Cals left-leaning Jewish group strikes out on its own

Tzedek, the left-leaning Jewish student group at U.C. Berkeley, has declared itself independent from Berkeley Hillel and the Jewish Student Union, charging that the umbrella group is not as inclusive as it claims to be.

The JSU is the organizational umbrella of the 20-odd Jewish student groups within Hillel, and being student-led, serves as the Jewish voice on campus.

Gidon Felsen, a Tzedek member who until recently was the liaison to Berkeley Hillel, said the relationship between the two has been rocky since the start of Tzedek two years ago. But aggravating the situation was Tzedek’s co-sponsorship with Students for Justice in Palestine of last year’s panel featuring Israeli refuseniks, soldiers refusing to serve in the territories.

Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, said Hillel had no problem with Tzedek putting on the refusenik panel — and even invited the group to hold it at Berkeley Hillel — just its choice of co-sponsors.

Also troublesome was another panel Tzedek organized with members of the International Solidarity Movement.

The ISM, which consists of mostly internationals who serve as “human shields” in the territories, does not support a Jewish state. Some in the Jewish community maintain that it also supports violence.

Felsen said he believes that ISM is a non-violent movement. “We should know what’s going on in the occupied territories,” Felsen said, “and ISMers are the very people who can report on that.”

Felsen said no rule was in place when Tzedek organized the ISM panel, but shortly after, JSU added a new one: that JSU-sponsored events must have a sufficiently pro-Israel stance.

“These rules were intended to clarify things, but the effect was to give Hillel staff veto power over the programs we could do,” Felsen alleged. “Even if we had programs that would fit within the JSU bylaws, this still enabled staff to say that’s not supportive [of Israel] enough. And they were unwritten rules we couldn’t challenge.”

David Singer, JSU president, said he “flat-out disagrees” with Tzedek’s view.

He said the JSU’s bylaws are clear in intending to sponsor a wide range of programming, as long as it is committed to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

“They’re pushing the left edge of our tent,” said Singer. “They know that and we know that. This adds to the plurality of our opinion. But since they’ve been a member, there have been many programs they’ve wanted to sponsor which were outside the boundary of our tent, so they weren’t sponsored.”

More recently, Felsen said Tzedek was censured by the JSU for showing public dissent around the decision to bring Mideast scholar Daniel Pipes to campus, whom Tzedek considers racist.

Tzedek’s decision to disaffiliate with the JSU leaves the centrist Israel Action Committee the only Israel activist group within Hillel.

Dafka, a right-leaning group of Israel activists, was voted out of the JSU last year because it is not student-led, and therefore didn’t comply with JSU bylaws.

Singer voiced disappointment over Tzedek’s departure. “As a community, we are made stronger by having a plurality of opinions, as long as they fall within our criteria and meet our statement of principles,” Singer said.

Weisberg added that Tzedek had a history of not following Hillel’s procedures as well.

“I’m sorry they made the decision they did,” he said. “I still maintain the Hillel tent is very large. No one’s ever said you can’t criticize the Israeli government’s policies or Israel, but it must be based on Israel’s legitimate right to flourish as a democratic Jewish state.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."