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  • Theodore Horowitz '24

An Interview with J Street U Brown

Students who are not new to Israel/Palestine discourse may be familiar with an organization called J Street. In a period of increased political polarization, J Street caters to a critically important demographic: Jews who support both Israel and Palestine. The national body has long advocated for a two-state solution, and it offers an alternative to organizations like AIPAC for politically active Jews who support the end of the occupation and settlement of the West Bank but also feel connected to Israel for religious, cultural, historical, or familial reasons and support its continued existence as a Jewish and democratic state.


To many, J Street’s program may seem contradictory. While it condemns Hamas unequivocally and states support for “Israel’s goal of removing the organization from operational control of Gaza,” the national organization also stresses the importance of respecting international law and differentiating between Hamas and the civilian population of Gaza. While it has called for a ceasefire since January 22nd, 2024, J Street also supports making “every possible effort to secure the immediate release of the remaining hostages” and exploring “alternative strategies and tactics for removing Hamas from operational control of Gaza that minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.” While it does not oppose US aid to Israel, J Street continually urges the White House to “impose clear guardrails on Israeli policy as it works to secure further security assistance” and demands “a massive commitment to humanitarian relief by the United States that matches its commitment to security assistance for Israel.” While the president of J Street has labeled his organization as “a Zionist, pro-Israel and anti-BDS organization,” he also recognizes that Israel’s current form has deviated from the progressive dream from which it was born and has characterized J Street’s mission as including “defining what it means to be ‘pro-Israel’ to include support for Palestinian rights and freedom and to ensure that being pro-Israel is not defined as being ‘anti’ anyone else—Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, et cetera.” 


J Street also maintains a presence on many university campuses through chapters of its student wing, J Street U. One such chapter has historically served as a place to unite pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activism at Brown University. Though it went “off radar” in the months following October 7th, J Street Brown announced its return during a meeting on April 10th. One week later, the club held a screening of the film Israelism, along with a Q-and-A with its director Sam Eilertsen. It seems that J Street Brown is back in business. The following is an interview with long-time J Street Brown member and co-author of the May 2023 Brown Daily Herald op-ed “The Israeli Government Must be Held Accountable to Progressive Values,” Michael Farrell-Rosen ‘24. 


What is J Street? 

 

J Street is a nonprofit founded in 2008 by Jeremy Ben-Ami working to advance a two-state solution and end Israel's occupation of the West Bank, along with a range of other policy priorities. It was sort of founded as a counterweight to AIPAC in that it was meant to be a voice that’s present in the halls of Congress and in the Jewish community that was still pro-Israel, but was willing to criticize the Israeli government's policies when necessary and when those policies interfered with the peace process that I think we all hope to see happen someday.

 

So that's J Street as a national organization. It has many nonprofits and an educational arm, it has a lobbying arm, and it has a political action committee. It operates in DC and operates around the country in regional chapters, and it also operates on college campuses, including here at Brown, where we have our J Street U Brown chapter.

  

When and why did you get involved with J Street?

 

I'm Jewish, I was raised Jewish in a conservative Jewish synagogue in Virginia. I went to Jewish sleepaway camp for seven years in Maryland, and I was in leadership in BBYO. So I had some sort of Israel education from that upbringing.

 

It was not an ardently pro-Israel education, it was just an education about the State of Israel, and some of the wars in the 20th century. My dad also spent a gap year in Israel. He took us to Israel when I was ten. He has a lot of American Jewish friends who made aliyah and now live there—one of them was our tour guide. So I had this general idea about the State of Israel. As I got older and developed a separate interest in politics and Congress, I learned more about pro-Israel politics in the United States and our foreign policy toward Israel. And I got, in my opinion, the accurate sense that, in the 21st century, Israel's government had not been behaving in a way conducive to peace with Palestinians, and that was something that conflicted with my values both as a person and as an American Jew in favor of freedom, equality, liberation, et cetera. Seeing the suffering borne by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank, where they live under Israeli military occupation, made me want to get involved on this issue in a greater sense. So when I came to Brown I was shopping around for different Israel-Palestine groups, and I found J Street. It aligned most with my values.

 

Can you tell me a little bit more about Brown’s chapter of J Street U?

 

So J Street U is the student organizing arm of J Street, the national organization. J Street U Brown has existed for quite a long time—I think going back to 2014 at least, maybe 2012—as a way to provide a space for students, especially Jewish students, who feel that the way the Israeli government is behaving is unsustainable, and that the United States needs to do more to push for a two-state solution and peace in the region.

 

We also need to work within our Jewish communities—Hillel, synagogues, et cetera—to allow space for that sort of criticism of the Israeli government. I think, unfortunately, one of the things that we run into at J Street U Brown is that people still consider us a fringe group, even though I would offer that the views I'm expressing here represent, if not the majority, a very strong plurality of American Jews. But there are still groups, people, and institutions that want to shut down that sort of discourse.

