroff from the University of Pennsylvania

Jenny Ferentz from Johns Hopkins University

Jacob Plitman from UNC

It’s incredibly important, empowering and necessary that J Street and J Street U are redefining what it means to be Pro-Israel in this politically frustrating country.