Op-ed submission: Why J Street U is bringing Breaking the Silence to campus

Aitan Groener

In a few days, J Street U WashU will be hosting an exhibition on campus produced by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization led by veteran Israel Defense Force soldiers who work to share their experiences of everyday life in the occupied territories. The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and the start of the military occupation of the West Bank. Breaking the Silence’s work is absolutely crucial for documenting and explaining the difficult realities of the occupation to Jewish communities, both in Israel and the United States.

It can be hard to listen to criticism of Israel from people who seem like they’re not from our community, or who don’t share our love and our concern for Israel, its people and its future. This is why it is so important to highlight the voices of Israeli veterans, who have personal experiences that demonstrate the need for a two-state solution to alleviate the burdens that the ongoing conflict places on both peoples. If we can’t listen to these Israeli soldiers, then it’s clear that our problem is not with the people who criticize Israel, but rather with the fact that they have any criticisms at all.

A few weeks ago, when J Street U asked our Hillel to cosponsor Breaking the Silence’s exhibition with us, we were told that the event would be too radical and divisive. We were told that we had not yet done enough to earn Hillel’s trust and that we were asking for more than we deserved. Respectfully, that’s unacceptable.

I’ve been part of the Hillel and Jewish communities at Washington University ever since my freshman year. J Street U has been an active part of the Jewish community for years, coordinating events in the Hillel building, bringing students to Shabbat dinners and collaborating with other Israel groups on programming. At what point will WashU Hillel decide that it’s acceptable for students to learn from former Israeli soldiers the realities of the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? At what point will they recognize that our political views—shared by millions of American Jews, Israelis and by Israeli political and security leaders—have a major place in our communal conversation?

The American Jewish community has been the most important and guiding community in my life. It’s where I’ve developed my values and figured out the kind of person that I want to be. Yet despite the ways that the American Jewish community is important to me, it often feels like the community does not welcome me or my political views. It stings to know that the community that raised me would often prefer to not hear my voice—or, indeed, to hear any voices that challenge or upset preconceived notions about Israel and the conflict.

It is not tenable nor is it right for our communities to be turning away or chastising many students and young people for being progressive on Israel. Sadly, disengagement from the community is often the outcome of being consistently told that we cannot hold or share our political and moral beliefs in Jewish spaces. This cannot be the way that the Jewish community communicates. We need to be able to challenge each other while respecting our differences. We need to make sure that our members can bring their full selves into our community, politics and all.

J Street U is bringing Breaking the Silence to our campus because we need our communities to acknowledge the threat that the occupation poses to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic country. Breaking the Silence reminds me that it is powerful and possible to support Israel, while working to fix its broken politics. It reminds me that I can create a place for myself in Jewish communities by bringing together my Jewish values and my desire for an end to the occupation and a two-state solution.

Supporting Israel’s future means listening to difficult voices that document its realities and criticize its failings out of compassion and concern. If you care about a Jewish and democratic state of Israel, value Palestinian lives and human rights and want to ensure that a two-state solution to the conflict can be achieved in our lifetime, please join J Street U to welcome Breaking the Silence to our community from April 25-27 at Washington University, Ursa’s Fireside Lounge on Shepley Avenue. We look forward to learning, working and building community together with you.

  • mls31286

    Mr. Groener,

    Your outlook is so incredibly naive and those who hate Israel literally laugh at people like you for supporting their cause. I believe the term is “Useful Idiot”. I truly believe that Israel should not be absolved from criticism and I am not a fan of Netanyahu and against settlements. But the day I start helping Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas with their goal of Israel’s annihilation more than I am helping Israel remain in existence I will punch myself in the face. For you to not recognize the extreme bias against Israel in the international community is mind boggling. BTS is funded by foreign sponsors that are inherently Anti-Israel and their sole goal is to gather anonymous “testimony” never back in context and fact.

    A left wing Israeli that wrote for Haaretz in 2015 said it best:

    “…there is also something very biased and morally flawed in the work of Breaking the Silence. The point is that the whole attractiveness of the organization derives from the fact that those who give the testimonies are an exceptional few, unsung heroes who are doing the work of exposure and criticism anonymously or when at risk. To treat the testimonies of these exceptions as objective reality is simply misleading. Especially when the testimonies are presented abroad, to people who aren’t familiar with the Israeli reality.”

    “In other words: There are no innocent testimonies – a fact well known to everyone who is even slightly acquainted with the theory of narrative. Every story is in large measure a fiction, or at least a fictitious arrangement of reality. And when Breaking the Silence sells us ostensibly primary testimonies, that is misleading.”

    • fighternow

      #bravo

  • anonymous

    If you’re interested in hearing about “realities,” then why bring in a fringe group of soldiers? Why not just bring in a group of typical Israeli soldiers?

