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September 24, 2019 8:52 am

Being a Liberal Jewish Student and Dealing With BDS and the Occupation

avatar by Maddie Solomon


An Israeli ‘Apartheid Wall’ at Duke University in 2019. Photo: Amy Rosenthal.

I have been given what feels like an impossible task — starting and leading a J Street group on campus.

Occidental College used to have a chapter, but all of their members graduated. The primary goal of J Street is to push back against the far-right here in America and Israel’s annexation of the West Bank — but truthfully, we spend more time at school arguing with proponents of BDS and other far-left groups here on campus.

Last semester, we had a J Street 101 session where people showed up and spent more time questioning Israel’s legitimacy than effectively engaging on the pressing issues regarding the Jewish state. We had our first meeting of this semester last week, and only four people showed up. It’s only September, and I already have political fatigue.

It is possible to be both anti-BDS and anti-occupation. Israel should represent the Jewish values of equity and democracy. I support Israel, but do not want to be complicit in the demolition of homes, settlement, and human rights violations.

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I care about the occupation for different reasons than most young people I encounter. Additionally, I am disappointed in the negative attention of Israel not because it is unwarranted — but because I think the amount of anti-Israel activism illuminates our failures to highlight and protest human rights violations in China, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other places around the world.

So here I am. How does one convince college students to both see Israel as a legitimate state while also recognizing the need for a two-state solution — one in which the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians are valued?

How do we show people how to effectively protest annexation without relying on antisemitic language and other dangerous tropes? To be clear, these are not J Street’s instigating questions — they’re mine.

I am leading a J Street chapter because the safety and security of both Palestinians and Israelis are not mutually exclusive goals — nor should they be. For centuries, Jews and Arabs have been oppressed together; the roots of the word antisemite originally were defined as discrimination against both groups. Unfortunately, a history of anti-Judaism complicates our picture of inequality. Simply advocating for the end of Israel is appalling and insulting to our history — mired in exodus, discrimination, and genocide.

I am leading a J Street chapter because in the age of extreme polarization, someone has to advocate for nuanced solutions that consider the rights of multiple groups of people to land and self-determination. Although I have political fatigue, I am incredibly awakened by the idea of bringing much needed conversations to campus.

It’s the small victories that matter: convincing a friend who was more right-wing concerning Israel to join our cause, or talking to someone on the far left about the goals we share. We both want equity, democracy, and freedom.

I am still grappling with these questions — and additionally what it means to be a college student who is anti-BDS and anti-occupation. I am not a natural-born leader. Now more than ever, as my school’s J Street chapter president, I am expected to talk about difficult topics: Israel, annexation, peace.

I am frustrated at my campus culture of delegitimizing Israel — attitudes that ultimately minimize intergenerational trauma and cause harm among Jewish students. But I also believe that Jewish institutions fail us when they talk about Israel without reference to Palestinians. What I have learned is that we should become comfortable breaking norms — whether in Jewish institutions or liberal ones.

Maddie Solomon is a politics major at Occidental College, originally from Denver, Colorado.

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