Giving a Voice to Progressive Students: A YU Delegation at AIPAC’s Progressive Retreat

By: Molly Meisels  |  February 18, 2019

By Molly Meisels

During the Fall 2018 semester the YU Commentator released a poll which indicated that a majority of the Yeshiva University student body leans Republican. This is unsurprising on a campus which finds conservative values to be of utmost importance, as the Republican Party tends to uphold traditional opinions. However, while Republicans might encompass most of student political opinion, Democratic and progressive students still exist at the University. According to the aforementioned poll, 28% of the student body would consider themselves Democratic-leaning. While this number is not large, it still exists. That is why the Yeshiva University Political Awareness Club (YUPAC) sent me to represent Yeshiva University at AIPAC’s Annual Progressive Student Retreat in Washington D.C.

I am the first Yeshiva University student to ever attend this conference. YU is incredibly preoccupied with pro-Israel advocacy, but it is usually done from a conservative lens. Having a delegation to represent our unique institution from a progressive standpoint, was viewed favorably by AIPAC and the other student groups attending. I was invited to this conference by Shanee Markovitz, SCW ’20, YUPAC’s president. I am one of the first YU students to be invited to this retreat by YUPAC leadership. Markovitz says, “It is extremely important that Yeshiva University is present at events such as [these]… Exposing our students to opportunities that will challenge them, motivate them, and empower them are all part of our vision for YUPAC…” Markovitz agrees that left-leaning YU students should have a space to share progressive views on US-Israel relations. This is something that tends to be lacking at YU, as some conservative students have claimed pro-Israel advocacy for the Republicans on campus.

At the retreat, I met a diverse group of individuals from dozens of universities who were all there to learn about Middle Eastern policy making. The students in attendance were of various faiths, sexualities, and ethnicities. Most plan to enter the political realm one day and all consider themselves to be progressive.

The conference was led and organized by Adam Teitelbaum, AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director, Hannah Smith, AIPAC’s National Progressive Field Organizer, Carly Sternberg, AIPAC’s Early Engagement Director, and many more. The goal for February 9th-11th was to promote open dialogue about progressivism and US-Israel relations. Since the high school and college students were of various backgrounds, the conversations were animated.

We heard from dozens of speakers throughout the two-day retreat, most of whom are currently working in politics and advocacy. The first night was about basic education. Our first speaker was Sheriff Steven Tompkins, Sheriff of Suffolk County in Massachusetts. He discussed his work in criminal justice reform, which includes rehabilitation and education for the inmates in his county prison. He leads programs in adult basic education, domestic violence, vocational programming, and substance abuse recovery. He connected the work he does in his county to his pro-Israel activism, as the conversation was relating to getting Americans engaged in politics.

We then had a few introductory crash courses on Israeli and Palestinian histories, as many of the attendees had limited knowledge of the subjects. Joe Perlov is an educator who engages with Birthright initiatives, and through an experiential learning exercise taught the students at the retreat about the constantly shifting Israeli and Palestinian borders. We were also visited by a transgender rights advocate who works in pro-Israel activist groups. The lesson at the end of the night was that peace in the Middle East is possible if enough Americans engage in the issues.

The second day was packed with detailed policy conversations. We were visited by Tamar Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institute. She spent an hour outlining the complex political realities of the Middle East and how fundamental it is for Americans to understand and care about these realities, specifically from a foreign policy standpoint. Our speakers diversified a bit, as David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process, helped the students understand settlements from an objective perspective. The session was focused on helping both sides thrive in the conflict.

For many, the highlights of the conference were the small dialogue groups we broke up into. Students learned about a variety of topics, and I chose to attend the “Women in Israel” and “Israel’s LGBTQIA+ Community” sessions. These sessions provided a chance for AIPAC leaders to discuss their social reality views of Israel. This was followed by many sessions about Israeli and Palestinian politics and the path to peace, which was vocalized by Shai Korman from the United States Institute of Peace and Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority negotiator from the Washington Institute’s Irwin Levy Family Program on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Relationship. The speaker diversity was appreciated by many of the students present. Having a delegation at these speeches and the conference as a whole, allowed those from other colleges to learn about the diversity within Yeshiva University, as many have never been exposed to our students before.