On Campus, a Divide Over ‘Pro-Israel’

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 04, 2009, issue of November 13, 2009.
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When an Israeli student at Carleton College complained that the school’s Jewish organization had made no official statement recognizing Israel’s right to exist, Jewish student leaders at the small liberal arts school in Minnesota found themselves stuck between two poles. They wanted to make the Israeli student feel comfortable, but they didn’t want didn’t want to alienate community members by presenting them with deep misgivings about the Jewish state.

So, the Jewish Students of Carleton, which fills the role of a Hillel for the school’s tiny Jewish community, set out to reach a middle ground. In the process, the group ran into a semantic problem that has become increasingly prevalent on campuses in recent months.

“If ‘pro-Israel’ means agreeing that Israel has a right to exist and wanting to do good things with the state, then we’re pro-Israel,” said Ari Fine, president of JSC. But “people had different connotations about what the word actually meant.”

That debate took place last year, but the issue has grown more pressing recently, as the left-wing Israel lobby J Street has staked its bona fides on claiming “pro-Israel” as a descriptor of its two-state agenda. While some wonder whether J Street can use the term while promoting policies that oppose the positions of the Israeli government, others wonder why the group feels the need to adopt a phrase that has largely been used by its political and ideological foes.

J Street U, the lobby’s national student organization, decided that while it calls itself pro-Israel, individual campus chapters are given leeway in their self-presentation. This drew considerable attention during J Street’s first annual conference in October, sparking a debate over the meaning of the phrase to a new generation of Jewish student activists.

“There’s a decline in Israel engagement, but there’s a huge decline in calling yourself pro-Israel” between older and younger Jews, said Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “For young people, [pro-Israel means] the reality of Israel; for older people, it’s the ideal. Young people are more politically progressive than their elders, less inclined to see Israel through rose-colored Zionist glasses, more inclined to be critical.”

In the end, Carleton’s JSC didn’t use the term pro-Israel in its statement. Rather, the organization settled on language, which read, in part, “The JSC recognizes the inalienable right of the state of Israel to exist.”

The debate doesn’t only take place on campuses of small liberal arts colleges. When asked whether the fact that his organization calls itself pro-Israel turns off some Jewish students, Jonathan Sachs, president of the University of Maryland’s Terrapin Students for Israel, laughed. “No, absolutely not,” he said.

But not all Jewish student leaders at the school agree. The school’s J Street U chapter president, Aimee Mayer, said that her chapter usually calls itself pro-Israel but she’s wary of using the phrase, because of the political associations it carries for many Jewish students.

“Any time you make a statement to a student, you essentially have 10 seconds before they stop listening,” Mayer said. “They don’t listen to what pro-Israel means when you say it. They think it’s what AIPAC or ZOA means when they say it, and they stop listening at that point. They say, ‘I don’t agree with them, and so I probably don’t agree with you.’”

Mayer says that when she is speaking publicly about the group, she decides based on the audience when to mention the phrase. “The pro-Israel term is usually in there, but it’s usually around second 11 or 12,” she said.

Sachs, who calls his group a “moderate pro-Israel voice,” thinks that students misunderstand the term pro-Israel. “Being pro-Israel, in my opinion, means that you understand the importance of Israel to the United States, to the Jewish people and to the world in general, and the contributions that Israel is making as a world citizen,” he said. “The way that [pro-Israel] has been stigmatized is unfair.”

Dov Lieber, president of the UM chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, shares none of Mayer’s ambivalence, and yet defines pro-Israel entirely differently from Sachs. “Saying you’re pro-Israel means not only do you think Israel has a right to exist, but you want it to exist,” Lieber said.

Some say that calling oneself pro-Israel on campus can be a challenge. “It’s very easy to say that you’re pro-peace,” said Jordanna Birnbaum, a junior at New York University and a participant in the advocacy group StandWithUs. “It’s more difficult to say that you’re pro-Israel.”

While J Street and some of its campus allies hope to change what pro-Israel means, others want to ditch the term altogether.

“It’s an empty word. It’s lost all meaning,” said Roey Kruvi, an Israel-born junior at University of California, Berkeley, and leader of Kesher Enoshi, a campus group that works on social justice issues in Israel. “Those terms usually raise more questions than they answer.”

Kruvi told of how the local Jewish Community Relations Council tried to convince his group to sign a statement circulating among area Jewish organizations that supports Israel’s right to exist as a democratic Jewish state. His group refused. Kruvi explained: “People who want to come to Kesher Enoshi are social justice activists who want to change Israel for the better, but people have different ideas about what that is.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com

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