After this summer’s tragic war in Gaza, J Street U chapters across the country hosted vigils to remember the Israeli and Palestinian victims of the violence. We spoke with Rachel Flaherman, president of J Street U Swarthmore, about one such event that her chapter helped to organize on campus. “As close allies and friends of Israel, we have an important role to play,” said Rachel. “We should assert our role and accept that we have power and a responsibility to act.” Check out our interview with Rachel, a J Street U all-star!
J Street: How did your relationship with Israel develop when you were growing up?
Rachel: I was raised in San Francisco in a Reform congregation, where I went to Sunday school for fourteen years. I traveled to Israel for the first time with my grandparents after my bat mitzvah. It was a very moving experience. I could see how much Israel meant to my grandparents, that there was this place to pass on to their grandchildren where Jews could always have a home.
In high school, I was exposed to a different perspective. My best friend at the time considered herself an advocate for oppressed people everywhere, and she worked to raise awareness of minority rights in the Bay Area. One day, we got to talking about Israel. When she said that she was pro-Palestinian, I was shocked and confused. Nobody had ever said that to me. She said she had to be pro-Palestinian because the Palestinian people are oppressed by Israel. I responded, “But the Jewish people need a homeland! We have a history of horrible oppression! The Holocaust was only seventy years ago!” I had never heard the pro-Palestinian side of the story, but I really valued my friend’s opinion, so I started to research and learn more.
Later, I participated in a dialogue group with Jewish and Muslim teenagers, and for the first time, I realized that different people have totally different stories and sets of facts about Israel and Palestine. I discovered that the “objective” history of Israel I had learned as a child was actually hotly contested.
J Street: How did you get involved with J Street?
Rachel: I went to a J Street U event at Swarthmore and then attended the national conference in Washington, DC in 2013. I was amazed by the sheer number of people I saw there. I wondered, if there are so many people who feel the way I do, that this conflict needs to end, why can’t we make this change? I became empowered and compelled to get more involved.
J Street: What work has the Swarthmore chapter been doing on campus to promote two states?
Rachel: Nearly 100 students joined us last month for a vigil that we co-hosted to remember the Israeli and Palestinian victims of this summer’s violence. It was a very emotionally taxing event, but I think it had a significant impact on campus. We brought together students from across the spectrum and communicated our sadness and shared sense that things are not as they should be.
Last weekend, we brought Rabbi Ron Kronish from the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel to discuss how we can leverage our faiths to work together and promote peace.
J Street: Why do you support a two-state solution?
Rachel: Everyone deserves to be part of a country that grants equal rights. I’m a physics major, not a political science major, so I’m not well-versed in the academic political language. But I have come to see the current situation of occupation and conflict as unacceptable.
And I’ve looked at solutions that different organizations offer, and J Street’s is really the one that I feel I can get behind. The two-state solution is in line with Jewish values, my family values, and the needs and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.
J Street: What changes do you hope to see in the future?
Rachel: I really hope that J Street can succeed in bringing the public together around the two-state solution. It’s a very difficult task, but it’s also so necessary. I hope that Americans will come to feel empowered and obligated to advocate for peace and two states. I think we are used to hearing that we as Americans or as Diaspora Jews don’t have a right to assert ourselves in this debate. It is easier to think this way, because it excuses us from action. But as American citizens and therefore close allies and friends of Israel, we have an important role to play. We should assert our role and accept that we have power and a responsibility to act.