A chapter of J Street, a political organization that calls itself the home for “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans,” held its first interest meeting on Friday October 26 in Kohlberg. The chapter, led by Jacob Adenbaum ’14 and Caleb Jones ’14, sees Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza not only as a fundamental violation of human rights, but as a political hurdle in the way of Israel’s existence as a democratic state.
“[J Street] is an organization premised on the idea that being pro-Israel isn’t mutually exclusive with opposing the occupation and some of the humanitarian abuses that are taking place in Gaza and the West Bank,” Adenbaum said. “In fact, it’s not just that they’re not mutually exclusive, it’s that being pro-Israel necessitates being concerned about those issues because the fact that there’s this vast mass of stateless Palestinians undermines Israel as a democratic western state in a way that really is unacceptable for Israel’s future.”
He and Jones decided to start the chapter of J Street at Swarthmore because they thought that this particular angle on the conflict wasn’t being heard on campus. While the Israeli occupation is often talked about as a humanitarian crisis affecting Palestinians, it is seldom talked about as a crisis affecting Israel’s existence as well.
SPJP, Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, is a human rights organization on campus that aims to end the occupation through social activism. Adenbaum points out that J street and SPJP differ in this main respect – Although both groups want to see the Israeli occupation come to an end, the discussions and goals are framed in different contexts. SPJP is a humanitarian group, and J street a political one. The group’s founder thinks J Street’s approach will be most effective.
“I think that if you’re going to be pragmatic, you want to say to Israel ‘Look, this is in your interest. You can’t keep being what you want to be if you’re going to keep occupying the West Bank,’” Adenbaum said.
Danny Hirschel-Burns ’14 is a Jewish member of SPJP. Although he thinks that J Street is an interesting organization with lots of potential, he does not plan on joining.
“I’m not religious, but I see my Jewish values as a commitment to social justice and equality, so I feel like I need to be an activist,” he said. “I [also] personally don’t agree completely with J Street’s vision of the two state solution. I’m skeptical of it. I think there can be one state for two people and an inclusive democracy can work.”
SPJP has often been seen as a group who is, in some ways, against Israel. Hirschel-Burns admits that while “Israel is very rarely the good guy in our conversations,” the violence happens on both sides and no one in SPJP would deny that.
“It’s a shame that there does seem to be this rumor that SPJP doesn’t welcome Jews… When we talk about this at the meetings, people are throwing their hands up in the air in frustration,” he said.
Although he is sure that this rumor is not true, Adenbaum admits that it might be hard to join a group that is so critical of Israel as a Jewish person who has grown up in strongly pro-Israel households.
“For people who grew up in a Jewish community truly dominated by the likes of AIPAC, [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], hearing some of the criticism of Israel can be hard and can sometimes be alienating,” Adenbaum said. “J Street could be a way for people who have grown up in that AIPAC world to get some traction on the issue. It’s a gentler way to jump into that kind of advocacy… By coming out right off the bat and saying, we are pro-Israel, but what Israel is doing is hurting itself, that can be easier for Jews who have been AIPAC brainwashed.”
He adds that a lot of what J street can in fact do at this collegiate level is show people that there is a way of approaching the issue that doesn’t involve rejecting Israel or its legitimacy – that there’s a way of approaching these issues that is both consistent with being a truly liberal zionist, and also being against the human rights violations taking place in the region.
Still, both Adenbaum and Hirschel-Burns agree that there is immense potential for cooperation between the two groups.
Hirschel-Burns is happy that a J Street chapter is starting up because he believes it may be a constructive group to have discussions with.
“When SPJP is the only group on this issue, it just doesn’t have as much clout. Especially if the perceived opposition is Hillel, which SPJP has worked really hard not to have that be the case,” he said.
Adenbaum is excited by the prospects of collaboration between the two groups as well. “SPJP is fundamentally an ally of an organization like J Street. We all want the same thing, which is that we have a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” he said.
J street is planning on creating dialogue, doing some kind of lobbying effort, and bringing speakers to campus. The first meeting had approximately 10 attendees, and while schedules are still being considered, the organization plans on having weekly meetings to have discussions and plan future efforts.