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J Street and the Berkeley Jewish Student Union

October 18, 2013
By Alan Elsner breaking-the-silence-eng1Nearly four decades ago, when I was a field organizer for the Union of Jewish Students in Britain, I fought against attempts by far left groups to ban Jewish societies from campuses — so I’m particularly saddened by what’s been happening recently at the University of California, Berkeley. Back then, the National Union of Students had a policy to deny racists and fascists a platform on British universities. (There is no First Amendment protecting freedom of speech in Britain). The move was well-intentioned: A neo-fascist party, the National Front, had caused alarm by performing well in local elections. But the policy soon ran seriously off course. After the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution equating Zionism to racism in 1975, Trotskyite groups, which then had a powerful position in student governments at some colleges, tried to pass resolution banning all pro-Israel activities and speakers including rabbis from campuses. I’ll never forget one particularly scary evening at a student assembly at Essex University, then a stronghold of far-left activism, when I was drowned out by a thuggish mob of foot-stomping Marxists who passed a resolution calling for the abolition of Israel. I felt as if they were about to lynch me. From this experience, I learned that the fanaticism and bully tactics of the hard left were no different from those of the extreme right. It left me with a lifelong contempt for people or organizations who attempt to silence those who disagree with them instead of engaging in respectful, democratic debate. And so it was with deep gloom that I read about a recent vote by the Jewish Student Union at Berkeley, to reject an application for membership from the thriving campus branch of J Street U. The reason given for this vote was J Street U’s hosting of an event in 2012 with members of “Breaking the Silence,” an Israeli military veterans’ group which draws attention to the realities of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. At its website, the organization says: “Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.” Such testimony does not make comfortable listening for anyone who cares about Israel. But that does that mean it should not be heard? Jewish Student Union President Daphna Torbati said: “A lot of people have said that they want the Jewish Student Union to stay a place they feel comfortable saying they love Israel.” J Street U’s members also love Israel and are not afraid to say so. Their love, I would argue, is much more authentic than the immature devotion of those who refuse to see Israel’s imperfections, which is more akin to a teenage crush than a real, abiding emotional commitment. It is more authentic because it is based on reality rather than an air-brushed fantasy and because it squarely confronts the greatest moral threat facing Israeli society - namely the occupation of another people against their will for the past forty-seven years. The Jewish Student Union’s “safe place” is in fact a small bunker where only the ideologically pure can huddle together for warmth. It offers the illusion of safety but not the bracing experience of truth. It is also an exclusionary place where even friends are not welcome if they dare to utter a word of dissent. Lastly, it is an undemocratic place because its denizens would rather clasp their hands over their ears than engage in grown-up discussion on painful subjects. Back in May 1977, I wrote an article for the New Statesman magazine about what was happening on British campuses which effectively kicked off my journalistic career. Amazingly, it can be found online. I wrote then: “Anti-Zionist propaganda is a crude attempt to present the Middle East as a kind of black and white world, where good confronts evil and the forces of light do battle against the forces of darkness. As such, it is a profound insult to the intelligence of students and at variance with the basic concept and purpose of a university.” I was around the same age when I wrote those words as some of the students at Berkeley now. I would urge the leaders of the Jewish Student Union to reconsider. We don’t live in a black and white world and it’s OK to love Israel while admitting that it is far from perfect. That kind of love comes with an implied commitment to work for a better Israel, a better Middle East, a better world. Shallow, uncritical adoration is not what Israel wants or needs. It will not sustain either us or Israel. It is bound to fail when confronted with the stern test of reality.

Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group.