  • Noa Kesem

    This is painfully naive. You clearly don’t know much about Breaking the Silence, their goals or their funding. If you want to learn from Israeli soldiers’ experience, why don’t you bring the ones who are NOT funded by anti Israel donors? why don’t you bring the ones who were not caught – again and again – telling lies and “facts” out of context? If you really want to hear Israeli soldiers, and if you really care about Israel, bring Reservists on Duty or Haemet Sheli (“My Truth”).

  • VoiceofReason613

    Very important article because Israel needs a comprehensive, sustainable, just, security-centered resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians, in order to avert continued violence and diplomatic criticism, to effectively respond to its economic, environmental, and other domestic problems,and to remain both a Jewish and a democratic state. So, it is important to listen to respectful criticism and actively seek to end the conflict. This is also the opinion of many Israeli strategic and military experts.

    • Arafat

      Spoken like a real Neville Chamberlain clone.

    • fighternow

      as if to say there have not been countless opportunities for peace? the only thing which is consistent in that region is murdering innocents.

  • Arafat

    Congratulations to WashU’s Hillel house for coming around on the Breaking the Silence group. In 2014, Hillel actually hosted this anti-Israel group and now they won’t even co-sponsor their visit. Finally, seeing the light!

    http://www.stljewishlight.com/opinion/commentaries/article_45ba7200-bf11-11e3-884e-0019bb2963f4.html

  • Beer Baron

    Surprise, surprise. J(OKE) STREET (which is a radical, fringe, far-left organization that has little, if any, actual support within the Jewish-American community) is inviting BTS (which has long been discredited as a fringe group) to campus! Did not see that one coming.

  • Arafat

    Aitan, I feel sorry for you when I read your so
    called moderation. With due respect, you have the typical historical Jewish
    minority, “PLEASE LIKE ME” complex and it is so pitiful to read.

    Throughout Jewish History especially in Nazi
    Germany there were those Jews who begged to be accepted and liked by the host
    country’s people. “Like me and I will eat ham for you on Yom Kippur. Like
    me and I will put up a Christmas tree and call it a Hanukah Bush, like me and I
    will only pray one day a week, Sunday if you wish (the early German Reformed
    Jews), etc.” The first Jews to be gassed by Hitler were those Reformers
    (“please like me…”) who were viewed as a major threat by Hitler and
    his Jew hating Nazis.

    Fast forward to today: Here you are apologizing for Israel who is expected to live a double standard. Never mind
    the rockets and atrocities implemented by the Palestine people. If you read
    your history parts of Jordan are supposed to include part of Palestine–the
    world has convenient amnesia with this one. In the meantime here you are with
    your “please like me” attitude and no matter what you do they are NOT
    going to like you. You can stand on your head, eat ham and cheese sandwiches and
    they are still going to hate you because you are a Jew, period!

    Look in the mirror and accept that you are a Jew. Say it to yourself over and over and perhaps YOU can accept YOURSELF.

    Remember, if Israel disappears (the Jewish Host country) there IS NO place for
    American Jews or the World Jewish community to go in the event of another
    pogrom, anti-Semitic uprising or Holocaust. If there is another anti-Semitic
    uprising you are a Jew to these people no matter how much you apologize or try
    to appease them.

  • Arafat

    In July 2012, IsraelNationalNews.com enumerated several vital facts reflecting J Street’s consistently anti-Israel posture. These included the following:

    J Street’s political action committee (PAC) receives funds from the Saudi Arabian embassy’s attorney, Nancy Dutton.
    J Street receives more than $10,000 per year in contributions from Genevieve Lynch, a director of the National Iranian American Council, which is a pro-Iranian lobby.
    J Street’s PAC has received tens of thousands of dollars from one of the leaders of the Arab American community, Richard Abdoo.
    J Street’s PAC repeatedly took contributions from a Turkish American, Mehmet Celebi, who had helped produce Valley of the Wolves, a viciously anti-American and anti-Semitic Turkish film.
    J Street recently sponsored a speaking tour for John Ging, head of the Gaza-based UNRWA, an entity whose raison d’être is to perpetuate the Palestinian refugees’ status, thus encouraging their “right of return.”
    J Street’s visit to Israel in February 2010 was co-sponsored by an anti-Israel group called Churches for Peace in the Middle East, an organization which supports the boycott, divestment, & sanctions (BDS) efforts against Israel.
    Anti-Israel U.S. Arabists are attracted to J Street, sitting on its advisory board or contributing to J Street’s PAC. These include Ray Close, former CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia and then advisor to the head of Saudi intelligence; Lewis Elbinger, State Department foreign service officer; Nicole Shampaine, director of the State Department’s Office for Egypt and the Levant; Ted Kattouf, former ambassador to Syria and the United Arab Emirates; Robert Pelletreau, former ambassador to Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain; and Philip Wilcox, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
    Daniel Levy (Jeremy Ben-Ami’s partner in founding J Street) stated at a conference in Abu Dhabi that “the creation of Israel” was “an act that was wrong.” Levy also defended the Goldstone Report, which was very critical of Israel’s 2009 military operation in Gaza.
    J Street welcomed BDS lobbyists to its national conference, where BDS ran a session on strategies and justifications for boycotting Israeli products.
    In January 2012, J Street in Jerusalem held a special meeting to honor Israeli soldiers who refused to obey the orders of their commanders.
    In March 2012, J Street lobbied the U.S. Congress against a resolution condemning the blatant incitement and anti-Semitism in Palestinian schoolbooks and the Palestinian media. Moreover, J Street refused comment on the Palestinian Authority’s school curriculum which openly promoted the violent struggle to “liberate” all of “Palestine.”

