Jewish Student Union’s vote to bar student group sparks controversy

When the UC Berkeley Jewish Student Union voted against giving membership to a student group in November, it sparked a nationwide debate that culminated in the union’s parent organization suggesting that the union reverse its decision.

The campus’s branch of J Street U — an organization whose stated values are pro-Israel and pro-peace — drew heavy criticism from union member clubs who stated that it acted contrary to those values, resulting in the club failing to gain entrance into the union.

During the Nov 16. meeting at which the vote to determine whether to admit J Street U to the union took place, Tikvah, a campus club that advocates Zionism — the movement of the Jewish people for self-determination in Israel — denounced J Street U for allegedly failing to uphold its stated values through actions such as inviting Assaf Sharon, founding member of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, to campus to speak in the spring of 2010.

Tikvah members said at the meeting that they consider Sharon to be anti-Israel, but J Street U argued that Sharon’s beliefs are beneficial to a solution to conflict in Israel.

“As a committed pro-Israel organization, the Jewish Student Union has the responsibility to ensure that those claiming to represent our community support the Jewish State,” said Tikvah co-president Jacob Lewis in a statement posted on Tikvah’s website on Dec. 7. “Because (J Street U) has a history of acting outside of these goals, the organization fell far short of the votes needed to gain the (union’s) support.”

J Street U needed two-thirds of the vote — with voters including the union board as well as member organizations — for admittance, but it received only nine, with 10 votes against and two abstaining.

Members of the campus’s J Street U chapter said they believe the union is censoring discussion on Israel by excluding their club from membership in a Dec. 7 op-ed posted on the Jewish Daily Forward’s website.

In the op-ed, UC Berkeley students and J Street U members Simone Zimmerman, Jeremy Elster, Isaiah Kirshner-Breen and Alon Mazor said they have been wrongly accused of being anti-Israel and simply wish to be part of the larger Israel discussion.

“The Berkeley (union’s) vote is emblematic of a larger trend,” the four said in the op-ed. “Even as pillars of the American Jewish establishment recognize the need to include J Street U and others like us in the broadening tent of pro-Israel advocacy, those on the right double their efforts to shut us out.”

Leaders of both student organizations could not be reached for comment.

Amid heavy criticism from a variety of Jewish publications, the directors of Berkeley Hillel, the union’s sponsoring organization, encouraged the union to reconsider its vote in a Dec. 8 letter to j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.

In the letter, the organization’s board president, Barbara Davis, and executive director, Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, wrote that while they respect the union’s ability to decide for itself, they support J Street U just as much as they do other Israel-focused groups.

“Berkeley Hillel is committed to creating a pluralistic community that embraces the diversity of our Jewish tradition,” the letter states. “At a time when Jewish students are seeking community, we are careful not to exclude Jewish students, and we embrace the wisdom of our namesake Hillel by embodying the value of an inclusive community.”

The union has not announced whether it will vote again on J Street U’s admission.

Christopher Yee covers communities.