Students drop pro-Israel portion of J Street slogan

J Street’s university arm has dropped the “pro-Israel” part of the left-wing lobby’s “pro-Israel, pro-peace” slogan to avoid alienating students.

That decision was part of the message conveyed to young activists who attended a special weekend program for students ahead of J Street’s first annual conference, which began Oct. 25.

Students are seen as a key component of the 18-month-old organization’s constituency base, and at a weekend session, some 250 participating students mapped out strategies for bringing J Street’s approach to college campuses and encouraging students to join in the effort.

“We don’t want to isolate people because they don’t feel quite so comfortable with ‘pro-Israel,’ so we say ‘pro-peace,’” said American University junior Lauren Barr of the “J Street U” slogan, “but behind that is ‘pro-Israel.’ ”

Barr, secretary of the J Street U student board that decided the slogan’s terminology, explained that on campus, “people feel alienated when the conversation revolves around a connection to Israel only, because people feel connected to Palestine, people feel connected to social justice, people feel connected to the Middle East.”

Young delegates to the J Street conference in Washington, D.C., dance at the “Rocking the Status Quo” party Oct. 26. photo/jta/j street

She noted that the individual student chapters would be free to add “pro-Israel,” “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine,” or other wording that they felt would be effective on this issue, since “it’s up to the individuals on campus to know their audience.”

Yonatan Shechter, a junior at Hampshire College, said the ultra-liberal Massachusetts campus is inhospitable to terms like “Zionist” and that when his former organization, the Union of Progressive Zionists (which has been absorbed into J Street U), dropped that last word of its name, “people were so relieved.”

Shechter said that J Street U allows students who support Israel to have an address on his campus, adding that nothing more to the right exists or would even be sustainable. He also said the only other Jewish student group on campus “is decidedly not political … they won’t go beyond having falafel on Independence Day.”

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami said that when it came to his organization’s work with the student groups, “If the way to engage the young part of our community is to give them space to work through their relationship with Israel, then we’re going to do that. We’re not going to shut them out, because the only way to keep them in the community is to give them the space to work that out.”

J Street itself has repeatedly emphasized the pro-Israel aspect of its identity, stressing its stand in support of Israel and the need for a two-state solution in the face of criticism that it doesn’t squarely support the Jewish state.

Ben-Ami described himself as “concerned but realistic” about the students’ choice to leave out the pro-Israel piece of J Street’s slogan.

“Some in the community might not want to hear that this is where a lot of young people have come to,” he said, “but we have to deal with people where they’re at and address their concerns.”

The student sessions included activism training on using the media, building campus organizations and lobbying political leaders.

They also addressed issues of concern, including “Anti-Semitism and Israel,” a session described as focusing on the fact that “anti-Semitism does exist, even within progressive communities we often consider our allies” and asking how open conversations still can be promoted.

Another event was titled “Reckoning With the Radical Left on Campus: Alternatives to Boycotts and Divestment,” and called for “developing alternative methods for change.”

One participant, though, expressed surprise when the latter session shifted from the advertised topic of countering divestment to a discussion of how to effectively call for divestment from products made in settlements without a broader call for divestment from all of Israel.

“It is our goal to change traditional conversations when it comes to Israel and to broaden the notion that there is only one way to express love and concern for it,” Ben-Ami said to applause from the students.

“For too long, our voice — the voice of mainstream progressive Jews on Israel — has been absent from the political playing field in Washington and around the country.”