When Rachel Cohen turned 22 on Sunday, she didn't go clubbing with her fellow Hopkins students or enjoy a romantic escape with her boyfriend. Instead, the native of the Philly suburbs, a double major in history and sociology, spent hours listening to panels of experts debating the finer points of U.S. Middle East policy. Even her mom asked her, "Is this really how you're gonna spend your birthday?" But Cohen wouldn't have wanted to celebrate any other way. As a sophomore, she helped found the Hopkins chapter of J Street U., the campus arm of the progressive Jewish organization that advocates for fairness toward the Palestinians and an equitable two-state solution. Now a senior, she serves on the group's national student board representing the Southeast region.
This past Saturday through Monday, Hopkins played host to J Street U.'s biggest event in its four-year history. Three hundred students from 60 campuses engaged in a J Street U. Town Hall, billed as three days of "education and action" timed to coincide with the latest round of the ever-shaky Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Even as those negotiations threatened to dissolve into familiar rancor and provocation, students and distinguished speakers at Hopkins— including Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland and State Department officials—talked up the prospects for a long-term peace agreement. On Sunday afternoon, several salons inside the Charles Commons on 33rd Street buzzed with arguments and opinions. In one room, Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, and Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations with Americans for Peace Now, tackled the question of whether it's fair to demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel "as a Jewish state." (Not really, they agreed, although Friedman said she understands why Israelis feel so strongly about this.) Friedman summed up why the goal of peace still seems so elusive after two decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: "At the end of the day, the parties are going to have to deal with the hardest thing, which is reconciling our narratives. Twenty years in, we've made no progress on this." Next door, Rebecca Abou-Chedid, co-chair of the board of directors of Just Vision, made a related point, telling the assembled students, "the peace process has been going on your entire lives … from the Palestinian point of view, it's been all process and very little peace." She argued in favor of the BDS (boycotts, divestment, sanctions) movement, a deeply controversial position even among left-leaning J-Streeters. But she also acknowledged that J Street U. challenges conventional wisdom in much of the Jewish community, saying, "I'm grateful that you're willing to take this on." Indeed, as an organization that is unapologetically pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, J Street U. has often been regarded with suspicion by both the left and the right, and has sometimes been met with outright hostility by mainstream campus Jewish groups. J Street U.'s Cohen says some students tried to prevent the group from forming at Hopkins "because they didn't think we were sufficiently pro-Israel." There have been clashes with Hillel groups here and elsewhere—although Cohen says J Street U. now has a good relationship with Hopkins Hillel, whose executive director, Rabbi Debbie Pine, took part in a Town Hall session on Monday. As for Cohen, she's thrilled to have spent her birthday talking policy with a few hundred of her closest friends from around the country. Her passion for these issues is obvious, and she feels that J Street U. can make a real difference by changing the campus conversation among American Jews and helping to build what she calls "a great constituency for peace." After all, Cohen says, "It's easy for all types of leaders to say they support two states … [but] it's not enough to say you support two states. You have to take action to achieve it."
Photos by Tanya Garcia