March 7, 2011
At Berkeley campus, Jewish students on far left and far right on Israel talk about their motivations
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Simone Zimmerman, J Street U member
Simone Zimmerman, a sophomore, spoke Feb. 28 at the J Street conference in Washington about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on her campus.
“I recognize that BDS seeks to address serious human rights issues in Israel and the territories,” said Zimmerman, 20, a Middle East Studies major. But at Berkeley, she said, rather than creating discussion, “it created a polarizing atmosphere where both sides sank further into the extremes of their positions.”
She also said “It fostered animosity, squashed nuance and alienated the rational voices most essential to addressing these complex issues.”
Zimmerman was “really nervous” about giving her speech, she told JTA two days later. It didn’t help that minutes before her session, BDS supporters began tweeting each other to flood the room.
“My session was the only one with security outside,” she noted.
It was frustration with both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups at Berkeley that led Zimmerman to join forces with J Street U, the organization’s campus arm. She said it was there that she found the “rational voices” she sought.
Zimmerman grew up in a Conservative home in Los Angeles and is an alumna of Jewish day school, Camp Ramah and United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative youth movement. She’s spent a lot of time in Israel, including a three-month exchange program in the 10th grade.
When she arrived at Berkeley, Zimmerman said she “fell in love with the atmosphere, the excitement I felt on campus.” She chose the school for that diversity and energy, but also because it was one of the only campuses where students told her they loved coming to Hillel. That was important to her.
But last year, her first on campus, ended with a vitriolic battle over the student government’s divestment bill. The hostility and intolerance she witnessed on both sides of the debate scared and saddened her.
“I saw a big hole in the conversation the community was having on Israel,” she says. “There’s a really divided scene here, very polarized. Students in the middle are exhausted, and the extremes get more extreme.”
Ironically, she learned about J Street through criticism of the group as anti-Israel.
“Then, when J Street opposed the divestment bill, I thought, that’s interesting—that’s not what I’d heard about them,” Zimmerman recalls.
Zimmerman is a consensus builder, not a placard waver. In addition to J Street U, she is chair of her Hillel’s Israel Action Committee, which she says was drained of its most active members when Tikvah siphoned off the most ardent Zionists and Kesher Enoshi: Progressives for Activism in Israel grabbed from the left.
“Our main goal is to educate, not advocate,” she says. “We’re not giving people fact sheets or telling them how to respond in 10 steps. We’re trying to teach people about a more nuanced, complex Israel.”
Zimmerman sees J Street as providing a middle ground in that conversation, although some of her closest friends don’t get it. When she called a friend in Washington to say she was speaking at J Street’s conference, the friend said, “Why would you be there?”
“People who are in the middle and who would appreciate what J Street is trying to do have been scared away by the establishment,” she says. “It’s been demonized.”
As for Israel Apartheid Week and its counterpart, Israeli Peace and Diversity Week, Zimmerman says, “I hate this week.”
Tom Pessah, Israeli active in Students for Justice in Palestine
Tom Pessah bristles when he hears people refer to “the Israelis” or “the Jewish community.”
“There’s no such thing,” he asserts. “I don’t feel I represent all Israelis or all Jewish students.”
Many Israelis and many Jews would agree.
Pessah, a Tel Aviv native, Israeli army veteran and 37-year-old doctoral student in sociology, is active in Students for Justice in Palestine, which advocates for Palestinian independence and supports the BDS movement. Students for Justice in Palestine was founded in 2001 at Berkeley, where it is a main organizer of Israel Apartheid Week, and the organization has since spread to other schools.
Like other Jewish students interviewed by JTA, Pessah says his main interest is opening the conversation about Israel and allowing all sides to be heard. Also like others, he sees his own organization as the champion of dialogue and other groups out to obstruct it.
Last year he went to his first Shabbat dinner at the Berkeley Hillel. The following week, he says, a pro-Israel student asked him not to show up anymore and to pass on the request to his fellow activists from Students for Justice in Palestine.
“He said, ‘It makes me uncomfortable because the Jewish community perceives you as anti-Semitic.’ He was smiling, as if I have to accommodate his feelings,” Pessah says, with some astonishment.
He hasn’t been back to Hillel since, and neither have his friends from Students for Justice in Palestine.
“A lot of us feel unwelcome,” Pessah says.
That said, he acknowledges that relations with Hillel, and even with the Zionist student group Tikvah, are better than they were two years ago. Tikvah’s founders, whom he describes as “very aggressive,” have graduated, and the directorship of Hillel has changed.
Pessah says he’s proud to be Jewish. Although he feels many Jews exaggerate the extent of anti-Semitism, he says it’s important to speak out when it surfaces.
Three years ago, Students for Justice in Palestine was blamed when a Star of David on campus was defaced with a swastika.
“We did not do that,” he insists. “We would never do such a thing.”
In fact, Pessah is able to use his leftist credentials to prevent anti-Semitic speakers from coming to campus. On two occasions, he says, the Muslim Student Association asked his group to co-sponsor speakers whom Pessah discovered had made anti-Jewish statements in the past. When his organization communicated that to the Muslim students, they canceled the speakers.
“They take us seriously because they know we wouldn’t use the term ‘anti-Semitic’ ” lightly, he says.
Pessah says he has not turned his back on Israel; quite the contrary: He plans on going back after receiving his doctorate. That’s why he’s active politically.
“I do this to make it a better country,” he says. “A comfortable life for Jews in Israel is dependent on a comfortable life for Palestinians.”
Once, while he was demonstrating for Palestinian rights, an Arab student approached him and said that seeing Pessah standing there made him realize his parents were wrong, that not all Jews were alike.
“That’s so important,” Pessah says. “It encouraged me to go to more protests. By building up this solidarity, we stop seeing each other in stereotypical terms. That’s my niche. That’s what I’m about.”
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