About 40 students and community members gathered in Hillel’s Chapel Thursday night to hear a series of speakers address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to celebrate the launch of J Street U Brown, an official chapter of J Street U, the student branch of a national movement dedicated to shifting the American political dynamic in favor of a two-state solution.
A group to support J Street’s principles at Brown was first founded in 2008 and called M’kol HaKivunim, which translates in Hebrew to “from all directions.” In 2010, by then under the name of Puzzle Peace, it became an affiliate of the national J Street U movement.
Postcards with a one-sentence petition reading, “We support vigorous U.S. diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” were placed on every seat at the launch. The postcards, which have space on the back for individuals to supply their contact information, are being collected and will be presented to Congress in its first session following the election.
The first speaker, Harry Samuels ’13, emphasized the importance of having the group belong to a national movement. The connection will help J Street U Brown mobilize grassroots supporters. Closer ties to J Street’s base in Washington, D.C. will also open up more resources like a congressional intern program, in which several Brown students have already participated, Samuels said. The collaboration also allows members of the group to be part of a national community, he said.
Matt Duss, policy analyst and director of Middle East progress at the Center for American Progress, has extensive experience covering the Middle East and has written for a variety of news publications. “There is no voice for Palestinians who can claim credibly to speak for all Palestinians,” Duss said. But there is a growing movement among Palestinian youth who are “done arguing about land” and only demand the rights that Israel has denied them, he said.
Meanwhile, among Israelis, “settler sentiment is very strong” as more and more Israelis settle illegally in the occupied territories, he added. The window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing rapidly, Duss said, emphasizing that a sense of urgency is needed to achieve it.
Ilyse Hogue, a writer at the Nation, spoke about the challenges American Jews face in “coming out” in support of J Street, whose stances may contradict those of the Israeli government. She said more and more politicians – including Ann Kuster, a congressional candidate in New Hampshire, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. – are accepting J Street endorsements without facing significant outcry from constituents.
“That’s progress,” Hogue said. “And that’s progress that you guys can take credit for. … You are the ones that made it safe for people like me to say, ‘It’s time my voice was heard.'”
J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large and former editor in chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, explained the “structural imbalance in American Jewish opinion” and its consequences for J Street.
“The weakness of J Street is that conservatives will vote for Democrats or Republicans, depending on who’s better on Israel,” he said. “The right-wing Jew will switch votes.” On the other hand, liberal voters, who are more likely to align themselves with J Street’s cause, are less likely to view U.S.-Israeli policy as an important enough issue to base their votes on it.
In the question-and-answer session that followed the speeches, Duss, Hogue and Goldberg offered further advice to J Street U Brown, noting the risks of becoming associated with a particular political party or focusing too much on human rights.
“It’s hard for me to imagine a better group of people,” said J Street U Brown’s director, Harpo Jaeger ’14, who had been planning the event since last March. “Their perspectives complement each other really well.”
Jaeger, who has been involved with the national movement since its founding in 2005 and with the on-campus group since he arrived on campus in 2009, was “struck by the pragmatism” of its methods. While Brown has several other groups dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said he would like J Street to be more of a “game-changer” by directly influencing U.S. policy toward Israel.
Hannah Glickman ’15, chair of Hillel’s Israeli Committee, said she enjoyed the event, adding that she was especially impressed with Goldberg. “He was great and interesting and engaging, and he helped clarify my positions on things by making really lucid arguments that I agree with.”
“I thought it was very good,” said Zachary Ingber ’15, president of Brown Students for Israel, of Thursday’s launch. “I thought the three speakers were sincere, honest and committed. I didn’t agree with a good amount that was said, but it showed me that there are a lot of similarities between J Street and Brown Students for Israel.”
Similarities between the two groups include a strong belief in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland and the conviction that a two-state solution is the best way to move forward. But the two groups have fundamental differences as well.
“J Street has prescriptive ideas of what U.S. policy toward Israel should be,” Ingber said. “We don’t deal directly with what Israel should do.” Instead, BSI seeks to educate the Brown community by bringing experts to campus and letting students come to their own conclusions. While BSI does endorse “two states for two peoples” as the most effective course of action, “what this means to individual members is up to the individual members.”
In this way, BSI is similar to Common Ground, an on-campus group that is primarily concerned with bringing certain injustices of the conflict to light rather than touting a particular political agenda. For Common Ground, not even the two-state solution is set in stone as the most effective course of action.
“We support justice for the Palestinians,” said Eric Axelman ’13, one of Common Ground’s leaders. “That may include a two-state solution, but that’s not the only way the Palestinians can find justice.”
But Axelman commended J Street for its sincerity in following through with its stated mission. While other organizations merely say they support a two-state solution in an effort to be “politically savvy,” J Street is actively pushing for change.
“We think J Street is an excellent group,” he said. “We have collaborated extensively with them, and we plan to collaborate extensively with them in the future.”
Correction Appended: A caption accompanying this article incorrectly referred to J Street U Brown as J Street Brown U. The Herald regrets the error.