A new campus pro-Israel organization called J Street U is currently applying for COSO recognition. This campus inter-faith group will promote an open discourse about the importance of a peaceful, two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. Although the group is openly pro-Israel, it stresses the role of Israel and all other nations in creating peace between all peoples in the Middle East. Still, the general reaction to the title of “pro-Israel” has caused some people to ask whether outwardly supporting Israel only serves to further polarize the debate on the middle east.
The association of “pro-Israel” with “anti-Palestinian” or “anti-Muslim” has always surprised me. At the end of every year, my Hebrew school votes on where to donate its tzedakah money. Tzedakah means” justice” in Hebrew, and each week the school collects money in order to redress the injustices of the world. The first year of the Iraq War, one of my friends suggested that we give to an organization that sent teddy bears to Iraqi children. Our Jewish history teacher, a native Israeli, took the podium and explained that we could not use our money to do this, because Iraqis hated Israel.
Anger seized me. Did she not understand that if we left them without toys, they would certainly come to hate Israel? Did she really believe that Iraqi children, possibly without homes, maybe mourning family members, were more focused on hatred of Israel than their own misery? Even if they were, would that be any reason to deny them compassion? I envisioned a vicious future without teddy bears and full of division—all due to an unwillingness to relinquish prejudice and fear.
In that moment, I was ashamed that I had ever sung Hatikvah (or, “Hope”), the Israeli national anthem, because I had lost hope. I had lost faith that this country could mean anything other than a blind and rigid instinct of self-defense. Our teacher’s statement made clear that a knee-jerk protection of Israel had overcome a commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam (repairing the world). An intense and irrational instinct had replaced the most important Jewish values—the values that I, as a Jew and a person, hope to struggle for through the rest of my life.
Both in the classroom and in the global discourse on Israel, we sometimes lose track of these values. It seems that a healthy desire to protect Israel’s existence is often undermined with a fear of “the other”—whether the Palestinian, the Muslim, or anyone who disagrees with Israeli policy. As a result, many people today prefer not to define themselves as “pro-Israel” because the term has come to connote a narrow-minded and insular defense of all Israel’s actions.
I’m accustomed to insularity. I grew up in an area with a very small Jewish minority. Some people told me being Jewish was weird, others worried that I was un-baptized, and someone once asked me if Jews believe in God. People just didn’t have room for Judaism in their worldview. In sophomore year of high school, a rabbi spoke to us as part of our school series on spirituality. Afterwards, I asked my friend what she had thought of the lecture. She shrugged and answered that she hadn’t listened because Judaism wasn’t “her religion.” Just as I had when my teacher spoke against donating toys, I envisioned a future fractured by religious ignorance.
I wish to dedicate myself to preventing such a future. On-campus groups such as Multi-faith Council are a great way to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding, and I have learned much from my participation. While I was looking to take interfaith cooperation beyond discussion, a friend introduced me to J Street U, the campus arm of the political organization J Street. I was thrilled. J Street, which supports a two-state solution, is firmly grounded in the values of social justice and human rights. It offers an opportunity to advocate for humanitarian values and to put interfaith work on the ground by working with Jews and non-Jews to promote peace. Our small, close-knit campus offers a special opportunity for people of different backgrounds and beliefs to work together, and this microcosm will provide useful training for the larger world. Ultimately, I believe that the work of groups such as J Street U will provide a firm foundation for an Israel that I can be proud of.