WESTWOOD — The Progressive Jewish Alliance at UCLA hosted a Community Town Hall last Thursday, bringing students together to discuss a variety of issues affecting the Jewish community on campus.
Brad Fingard, Sarah Schmitt and Tal Newfield organized the event, which was the first of its kind put on by the nascent Progressive Jewish Alliance. About 12 students attended, most of whom were Jewish. Those in attendance held leadership roles in JStreet U, Bruins for Israel, Hillel at UCLA, Students for Justice in Palestine and other campus groups with religious and political affiliations.
Fingard, External Relations Chair of Hillel at UCLA, board member at J Street U and co-founder of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, heralded the town hall as an opportunity for open discussion of important issues within or pertaining to the Jewish community. “There are so many Jews on campus and a billion opinions [among them]”, Fingard said, noting that the Jewish community lacks a space to discuss issues that are particularly contentious.
Fingard said that he had been pushing for an event of this nature for approximately two years, but some attendees had said that the need to engage in critical dialogue as a community became particularly urgent after the Daily Bruin published a controversial cartoon a few weeks ago. While many in the community took issue with the cartoon, describing it as anti-Semitic, others viewed it as a legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and felt excluded from the coordinated response to it as it was spearheaded by various Jewish student leaders.
“I thought the cartoon had a few issues, but also presented a legitimate criticism of an Israeli policy,” said Anna Rosenfeld, a second-year student involved with J Street and Hillel.
Beyond the cartoon, one major topic of discussion included the absence of Jews from progressive groups and social justice spaces on campus. Students had differing opinions on the cause of this absence.
Citing her view that Jewish values align tightly with the missions of many social justice groups on campus, Sarah Schmitt views “the absence of Jews in these spaces [as] strange.” Schmitt is the Programming Director for the Students for Justice in Palestine and co-founder of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Rosenfeld said, “Some Jews don’t feel welcomed into progressive [and] social justice spaces because of the way people there feel about Israel.”
Talk of Jewish involvement in progressive spaces also elicited discussion on the term “PEP” — a slang acronym that stands for “progressive except Palestine.” Many progressives view Zionism as antithetical to progressivism and, therefore, do not feel that self-identified progressives who support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state are actually progressive.
While some attendees lamented the term as a reductive, disparaging label for Jews, others tried to explain its basis and the reasons why they, themselves, are comfortable using it.
“We have to see why people call Jews PEP’s,” said Tal Newfield, co-founder of the Jewish Progressive Alliance. “We [Jews] don’t stand up for other communities’ experience [of] racism and discrimination every day. Why would they see us as progressive, or stand up for us?” she questioned.
The final topic of discussion revolved around what form the Progressive Jewish Alliance would take going forward. The group came to a relative consensus on its hopes for future initiatives.
“I envision this group as a place for Jewish students to participate in social justice issues in solidarity with other groups on campus,” said Sarah Schmitt. All three of the group’s founders and event organizers hope that the group can be a place where Israel is not the primary political issue on the agenda.