Amid peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel for the first time since 2008, more than 25 Brown students traveled with J Street U Brown to Washington, D.C., to attend a conference hosted by the chapter’s parent advocacy group last weekend.
Seeking peace through politics
The national J Street group, founded five years ago, aims to “redefine what it means to be pro-Israel” and marshal American support for a two-state solution, said J Street Director of Media and Communications Jessica Rosenblum. The organization says the details of the negotiation should be worked out between Israel and Palestine, but Rosenblum said the organization believes a two-state agreement would likely create a border between the two states mostly based on land divisions before the 1967 Six-Day War.
At the conference, titled “Our Time to Lead,” students attended panels and lectures with experts, non-governmental organization advocates and Israeli, Palestinian and American officials, including Israel’s Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and Vice President Joe Biden. The event attracted 3,000 participants, mostly Jewish-Americans, with about 900 students from across the country.
J Street U Brown, one of several groups on campus organized around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, planned the trip and encouraged Brown students of different backgrounds and levels of knowledge to attend. Though the campus group officially joined the national organization in the spring of 2012, J Street U Brown existed previously as a national J Street affiliate under the name Puzzle Peace.
Brown students said they attended for a variety of reasons.
Shelby Centofanti ’15 and Eital Schattner-Elmaleh ’17 said they chose to attend the conference to continue their activism. Centofanti, a J Street U Brown member, organized the J Street U chapter at Georgetown University as an underclassman before transferring to Brown, and Schattner-Elmaleh spent last year in Israel doing political organizing.
Both said they also found themselves reuniting with Jewish friends at the conference.
Misbah Noorani ’17 said she went to learn something new. As a Muslim, she said she felt welcome but definitely in the minority. She said she enjoyed the conference’s intimacy: many officials and experts remained for the entire conference and welcomed interaction with students.
“You could just walk up and have a conversation,” she added.
The views of attendees and speakers varied widely and did not always align completely with J Street’s positions, attendees said. Debates ranged from the role of religion in Israel to the feasibility of integrated schools in the region.
Centofanti said the variety of perspectives at the conference created opportunities for lively panel debates.
There were moments when speakers spoke vaguely of the two-state solution, without providing greater detail about how to reach a compromise, Noorani said.
Schattner-Elmaleh said many of the Israeli politicians attending represented the Labor Party, which supports a two-state solution but does not work actively enough to end the conflict, she said. J Street and its supporters often receive accusations of anti-Zionism, and J Street may have chosen to invite Labor Party speakers partly to avoid this accusation, she added.
“The conference was a lot of drawing people in from both sides, and so they weren’t as radical as I had hoped,” Schattner-Elmaleh said.
Rosenblum said J Street chose to invite politicians from six of Israel’s different parties to show the widespread support for a two-state solution across party lines, not to make a political statement.
Schattner-Elmaleh said many politicians who spoke at the conference do not speak about the conflict while in Israel and talking to their Israeli constituents.
“The problem is there isn’t a real space for dialogue in Israel,” she said. “Each side is caught up in their day-to-day politics.”
Though she said it made her uncomfortable to observe the difference, Schattner-Elmaleh said she was glad the conference gave Israeli politicians a chance to listen to one another and talk openly about the conflict.
On Tuesday, the last day of the conference, Brown students participated with other attendees in the conference’s annual Advocacy Day, asking their Congressional representatives and senators to support a resolution to commit the United States to an active role in peace negotiations and to push for a two-state solution.
The government shutdown caused some senators and representatives to cancel their appointments, including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed. Brown students still met successfully with other Rhode Island politicians Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., as well as representatives from their respective home states.
“Whitehouse and Langevin were both really responsive,” wrote Harpo Jaeger ’14, director of J Street U Brown, in an email to The Herald. “It’s always great to see how interested our representatives are in actually hearing from us as citizen-advocates.”
With the conference complete, J Street Brown students will continue to host teach-ins and stay apprised of the negotiations, Centofanti said.
The group also plans to get involved in the Two Campaign, a new national effort spearheaded by J Street, Jaeger wrote. The goal of the campaign is to demonstrate the American Jewish community’s widespread support of a two-state solution using advertising, petitioning, town hall meetings and campus activism, Rosenblum said.
“American Jews can be viewed as catalysts for the good things we want to happen,” Centofanti said.