Our alternative way to support Israel

By Aimee Riese and Joel Fenster and Amos Schonfield, April 4, 2012
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"One day there is going to be a Palestinian embassy in Israel and an Israeli embassy in Palestine, and these two embassies are going to be walking distance from one another because one will be in West Jerusalem and the other will be in East Jerusalem."

Amos Oz, renowned Israeli author and peace activist addressed the recent J Street conference in Washington with this vision for peace. When you stand in a room with 2,500 activists, all under the banner of "pro-Israel, pro-peace", you know your views are no longer on the fringe. We attended the conference as Yachad students, the pro-Israel, pro-peace voice in the UK, where we witnessed the strength of an American movement that barely existed four years ago.

J Street pushes the boundaries of American Jewry, providing them with a voice and confidence in numbers to express their support for Israel, and also concern about the current political situation. Not everyone at the J Street Conference agreed. Within the J Street audience there was a clear lack of consensus about targeted settlement boycotts, reactions to the Iranian threat, as well as over the invitation to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a keynote speaker. Indeed, total consensus is never healthy for a community. The ability to debate the crucial issues, expressing agreement, disagreement and everything in-between, is a core strength of the J Street community.

It is particularly evident how students have attached themselves to J Street, with more than 650 students present at the conference. Many of the leading experts who graced the stage in the main conference also appeared at the student Shabbaton. The value placed on student activists is clearly high. Anat Hoffman, who is at the front-line of the struggle for gender equality in Israel, described to us the struggle over gender-segregated buses in Jerusalem and state-paid rabbis who promote racist positions. We were surrounded by like-minded students who wanted to stand up and voice support for her work.

In Britain it is easy to feel as though liberal Zionism is unwanted, is even an act of rebellion, but the reality is that it's gaining momentum at an unparalleled pace. Yachad, in just over one year, is a 3,000 person strong movement.

However, for most "pro-Israel" students, Israel advocacy still means telling their friends that Israel is a technological marvel, and that it's the "only democracy in the Middle East". That's true, and worth telling people, but today's activists also want to engage in discussions on human rights, and the need for Palestinian self-determination. For one generation, Zionism was about creating a state; for ours it is about improving it, and ensuring that it exists, as a Jewish and a democratic state, in 20 years time. We must communicate on campus that there is an alternative way to support Israel.

Since its founding, J Street has challenged the norms of American Jewry, and has since grown to a mass movement that can summon 2500 delegates to a conference. Its student arm, J Street U, has played a significant part in its success. At the conference we saw how powerful a vehicle an organisation can be when those voices are sounded as one. In Britain we are further behind in our journey but there is a silent majority looking to be reached out in our universities, our schools and our youth movements. Become a Yachad student, and together we'll see the growth of our own "pro-Israel, pro-peace" banner here in the UK. We hope that by mobilising a Yachad student movement, within our JSocs, we too will have the support in numbers, the nuanced education and the confidence to disagree, which makes for effective and honest activism. It's time to end the choice at university between BDS of Israel or blind support. It's time to engage openly with Israel.

Aimee Riese is studying history and international relations at the LSE and is President of the LSE Israel Society. Follow her on Twitter here. Joel Fenster is studying social and political sciences at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter here. Amos Schonfield is an international relations student at Leeds University. Follow him on Twitter here.

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    Last updated: 2:08pm, April 5 2012