J Street Students Speak Out On Being Shut Out of Jewish Debate at Berkeley

Student Union Bars Dovish Group at California Campus

Not Going Quietly: J Street U’s Berkeley group wants to be part of the conversation.
Getty Images
Not Going Quietly: J Street U’s Berkeley group wants to be part of the conversation.

By Shayna Howitt and Elon Rov

Published October 22, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The recent decision by the Jewish Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley to reject an application for membership from J Street U points to a deep problem in the American Jewish community.

As leaders of J Street U at Berkeley who love Israel but worry about its future, we found this decision strange and disturbing. The clear message was that merely because we are concerned enough and intellectually curious enough to question some of Israel’s policies and practices, our group has no place under the pro-Israel tent. It forced us to question the limits our community has set on acceptable pro-Israel discourse.

We are both the product of years of Jewish education from Jewish Day School to summer camps where we were taught that Jewish values are inexplicably linked to concepts of human equality and social justice — indeed that concern for justice was one of the gifts Judaism has given the world.

During many trips to Israel, we have explored every corner of the country. Unlike some of our peers who stick to the regular tourist spots, we have also visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where we were challenged by our Israeli and Palestinian peers to examine the meaning and the daily reality of the occupation. We believe that speaking honestly about these experiences makes a serious contribution to the conversation around Israel at UC Berkeley.

Our experiences inspired us to become leaders in J Street U, the campus arm of J Street which promotes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a goal which is the official policy of the Israeli government and supported by a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians as well as American Jews.

The JSU, a Hillel supported umbrella organization, is supposed to unify all Jewish students. How then can it reject a vibrant, growing, enthusiastic movement like J Street U? Are our views so threatening, so radical? No, they are shared by the vast majority of American Jews and by a wide consensus of opinion in Israel itself. JSU’s rejection of J Street U’s membership is designed to drive students away — and is already doing so.

At a time when attachment to Israel among younger members of our community is weakening, as demonstrated by the recent Pew Research Center poll of American Jews, one would think that J Street U would be welcomed into the pro-Israel fold at Berkeley. Do they have so many friends, so many supporters that they can afford to turn us away?

Since the founding of our chapter, we have hosted many events aimed at educating Jewish students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and encouraging them to advocate for peace. Some of these students were first introduced to Berkeley Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus, by attending a J Street U meeting.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the JSU are merely copying many of their elders, the so-called leaders of our community, so many of whom insist on a similar standard of ideological purity and discourage honest discussion about Israel. As Jews, we are raised and educated to question and discuss, but then are told that Israel is off-limits.

Who loses from this? Everyone. Israel loses the dedicated and critical supporters it so desperately needs. The Jewish community loses a generation of future leaders, alienated by the code of silence imposed on them. The JSU loses, too. Its withdrawal into its own narrow shell leaves campus discussions on Israel to be dominated by extremists.

Berkeley Hillel understands what’s at stake and we will work with our Hillel leaders to transform the JSU into a place of pluralism and we will continue to engage with Jewish students. We will host coffee talks, movie screenings, and challenging discussions. We will continue to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will demonstrate that Berkeley’s Jewish community is strong enough to welcome a diverse range of voices. Eventually, even JSU will get the message.

Shayna Howitt is national co-chair for communications of J Street U. Elon Rov ‘14 is co-chair of J Street U at Berkeley.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.