Once again, individuals within and without the UC Berkeley Jewish community are struggling to understand the Jewish Student Union’s vote to deny membership to the student group J Street U at Berkeley. While leaders of the union have offered some compelling justification for the decision, the union — and the student body at large — would greatly benefit by including J Street U.
For the second time in as many years, J Street U unsuccessfully applied to join the union, which acts as an umbrella organization for Jewish student groups on campus. This time around, defenses of J Street’s rejection have largely rested on the grounds that the progressive campus group aligns itself with another organization composed of Israeli military veterans who speak out critically about their experiences. That group, Breaking the Silence, understandably makes some students uncomfortable, but it is not a sufficient reason to exclude J Street U from the union.
After discussions with union leaders Daphna Torbati and Ariel Prince, as well as campus J Street U leader Elon Rov, it became clear, in the opinion of this board, that there should be a place for J Street within the union. According to copies of the union’s bylaws and Israel-related policy provided by Torbati, part of the union’s purpose is to look for ways of improving the Jewish experience on campus, and it also strives to provide a safe space where students can express “a wide spectrum of views regarding their relationships with Israel.”
Admitting the campus J Street U chapter would directly serve both of those goals: It would improve their community’s experience by making the union more inclusive. It could also go a long way toward attracting a more diverse set of students to the union. At least some Jewish students within the larger campus community who are not currently part of the union might become more involved were a group like J Street U one of its members.
Still, the union’s reservations are valid. Many students affiliated with the union do not support the political agenda advanced by the campus J Street U, specifically reflected by its association with Breaking the Silence. And policy the union follows clearly states that it must not support speakers who promote views inconsistent with its underlying principle of strong support for Israel. While that principle could be interpreted to apply against J Street U in this instance, it can also be interpreted differently. There are multiple methods of expressing support for Israel, and the union should do its best to encompass all such perspectives, even if they are highly critical.
Torbati and Prince indicated in their discussion with this board that J Street U would be more likely to gain entry into the union if the group also brought speakers to campus who provided a more supportive perspective on the Israeli military. Although Rov said J Street U expressed support for a speaker series like that at the meeting where the union considered J Street U’s membership, more concrete proposals need to be pursued moving forward. Perhaps if J Street U and the union collaborated on a diverse speaker series that included Breaking the Silence and groups with opposing viewpoints, it could be a first step toward working through some of the specific problems that arose this semester.
As others have said with regard to this issue, there is not one way to be pro-Israel. But there is only one path toward a more inclusive and representative Jewish Student Union: full inclusion of J Street U.
Editor’s Note: Opinion page editor Noah Kulwin recused himself from this editorial because he is the West Coast representative to the J Street U national student board.