09 December 2011

Give J Street a Seat at the UC Berkeley JSU

Way back in ancient history--like 1987--I spoke at a campus rally in Madison in favor of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.  I worked for the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin at the time and while not all the students on the student board at the Hillel were happy with my stance, they respected the need to represent my Zionism with one of its central ideas going back to its foundations in the late 19th century, namely: that an accommodation would ultimately be made between Jews and Arabs and that eventually, there would be two states for two people.

Most students had better things to do than go to a rally on the Library Mall but our principles matter, right?  So I spoke.  Passersby, foodcarts and their customers, a small band of those in favor of two states and their ideological opponents were all present.  The leader of the opposition shouted to me while I spoke that I was a "PLO Faggot."  Clearly this guy was upset.  And, to be sure, a bit unhinged.

Nevertheless, the nickname stuck and for a time, I was known in certain circles as the PLO Faggot, a name I rather enjoyed if only for its utter offensiveness.  It somehow exposed for others the weird and desperate ludicrousness of what would surely be an historical inevitability (two states, that is) and though it certainly didn't help me with girls in any way (a primary if not co-existent philosophical concern among most undergraduates that I hung around with) the moniker indicated that I had taken a punch for the cause.

This kind of political, rhetorical ugliness exists in many forms, usually used to paint a canvas in whatever color the demon is presumed to wear.  Later in my career, during my seven years on campus as a Hillel director at NYU, I occasionally felt it my duty to speak up and throw my weight around (super welterweight to middleweight  in case you're wondering) for those willing to offend egregiously in order to get their point across.

Early in 1998, for instance, three gay Jewish students showed up in my office, wanting to start a gay Jewish club at NYU.  But the Hillel board opposed it.  So I made life miserable for them by publicly exposing their homophobia.  It was an easy fight, the opposition relented, and the necessary complications of a democratic Jewish life were the stronger for it.

So it ought to go at the University of California-Berkeley, whose Jewish Student Union recently decided to ban the participation of J-Street U, the campus arm of J-Street, the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby group, from a seat at the table of Jewish leadership.

Hopefully (and very soon) the grown-ups in the room ought to force the students' hand and demonstrate that demonizing a pro-Israel group for advocating a two-state solution is what is not in the Jewish mainstream, before the Jewish mainstream gets too comfortable with the idea of censoring discourse about the future of the Jewish state.

Each year I convert several people to Judaism and when I ask their motivations they almost universally say, "In Judaism, you really get to argue and question things.  I feel so at home finally being able to do that." 

At home for the time being, yes, that's true.


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