JStreet on Forbes Avenue

By Caroline Kessler

All the colleges and universities in Pittsburgh returned for class the week of January 11. As is typical on a Friday night at the Hillel-Jewish University Center, students from Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, and a few other schools gathered for services. This past Friday, JStreet sponsored dinner after services, a gesture that held appeal (because of the normally-not-free meal) and drew in a larger crowd than usual. JStreet is the “political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” and I put this in quotes because I can only use their words to describe them. That’s taken from their multi-paragraph About Us page of their website.

After we settled in with our plates of dry falafel, shwarma, and salad, Daniel Levy began to speak. He was a charismatic, engaging man with a British accent that made everything he said sound slightly more academic. And among other things, he’s works with the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation.

His talk, clearly directed at his audience of college students, began with an analogy about how we can support (or not support) Israel, complete with pom-poms. There are two options, he asserted: to say, thanks but no, thanks, I don’t care to support Israel or to say yes, sign me up to be a cheerleader for Israel. Expanding on this topic, he talked about how we engage with the “mythical Israel”—either everything she does is okay or nothing she does is okay. The way he phrased these points made me think he would return to them later, to give some gesture of resolving them.

He didn’t. He talked about the problem of the settlements, that Gaza is no longer “settled” by Israel but that Israel control everything that comes in and out of the area, including the air space and sea space. The issue of Gaza is far from new—it feels as old as time by now. As Levy further illustrated Israel’s dilemma of the Palestinian’s possible statehood, the attention of the students waned.

I still felt engaged, because of his speaking style, but wondered if there would be any sort of conclusion, call to action, or return to his earlier sentiments. In the end, the sell seemed to be to form a Pittsburgh chapter of JStreet U, the college arm of the organization. Judging by the waning focus of the large group of students, I would guess that this is far from happening—but the crowd that gathered around Levy at the end of his talk seemed more promising. As Levy said, “the bad news for you guys is that you’re involved in this fight.” I’m not sure what the good news was.

Caroline Kessler, hailing from the not-so-charmed city of Baltimore, is an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University.

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