Your February 11 news article “Three Years Old, J Street Still Struggles For Acceptance” struck a personal chord with me, in particular its description of how Birthright Israel has refused to allow J Street U to sponsor a trip to Israel, while justifying its partnership with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee because the latter group is “mainstream.”
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 2000s, I organized with fellow Jewish students against Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. My group went through a rigorous admissions process to become part of the Jewish Student Union (Hillel’s campus partner). But when our organization set up a lecture by an Israeli military reservist who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories, we were told just one day before the event that the space we had booked at Hillel was being revoked. A presentation by a member of a leftist movement in Israel — at the time widely debated in the Israeli press — was evidently seen as too threatening to the “mainstream” Jewish student body.
The notion that condemning a more than 40-year-old military occupation is the same as condemning the State of Israel is absurd.
I applaud J Street’s brave campus activists who refuse to continue to be marginalized by an American Jewish community that repeatedly calls for censorship of those deemed to fall outside of the “mainstream.”
Birthright Israel is now claiming that it never approved J Street U’s participation in the Birthright program. Yet for months J Street U worked with Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience to plan our Birthright trip. Throughout that process we were assured that this partnership had the green light from Birthright.
There is, however, a more significant issue that is in danger of being lost amid this sort of back and forth.
In the 48 hours after we announced the trip, well over 100 young people expressed interest in participating. A clear message was being sent — not by J Street, AIPAC or any other organization, but by young Jews across the country. They want to engage with Israel in a way reflective of their commitments to democracy and justice.
The question is not whether J Street will “gain acceptance.” The question is whether the Jewish community will open its doors to this generation or will decide that Israel does not need them.
J Street U
New York, N.Y.