Letter from Rachel Lerner, Vice-President of J Street Education Fund

Rachel Lerner
on February 10, 2012

We have received some inquiries about our recent decision to release a statement of our own in response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference that took place at the University of Pennsylvania, and not to sign on to a letter by other Jewish organizations.

Below is an excerpt of a letter written by Rachel Lerner, Vice President of the J Street Education Fund, in response to one of these inquiries:

Please know that we thought long and hard before deciding to write a statement of our own opposing the BDS conference instead of signing on to the joint statement. It was not an easy decision, but I do believe it was the right one.

As you know, J Street’s ability to combat BDS effectively – on campuses and elsewhere – depends on our ability to be relevant as pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy activists. J Street has been asked by a number of Jewish organizations, including the JCPA and JCRCs to speak at public forums like the Presbyterian General Assembly, against BDS. Likewise, our students at UC Berkeley were instrumental in broadening community opposition to efforts to override a veto of a divestment resolution, which was ultimately upheld by just one vote. We’ve been asked to sign on to letters about BDS, we’ve been asked to make statements about BDS precisely because our voice resonates with progressive and social justice minded Jews and non-Jews.

J Street specifically is asked to speak out on this issue (and to be clear, we would do so if we weren’t asked) because we have the credibility to move some people away from a BDS strategy that ZOA or AJC or even Hillel doesn’t. We have credibility to reach people who may be confused about BDS or who are even considering supporting BDS because they think it will further peace. We have the credibility to say, as pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy activists who advocate passionately for a two-state resolution, that we firmly believe that BDS will not bring us any closer to that goal. We are uniquely positioned to argue that while criticizing Israeli policy out of concern for Israel’s future is legitimate, singling out, punishing or demonizing Israel as if it’s the only side to blame is not.

So when we are asked to sign on to a letter that uses language that isn’t consonant with our principles, or consistent with the way we talk about the conflict or about Israel or about BDS, we run the risk of losing that credibility. That very credibility is the whole reason J Street was asked to sign on to the letter in the first place.

I understand that that frustrates some in the organized Jewish community, and I understand that you are frustrated. But to be frank, we’re not trying to convince the organized Jewish community not to divest from Israel. We’re trying to convince the people who will trust and listen to us because of who we are and what we stand for.

Personally, I do not believe a joint statement is the best strategy. It could have been just as, if not more effective for us as a community to stand together, in the same room – J Street, the Federation, ADL, Hillel, the ZOA, Z Street – all of us – and present our statements in our own voices, so that supporters and opponents could understand that while there remains diversity and difference in our community, there is also common ground and common values and a common love of Israel.

I wish the community would have considered a different strategy, but they did not, and so, here we are.

While I enjoy any email that contains words of Torah, I strongly take issue with your reading of our Penn BDS statement as a disregard for Rabbi Hillel’s wisdom. We are not trying to separate ourselves from the community. Even our statement noted that we shared the opposition of our colleagues in the Jewish community. And you should know that we tried to work with the Federation on language we could sign on to, and when we were asked not to release our statement before theirs, we abided. We are merely trying to be true to who we are – because that is the best and most effective way that we can combat BDS, and that is the most effective way that we can support Israel.

There is plenty of diversity in the Jewish community, as you well know. There are plenty of different interpretations of text and tradition and halacha. I do netilat yadayim before I make kiddush instead of the reverse. I wait three hours between meat and milk instead of six. I dip parsley in vinegar on Passover and not potatoes in salt water. But I still observe shabbat, and kashrut and Pesach, I just may do it differently than you.

We oppose BDS and we support Israel, and we support pro-Israel students at Penn, we just do it differently than you.

All the best and warmest regards,