J Street U joins the Israeli−Palestinian dialogue on campus
Published: Monday, October 22, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 22, 2012 07:10
Amidst Israel Peace Week and Israeli Apartheid Week, back−and−forth editorials published in the Daily and broader questions of the U.S.−Israel relationship, the Israeli−Palestinian conflict was the subject of heated debate on campus last spring. The new Tufts chapter of J Street U, a self−described “pro−Israel, pro−peace” organization, aims to steer this conversation in a productive and inclusive direction.
“I was very much troubled by the campus climate last spring, in the conversation about the Israeli−Palestinian conflict. I felt like there were some very strong opinions being voiced, and none being represented were my beliefs,” Tufts J Street U co−President Eve Lifson said. “I think a lot of students felt alienated from the events that existed, and were really looking for more complex conversation that really got at the heart of the matter.”
J Street U is the student−organizing arm of larger non−profit organization J Street. According to J Street U’s mission statement, which was ratified by 75 students from 42 universities at the Summer Leadership Institute 2012, the fates of the people on both sides of the conflict are intertwined and a two−state solution is the desired outcome. These tenets, along with bringing depolarizing conversations to campuses, form the foundation upon which the organization is built.
“One thing that’s really important to making progress with the Israeli−Palestinian conflict is to not shut out any voices about it,” Lifson, a senior, said. “We do have a strong political stance that we support a two−state solution, but we’re not hiding from any facts, and we’re really excited to engage different perspectives.”
Although still in its fledgling stage, the Tufts chapter of J Street U has already demonstrated its desire to bring together different voices in a productive environment. Though SJP and FOI both engage with the issues in the Middle East, they do not often engage in them together. Tufts Hillel follows its parent group’s policy, which refuses to co−sponsor events with organizations that advocate for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, including SJP.
On October 10th, J Street U and SJP co−sponsored “The Israeli−Palestinian Conflict and the Roads to Peace,” which featured two guest speakers, Jeff Halper and Daniel May. Halper is the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and May is the director of J Street U.
“The event was very successful,” SJP member Hani Azzam, a sophomore, said. “Friends of Israel [FOI] can’t co−sponsor events with SJP, so that was a definite chasm between both our groups, but J Street provides a different outlet.”
Azzam emphasized the positives of having another group on campus to assuage the dichotomy between SJP and FOI.
“I think that they’re somebody that we’ll look for in the future going forward to co−host events; even though our views don’t align exactly, we still feel is a partner we can engage in a serious and meaningful dialogue with on campus, so I think that there will be a relationship in the future,” he said.
FOI has also reached out to the new group on campus, according to FOI President Shira Shamir, a junior.
“We had a meeting the beginning of the semester, where a couple leaders from FOI and J Street U sat down for a while and fleshed out what the goals of each organization were for the semester and how we could come together and be productive,” Shamir said.
“Two pro−Israel organizations could compete with each other, but why should we do that? [Working together] brings depth to the conversation, and at Tufts, that’s what we’re looking for,” she said.
One initiative that these two groups have already created is Cafe Dilemma, which will be a once−a−month facilitated discussion about issues pertaining to Israel in a friendly environment.
“A certain topic will be chosen, from internal Israeli topics to the Israeli−Palestinian conflict to your own personal relationship [with] Israel, led by questions and articles that we’ve handed out from every side of the spectrum so people can educate themselves and discussions can flow,” Shamir said. “I don’t think anyone is entirely set in their opinions; there are always more things to learn and more ways to challenge each other in a safe space.”
Beyond collaboration with existing groups on campus, Tufts J Street U has leapt into its own projects during the fall semester, such as a postcard campaign geared towards the United States Congress.
J Street U is a non−partisan organization and therefore, will not be lobbying for specific political candidates. Instead, they are working with the larger national initiative to influence any newly elected Congressional representatives come January with student voices from across the country.
“For this semester, our largest campaign involves having students sign postcards in support of a two−state solution saying that they support strong U.S. diplomatic leadership in resolving the Israeli−Palestinian conflict.” Lifson said.
The question of how the student body at−large will respond to the formation of the new group persists as J Street U develops on campus.
“I think we do realize that students are coming to the issue with a variety of perspectives. Some students are more interested in it because of the humanitarian issues related to the conflict, whereas others are more interested from a policy perspective,” J Street U co−President Natalya Minoff said. “So we’re going to try to bring a variety of speakers and try to look at the issues through all different lenses in order to interest students from as wide a range as possible.”
May, the Director of J Street U, emphasized the global impact that young students can have on an issue of conflict is tremendously significant.
“If we can continue to grow and find thousands of young people who are tired of the choice between Israel or Palestine and want to rise above the name−calling to build an organization that can be smart and strategic, J Street U can make an enormous impact,” he told the Daily in an email. “J Street U Tufts can transform the conversation at Tufts. But J Street U Tufts with [Brandeis, Harvard, Wellesley, Williams, U Mass Amherst] — that’s when politicians start noticing, and that’s when students can really make a huge difference.”