 

J Street U Brown has done a lot of work: educational, political advocacy, and more. We've held teach-ins, we've called our members of Congress. We frequently have meetings with Rhode Island's members of Congress. We work within Hillel, and we have hosted events at Hillel about a variety of things, like the Israeli elections. We’ve hosted events about occupation, which is a word we use a lot as a way to to spotlight the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank. We’ve hosted events about the Oslo Accords. We just provide space for people to talk. People love to talk about this—for good reason. There are a lot of complicated threads including identity, political views, and trauma. All these things contribute to the ways in which Jewish students on campus interact with this issue.

 

Where does our chapter of J Street stand on Zionism (Zionism being the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state)?

 

I can only speak for myself and for J Street as a national organization, but I think Zionism is the belief in Jewish self-determination. And obviously there are different strains of Zionism: revisionist, liberal, et cetera.

 

But J Street U Brown has never been a place—I don't think ever will be a place—where we litigate people's Zionism, or whether they're Zionist or not, and use that as a litmus test on being part of our space.

 

In general, I think focusing on specific terms—e.g., Zionism, apartheid, and right now, genocide—and whether you should or shouldn't say those terms, or how you identify within those terms, can be a bit of a red herring when it comes to the situation on the ground in Israel-Palestine and in the sense that those conversations often don't lead to material improvements in people's lives or to more freedom, equality, safety, and security, which is what we'd all like to see.

 

How is Brown's chapter of J Street different from other groups on campus? What sets you apart?

 

It can be hard to articulate some of those differences because you find points of agreement between J Street and SJP, BSI, and JFCN. For example, we're anti-occupation, and that's something SJP would agree with. On the other hand, we condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization, and that’s something that BSI would agree with. So there are a lot of similarities.

 

In terms of differences, I would say we're providing a space for students who don't necessarily identify as a Zionist or anti-Zionist, or who do identify as a Zionist or anti-Zionist but are comfortable uniting under a shared set of values instead of a self-professed ideology or a self-professed interpretation of Zionism. I think that's one main difference. I also think that if you just look at J Street’s positions at a national level and at J Street U Brown, we have our own niche that's totally reflexive.

 

I know Brown Students for Israel has done events before, like phone banking for candidates endorsed by AIPAC, which includes Republicans who are ostensibly supporters of the US-Israel relationship as it is, or who want to see it further strengthened. It’s not necessarily that J Street is not supportive of the US-Israel relationship, but we have very specific ideas about what that relationship should look like, namely that the United States government should put pressure on Israel, and especially Netanyahu's ultra-right government populated by some ultra-right-wing figures. We believe that they need to stop expanding settlements, that they need to not corrupt Israel's democracy through the misguided judicial reform plan that I believe was struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court, at least parts of it. Those sorts of ideas.

 

We're also generally operating in a more political space than Brown Students for Israel. I know Brown Students for Israel does a lot of events related to Israeli culture. That's not something we wouldn't do at J Street, but that's not our focus. We're a political organization, and we have political goals.

 

With SJP or JFCN, I don't think that many Zionist students would feel super welcome in those organizations, and I mean Zionist in the sense of believing in Israel as a Jewish democratic state. But in J Street there is a space for them.

 

To what extent does Brown's J Street align with the national organization? 

 

There's sort of a healthy relationship between J Street U and J Street as a national organization. There are shared values and general shared ideas when it comes to policy, but also the student groups can offer a bit of pressure in certain areas. And you could caricature that as leftward pressure, but I don't think it's always leftward pressure. It's sometimes just speaking out more about certain things. What plays in Washington is not necessarily going to play on your college campus.

 

So that's to say J Street U Brown is certainly positioned somewhat farther left than the national organization.

 

In what ways?


Let me clarify here, J Street U Brown doesn't have official positions on anything. But when it comes to a ceasefire in the current Israel-Hamas war, I would say that the students who identify with J Street U Brown were generally in favor of a ceasefire more quickly than the national organization. I think that's often reflective of the political realities, again, in Washington, in the halls of Congress, in the Biden administration, and also in Israel.

 

Where did J Street go over the months following October 7th? What happened? 

 

Connecting to my previous answer, because students were in favor of a ceasefire more quickly than J Street as a national organization, I think they looked to other outlets for their activism, like Jews for Ceasefire Now, which was expressively in favor of the ceasefire.

 

That was part of it. I also think the paradigm pre-October-7th was that the Netanyahu government was maintaining or worsening the status quo, save for that one period when Netanyahu wasn't prime minister. It was very easy as an organization to spend all our time criticizing the Israeli government's actions, because, frankly, there was and is a lot to criticize. But when you had like the horrific attack on October 7th by Hamas, which everyone in J Street U Brown was extremely upset about, and then you had the Israeli military campaign following that attack, you couldn't only be criticizing Israel through that, and you shouldn't be, really, because the events of October 7th were so horrific.

