The pro-Palestinian Jewish activists on U.S. college campuses

Supporting the Palestinian cause, as they see it, is not a betrayal, but rather an affirmation, of their Jewish values.

As pro- and anti-Israel groups battle it out on college campuses across America, much attention has focused on the successful efforts of Palestinian rights organization to recruit other groups to their cause – among them blacks, Latinos, LGBT and union activists. Less notice has been given to the preponderance of Jews among their ranks.

A recent tour of college campuses across California – a hotbed of anti-Israel activity – shows that Jewish students have come to assume key roles in the Palestinian solidarity movement.

Many are founding members or serve on the boards of their local Students for Justice in Palestine chapters. Others have been instrumental in pushing through motions in student government recommending that their universities divest from American companies that “profit from the Israeli occupation.”

Yet others have been lending support to their Palestinian allies on campus through local student chapters of Jewish Voices for Peace, an organization that supports boycott, divestment and sanctions as well as the Palestinian right of return (an idea considered anathema by much of the pro-Zionist left). In fact, JVP and SJP often organize campus activities together.

Some of these Jewish students come from families with roots in Israel and bring in-depth knowledge of the conflict to their activism. Others have never stepped foot in the country. Some have found their way into the anti-Zionist left following an initial flirtation with J Street U, a progressive Zionist organization that opposes the occupation.

For quite a few, Israel’s last two wars in Gaza, in which thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed, were the trigger for their radicalization. On the whole, these activists are relatively non-committal when it comes to advocating for a particular solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on one point they all agree: Supporting the Palestinian cause, as they see it, is not a betrayal, but rather an affirmation of their Jewish values.

Who are these Jewish activists who have taken up arms in the pro-Palestinian struggle on United States college campuses? Here are some of their stories, as told to Haaretz:

Eitan Peled

A UCLA senior studying economics and public affairs

Eitan Peled, who grew up in San Diego, is the scion of a prominent leftist family in Israel. His late grandfather Matti Peled, a general during the Six-Day War, served in the Knesset and was one of the founding members of the Progressive List for Peace, a Jewish-Arab political party that was among the first to advocate for dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. His father, Miko Peled, is also an outspoken peace activist.

The younger Peled serves today as a member of the SJP board at University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also active in JVP. Often on his childhood trips to Israel, he recounts, he would travel with family members to visit their Palestinian friends in the West Bank.

“The imbalance was striking to me,” he says. “There were no swimming pools or parks there like there were in Tel Aviv, and my Palestinian friends had never even been to a beach because they weren’t allowed to go. That is what fueled my activism.”

Asked if he had ever felt shunned on campus by fellow Jews because of his particular form of activism, Peled responds: “I’m not sure. But in any event, I’m proud of my activism.”

Sarah and Elizabeth Schmitt

A UCLA junior majoring in history, Sarah Schmitt, like Peled, is active in both SJP and JVP. Now her older sister is showing similar inclinations

Growing up in a relatively unaffiliated Jewish family in conservative Orange County, Sarah Schmitt has never visited Israel. She first developed a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when she was barely a teen, during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day offensive in Gaza that began in December 2008. “I just couldn’t understand the disproportionate nature of the killing, and that captivated me,” she says.

As a student of history later on in life, Schmitt says, she began examining the conflict through the lens of Jewish history and became even further entrenched in her views. “It gave me a sense of disillusionment with the entity that presents itself as the Jewish state,” she says.

Schmitt is not the only one in her family to feel betrayed by Israel. Her older sister Elizabeth, a history major at UC Santa Barbara, has shown similar inclinations of late. “I recently attended my first meeting of SJP here on campus,” she reports, “and although I wouldn’t call myself an activist, I’m definitely interested in getting more involved. I think the fact that Sarah has been so active has influenced me, but I’ve also been doing a lot of reading on my own about the conflict.”

Asked how their parents have responded, she says: “It’s made them question their beliefs as well, to be honest. Definitely my mom – my dad, maybe not so much.”

