Exhibit brings needed Israel discussion to WashU

By Aitan Groener

In a few days, J Street U Wash U will be hosting an exhibition on the Washington University campus produced by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization. It is led by veteran Israeli Defense Forces soldiers who work to share their experiences of everyday life in the occupied territories. The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the start of the military occupation of the West Bank. Breaking the Silence’s work is absolutely crucial for documenting and explaining the difficult realities of the occupation to Jewish communities both in Israel and the United States. 

It can be hard to listen to criticism of Israel from people who seem like they’re not from our community, or who don’t share our love and our concern for Israel, its people, and its future. This is why it is so important to highlight the voices of Israeli veterans, who have personal experiences that demonstrate the need for a two-state solution to alleviate the burdens that the ongoing conflict places on both peoples. If we can’t listen to these Israeli soldiers, then it’s clear that our problem is not with the people who criticize Israel, but rather with the fact that they have any criticisms at all.

A few weeks ago, when J Street U asked our Hillel to cosponsor Breaking the Silence’s exhibition with us we were told that the event would be too radical and divisive. We were told that we had not yet done enough to earn Hillel’s trust and that we were asking for more than we deserved. Respectfully, that’s unacceptable. 

I’ve been part of the Hillel and Jewish communities at Wash U ever since my freshman year. J Street U has been an active part of the Jewish community for years, coordinating events in the Hillel building, bringing students to Shabbat dinners, and collaborating with other Israel groups on programming. At what point will Hillel at Wash U decide that it’s acceptable for students to learn from former Israeli soldiers the realities of the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? At what point will Hillel recognize that our political views, shared by millions of American Jews, Israelis and by Israeli political and security leaders, have a major place in our communal conversation? 

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The American Jewish community has been the most important and guiding community in my life. It’s where I’ve developed my values and figured out the kind of person that I want to be. Yet despite the ways that the American Jewish community is important to me, it often feels like the community does not welcome me or my political views. It stings to know that the community that raised me would often prefer not to hear my voice – or indeed to hear any voices that challenge or upset preconceived notions about Israel and the conflict.

It is neither tenable nor is it right for our communities to be turning away or chastising many students and young people for being progressive on Israel. Sadly, disengagement from the community is often the outcome of being consistently told that we cannot hold or share our political and moral beliefs in Jewish spaces. This cannot be the way that the Jewish community communicates. We need to be able to challenge each other while respecting our differences. We need to make sure that our members can bring their full selves into our community, politics and all. 

J Street U is bringing Breaking the Silence to our campus because we need our communities to acknowledge the threat that the occupation poses to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic country. I’ve been so proud to see how quickly and fiercely the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council responded to the passage of America’s refugee and travel ban, and how many Jews have been involved in protests against Islamophobia and reactionary politics. Yet somehow it seems like too many of us who are resisting in the United States are unready or unwilling to recognize and resist that there are anti-democratic forces at play in Israel that also must be discussed, understood, and resisted. 

Bringing Breaking the Silence to campus reminds me that it is powerful and possible to support Israel, while working to fix its broken politics. It reminds me that I can create a place for myself in Jewish communities by bringing together my Jewish values and my desire for an end to the occupation and a two-state solution.

Supporting Israel’s future means listening to difficult voices that document its realities and criticize its failings out of compassion and concern. If you care about a Jewish and democratic state of Israel, value Palestinian lives and human rights and want to ensure that a two-state solution to the conflict can be achieved in our lifetime, please join J Street U to welcome Breaking the Silence to our community from April 25-27 at Washington University’s Ursa’s Fireside Lounge on Shepley Avenue. We look forward to learning, working and building community together with you. 

Aitan Groener, of Olivette, is a junior at Washington University majoring in Environmental Policy and minoring in Economics. For more information on the “Breaking the Silence” exhibit, search for JStU presents: Breaking the Silence on Facebook.

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