This past March, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. for the annual J Street conference, hosted through the University of Washington (UW). J Street is a political action committee (PAC) that advocates for a two-state solution, which very broadly means that they advocate for Israel and Palestine to become two separate states, not one.
J Street describes themselves as being “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace.” Full disclaimer: I’m not Jewish and had never been to D.C., but I do want to learn more about the conflict as well as the American-Jewish community — especially as our nation is seeing a rise in anti-Semitic behavior. So I applied to attend the conference as a UW student, was accepted, and off I went.
Jeremy Voss, the UW’s J Street Chapter president, introduced me to the idea of going to D.C. Voss is Jewish and didn’t know what to believe about the news coming out around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So he decided to find out for himself.
“I decided to take a gap year in Israel and study the conflict in person,” says Voss. “I soon got connected with J Street in Israel, loved the trips they organized and found a place where I could balance my love for my homeland and my desire to work towards peace with our neighbors, the Palestinians.”
Voss brought his inspiration and passion back to UW.
“I decided to start the club [here at UW] to provide a space for students to learn more about how they can support both Israelis and Palestinians and work towards a two-state solution to the conflict.”
I consider myself an avid traveler. I have been to 21 countries, I crave the experiences gained by traveling and the knowledge gained from interacting with different cultures. However, I quickly felt out of my league as I arrived at the conference. I was handed stickers at activist booths with Hebrew phrases that I couldn’t read. I had no idea what the West Bank settlements were until I went to a documentary screening. I needed to google what a kibbutz is after hearing it mentioned in Bernie Sanders’s keynote speech. Sanders was fitting as the keynote speaker — he’s made it closer to the White House than any other Jewish person in history.
Over 1,000 students from across the country attended the J Street Conference this year. I wanted to speak with Jewish millennials and hear their perspectives on current affairs. So I headed out to the Northwest J Street meetup and met Elisheva Miller, a student from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Miller became involved with J Street after they visited her college’s Jewish Student Union.
“I guess that I’ve never questioned that Israel is important to me,” says Miller. “It’s always been something that is relevant to my life, like growing up religious and culturally Jewish.”
Miller says she’s thought about how she wants to see Israel in her life, and “whether I want it to be an identity of conflict and aggression and occupation or if I want Israel’s place in my life to mean peace and agreement and compromise.”
A major issue discussed at the conference was the recent rise in anti-Semitic behavior across the U.S. and how it related to the President Trump’s administration.
“The best we can do is reach out to other groups who have been marginalized or pushed aside by Trump’s policies or ideologies and just support each other” says Miller. “It’s rough, but it’s not rough for any one person or any one group. Everyone has an opportunity to come together because of this awful situation that we’re in.”
Christopher Dolan, a self-described “foreign policy nerd” and political science student at the University of Oregon, is also a member of his University’s J-Street chapter. Dolan isn’t Jewish, but studies the region.
“I’ve always known people who are heavily impacted by it and I think that it heavily impacts me deeply just because I care about what happens to the people in this region.”
Dolan thinks J-Street is an important group that provides an opportunity for young people around the world to come together.
“I think, to me, the idea of a group that stands in the center of that conversation and tries to bridge that divide is just immensely powerful. And so it’s just really moving to me, on an individual level.”
During the conference I attended a panel about American and Israeli media coverage featuring Jessica Schulberg, a foreign affairs reporter for the Huffington Post. Schulberg has written numerous articles on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump’s policies. I asked Schulberg why the average American should care about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“With Israel being such a huge ally and such a huge recipient of U.S. money, Americans should probably care about what they’re doing,” she says.
During the panel, Schulberg also talked about what it was like to be a Jewish reporter throughout the past year of reported increases in anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes. She shared that someone had recently photoshopped her face into an oven, an allusion to the genocide of Jewish people at concentration camps during WWII.
“There are so many challenges” she says. Not only is the rise in anti-Semitism a challenge, says Schulberg, but the White House’s disregard for facts is just as challenging.
“It’s pretty bizarre to know that the White House will outright lie to you.” she says. “That’s sort of requiring journalists to reevaluate their standards for how much value they put into what the White House says.”
At the same time, says Schulberg, you run the risk of going too far if you just totally disregard denials. “That’s bad, too,” says Schulberg. “Dealing with their sort of lack of commitment to the truth has been challenging.”
After settling back home in Seattle and reflecting on the conference, I learned that the Jewish-American community faces a myriad of challenges, both politically and culturally. In the face of those challenges, however, they come together — with groups like J Street — to face the future with optimism and hope.
Gabriela Capestany is a sophomore at the University of Washington pursuing a double major in cinema studies and communication with a minor in Danish. She’s also the co-director of HuskyCreative, a student-run UW ad agency. Her main passion is film and her movies have been featured in film festivals around the world, most notably the Los Angeles Film Festival. When she’s not interning or at school, Gabi enjoys bouldering, biking, and traveling the world (21 countries and counting!)
Fun Fact: Her favorite kind of film is Scandinavian film. She just got back from studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark where she spent five months learning Danish and biking around the city.More stories by Gabriela Capestany