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J Street U Speaker Sparks Conversation, Controversy by Criticizing Israeli Government and Policy

Int proved to be a heated event, the Carleton branch of J Street U, an Israeli peace organization, brought a former Israeli serviceman to speak at the Weitz Center for Creativity on Tuesday, October 9th. 

J Street is an organization that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J Street U is the education branch of that organization, with chapters at many American universities. The speaker, Avner Gvaryahu, was invited to Carleton to speak on the issues facing Israel and his stance on what he called “the occupation.”

Gvaryahu is currently touring the country with Ira Stup, Deputy Director of J Street U, stopping mostly at institutions of higher education like Carleton and the University of Chicago.

Stup, a recent graduate of Columbia University, described J Street an J Street U as “an American political movement that’s advocating for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“We believe fundamentally that the only way to bring about a solution, which the international community and the parties on the ground support, is through active and engaged United States leadership,” he said.
“The US has the cache and the ability to bring the sides together… Frankly we have an obligation as US citizens [to help resolve the conflict].”

Gvaryahu is a former member of the Israeli Defense Force, who has now aligned himself with the Israeli Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), Breaking the Silence.   Gvaryahu served in the Israeli military for three years, initially in an infantry battalion as a special operations trooper, engaged in “targeted operations” happening mostly in the West Bank.  He later became the sergeant of a sniper team.  This entailed invading residences, suppressing the occupants, and using the dwelling as a sniper’s nest from which to attack targets.

Breaking the Silence is an organization in Israel that focuses on collecting testimonies from Israeli Defense Force soldiers, although they also dabble in lobbying work.  To date, they claim to have interviewed more than 850 soldiers, and tend to affiliate themselves with more leftist movements like J Street U that advocate a two-state solution and increased autonomy for Palestinians. 

Regarding the relationship between the two organizations, Gvaryahu stated, “This is a political game, you have to play with political tools.  There are places where Breaking the Silence and J Street separate. There are points, such as a two-state solution, that we don’t take a stand on. 

“With that said, the basic idea is similar. In both societies we try to create a debate about the price tag of controlling two and a half million people… They [J Street] present one answer to what we’re trying to talk about.”

During the presentation, Gvaryahu highlighted the harsh practices of the Israeli military in dealing with Palestinian opposition—violating human rights and using practices such as the “straw window” strategy, by which Israeli soldiers forcibly and without warning occupy Palestinian residences. He and his team often used the “straw window” to occupy sniping positions and intimidate the Palestinian occupants of dwellings. 

He also described a general atmosphere of fear and complacency that the Israeli authorities have attempted to create in Palestinian settlements, citing questionable orders and disturbing testimonies.  The picture painted of the Israeli government was not flattering. 

“Truly, in this quiet time, we have an opportunity to pursue a solution, and Israel is not doing that,” he said. “We do not have a government by the people, for the people in the West Bank.  We have a government by Israel, for Israel.”

This criticism did not go unnoticed by the crowd, comprised of students, J Street U members, professors, and Northfield residents.  During the question and answer session at the end of the event, most comments were sympathetic and in concurrence. However, a man representing The Jewish Community Relations Council, a right-leaning pro-Israel group, did not agree with Gvaryahu.

Alan Rubenstein, a research associate at the college, questioned several assertions made during the presentation, wondering whether Gvaryahu’s portrayal of the sentiment within the Israeli armed forces was really accurate.

While his assertion was polite and well-stated, it was also clearly a challenge, and several pointed remarks from the community members in the back row seemed to indicate that some agreed with him. Nonetheless, Gvaryahu appeared unfazed.

“There’s always resistance. We’re saying things that aren’t easy, aren’t simple for people to hear,” he said. “The topic of Israel is very emotional for a lot of people.  The last ‘holy cow’ in Israel is the Israeli Army, so how could we question that?

“Factually, I think that if Alan and I broke things down, eventually there wouldn’t be a lot you could run right or left to.  Eventually you have to pick sides.  You’re for occupation, or you’re against occupation.  But yeah, there’s pushback, that was expected, and it’s good.  It shows we’re stirring things up.  We hope for more.”
J Street’s Interim Vice-President, Joy Hill, introduced the presentation.  She also expressed how unusual Gvaryhu’s opinion was, considering his former position.

“You often hear that sort of view coming from Palestinians, but not necessarily from Israelis,” she said. “I think [Breaking the Silence] is doing a great job, even though it is controversial and they obviously have a lot of people who don’t like what they’re doing.”

Regarding Mr. Rubenstein, she continued, “I feel like having someone with his opinion so near to campus is very helpful for us to hear every side.  It’s just really nice to get all perspectives instead of just one. “

The students in attendance also felt positively about Gvaryahu, his presentation, and the spark of controversy at the end. Anais Boyd, a member of the local chapter of J Street U, stated, “I think that what was presented is really, really, really important to take into account… It made me view the conflict in a way that I had not previously.”

Likewise, Brian Engelstein ‘16, a Jewish freshman, found the event fascinating. “I always enjoy hearing different views, especially going to Hebrew school and hearing the classically ultra-Israeli stance,” he explained. “I found it very interesting to hear a counter-opinion and hear what is really going on over there on the ground.” 

When asked his opinion on about Rubenstein’s comments, he replied, “it is a very polarizing issue, and there’s a lot to it.  I felt his comments were a little aggressive, but it’s important to have these kinds of discussions if we’re going to determine exactly what to do.”

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