By Sam Milton, for the Mitzpeh, @SamMilton3
The fifth annual J Street Conference in Washington signaled a bold shift for the Israel lobby, fueled by a younger Jewish generation upset by Israeli leadership and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to advance a two-state solution.
According to The Jewish Daily Forward, 3,000 attendees, including 1,100 students, gathered at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center from March 21-23. The unity of Jewish students around the country inspired heightened passion from J Street.
“There is something so powerful about being surrounded by 1,100 students who all care deeply about the future of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state,” said Liat Deener-Chodirker, a sophomore American Studies major and co-president of the J Street chapter at the University of Maryland. “[They] understand that the two-state solution and an end to the occupation is the only way to ensure that vision.”
Amna Farooqi, a junior government and politics major and the southeast representative to the national student board of J Street U, said that the conference was a step forward in discussion of the conflict and was valuable for students looking to establish a voice.
“It was also an amazing opportunity for action,” Farooqi said. “More than 500 students walked down to the Hillel International building and demanded that the board of directors meet with the student board, which they agreed to.”
The activism from students at the conference signifies a movement on the rise. Benjy Cannon, J Street U national board president and former president of J Street U at this university, said he hopes that the strong showing is a sign of things to come.
“When I joined [J Street U] it was only a few people, and now it’s one of the biggest groups nationally,” said Cannon, a senior philosophy and government and politics major. “[The conference] generated a lot of energy and excitement about J Street, and we’re excited to get UMD students to become more involved in the coming year.”
After Hillel President Eric Fingerhut withdrew from the conference, despite originally agreeing to attend and openly engage in discussion, there was widespread disappointment in his absence. According to The Jewish Daily Forward, Fingerhut did not attend because of alleged influence by donors.
“If that’s the case, we need to ask ourselves what type of power can be so strong that it overshadows the importance of engaging with 1,100 students,” Deener-Chodirker said. “My peers and I deserve to be engaged with as a whole people.”
Cannon agreed, pointing out that the absence of the “president of the largest [Jewish] student group in the world is regrettable.”
However, another potentially controversial aspect of the conference was the presence of Saeb Erekat, the former president of the Palestinian Liberalization Organization. Despite a history of anti-Israel remarks, students appreciated his willingness to appear and speak in favor of peace.
“J Street as an organization believes in the value of dialogue and discourse, and bringing a speaker to our conference is not an endorsement of all their personal beliefs,” Deener-Chodirker said. “Israel and the American government regularly engage with Erekat. Who are we not to be willing to do the same?”
Farooqi agreed, citing that any resolution requires efforts from both sides.
“If anyone is serious about peace, that means talking to Palestinians too,” she said.