JStreet and the future of American Israel Engagement

November 8, 2009 by

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I got a fortune in a cookie this week that said, “Progress always involves risk.” (That’s not so much a fortune as an addage, but I’ll overlook that for now.)

Anyway, I looked at this tiny piece of paper for a minute and then I put it in the box where I keep all my fortune cookie fortunes, and went back to thinking about how to write about Jstreet. I went to the conference two weeks ago to be on a panel at Jstreet University, the part of the lobby that’s seeking to build its presence on college campuses, about anti Semitism in the Israel conversation. I love talking about this sort of thing, and the group of students was engaging, dynamic and fiesty. Being theret gave me this incredible sense of historicity, of really belonging to a movement, but also of being profoundly exhausted.

Jstreet is many things: necessary, promising, optimistic. It will pull American Jews back into the pro-Israel movement by not only allowing them to be pro Israel in the way they see is best, but by adding strength behind them. It is not a radical concept. There’s nothing radical about a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not from where I’m sitting.

I’m naturally a sardonic person, so I’m wont to look on the dark (er) side of things. This kind of criticism is essential to all movement building, and we should remain steadfast in making sure the pro Israel, pro peace lobby is reflective of all American Jews. But the truth is, Jstreet gave me a lot of hope, especially on the Israel education front.

I really believe that Hillel is one of the most provocative places to experience Israel education. You can’t (read: shouldn’t) make assumptions about students in the room, their knowledge, vocabulary, access to Jewish education. You’re meeting them at a point in their lives when lots of opinions have already been formed. It’s a completely different kind of Jewish educational opportunity.

I’ve seen a lot of Israel programs in my time, both very good and very bad, few that actually exist in the middle. A good Israel program makes people uncomfortable. It makes people think. It makes people talk to each other afterwards. It makes them want to write an op/ed. Students might still be having essentially the same fight (is this program anti Israel? Can we have it here?) , but they have to rethink about how to tow their line, what arguments to make, how to tailor them, and maybe even how to change them. They will bring new realities to the table, new questions. Instead of simplifying the issues, they will problematize them.

The right has an incredible capacity to provide resources whenever they detect an “anti Israel” program on campus. Their solution is to bring speakers or materials that assuage the discomfort by assuring students that what they believe, what they have always believed, is still true. Nothing has changed, and nothing needs to.

Enter Jstreet. The reality of a pro peace, pro Israel presence cannot be ignored now, and it will remain and flourish on campus. My hope is that it will help the students who align themselves with it to take and use power. Jstreet should be able to provide for progressive Jews the same fortitude for challenge that the right has for maintaining the status quo. Perhaps the groundwork will be laid on campus for smarter, harder Israel conversations, resulting in more risk, and more progress.

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