J Street held its first conference last week in Washington, DC since its founding in April of 2008. The organization, viewed by many as a counterweight to AIPAC, boasted an impressive number of young faces.
About 250 college students attended a parallel conference organized by J Street U, J Street's campus activism branch, and dozens of twenty-something political staffers, think-tank interns and bloggers milled in and out of the main conference's sessions.
According to The Nation:
The few hundred young faces were a welcome sign for J Street leadership and other representatives of older generations of Jews. In the past few years, studies have shown that youth engagement with Judaism and Israel is declining. And as Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, cautioned the audience, "This is a time when many Jews, especially young ones, are walking away from a life that involves Israel." In many cases, younger Jews represent what Ben-Ami calls a new "silent majority," who have felt until now that voicing critical opinions of Israel would expose them to harassment and accusations of anti-Semitism or self-loathing. "Young Jews have no forum to question," Lauren Barr, a college junior, observed. "And so they walk away."The conference also included discussions directly related to campus engagement. In a session titled Israel on Campus, several educators and campus leaders met to share issues they faced in addressing Israel within a university setting.
A recent JTA blog post noted that "tensions within Jewish groups [on campus] and between student organizations of various faiths played a significant role in student life and continues to be an ongoing problem."
The post also addressed the recent problems experienced by Hampshire College. The institution's president, Ralph Hexter, was a speaker on the panel.
"When asked about the specific nature of these tensions, Hampshire College president Ralph Hexter replied with a chuckle "What tensions don't I face?" Hexter referred to accusations earlier this year that his institution had divested from Israel. These claims, most notably made by political commentator Alan Dershowitz, were later reversed. Dershowitz, as fate may have it, is in fact the parent of a Hampshire College alumnus. On a lighter note, Hexter said that the back and forth between school and pundit was in fact an excellent example of how the school takes care to maintain good relations with the extended Hampshire College family."The speakers all agreed that campus engagement is essential to getting young people involved with Israel.