UC Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) voted Wednesday to deny membership to J Street U. Apparently, the main reason is J Street U’s relationship with Breaking the Silence, an organization of which I am a member.
Breaking the Silence is a group of Israeli combat veterans that collects, publishes, and analyzes soldiers’ testimonies in order to bring to light the policies and principles of Israel’s military rule and expose its grave moral consequences. Since 2004, over 1,000 soldiers have told us what they saw, did, and experienced during their service. More are being interviewed right now. We believe that these testimonies reveal information critical to understanding the risks Israel is facing, the mistakes it is making, and the grave wrongs it is committing.
JSU President Daphna Torbati explained the decision to deny membership to J Street U by pointing to the bylaws of the Jewish Student Union, which stipulate that a member organization must not host speakers who demonize Israel. Torbati added that “a lot of people have said that they want the [JSU] to stay a place they feel comfortable saying they love Israel.” Finally, Torbati expressed her concern that the work of Breaking the Silence unfairly disparages Israeli soldiers.
First, if our testimonies are disparaging, it is not because they are being voiced but because of the reality to which they give voice. Silencing us does not change the truth of military occupation. We therefore respectfully decline the emotional protection offered to us by the Jewish Student Union and choose to speak our minds.
Second, the JSU’s professed disinterest in what 1,000 Israeli soldiers have to say makes proclamations of love for Israel seem perplexing. Like blind castigation, blind acclamation is done for its own sake and has little to do with the object of praise. Members of the JSU apparently do not want to know what happens in Israel; rather, they are concerned with what is said about Israel. The real Israel, the one that is our home, seems to be none of their concern. We do not ask for the love of the JSU. We do not need their protection or concern. But we cannot remain speechless as they, while showing vague interest in our country, still claim to protect our country from us and for our sake.
Third, the suggestion that we at Breaking the Silence “demonize” Israel conflates criticisms of Israel’s military rule with criticisms of Israel’s existence. This confusion is widespread these days. It is one of the greatest threats both to Israel and to the Palestinians, for it supports the Israeli occupation by entwining it with Israel’s continued existence, while eroding Israel’s legitimacy by tying it to an illegitimate occupation. The end of Israeli occupation is not only compatible with Israel’s continued existence; it is necessary for Israel’s existence.
Those who acquiesce to Israel’s occupation have given up the hope of a decent Jewish state in which the rule of law prevails. For us, this is not an option. By silencing criticisms of Israel’s occupation, the “lovers” of Israel are destroying our country.
Finally, a blanket rejection of criticism of Israel denies Israel’s responsibility for its choices and actions. This action effectively declares that Jewish victimhood persists unabated, and that the Zionist project is, therefore, a failure. Immunity to criticism is the consolation prize of victims, but Israel is a powerful country that makes free choices, manages risks, and makes mistakes from which it has the opportunity to learn. In criticizing Israel and holding it to its own values, we, the soldiers who broke the silence, are the manifestation of the Zionist dream. Thus, in its recent decision, the Jewish Student Union expressed anti-Zionist sentiments.
Since its inception, J Street U has taken intense interest in facts about the real Israel. We welcome this interest and do our best to provide the information at our disposal. The JSU is free to revoke its professed concern for Israel and deny membership to groups that take interest in it. Until that happens, we here at Breaking the Silence demand that J Street U at Berkeley be made a member of the Jewish Student Union.