Melanie Malinas

A doctoral student in biophysics at Stanford

Melanie Malinas grew up in a Reform family in Ventura and took off a year before beginning her graduate studies to teach Hebrew school in Reno, Nevada. Never having traveled to Israel, her first exposure to the country came through a friend and fellow undergraduate at Oberlin College, who was active in a Zionist youth movement.

“He got me interested, which prompted me to do my own research, and I started drawing my own conclusions,” she recounts. She had her first epiphany, she says, after reading an essay critical of Israel by writer and author Peter Beinart (today a Haaretz columnist). “It was like ‘wow,’” she says, “and it really sparked my interest.”

As a first step in her activism, she joined J Street U, but was soon disillusioned. “It felt like it wasn’t in line with what I was feeling,” she says. So in 2012, she decided to attend the annual SJP conference.

“I was blown away,” she recalls, “not only by their commitment to the Palestinian issue, but also to other forms of social justice.” As a core member of the SJP leadership team at Stanford, she helped push through a motion on divestment that was passed last year.

Asked what sort of solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict she supports, Malinas says: “I wouldn’t say I’m in favor of a one-state or two-state solution, but I do support the right of return for Palestinians, and although I consider myself an anti-Zionist, I don’t think Jews should be expelled from Israel.”

Michaela Ruth ben Izzy

A Stanford sophomore and SJP activist on campus

Michaela Ruth ben Izzy grew up in what she describes as a “culturally Jewish” home in Berkeley where her parents were active in the Reconstructionist movement.

Although her grandparents live in Israel, and she has visited the country several times, “Izzy,” as she is known, says she was not well educated on the conflict until she began attending university. “There were a lot of things I simply didn’t know,” she says.

As she began educating herself and forming her own opinions, J Street U seemed like it might be a good fit for her. “I wanted to get involved, and it felt like a good place,” she recounts.

That was until last summer when during a trip to Israel to visit her grandparents, she decided to take a few weeks and travel around the West Bank. “Being able to see things from the other side really shifted my worldview,” she says. “When I got back, the first thing I did was join SJP.”

“I see this as a very Jewish thing,” she notes. “Wrestling with the status quo has always been a Jewish value, and I think it’s in my Judaism to question these things.”

Kelsey Waxman

A Berkeley senior studying history and Arabic literature

Kelsey Waxman was raised by social activist parents in urban Chicago where “great emphasis was put on applying Jewish values to daily life.”

“Growing up in a very diverse neighborhood taught me not only the importance of diversity, but also to approach people with respect, wherever they’re from,” she says.

Waxman learned about the other side of the conflict through her Palestinian friends in public school, and years later, when she spent two months on a study abroad program in Jordan, where she lived with a local family of Palestinian refugees. Initially, says Waxman, she thought J Street might be a good outlet for her activist tendencies, but after attending one of the organization’s conferences, found herself disappointed.

After a summer spent volunteering at the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem, she says she realized where she belonged. “Members of my Jewish community back home had connected me to folks at JVP, but there was no JVP chapter here at Berkeley at the time,” she recalls. “So in September 2015, together with another student here, I founded the chapter.”

Contrary to what might be assumed, not all the members of the Berkeley JVP chapter are Jewish. “We also have Palestinian, Muslim, Christian and Hindu members,” says Waxman.

Why did she choose JVP over SJP, which already has an active chapter at Berkeley? “For me, it was important to speak about my experiences as a Jewish person because so much of what goes on in Palestine is justified by politicians who have the same religious identity as me,” she says.

Tallie Ben Daniel

A doctoral student at UC Davis

Tallie Ben Daniel was born and raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of a Jewish-Iraqi mother and an Israeli father. Today, she serves as the academic advisory council coordinator at JVP.

“I grew up with a lot of knowledge of Israel, having visited many times and having a lot of family there,” she says, “and I’ve always known that it’s a very complicated place.”

It was during her undergraduate years at UC Santa Cruz, recalls Ben Daniel, that she made two important discoveries. “I had always thought that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a conflict between two equals, but I suddenly understand that the two sides were not equal because one side was an occupier,” she relays. “The other thing I discovered is that there were many American Jews who did not want to have this conversation.”