 

So I think a lot of students found that the dynamic that existed pre-October-7th was not applicable anymore. People felt very comfortable criticizing Netanyahu’s government but didn't really know how comfortable they felt in other respects, because October 7th shifted things so much.


So, to clarify, after October 7th people became less comfortable criticizing the Israeli government because of the trauma of the attack?

 

In a general sense, I think what you said was probably pretty accurate. People's activism on this issue prior to October 7th had been only criticizing Israel's government because there wasn't really much else to talk about. That was the main thing going on when it came to the US-Israel relationship: the judicial reform, expansion of settlements, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich joining the majority coalition in the Knesset.

 

And then suddenly October 7th happened and we were talking about all sorts of different things. We were asking questions like, “What should the Israeli military campaign look like?” “What’s the best way to ensure security for Israel in a way that doesn't cause wanton Palestinian suffering?” I don't think those conversations fit well in the J Street chapter as it existed then, so people looked to other outlets to have those conversations. I think there were a lot of informal groups of Jewish students who wanted to talk about these dual ideas: being traumatized by the October 7th attacks, but also not liking where things were going when it came to civilian casualties in Gaza. People wanted to talk about those two things together, and I don't think J Street U Brown was necessarily the best place for that, because all our work prior had focused on other things.

 

In the most macro of senses, October 7th was a total shock in so many ways. Some of the established structures for political advocacy on this issue kind of failed. What do we even advocate for? You advocate for the hostages being released, obviously. And you advocate for Hamas to be dealt with. But how should they be dealt with? Is it even possible to deal with Hamas? Super important questions that no one has really answered in a satisfying way to me, even now, seven months later.

 

Do you think the national organization has answered those questions in a sufficient way?

 

I think the national organization has responded to legislation and advanced priorities in a way that I agree with at this moment. We need to make sure that aid to Israel, offensive aid to Israel, is used in a way that complies with US and international law, as should be the case with aid to any country. And we should focus on de-escalation and not escalation to a regional war. There also needs to be much more humanitarian aid let into Gaza, and we might have to get creative with that. And as soon as possible, there should be some sort of negotiated ceasefire where the hostages being released leads to a stop in the fighting.

 

So let me see if I got this right: after October 7th, J Street went off the map because it wasn't the right place to be asking the sort of questions that needed to be asked, like, “How do we get rid of Hamas while also avoiding disproportionate civilian casualties?”

 

It's not even that it wasn't the right place, it's just that we weren't set up for that. But, I mean, to some extent no one was really set up for that. It's a very nuanced argument. Nuance is much maligned, but I also think the ceasefire part is important, too—J Street as a national organization not calling for a ceasefire until later.

 

Why did J Street come back?

 

I can speak personally to this. I've interacted with a lot of Jewish students who felt like they didn't feel at home in any of the organizations on campus that are engaged on Israel-Palestine. I think J Street is a natural space for that sort of student. I also think some of the kinks between the student group and the national group have been smoothed out a bit, in that J Street as a national organization is now calling for a bilateral negotiated ceasefire.

 

What are the plans vis-à-vis J Street for the coming years?

 

I think we have a good crop of younger leaders who have been involved in the latter half of this semester. They are going to take the reins and keep working on campus. J Street was here before October 7th, and it was a very important space. I think it's good that J Street is here after the atrocities of October 7th to provide a space for political advocacy on this issue.

 

Right now, the US House of Representatives is considering a foreign aid package that provides aid to Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel, with humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza. Is there another group on campus that can make calls to their congressmen if there's an amendment that removes that humanitarian aid to Palestinians? Is there a group on campus that will make calls to their member of congress if there is another bill that does something that is contrary to the peace process, or that prevents the Biden administration from doing some things like sanctioning violent extremist settlers? No, I don't think there is. J Street is very important in that it provides an outlet for political advocacy to students who feel that you can be connected to Israel but also want Israel to be better and want there to be a diplomatic, peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 

Last question. Let’s pretend I'm a first-year at the fall semester club fair. What's your elevator pitch for J Street?

 

I would say if you feel connected to Israel and you also feel that there needs to be a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that acknowledges the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and also recognizes the freedom, equality, and dignity of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Druze, Bedouin—of everyone who lives between the river and the sea—then J Street is an organization to engage with. You can also find a community of people who feel similarly. We can get into specifics about how we dislike Netanyahu and his government and how we want the US to put more pressure on the Israeli government to work towards peace and a two-state solution. I think in general it's a space for people who feel strongly in favor of peace, freedom, equality, and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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