Debate among all Jewish groups belongs at U.C. Berkeley

In the secular press, U.C. Berkeley is portrayed as a diverse, vibrant, intellectual environment where award-winning faculty receive accolades for their research, and students engage in lively political and ethical discourse.

In the Jewish press, U.C. Berkeley is a dark, foreboding institution rife with anti-Semitism that is hostile to Jews and Israel while being the focal point for anti-Zionist agitation in the country, if not the world.

As the former student body president, and a senior at Cal who has been intimately involved in most of the issues that have garnered headlines in the Jewish press, I want to set the record straight.

In November, U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) voted to bar a J Street U chapter from gaining membership and, predictably, the Jewish press was awash with articles and opinion pieces claiming that J Street U and other progressive Jewish organizations at Berkeley are symptomatic of the anti-Israel sentiments that pervade the campus.

Those who decry the lively debate about Israel taking place at U.C. Berkeley among the Jewish students are wrong, and those who declare it “anti-Israel” could not be further from the truth.

First, it must be revealed that despite its misleadingly inclusive name, the Jewish Student Union is not necessarily representative of the broader Jewish community at U.C. Berkeley.

The JSU does a fantastic job of distributing student government funds to JSU member organizations. It is an assembly of some of the more active members of Jewish student groups, but “active” should not be confused with “majority opinion.” If asked to weigh in on the recent decision by the JSU, most Jewish students at Berkeley would probably have responded with a perplexed “the JS- who?”

The two groups that have been the focus of the recent round of articles and editorials are J Street U and the progressive Jewish group Kesher Enoshi. There is no doubt that these groups support left-leaning causes. They are not unlike thousands of Jews throughout this country and in Israel who, to quote journalist-author Peter Beinart, choose not to “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.” In fact, their views are not out of sync with Israeli political parties such as Kadima or Meretz.

On a campus where students are thirsty to learn about progressive issues, Kesher Enoshi has hosted programs discussing Bedouin rights, Muslim-Jewish dialogue and peace-building initiatives in Israel. Many of these programs drew rapt audiences.

Because of their important work in presenting Israel in new ways, and their right to their own beliefs on Israeli politics, I reject assertions that these left-leading Jewish student organizations are not worthy of recognition by the larger U.C. Berkeley Jewish community. In an era when the very participation of the next Jewish generation is in question, can we afford to shut the doors on these passionate students?

During a BDS campaign (boycott, divestment and sanctions) at U.C. Berkeley in 2010, a bill went before the student senate asking the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) to divest from several companies doing business with Israel. Few outsiders realized that the most compelling points made to the non-Jewish student senators were those that reflected less dogmatic, more balanced opinions. Jewish students who stood up and could articulate a cohesive pro-Israel argument that acknowledged the criticisms and even the blemishes on Israel’s record were the ones who carried the day.

If young Israel advocates are to succeed in the work the Jewish community demands of them, they must be able to engage all opinions and be challenged even within the Jewish community. I witnessed their effectiveness because I was one of the ASUC senators who spent countless hours lobbying votes, coordinating with Hillel staff, scheduling meetings with the Israeli consul general and ensuring that the divestment legislation failed on the Berkeley campus.

Even in the midst of high-profile Israel-related political activity, and contrary to popular belief, Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley do not feel threatened, under attack or marginalized.

A recent study sponsored by the U.C. Berkeley Office of Planning and Analysis — titled “University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey” and sent to all U.C. Berkeley students — showed that of students who self-identified as Jewish, 91 percent responded, “I feel I belong on this campus,” a full 4 percentage points higher than the university average.

Furthermore, 90 percent of Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley said, “Knowing what I know now, I would choose to re-enroll on this campus.”

I hope prospective Jewish students read these numbers and realize Berkeley is a safe campus for Jewish students. While the scaremongering of right-leaning Israel advocacy organizations may make for effective fundraising, it is an inaccurate portrayal of Jewish life at Berkeley and undermines the potential of the campus to recruit effective Israel advocates that can actively engage the real detractors of Israel that are indeed present on this campus.

The truth about Jewish life at U.C. Berkeley is that passionate student leadership has created a vibrant community. These students engage in heated political debates regarding Israeli politics, but also support spirited Jewish life that includes holiday celebrations and service projects.

Berkeley Hillel is at the center of Jewish activity for the U.C. Berkeley campus and has shown incredible fortitude in the way it supports diverse politics and strong pro-Israel programming.

I hope that, in the future, my peers have the strength to rise above the example being set by some in the broader Jewish community — and strive to be more welcoming of differing viewpoints.

Noah Stern is a fourth-year student at U.C. Berkeley majoring in political economy. He was the 2010-11 president of ASUC and is currently a member of the Berkeley Hillel board of directors.