Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Berkeley JSU Rejects J Street U

Last year, Jewish organizations at UC-Berkeley barely staved off an effort to get the student government to divest from Israel. Apparently on the theory that what Berkeley needs is fewer outspoken Jewish opponents of the BDS movement, the university's Jewish Student Union has voted to exclude the local campus chapter of J Street from membership (Bradley Burston has good commentary). Instead of following in the footsteps of the British UJS, which elected to take the lead in pushing for a peaceful, two-state solution which preserves Israel's Jewish, democratic (and thus Zionist) character, the Berkeley JUS instead apparently is looking to sabotage that vision.

One of the "nay" voters, identified as "co-president of the pro-Israel student group Tikvah", explained his vote by saying "J Street is not pro-Israel but an anti-Israel organization that, as part of the mainstream Jewish community, I could not support." This position was expanded on at Tikvah's site, which, while conceding that J Street talks the talk of being "pro Israel, pro peace", argues that its actions speak otherwise. The indictment is rather brief and exceedingly unpersuasive -- deciding whether talks or greater sanctions on Iran is the quintessential embodiment of a tactical question which people can and are likely to disagree on, and the claim that J Street has hosted BDS chieftain Omar Barghouti is one I have not seen verified or even mentioned anywhere else on the internet (a Google search reveals an apparently much-discussed instance of Jeremy Ben-Ami rebuffing Barghouti, but nothing about hosting him -- I dropped a comment on Tikvah's site asking for clarification).

Nonetheless, I'm sympathetic to the claim that not all those who proclaim themselves to be "pro-Israel, pro-peace" really deserve the moniker. For example, Tikvah claims to be a pro-Israel organization and their blogger says he supports the creation of a Palestinian state, thus preserving Israel's Jewish and democratic character and with it the Zionist vision. But I'm dubious -- to wit, I'm skeptical that any group which would act so aggressively to exclude J Street actually is either "pro-Israel" or "pro-peace". Just as Tikvah is entitled to be skeptical of J Street's bona fides, I'm entitled to be skeptical of theirs.*

For example, on their website Tikvah proclaims its agnosticism to any question relating to Israel save "the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland." We can note immediately that their claim of neutrality on other issues appears to be fictitious -- after all, one's beliefs on the tactical question of sanctioning Iran are clearly quite severable from one's beliefs about Jewish self-determination, yet they explicitly use it as a litmus test for "pro-Israel" in opposing J Street.

But, more to the point, Tikvah's one issue does not -- or at least does not clearly -- commit itself to defending Israel as a Jewish, democratic state. Since, as expressed earlier, my understanding of Zionism is as the Jewish iteration of liberal nationalism, the agnosticism towards Israel's democratic character could easily render Tikvah a non-Zionist organization (while Tikvah has a section on its site that asks the question "What is Zionism", it doesn't provide answer, instead providing a history of the Jewish presence in what is today Israel). Meanwhile, their apparent endorsement of the Zionist Organization of America provides a clear link to what at this point is an anti-Zionist organization that hands out awards to raging anti-Semites -- a far clearer link that J Street's, at best, nebulous contacts with the BDS crowd.

I don't have a problem with line-drawing in the Jewish community, and I specifically don't have a problem with declaring out-of-bounds positions inconsistent with maintaining Israel's position as a Jewish, democratic state. But that standard has to cut both ways, and while there certainly left-wing Jewish groups that don't meet it (not J Street, but the JVP springs to mind), there are right-wing groups that also cannot honestly state they are committed to that vision. Is Tikvah one of them? I'm not sure, and my default would be to be inclusive rather than exclusive. But if they want to play hardball, then that's the way the game should be played, and in a world where J Street isn't pro-Israel, then neither is Tikvah.

* For clarity, I'm not and have never been a member of J Street, though I'm sympathetic to their aims. I'd characterize myself probably as more as an Ameinu (formerly known as the Labor Zionist Alliance) guy, as I think they've done a better job firmly locating themselves as "Zionists" in the way that I understand the term.


Matt said...

I agree with you on every point. Still, I wonder if the Berkeley JSU would do better under less pressure or more.

David said...

Is this Tikvah related to the larger Tikvah/JTS? Can't tell.

In any case, it's remarkable that organizations like these must - if they are to be successful - encourage the apathy of young Jews towards Israel.

Zahav said...

Well said!