Jewish Students form Pro-Palestine group, advocate for non-Zionist beliefs

| News Editor

Members of the newly-formed student group Jewish Students for Palestine speak at a Student Union Senate meeting in favor of a resolution calling for divestment from Boeing. (Bri Nitsberg | Student Life)

Six Jewish students formed the Jewish Students for Palestine (JSP) group to practice their faith and advocate for their non-Zionist beliefs at Washington University, March 5. 

JSP is the first Jewish organization at WashU to unite in support of Gazans since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. 

“We are here to set the record straight that lots of anti-Zionist Jews at WashU exist and deserve representation,” JSP co-founder and junior Emmett Campbell said. 

Thus far, the group has communicated their political views via statements posted to their Instagram account, which at the time of publication has about 360 followers and 1,500 total likes on its six posts. 

“We are a coalition of Jewish students who oppose the racist ideology of Zionism and stand in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for liberation,” the organization wrote in one Instagram post. 

Though JSP has firm political stances, Campbell said the group primarily identifies as a religious organization. 

“We want [JSP] to be a place where we can practice Judaism,” he said. “We’ve talked about having a party for Purim and hosting Shabbat dinners, things like that.” 

Several JSP co-founders, including senior Lila Steinbach, said that they formed their organization in part because they felt that Chabad and Hillel were no longer welcoming of non-Zionist Jewish students. 

“I’ve been going to Hillel and Chabad every single year at WashU,” Steinbach said. “I’ve led services at Hillel, I’ve read Torah, I’ve gone to Shabbat dinners at Chabad. But at the end of the day, if you’re not a Zionist, you are going to be ostracized.”

Steinbach wrote an email to Hillel on Feb. 27 to explain their beliefs and convey their disappointment with Hillel’s treatment of non-Zionist students. 

“It is my commitment to the knowledge that all people are created in the image of God, my commitment to Jewish values that cultivates my opposition to Israel’s action and support for a free Palestine,” Steinbach wrote. “I [feel] a complete lack of legitimate acknowledgement from Hillel as a space that claims to be pluralistic. Where is the drive to include Jews who may be anti-Zionist?” 

Steinbach said that they did not receive a response from Hillel to their email.

JSP was founded just weeks before WashU’s Student Union (SU) was scheduled to vote on the Divestment from Boeing Resolution, which urged the University to divest and end all partnerships with Boeing due to the company’s production of arms used by the Israeli Defense Forces. 

The resolution began to circulate online, after which both Chabad and Hillel distributed a statement and petition written by Jewish student leaders on campus to oppose it. Several JSP co-founders said that they were disappointed by the statement.

“Their statement [in the petition] said that the SU resolution was antisemitic and that it harmed all Jews,” Steinbach said. “We felt that that was basically saying that Zionism and Judaism are inherently intertwined, and we don’t believe that’s true, so we really felt fundamentally erased by that.”  

Sophomore and JSP co-founder Max Schreiber said the statement ultimately led to the co-founders’ decision to form JSP. 

“[The statement and petition] was sort of the last straw in realizing that we needed to form our own community because WashU didn’t have one where students with our views were welcome,” he said. 

Rabbi Jordan Gerson, Hillel’s Campus Rabbi, said that Hillel welcomes all Jewish students. 

“No student has ever been deliberately or explicitly excluded from Hillel during my tenure here because of their political beliefs around Israel,” Gerson wrote in an email to Student Life. “Hillel will continue to be unapologetically pro-Israel and we will not compromise our values.” 

Hershey and Chana Novack, co-directors of WashU Chabad, wrote in an email to Student Life that it is a charged time on campus.

“Our vibrant community embraces Jewish students from various backgrounds and practices, fostering inclusivity and diversity,” they wrote. “We warmly invite students who may disagree with us to join, and we look forward to the opportunity to exchange knowledge over fresh Challah together.”

Since officially forming in early March, JSP has received both positive and negative feedback from community members on its Instagram posts. 

One comment from WashU alumnus Auriann Sehi expressed appreciation for JSP’s advocacy in support of Palestine. 

“I know how difficult it is to take a stand. Please know that as an alum, I’m grateful for any and all Jewish students at WashU who are willing to advocate for the Palestinian people,” she wrote. “No matter how much backlash you may receive, your activism does not go unnoticed.” 

Another comment from senior Daniela Siman criticized JSP’s use of the phrase “never again” to advocate for a ceasefire. The slogan is commonly used in reference to the Holocaust. 

“It is not appropriate to take terms and taglines that are specific to other people’s trauma and atrocities and attach them to another cause, especially one that partially villainizes the previous victim,” Siman wrote. 

Nili Fox, president of the Jewish Students Association (JSA) and a regular attendee of Hillel and Chabad events, said that she knows several Zionist students who have contacted certain JSP members in hopes of speaking with them. 

“[The students] have tried reaching out to a few specific individuals in JSP and simply asked to have a cordial conversation,” Fox said. “Nothing crazy or under the scope of harassment, or stalking, just cordial. Every single time they refused to have a conversation. They said, ‘stop speaking to us,’ definitely not wanting to engage in discussion.”

Ari Appel, a sophomore and JSP co-founder, said that some of the Instagram direct messages or texts sent by Zionist students to the JSP co-founders were uncivil and insensitive.  

“The words these messages contained made it clear that these senders only wished to prod us and expressed vitriol that crossed personal boundaries,” he wrote in an email to Student Life. “Thus, the individuals who received these messages replied in a manner that they believed appropriate, given the offense and disrespect they felt.”

Appel added that JSP has responded thoughtfully and sympathetically to students who have provided the group with feedback through the form linked to their Instagram account, regardless of their political beliefs. 

“We received several feedback form responses from students we had known to be vehemently Zionist…[owing to] our due diligence and open-minded approach, we still reached out to such individuals,” he wrote.

Dylan Levy — a senior, regular attendee of Chabad and Hillel events, and president of the WashU Israel Public Affairs Committee (WIPAC) — expressed concern about JSP’s following on social media. 

Levy alleged that the majority of the students who follow their Instagram account are not Jewish. 

“To start an organization that claims to represent the Jewish opinion on Palestine and the broader conflict, yet have a following that’s predominantly not Jewish, is alarming,” he said. 

Campbell noted that the group has received considerable positive feedback from a range of individuals on social media, as well as in-person. 

“There are a handful of antagonists who are unhappy,” Campbell said. “But overall, I’d say [the feedback we’ve received] has been overwhelmingly positive.” 

Appel said that the positive feedback the group has received has been encouraging.

“I’ve been reposting our statements on my own Instagram and have been getting responses from people who I would have maybe never thought held our beliefs,” he said. “They’re saying things like ‘wow, thank you so much for doing this. We weren’t sure we were able to come out and express what we believe.’” 

Schreiber said that the group is experiencing growth. “We are in the process of reaching out to people who have filled out our interest form [linked in the bio of our Instagram],” he said. “We are getting more responses on it and more interest every day.” 

In JSP’s second Instagram post, the group wrote: “It is exciting to see the numbers and to confirm what we already suspected: a large non-Zionist jewish population at WashU DOES exist.” 

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