Over two dozen community members gathered at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale this week for a discussion of mapping intended to bring nuance to the Jewish community’s dialogue on Israel and its relationship to Palestine.
A talk on Wednesday, organized by the Yale chapter of J Street U, focused on map policy and how the visual portrayal of Israel influences international dialogues about human rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Chelsey Berlin, the event’s main speaker, is the director of B’Tselem USA, the American portion of the Israel-based organization that documents human rights violations in the occupied territories and advocates for a change in Israeli policy. To aid understanding, B’Tselem produces maps that include the political dimensions of the West Bank and Gaza, the focus of Wednesday’s conversation. Currently, maps of Israel at the Slifka Center do not emphasize the Green Line outlining these territories, a feature that J Street members at Yale advocate for in efforts to add nuance and expand pro-Israel dialogue.
“We wanted to have this speaker specifically at Slifka because Slifka is an organization that is very engaged with and connected with Israel in a lot of capacities,” said Nathan Swetlitz ’17, one of the co-founders of Yale’s J Street chapter. “We wanted to start a conversation about how we at Yale in general are portraying Israel … and in what ways we are comfortable with that, in what ways we are uncomfortable with that and in what ways we have an obligation to represent Israel in certain ways.”
The Yale chapter of J Street was brought to the University in 2013 by Swetlitz and Elianna Boswell ’17, who returned this week from a J Street lobbying conference in Washington, D.C. J Street, founded in 2007, describes itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-Palestinian group that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Historically, J Street U and Hillel centers, like the one housed at Slifka, at colleges and universities nationwide have had contentious relationships, Boswell said. Though Slifka and parallel institutions claim to be apolitical spaces, she said, “Nothing about Israel is apolitical.”
The first few years on campus were a “struggle” for J Street and involved a substantial amount of back and forth between the two organizations about what J Street was permitted to do in terms of events and community participation, Boswell said. However, now that J Street has established itself on a number of campuses, Boswell added that the conversation has largely shifted from merely vying for inclusion in the Jewish community to creating an open space for discussion.
The process of sponsoring a J Street speaker from B’Tselem was not without complications, Boswell said. Initially, Slifka administrators asked the students to have a panel of speakers accompany Berlin, or have her speak alongside a more “right-wing” representative to provide balance. Boswell said that while these requests seemed reasonable, they were representative of a “troubling” dynamic which implies that Slifka can host right-wing speakers without a left-wing balancing act, but not vice versa.
“The purpose of the event … [was] to begin to make space not just for a conversation to happen in Slifka, but actually for the culture to be more reflective of the Jewish student body at large, which we believe wants to have critical conversations and wants to be engaged politically in a real way,” Boswell said. “The culture that has existed up until now is that ‘You can have those conversations, but you better be careful.’”
Yonatan Millo, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Slifka, who works with Israel-related groups on campus, said that Slifka is committed to sponsoring events that provide a variety of perspectives to Yale’s campus and include as many students as possible.
“Slifka and all the organizations that are Israel-related strive to make a more inclusive conversation around Israel at large … and to have a much more knowledgeable and nuanced conversation,” Millo said. “[Wednesday’s] event played into exactly that.”
Berlin provided attendees with a handout of five maps that included a “tourism” portrayal of Israel, which does not separate the West Bank; a Green Line portrayal, on which the West Bank and Gaza are set apart; and more detailed maps that show political territories. One such map highlighted Area C of the West Bank, which comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank and is home to around 180,000 Palestinians under Israeli control on both security and civil matters, according to the handout. Berlin led attendees through conversations about each map before the group split off into separate discussions about their personal interests in and relationship to the question of maps and Israel.
Cyrus Glanzer ’19, who is a member of J Street and helped organize the event, said he found the talk productive, and was happy with the level of audience engagement. He added that he hopes the event “shakes up” the conversation, which is not about being either anti-Israel or anti-Palestine, but “pro-both.” Because J Street is a Jewish activist group, the conversation will start within the Jewish community but could benefit from the support of students across Yale, he said.
Calvin Harrison ’17, who is not involved with J Street but attended the event, said while he enjoyed the talk, the information was somewhat “basic” though still important to provide a basis for dialogues happening on campus.
B’Tselem USA was founded in 1989.