Jeremy Voss remembers the confusion on other students’ faces when they approached his J Street U table at the University of Washington in Seattle.
He was telling them about the work his group, the college arm of J Street, was doing to halt Israeli settlement activity. His sign read “Pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace.”
“A lot of people that walked up to our table were excited by what we were talking about,” Voss said in Washington this week. “But then they saw those labels and stepped back. It was hard to tell which label they were uncomfortable with.”
Voss was one of about 1,200 J Street U students at the conference this week. He said that straddling that line — supporting Israel and a state for the Palestinians — is the biggest challenge J Street U students face on campus.
J Street U opposes the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that’s cropped up on some campuses, which can alienate it from other progressive campus groups. Meanwhile, its opposition to settlements draws skepticism from groups that identify with the Israeli government.
Halle Young, a student at Reed College in Portland, said that J Street U students understand that some Jews on campus are cautious about identifying with the organization for fear of being labeled anti-Israel. But in many ways, she said, the conference itself exists to say that one can criticize the Israeli government and Israeli policy, but still love Israel.
“Articulating that nuance, to be both pro-Israel and anti-occupation, is pretty much the central tenet of J Street,” Young said. “That’s the foundation of all of our work.”
Putting that belief into action, 100 J Street U members took Metro Monday to Israel’s Embassy, where they dropped off letters calling for the end of settlement construction in the West Bank.
“As long as your government continues to advocate the dangerous annexationist agenda of the far-right settlement movement,” the letters read, “we will continue to speak out and grow our movement.”