Because this was not the sort of conversation that could be had in a predominantly Palestinian organization like SJP, she and some like-minded friends at the time set up their own group called “Confused Jews.”

“That lasted about six months,” she recounts, “but it allowed me to realize just how different our views were.” Only when she eventually joined JVP, recalls Ben Daniel, did she finally feel at home. “I realized that I hadn’t had a Jewish community until then, and it felt great. I especially loved the fact that it had such a big tent.”

Elly Oltersdorf

A history major at UC Davis

The daughter of a Jewish-Australian mother and a non-Jewish German father, Elly Oltersdorf grew up in a very Zionist home in San Diego. When asked if reports of widespread anti-Semitism on her campus are true, the UC Davis junior responds: “The only time I felt uncomfortable as a Jew on this campus was when I came out as pro-BDS. In fact, today, some people even question my Jewishness.”

For the record, her initiation into social activism began elsewhere. “When I first started university, I became involved in the movement against raising tuition and then in Black Lives Matter,” she relays. It was the 2014 war in Gaza that sparked her interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “That was a turning point for me,” she says. “I felt that something was severely wrong that needed to be addressed.”

The president of the local chapter of JVP, Oltersdorf says her parents, and especially her mother, find it hard to accept her views. “For my mother, Israel is something so emotional that she has difficulty thinking rationally about it,” she says.

Liz Jackson

A graduate of Berkeley law school

The only Jewish attorney at Palestine Legal, a non-profit that defends Palestinian rights activists, Liz Jackson is a graduate of Berkeley law school. Her dubious claim to fame – which goes a long way toward explaining where she is today – is having participated in the first ever Birthright trip to Israel.

“I didn’t know much about Israeli history at the time, but this was so obviously a propaganda trip,” she says. “It was all about partying and getting free things, and it seemed to me that their main message was to find a Jewish man to marry. I was a serious kid, and that really disgusted me.”

A prominent member of JVP, Jackson, through her employer, also represents student activists in SJP when they have a brush with the law. In the past year alone, she says, her organization has responded to 240 incidents, mainly involving false accusations of anti-Semitism and support for terrorism.

Jackson, a 37-year-old mother of two, grew up in the Northeast, where she attended Brown University as an undergraduate. Before starting law school, she became involved in economic social justice work in Boston, where she says that “for the first time in my life, I felt that I had a Jewish community.”

Operation Cast Lead began just as she was beginning law school and had become active in immigrant rights and other economic justice issues. “I became horrified and riveted and couldn’t look away,” she says.

Not long thereafter, she joined a fact-finding trip to Israel and the West Bank for Jewish American peace activists. When she returned to Berkeley, she became involved in the divestment campaign at Berkeley that kicked off the BDS campus wars.

Trying to explain what drew her to full-time professional involvement with the Palestinian cause, Jackson says: “I think that many people like me feel a connection because of our Jewish background. We identify with refugee rights and the underdog because such an important part of our Jewishness is overcoming oppression. That may sound cheesy, but it’s really been real for me.”

David McCleary

A doctoral candidate in molecular and cell biology at Berkeley

David McCleary is a leader of the campus chapter of SJP, where he says about one-third of the core membership is Jewish. The son of a Jewish mother and an Irish-Catholic atheist father, McCleary, who grew up in Orange County, was raised Jewish and “nominally Zionist,” as he describes it, but never visited Israel.

A long-time union activist, he says it was Operation Cast Lead that “opened my eyes” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “what it meant to have a Jewish state.”

“It made me realize something was wrong, and it made me question the Zionist narrative that the Jews needed their own homeland,” he says.

No, he says, the Holocaust did not justify the need for a Jewish state because “the only thing that saved the Jewish people during the Holocaust was the world getting together and saying this is wrong – and since then a system of international law has been set in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

But it took the 2014 Gaza war to turn him into a hard-core pro-Palestinian activist. “Those images of the destruction at Shejaiya [a neighborhood in Gaza particularly hard hit during the 2014 war], I asked myself if anything is worth that.”

Asked if it is true that pro-Israel students on campus are meant to feel unwelcome in social justice organizations, he responds: “It’s totally true. You’re either for justice or against justice.”