By Naomi Grant and Kimberly Escobar
Senior staff writers
The University of Maryland’s chapter of J Street U is campaigning to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian village in the West Bank, as the Israeli high court prepares to make a decision on the village’s future on Tuesday.
J Street — a pro-Israel, pro-peace political activism group — has campus chapters in 95 colleges and universities around the United States, according to the organization’s website. J Street U chapters across the country have worked for months to prevent the demolition of Susya, a Palestinian village in the West Bank that was established without a permit. This university’s J Street co-president Ethan Weisbaum called Susya “sort of a shanty town, shack tent village.”
This university’s J Street chapter has talked to multiple student groups on campus including MaryPIRG, Muslim Student Association, Terps for Israel and many more to bring awareness to try and build a coalition for this cause, said J Street co-president Zachary Goldblatt, a junior Arabic studies and government and politics major.
Goldblatt said protecting Susya is important to the group because the village is a “symbol of the urgency and the viability of a two-state solution.”
“We’re trying to make sure that people are aware and can put pressure on [the government about] it,” Goldblatt said. “We really want to make it clear to the American Jewish community that [preventing] the demolition of Susya is very important.”
J Street’s “Save Susya” campaign started when last year when a student at this university Amna Farooqi, then-president of the national J Street U network, found out that the village was to be demolished in the summer of 2016, Weisbaum said, and pressured the organization to act.
“As a result [J Street] started a petition that got over 12,000 signatures and was sent to State Department, basically saying, ‘Don’t demolish Susya,'” Weisbaum said.
After that, the head of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, wrote a letter to Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer.
“We respect the authority of the High Court, which in August ordered Defense Minister Lieberman to submit a plan for Susya by August 15,” Jacobs wrote in a letter published in August. “We urge you to share with him our strong support for a solution to this impasse that recognizes the interests of Susya residents and does not lead to the community’s destruction.”
The decision about Susya has since been delayed, and the Israeli high court is expected to reach a conclusion Tuesday.
To help raise awareness for this issue, the J-Street chapter on campus has been holding events and advertising Susya to help members of the campus community understand what it’s really about, said Liat Deener-Chodirker, a member of J Street.
“It really is a human rights crisis and leaves around 100 people homeless,” said Deener-Chodirker, a senior American studies major. “It’s an example of a much larger dynamic and it doesn’t only occur with Susya.”
Weisbaum said J Street is rallying around this issue to ensure the village is not forgotten. Weisbaum believes one of the intended goals of delaying the decision was to make people forget about the village, he added.
In late 2012, Susya residents submitted to the Civil Administration, the body responsible for governing the West Bank, five alternative outline plans for their village in its present location. These plans were rejected because of the small number of residents in the village, the quality of services presently provided to the village and the feasibility of the plan regarding infrastructure and costs, according to Rabbis for Human Rights.
Susya residents and Rabbis for Human Rights argued in 2014 that the State of Israel is responsible for providing for its residents, “especially in light of the village’s unique history.”
Goldblatt said despite J Street’s action, there may only be so much they can do.
“If it’s a voting issue it might be a little out of J-Street’s hands,” Goldblatt said. “I am more optimistic about having this go to the high court of Israel as opposed to being on [Israeli Defense Minister] Avigdor Lieberman’s desk, but we can just up the ante, try to [show] that Americans really do care. That’s our mission.”
CLARIFICATION: A previously version of this story stated that this university’s J Street chapter talked to the Jewish Student Union. Samuel Fishman, university JSU chapter president, said on Monday that the organization “refused to even meet with them on this issue because JSU strives to be an apolitical organization.” JSU’s name was removed, and this story has been updated.
CORRECTION: A previous headline for this story read “University of Maryland students are working to save an Israeli village from demolition.” The village is Palestinian. The headline has been corrected.