Last Wednesday, J Street U Brandeis hosted the event “Turn on the Tap for Gaza” to raise awareness for the current water crisis in Gaza and to campaign for the J Street U national fundraiser to support environmental groups on the ground in Gaza addressing the crisis. 

As of the end of summer 2014, 11 wells and two purification plants in Gaza were completely destroyed, and an additional 15 wells and four purification plants were partially destroyed, according to the Palestinian Water Authority. The destruction of the purification plants and pipelines has made it increasingly difficult for people in Gaza to access clean, potable water.

According to the Head of Communications for J Street U Brandeis Shani Abramowitz ’14, the event was a success in terms of both educating students on the water crisis and raising money for the international fundraiser. J Street U Brandeis began the event by showing a video from Gaza about the water crisis. Participants then broke off into small groups and read and discussed an article about the Red Cross’s work to address the water crisis. 

“People were really open and not afraid to share and really comfortable in that space,” Abramowitz said. “They were shocked, and wanted to get involved even beyond their five dollar donation.”

Students who attended the event, although generally well-versed in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, were unaware of the water crisis as a whole. “It’s easy to ignore a humanitarian issue when it’s nestled in a war, which is nestled in an even bigger conflict,” said Abramowitz. 

“It seems so small and insignificant when there are horrible violent things happening in the region to innocent people,” Abramowitz said. “People forget that these are real people who need things like access to clean water.” 

J Street U is the student-run branch of the international political organization J Street, which defines itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace American” group. J Street U seeks pragmatic solutions to complex problems, an aim which manifests itself in their recent campaign to raise awareness for the current water crisis in Gaza.

To address this issue, which J Street U Brandeis views as an issue of essential human rights, J Street U is raising money for two grass-roots environmental groups currently on the ground in Gaza, who cite peace and co-existence as part of their mission. 

The first group is Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an environmental advocacy organization, that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists to work toward advancing the sustainable ecological development of the region. The second group is Other Voice, a grassroots initiative that empowers volunteers from cities along the Gaza border to shed light on the psychological toll that ongoing violence has on Israelis and Palestinians. 

“They do joint ecological development work with Israelis and Palestinians, doing a lot of co-existence work with Israelis and Palestinians to rebuild damaged infrastructure,” Abramowitz said. “They do general ecological education, providing access to water and shedding light on the physical and psychological toll violence takes on this region.”

The financial goal for each J Street U chapter is 500$, culminating in a 10,000$ financial goal for the organization as a whole. Thus far, most donations have taken the form of small, student-given donations of five or 10 dollars. 

In order to raise awareness for this campaign, J Street U Brandeis reached out to other clubs at Brandeis to engage in cosponsorship. Cosponsors include Brandeis Divestment Campaign, Hillel at Brandeis, Poverty Action Coalition and Brandeis Libertarians. 

 “These clubs are all people who either care about the Middle East, Israel, human rights, or social justice in general,” Abramowitz said. “When we frame it as a humanitarian fundraiser, people were really receptive towards it, and really willing to cosponsor.”

Organizing a diverse group of organizations for one common cause was a unique and challenging undertaking. “J Street was overseeing everything, but people from different clubs shared tabling responsibilities, and each club individually mobilized their members to contribute to the fund,” Abramowitz said.

When considering the scale and complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations, it may seem perplexing for a political organization to focus on an environmental issue such as water access. Abramowitz argues that it is precisely the overwhelming scale of the issue that caused people to mobilize behind the initiative. “If you can get behind one very tangible goal, you can feel like you accomplished something and perhaps make an even bigger impact,” Abramowitz said. 

An environmental issue like this may have political repercussions that go beyond the tangible. If an Israeli group addresses a basic human rights issue in Palestine, this may promote a positive Palestinian view of Israelis. “J-Street U promotes a two-state solution to the conflict, and we really believe that in order to meet that end ,we have to really empower Palestinians, and make them believe we actually care about them, and believe in the feasibility of a future state for them,” Abramowitz said. “We have to make them believe we are partners for peace.”

By focusing political capital on issues other than the war, Abramowitz hopes J Street’s aims will become more attainable. “A war is a war, but there are also humanitarian issues that come out of wars,” Abramowitz said. “There is a humanitarian crisis occurring in Gaza, and there is something tangible we can do about it.”

Abramowitz appreciates being a part of J Street U Brandeis for the chance to discuss these issues at depth and from a multitude of perspectives. “It provides a really great open space to talk about these issues in ways I have never talked about them before. It’s really powerful in that it challenged me in a way I didn’t grow up with,” Abramowitz said.

 Growing up in what Abramowitz describes as a “right-wing community,” she hadn’t been exposed to a lot of the types of conversations that occur at J-Street, where members come from all different types of backgrounds and are willing to expose themselves. “I also had been afraid of a lot of the realities,” Abramowitz said. “Thinking about what peace actually looks like, for both Israelis and Palestinians, is really hard, and I struggle with it all the time. Being able to talk about it and work through that, learning about perspectives from both ends of the spectrum, helped me care more about the issues and given me a more nuanced perspective of what is going on over there.”