  • Arafat

    by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

    JNS.org – Ever since its founding in 2008, J Street, the liberal Jewish advocacy group, has expended a great deal of time and energy trying to convince American Jews that it is a credible and more ethical alternative to traditional pro-Israel organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

    J Street believes, not unreasonably, that there is a constituency for its work among those American Jews who are generally supportive of Israel but queasy over certain of its policies, most obviously creating and sustaining Jewish communities in the West Bank. Nor is this an unprecedented insight: from the 1970s onwards, there were organizations like Breira (“Alternative”) and New Jewish Agenda which aimed to give voice to the same disquiet.

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    J Street, however, is much savvier than either of those earlier incarnations. Unlike its ideological predecessors, there are no rumors circulating of its imminent demise. For the foreseeable future, then, J Street will remain a part of American Jewry’s political landscape.

    This reality is implicitly acknowledged in “The J Street Challenge,” a critical documentary film about the organization that has just been released by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based group run by the well-known anti-slavery activist Charles Jacobs. And it is a reality that, Jacobs and his co-producers insist, needs to be grappled with through honest debate and discussion.

    The key question raised by the film is what it means to be “pro-Israel” not on a personal level, but within the context of the political lobbying and advocacy that swirls around American policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or, as Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse more accurately terms it in her interview in the film, “the Arab conflict with Israel”). And when you examine J Street’s record, it becomes very hard to dispute Professor Alan Dershowitz’s assertion that the organization—despite its much-vaunted tagline—is “neither pro-Israel nor pro-peace.”

    To begin with, there are J Street’s funders. As the film documents, ferocious critics of Israel like the hedge-fund billionaire George Soros and Genevieve Lynch, a board member of the pro-Iranian regime National Iranian-American Council, have donated significant sums to the organization. And although it says it is opposed to the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, J Street maintains close ties with those who advocate collaboration with the BDS movement in targeting West Bank settlements, like the writer Peter Beinart and the corporate lawyer Kathleen Peratis. This milieu is hardly conducive to J Street’s “pro-Israel” self-image.

    Then there are J Street’s statements. As Dershowitz points out, you “rarely” hear J Street praising Israel. A far more familiar refrain consists of slamming Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as an obstacle to peace, or opposing tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime—positions that don’t raise an eyebrow when articulated by anti-Israel groups, but which sound rather discordant coming from a group that claims to support Israel.

    In that regard, much of the J Street documentary studies why the organization’s analysis of Israel’s situation is wrong. Its emphasis on Israel’s land policies in the West Bank, its tin ear when it comes to Palestinian and Arab incitement, its embrace of a strategy that would result in the U.S. pushing Israel to make decisions contrary to its basic security interests—these moral and strategic errors are all familiar to anyone who has followed the debate about J Street’s contribution.

    More enlightening is the film’s examination of why J Street exercises such an attraction to a particular kind of American Jew. Many of the interviewees argue persuasively that affiliation with J Street is more of a lifestyle choice than a political statement, in that it allows liberal Jews to equate their identity with their fealty to the “progressive” values they see Israel as betraying.

    But is that how the J Streeters themselves view it? Since no J Street representative appears in the film, it’s hard to say for sure. According to the end credits, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, “declined” to be interviewed, which left the producers with no option but to use existing footage of Ben-Ami speaking to other audiences. J Street told me that Ben-Ami was not interviewed because he was not available at the time the producers suggested. Either way, the absence of a direct interview with Ben-Ami, in which he answers the points raised by J Street’s critics, slightly blunts the film’s impact.

    The most heartening aspect of the film consists of young, pro-Israel activists eloquently expressing why they distrust J Street. Through their words, the viewer gets an insight into the courage and intelligence required to defend Israel on campus these days. Indeed, one of them, Samantha Mandeles, who currently works as campus coordinator for media watchdog Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), is so impressive that I found myself wondering whether she’ll apply for the post-Abe Foxman national director’s job at the Anti-Defamation League—she certainly deserves serious consideration. In any case, seeing and hearing the next generation of genuinely pro-Israel Jewish leaders is reason enough to give “The J Street Challenge” an hour of your time.