Timeline: Late-1960s – mid-1970s
Young Jews were very active in the many progressive movements of the 60s and 70s. Paul Berman cites the following statistics in his book, A Tale of Two Utopias: Two-thirds of the white Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi were Jewish; a majority of the steering committee of the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement were Jewish; the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapters at Columbia and the University of Michigan were more than 50% Jewish; at Kent State in Ohio, where only 5 percent of the student body was Jewish, Jews constituted 19 percent of the SDS chapter.
The U.S. student movement that began in at UC Berkeley in 1964 soon inspired major demonstrations throughout the country. Students shut down universities as they protested a range of domestic and foreign policy issues ranging from local curriculum matters to education funding, the eradication of poverty, and opposition to the Vietnam War.
In the 1967 “Summer of Love,” as many as 100,000 young people converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco giving rise to a youth counterculture that included consciousness-raising and alternative lifestyles. These “lifestyles” emphasized self-awareness and a rethinking of the traditional way things had been done by “adults,” remaking them in a manner that responded to social and moral convictions.
Jewish students had a range of responses to the 1967 Israeli-Arab War. Some perceived Israel’s swift victory as a miraculous event that inspired immense ethnic pride. Others viewed Israel as a colonist venture that had displaced the Palestinian nation and supported the PLO’s position that the Jewish state should be replaced by secular Palestine. A third group were radical Zionists who supported the Israel’s existence and its right to self-defense, but were deeply concerned about Israel’s occupation of lands acquired during the 1967 war. They wanted the Israeli government to pursue peace with its Arab neighbors; they supported Palestinian self-determination and the establishment of an independent Palestinian entity.
When the Civil Rights Movement transitioned from a universal and humanitarian movement of diverse races to one of ethnic self-empowerment and Black Power, the many Jewish activists found themselves in search of a new role. Inspired by the wide range of emerging movements that addressed issues such as the environment, feminism, gay rights, Chicano power, and more some Jews were inspired to organize their own ethnic movement.
Brief Description: A range of new independent Jewish student groups emerged in the late 1960s, loosely organized in 1969 as the North American Jewish Student Network (Network), a branch of the World Union of Jewish Students. Network prided itself in openness to all political views and addressed the complete range of Israel and Jewish issues. The leadership in that period was, however, predominantly leftist.
Many of the student groups also published underground newspapers: Genesis 2: The Newspaper of Boston’s Jewish Student Community, Berkeley Jewish Radical, ACIID of Washington University in St. Louis, McGill’s The Other Stand and New York’s Jewish Liberation Journal to name a few. These publications addressed the political, social, and cultural issues gripping their generation through a Jewish lens. In 1972, there were 58 such newspapers printing approximately 400,000 papers. The various underground newspapers organized in 1970 as the Jewish Student Press Service (JSPS). It provided news on “all aspects of Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora” And also held an annual meeting of student editors in the U.S. and a three-week seminar for journalists in Israel. Both Network and the JSPS were partially funded by the World Zionist Organization.
Out of this milieu arose the Radical Zionist Alliance (RZA.) Founded in 1968 by Jewish student activists and members of the Habonim youth movement, the RZA advocated for peace and justice in Israel and North America, using terminology from international liberation movements and early socialist Zionist ideologues such as Ber Borochov. While critical of Israeli and Jewish establishment policy, they insisted on Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. With the slogan “Be a Revolutionary in Zion and a Zionist in the Revolution,” RZA activists participated in Zionist and North American Jewish communal events while calling for Palestinian rights, which was an unwelcome position at the time. On campuses they would enter into dialogue with Palestinian and other Arab students, searching for common ground. Many RZA leaders moved to Israel to live on kibbutzim and to get involved in the politics of the country.
Activism Strategy: Many of the Jewish Student Movement’s strategies reflected those of their age cohort. They published underground newspapers, staged sit-ins against the Jewish establishment, operated as a constituency group within the anti-war movement, founded cooperative Jewish living spaces, held national conferences on topics of the day, and conducted self-education sessions on current events. Some unique aspects of their work included dialogue with Palestinian students, speaking at local synagogues and Jewish community centers, forming independent Havurot, writing alternative prayer books that incorporated radical and humanistic traditions in Jewish culture and supported their critique of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, founding magazines and alternative Jewish education organizations, and organizing groups to visit and even make aliyah to Israel. Each of the dozens groups in the Jewish Student Movement operated differently, but they shared many values and strategies.
Membership/Chapters: The Jewish Student Movement had no formal membership or chapter structure. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, in 1969-70 there were independent Jewish student groups operating on about 80 campuses under various names: Jewish Student Bund, Concerned Jewish Students, Jewish Student Union, Jewish Activist League, Student Zionist Movement, Radical Jewish Union, Na’asseh, and others Membership generally ranged from 10 to 50 per branch.
Activities: Israel was one of many issues that the movement addressed. Others included: ending the Vietnam War, freeing Soviet Jewry, developing university-level Jewish Studies and “Free Jewish Universities” and more dynamic and participatory Jewish education for youth, critiquing the Jewish establishment, exposing anti-Semitism on the left, establishing independent havurot and working for economic justice, feminism, and gay rights.
Jewish student newspapers carried articles that featured “open dissent” with the Israeli government’s peace and social justice-related policies. The Berkeley Jewish Radical, for example, had a front-page article calling for Palestinian self-determination in 1971. It also ran a series on the Israeli Black Panther movement protesting systematic discrimination by the Ashkenazi establishment against Mizrahi Jews. Despite these and other critiques, Zionism was viewed as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
One of the best-known actions of the movement was the 1969 sit-in and protests at the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (GA) staged by several dozen students associated with the Jewish Student Movement. The activists viewed themselves as up against an “entrenched Federation system” that did not include youth voices and perpetuated “an assimilationist, acculturated Jewish community… rather than identity politics” according to Rabbi Michael Paley, who participated in the protests. The GA organizers allowed the students to select a delegate, Rabbi Hillel Levine, to speak at a luncheon session. The protests resulted in the formation of the North American Jewish Students Appeal to raise money for youth-led initiatives. The initial list included the Jewish Student Press Service (organized in 1970), Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review (organized in 1967), The Jewish Student Network (1969), the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (1964), Yavneh: Religious Students Association (1965) and Yugntruf: Youth for Yiddish (1965).
Closing and Contributions: The JSPS exists to this day, and in 1991 began publishing the national news magazine New Voices. Many of the initiatives started by these Jewish youth developed into an array of organizations including The Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), and the Jewish feminist movement.
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, a number of members of the Jewish Student Movement were involved in the founding of Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations.
A number Jewish student movement activists went on to become renowned Jewish community leaders, journalists and academics, among them Forward former editor JJ Goldberg and Forward publisher Sam Norich: John Ruskay, CEO of New York UJA- Federation: Kenneth Bob, national president of Ameinu; Steven M. Cohen, leading sociologist of the Jewish community; Shifra Broznick, founding president of Advancing Women Professionals; Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Stephen P. Cohen, am expert on citizen diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and President of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development; and Vivian Silver, former director of the Jewish Student Press Service, who is the long-time co-executive director of AJEEC, a leading Bedouin-Jewish grassroots organization in the Negev.