Every year for one week during the spring semester, during what is derisively called Israeli Apartheid Week, the main walkway on Columbia University’s campus is transformed into a battleground. On one side, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace — two groups harshly critical of Israel, and sometimes even of its right to exist — erect a mock apartheid wall. On the other, Students Supporting Israel, a conservative pro-Israel group, sets up a counter-demonstration, its members derisively donning keffiyehs — the symbol of Palestinian identity, but in the blue and white of the Israeli flag — for what it refers to as “Hebrew Liberation Week.”
As students walk between the two groups, as happened last year, they are confronted by yet another group, J Street U, trying to stake out its own less combative and more skeptical turf.
“We actually spent a day in the middle of the two displays on College Walk talking about and handing out fliers about things that both SJP and SSI had done that we considered a bit egregious,” said Abby White, a senior at Columbia University and a past president of J Street U.
As a liberal pro-Israel group, J Street U has always found itself in the middle of sticky political questions. But with campus conversations about Israel now increasingly favoring the extremes, some have begun to see the dovish lobby group’s campus arm — for better or worse — as a staid member of the Jewish establishment it was created to upend.
It has long been a trope about J Street U that its members are more politically left wing than its parent organization’s platform and leadership. J Street, founded in 2007, advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through lobbying and a PAC, and has long positioned itself as a liberal alternative to AIPAC, the powerful and longstanding pro-Israel lobby. But as many young progressive Jews have grown increasingly skeptical of Zionism and the possibility of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, more radical groups like IfNotNow and JVP have become more visible and are vying for influence on campus with J Street U. Many J Street U alumni now think of it as too centrist and entrenched.
Eliana Fishman, a 29-year-old who works at a political mail firm, was heavily involved with J Street U Dartmouth, and she recalls the launching of its parent organization J Street during her junior year of college: “I was really excited that there was going to be an anti-AIPAC. I interned for J Street, and helped set up a chapter on campus.”
Fishman’s initial excitement, though, was swiftly tempered. “It became very clear very fast that J Street spent a lot of time looking over its shoulder to the right. … They became less exciting since they worked really hard to not be anti-AIPAC; they wanted to be centrist.”
As she continued to be involved in J Street, Fishman “began realizing I wasn’t a liberal Zionist, but further to the left.” After graduating from college, Fishman became involved with the activist organization IfNotNow.
“The biggest break between IfNotNow and J Street was the 2014 war in Gaza,” which led to accusations by some on the Jewish left that the IDF had used its power in a disproportionate way. “Among the [IfNotNow] activists, many were J Street U alums who were unhappy with J Street’s statements and wanted to be more activist,” said Fishman. (At the time, J Street expressed “shock and sadness by the losses suffered,” but said that it “strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself proportionately against the threat of relentless rockets and to destroy tunnels leading into Israel” used by Hamas terrorists.)
Fishman is not alone in moving to the left on Israel. In fact, many of IfNotNow’s leaders are alumni of J Street U. What makes IfNotNow unique among Jewish organizations that work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is its agnosticism on the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement which is roundly denounced in the American Jewish establishment. The group does not take an official position on BDS or Zionism. (J Street opposes BDS.) Instead, it has a single goal, to “end American Jewish support for the occupation,” according to the group’s website.
“The lines are more fluid around if you’re a Zionist or not, if you support BDS or not,” says Fishman. She said that IfNotNow’s neutrality on these issues echoes a larger questioning of Israel-related orthodoxies. “For college students things are more confused and fluid now. And because IfNotNow has no strong position, there’s more room to explore.”
In navigating this increasingly fluid environment on campus when it comes to the subject of Israel, much of J Street’s campus work has been about trying to impact Jewish institutions. Two major campaigns in recent years have been an effort to push local Jewish federations to stop sending money to settlements in the West Bank, and to push Hillels and other Jewish institutions to display maps of Israel in their buildings that include the Green Line, the internationally accepted border between Israel proper and the West Bank.
Adam Chanes, a senior at Northwestern University, who was supportive of J Street in high school and was a member of his campus J Street U chapter during his freshman year, told The Jewish Week via email, “I have J Street to thank for where I am today politically as a committed Jew who cares about a just and peaceful end to the occupation, and as someone who plans to make a career out of that goal.”
Yet, he is no longer involved with the organization and described its focus on American Jewish institutions as part of his disenchantment.
Chanes said that his “entire experience with J Street U was colored way too heavily by an obsessive lambasting of the ‘Establishment.’” J Street U gatherings, he said, focused on “telling self-pitying stories of how ‘x’ American institution told me ‘y’ and I feel wronged and lied to.” They weren’t “engaging issues and people on the ground in Palestine and Israel where the thing is actually happening.”
As J Street U has lost some of the passion its supporters once felt for its positions, it has also benefited from its new position as a middleman between groups with divergent perspectives on the conflict.
Moshe Klein, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland who was involved with Hillel and campus Israel activities but was not a formal member of J Street, said that his campus chapter has played a key role in serving as a “bridge between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine communities.” He recalled a conversation J Street set up between leadership of campus groups that engage with the issues, including Students for Justice in Palestine, and Maryland’s pro-Israel group, Terps for Israel. “There’s no way an AIPAC group could have done that, both because of their politics and their approach to the conflict.”
Ben Shapiro, a rising junior at Tufts, who is the current co-president of Tufts Friends of Israel and has been a campus fellow with a national pro-Israel organization, said of J Street that “we’re able to come together on things we agree on. J Street was a vital partner in opposing BDS when it came up.” He added that “these are our fellow Jewish students and these are our friends, the people we go to Shabbat dinner with.”
Aron Wander, J Street U’s Northeast campus organizer, told The Jewish Week that “groups on the center and the right have seen that J Street represents a large range of students on the issue. I don’t know that they’re any more excited to work with us, but they realize that we actually have, if not a majority, then certainly a large plurality of students, and they can’t ignore us.”
J Street continues to see growth in student participation, both in numbers of campus chapters and in student attendance at their annual national conference. The organization attracted more than 1,200 students to its most recent conference in 2018, which is “a record high,” according to Logan Bayroff, J Street’s director of communications.
Wander, who was involved in IfNotNow prior to working for J Street, views the two organizations as symbiotic. “We are attacking different parts of the issue,” he said, explaining that for some, it is important to work in a pro-Israel, Zionist context, and for others it is important to work in spaces that do not hold those positions.
In discussing mainstream Jewish organizations’ sometimes contentious relationship with J Street, Wander said, “There was a myth that if [J Street] was ignored or shut out for a long enough time, it would go away.” However, he said, “the problem that won’t go away is much deeper than J Street, J Street U or IfNotNow: The problem is the occupation.”
Staff writer Shira Hanau contributed to this report.