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J Street U Stanford conflicts with national J Street organization

J Street U hosted their national conference in Washington D.C. over spring break (Courtesy of Moshe Zusman Photography Studio).
J Street U hosted their national conference in Washington D.C. over spring break. President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, spoke at the event. (Courtesy of Moshe Zusman Photography Studio)

Since February’s ASSU vote to support divestment from corporations profiting from alleged human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine, the heated campus debate over the conflict has died down. But the conversation is just beginning for J Street U Stanford, a pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-two-state solution advocacy group.

Julia Daniel ’17, J Street U Stanford co-president, warned her audience at the first Senate hearing on divestment that a vote either way would not resolve the issue – that everyone in the room must do more to change an “unacceptable status quo.”

As part of that work, Daniel, along with a delegation of 31 other Stanford students, traveled to Washington, D.C. over spring break to attend the J Street Annual Conference.

Around 3,000 students and activists from across the country gathered to attend panels and discussions, talk strategy and meet with members of Congress. Over the course of four days, attendees heard from a diverse group of people – from members of the Israeli parliament to seasoned Palestinian activists to the White House Chief of Staff.

In many ways, all of this served Stanford J Street’s goals: to foster evenhanded, productive debate; to educate; and to take action in support of a two-state-solution.

For some attendees, the conference was a continuation of the spirit of respectful dialogue – a healing experience after the ugly tenor of Stanford’s divestment debate, as member Rachel Roberts ’18 put it.

But for others, the rhetoric at the conference was imperfect as well and highlighted the difficulty of having inclusive conversations about the conflict.

Tied to this problem is the friction between J Street, the more conservative national organization that casts itself as catering mostly to Jewish interests, and J Street U, the more liberal coalition of student activists on college campuses throughout the U.S.

 

“Young Jewish Activists”

Though J Street is officially “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” the conference was geared towards a Jewish audience.

Jewish religious services and Kosher meals were provided, and speakers frequently referred to the students in attendance as “young Jewish activists.” At plenary panels, an Israeli flag and an American flag stood side-by-side on the stage, but the Palestinian flag was not present.

Non-Jewish students like Eric Ballouz ’17, a J Street U Stanford member, felt alienated at times and said that the J Street leadership had let him down.

“I understand the demographic is mostly Jewish, but the way it’s structured and the actions they ask of us sometimes exclude the non-Jewish students,” he said.

Ballouz himself is happy working with J Street U on Stanford’s campus, he said, where the group does not focus as much on working within the Jewish community. But when he was asked to join J Street leadership at the national level, he did not feel ready to do so.

While the J Street U Stanford Facebook page calls the group “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Peace,” J Street national calls itself merely “pro-Israel, pro-peace” – which affirms divide between the organization’s national and local chapters, said Izzy ben Izzy ’18, a Stanford J Street member.

Izzy felt uncomfortable with the conference’s focus on the two state solution as essential to Israel’s security and suggested that there should have been more discussion of Palestinian interests. Daniel also emphasized the need to address the issue from different perspectives.

“The Jewish community’s voices are overwhelmingly privileged in [the American political] conversation, and in order to take advantage of that privilege and use that voice for productive change, it is important to engage with it,” Daniel said.

However, Daniel added that it is not productive to exclude other voices from the conversation, and non-Jewish students are an essential part of J Street’s work. J Street U Stanford will continue to work to make non-Jewish students feel included.

 

The Divestment Problem

J Street U Stanford prides itself on providing a space where anyone can come to ask questions and float ideas without feeling attacked or excluded.

“Many, many people have come to us and said that [they’re] very glad about what [we] did,” Daniel said.

Partly for that reason, though J Street as an organization is officially anti-divestment, Stanford J Street did not take a position for or against the divestment bill.

J Street U is still deciding whether to take a stance on divestment in the future, and whether they can do that without compromising their values.

For Rachel Samuels ’17, the Senator who changed her vote on divestment from a no to an abstention, Stanford J Street’s impartiality was an invaluable resource in the hectic months leading up to the decision.

“As a Senator I was trying to be as informed as I possibly could, and I knew J Street would give me a [view]…that recognized both sides,” Samuels said.

However, Samuels said the conference highlighted the difficulty of both maintaining dialogue and taking action.

“I’m realizing the huge spectrum of beliefs within J Street, and while it’s really, really wonderful, it’s also a little bit frustrating as a lobbying group when it comes down to, okay, how do we decide what we stand for?” Samuels said.

Rachael Stryer ’17, a member of the Stanford J Street U board, emphasized that taking a stance on divestment was not the goal of the organization.

“Our goal on campus is not to be there to fight divestment or to support divestment – that’s not really what our theory of change is about,” Stryer said.

For Stryer, action is the most important part of J Street’s vision. While the conference provided the opportunity to lobby members of Congress and advocate J Street’s aims, J Street U Stanford has yet to decide how to bring that kind of action to campus in a way that is inclusive to all.

“We’re hoping that in the spring, there will be much more productive conversations about this,” Daniel said.

Contact Abigail Schott-Rosenfield at aschott ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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