Oregon college students attend J Street conference

J Street – a liberal pro-Israel, pro-peace nonprofit lobbying organization – has captured the hearts and imaginations of some Oregon college students. Thirteen of the 24 Oregonians who attended the J Street National Conference, March 24-27, were students, mostly from Reed and Lewis & Clark colleges.

One student at the conference in Washington, DC, was Hannah Fishman, a Reed sophomore majoring in political science. Growing up, she said, “Israel was the way I connected most to my Jewish identity, because there aren’t that many Jews in Port Angeles (WA). For my parents, who are secular, learning about Israel was the way they inculcated their sense of being Jewish. As I grew older, I became more uncomfortable accepting Israeli politics. I still connected with and wanted to defend Israel, but some of those traditional defenses became false to my ears.”

In 2008, when still in high school, she learned about J Street and felt she “could get behind a lot of the principles they stood for.”

When she started college last year, Fishman joined J Street U on campus. She attended last year’s national conference where she “became inspired” and more invested in the organization. She was named the West Coast representative to the J Street U board.

She went to Israel over winter break “with the goal of experiencing things” to become better informed. “So going to the conference was in many ways the culmination of a lot of work” she put in throughout the year.

She believes “the current path that Israel is on is unsustainable in many ways. I love Israel and I really want it to continue being a Jewish democratic state that represents the ideals I hold dear.”

Another conference attendee, Reed freshman Austin Weisgrau said, “My family, especially my dad, has always supported Israel and is involved in AIPAC.” Last year, Weisgrau spent five months in Jerusalem. Like his family in San Diego, the environmental studies major is concerned about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and wanted to get involved. For him, J Street is the way to do that.

“I really appreciate AIPAC’s strong support and defense of Israel regarding unfair propaganda,” he said, but he disagrees with their position on the Palestinian issue.

He became involved with J Street because it brings a lot of knowledgeable people together and encourages relevant conversations. It “acts as a bridge for the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian communities” and encourages “more communication (between these groups), which is absolutely essential in any conflict resolution,” he said. “But it’s hard to say how this communication will affect internal politics in Israel.”

About 2,500 conference attendees – 650 of whom were students – lobbied members of Congress on March 27. Fishman said, “We stressed the need to allow time for sanctions and diplomacy to work against an Iranian nuclear weapons program. …We reiterated the importance of a two-state solution, and the necessity of American leadership to reach that goal.”

“Our team got to meet with Oregon’s entire congressional delegation,” said Weisgrau. “All the meetings went really well! Both Democrats and Republicans seemed really receptive to what we had to say. I think it’s their job to be receptive, but a few of them were really on the same page as us.”

Image caption: Oregonians visit Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) on the last day of the J Street National Conference. From left are (back row): Austin Weisgrau, Karen Abravanel, Hannah Fishman and the Rev. Wayne Smith; (front row): Bonamici, Anne McLaughlin, Marcia Danab and Elinor Gollay; and front: Joshua Shulruff.

Anne Koppel Conway is a freelance writer in Portland.

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