Student Spotlight: Hannah Nayowith

March 2, 2015
Carleton College Junior Hannah Nayowith recalls that when she was growing up, she cared deeply about Israel but was afraid that she didn’t know enough to express her views in public. Now co-chair of J Street U Carleton, Hannah says, “We can’t be afraid to speak up… the Jewish community really values student voices, so we are going to show power in numbers by bringing those numbers to Washington” for the J Street national conference. By fighting for a Jewish community and an Israel that reflects her values, Hannah has become a role model for pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy advocacy in Minnesota and beyond. Find out more about Hannah in this month’s profile!

J Street: How did your relationship with Israel develop as you were growing up?

Hannah: I was raised with a very strong connection to Israel. Eighty-five of my Hungarian-Jewish relatives passed away in Auschwitz and I was fascinated with learning more about the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. But because I wasn’t very involved in the Jewish community, I wasn’t steeped in the Israel conversation that other Jewish kids my age were having. I knew that Israel was often under attack, and that the conflict with the Palestinians had been going on for decades, but I wasn’t aware of much of the nuance.

That changed in college. My first term, I took a literature class on the personal narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which really opened my eyes to new perspectives. I realized that while I had always perceived both sides of the conflict as being different, they also have the same sense of loss and suffering.

J Street: And that led you to J Street U?

Hannah: Yes. I had always been self-conscious about discussing the conflict because I hadn’t been raised talking about it all the time, but for the first time, I felt confident to share my own opinions. I’ve come to understand that learning about the conflict is a process and you can never completely know everything. We can’t be afraid to speak up.

J Street U serves a really important purpose as the main pro-Israel voice at Carleton. Of course, when I first joined, I didn’t realize how heated some conversations about Israel can become. I didn’t realize that some other students wouldn’t be willing to have those conversations at all.

This past December, I went to Israel for the first time with Birthright. A lot of people on my trip went there with a very open mind, and some people were not willing to have conversations about the conflict. At one point, we met with an Arab-Israeli lawyer who talked to us about the increasing sense of anti-Arab sentiment in Israeli society. Some people on the trip were very moved and upset by this, and some people refused to believe that this could be true. These conversations were shocking and fascinating. One participant who was very involved in the pro-Israel community came up to me afterwards and said that he was worried about Israel’s democracy if there isn’t peace.

I’m working to engage some of these student in pro-Israel advocacy and encouraging them to have more of these conversations on campus. And I’m planning on returning this summer to work for an organization based in the West Bank in Nablus that works to empower Israeli and Palestinian youth to learn about and oppose the occupation.

J Street: What work has J Street U Carleton been doing on campus to promote two states?

Hannah: Our biggest challenge right now is recruiting as many students as possible to the national conference. We’ve already registered three times as many people as we brought last time. Interning at the J Street Los Angeles office last year, I learned that the Jewish community really values student voices. So we are going to show power in numbers by bringing those numbers to Washington.

We’re also working to get the Jewish community to do more to oppose obstacles to peace, including settlements. We’re trying to get Jewish communal leaders to stop organizational money from funding projects over the Green Line. It’s really easy to say that we support two states, but much harder to actually work for it. We’ve been meeting with Jewish federation leaders, developing relationships with them and showing them that students have a stake in this issue. We are also leading educational programs every week and we’re actually leading a one-on-one training this term to help students engage in intentional conversations about the conflict.

J Street: What are you most looking forward to at next month’s conference?

Hannah: I’m so excited for the conference. The last one was my first exposure to J Street as a national movement. It’s easy sometimes to feel like you don’t have power in ending this massive conflict, but then you see this force made up of thousands of people and it’s so empowering to realize that we can actually do this together. I learned more about the conflict in those three days than I had in my entire life.

I think everyone should make a real effort to go this year. It’s so engaging–you don’t just listen, you interact. J Street is very good at bringing together different voices and perspectives. We believe these conversations are important, even if we don’t agree. I’m very excited to express myself and ask questions and remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing, why this work is so important.

J Street: What have been some of your biggest successes at Carleton?

Hannah: We were very involved in an Israel advocacy conference a few weeks ago hosted by the Minneapolis JCRC. Jacob Kraus from Macalester, who is a J Street U Midwest regional co-chair, was on the planning committee and led a session on two-state advocacy, and I was on a student panel with students involved in pro-Israel groups at three other schools. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, to be able to signal our place within the Jewish community and our role in helping to lead these important conversations about Israel. Other J Street U students from Carleton and Mac participated throughout the day and asked some great questions about Israel advocacy. Afterwards, community leaders from across the political spectrum were very grateful and supportive and thanked us for our work on campus.

J Street: What changes do you hope to see in the future, for the Jewish community and for Israel?

Hannah: I don’t expect the Jewish community to transform overnight, but I don’t want students to leave school feeling that they aren’t able to discuss Israel in a meaningful way. Down the road, I want people to be more open to having conversations with those they don’t agree with, and to think more critically and not accept what they’re told at face value.

In Israel, I really hope that the people elect a government that works toward peace, because Israel cannot keep all of the land under its control and still be democratic and Jewish–it can’t stay in line with my values. Only a two-state solution can address the needs and desires of both sides. That’s why we need to hold our leaders accountable for their actions. If they say they support two states, they need to show it.