Campus Politics

What Pro-Israel College Organizations Really Need: Two-State Solution Activism

Pro-Israel advocates on U.S. college campuses cannot support the two-state solution in name only; we must all work to provide support for the Kerry peace initiative, say Rachel Cohen and Jacob Plitman of the J Street U National Student Board.

Earlier this month, Hillel president and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC’s leadership development director Jonathan Kessler wrote about the need for effective Israel advocacy on college campuses in response to “hostile environments.” But their failure to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the ongoing negotiations to resolve it was conspicuous. Campus environments that are hostile towards Israel do not exist in a vacuum. With negotiations ongoing, real support for Israel must include building an American constituency ready and willing to support U.S. leaders in holding both parties accountable to the necessary and difficult compromises.

Israel’s problem is not a lack of hasbara; rather it is the lingering conflict itself that is endangering its Jewish and democratic future. Effectively countering critics of Israel means offering not just advocacy tools and high-level speakers, but addressing the underlying concern of many progressive student leaders: the need for serious leadership to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

AIPAC’s policies state that it “strongly supports a two-state solution” brought about by direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Likewise, Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines also state its commitment to “Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Many campus-level guidelines explicitly support the two-state solution.

So as the talks continue, what will these organizations’ support of Kerry’s diplomacy look like? They have demonstrated an impressive ability to rally members in support of military and defense programs, and behind Israel in times of war. But will we see from them a comparable level of mobilization in response to Kerry’s call for peace?

Kessler and Fingerhut also reference the Israel on Campus Coalition, which sponsored the Real Partners Real Peace (RPRP) initiative, in collaboration with over 10 other pro-Israel organizations, including Hillel. RPRP announced their “collective support for a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

While RPRP criticized the Palestinian Authority for its unilateral approach at the U.N., it has been silent since the Palestinians began engaging in direct talks as demanded. Shouldn’t we expect those organizations to now engage in an equally well-resourced and funded campaign in support of the talks?

Students pay attention to these initiatives. Jewish students are looking for a way to engage with Israel that reflects their values and their religious identity. Students are looking for an honest and vigorous conversation about Israel and the conflict. And students want Israel engagement that builds political power to end the conflict. When campaigns against Palestinians are not backed up by thoughtful political advocacy for negotiated peace, the outcome is inevitable: frustration and discontent with the pro-Israel community.

American leaders have asked for our help. When Secretary of State John Kerry addressed a private gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) earlier this month, he called on them to “continue to support (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) as he walks the difficult road to peace” and to return to their families and communities to rally support for the challenging compromises ahead.

To do so means that pro-Israel advocates cannot support the two-state solution in name only; we must all work to provide support for the Kerry initiative as a whole and for each of the difficult concessions necessary to reach an agreement.

True backing means mobilizing support for peace talks based on pre-1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps and robust security guarantees. True support means embracing the necessity of evacuating settlements outside Israel’s future borders while compensating the estimated one in five settlers who relocate. It means resolving the Palestinian refugee issue through resettlement in Palestine, compensation and a symbolic level of family reunification in Israel itself. True support establishes the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestinian neighborhoods as the capital of the future state of Palestine, with holy sites internationally protected and accessible to all.

We need leadership to turn this support into action. We know it won’t be easy, but we also know it’s possible. A myriad of polls shows overwhelming support in the Jewish community for U.S. leadership to help Israel and the Palestinians reach a final-status agreement. The truly difficult nature of the compromises ahead makes it all the more vital that all in the pro-Israel community work together to see the negotiations through.

Specifically, the importance of AIPAC and Hillel in our campus communities makes it ever more critical that we work together to support the two-state solution. And these issues are inextricably tied; working to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution in the region will vastly impact our campus environments at home.

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To be sure, effective Israel advocacy is not all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But ultimately countering hostile attitudes towards Israel simply will not succeed without working to build an American constituency for peace. No amount of hasbara, strategic as it may be, can change that fact.

In their op-ed, Kessler and Fingerhut pledged that their organizations would “work every day to support Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.” This leadership must extend to the only hope to ensure that future: a two-state solution, which entails difficult, but necessary compromise. As leaders of J Street U, we are proud of the deep relationships and partnerships we have built with Hillel and other pro-Israel groups on over 50 campuses with J Street U chapters. We look forward to working with all pro-Israel advocates in supporting Secretary Kerry in this critical moment.