Jewish Student Union votes to deny membership to J Street U

Nathaniel Solley/Staff
Berkeley Hillel, a center for Jewish life, hosts the Jewish Student Union's meetings. JSU denied J Street U's application for the second time Wednesday.

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The campus Jewish Student Union voted Wednesday to deny membership to J Street U at Berkeley, a Jewish student political advocacy group on campus whose application to join the union also was denied two years ago after the group faced accusations of being anti-Israel.

The bylaws of the Jewish Student Union, an umbrella organization for Jewish student groups on campus, stipulate that a member organization must not host speakers who demonize Israel, said Jewish Student Union President Daphna Torbati.

That requirement was a point of contention surrounding J Street U, which advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Much of the disagreement focused on J Street U’s relationship with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli military veterans’ organization that criticizes Israel’s military operations in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, said Elon Rov, a co-chair of J Street U.

“We are not afraid, as American Jews, to address those (difficult issues),” said Shayna Howitt, J Street U’s national communications co-chair. “We are not afraid … to host people who we might disagree with. We’re not afraid to stand up and question how we can best support Israel, because we’re committed to the safety of Israel.”

Breaking the Silence, however, has garnered serious criticism from other Jewish groups that belong to the Jewish Student Union. Torbati said she was concerned the group unfairly disparages Israeli soldiers.

Jewish Student Union members Avi Hecht and David Eliahu said Jewish students with connections to Israel would be alienated if J Street U were allowed to host Breaking the Silence under the Jewish Student Union umbrella.

“For a lot of members … the (Jewish Student Union is) the only place where they can express their love for Israel because of such an anti-Israel campus climate,” Torbati said. “A lot of people have said that they want the (Jewish Student Union) to stay a place they feel comfortable saying they love Israel.”

Hecht added that Breaking the Silence does not offer a fair picture of Israel’s military operations.

“Regardless of J Street’s intents, the effect of bringing a public event like BTS is detrimental to the image of Israel on our campus,” Eliahu said.

J Street U invited Breaking the Silence to campus in fall 2012, and its founder, Yehuda Shaul, will appear on campus again in November.

J Street U last applied to the Jewish Student Union in November 2011 but was rejected for inviting a co-founder of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement to campus in spring 2010, among other reasons.

Members of J Street U said they believed their relationship with the Jewish Student Union had improved after working with the campus Jewish community against the ASUC Senate’s contentious divestment bill last spring.

“We did want and expect that the Jewish community was finally going to legitimize our voice,” Rov said. “But we were disappointed.”

J Street U needed eight votes from the union board and its member organizations to be admitted but received only two, with eight votes against it and two abstentions, Torbati said.

Howitt said that J Street U is not anti-Israel but that it is critical of Israel’s policies in the disputed territories.

“The best way to support Israel is not by refusing to talk about the politics that are often uncomfortable and scary — it’s by addressing those politics,” Howitt said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, a petition circulated online by J Street U calling for the Jewish community to be more inclusive had collected 166 signatures, including those of Jewish ASUC Senators Grant Fineman and Liza Raffi, according to Rov.

“We’re not appealing the decision,” Rov said. “We want to prove to the wider Jewish community that the decision does not reflect the vision of Jewish students … We think this decision is inconsistent with what Jewish students actually want.”

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected]

A previous version of this article implied that a number of students at last Wednesday’s meeting of the Jewish Student Union walked out in response to J Street U’s failure to secure membership. In fact, the vote on J Street U was the last item on the meeting’s agenda, so students left the room at the meeting’s natural conclusion.