This is a guest post by Rabbi Oren J. Hayon, the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at the University of Washington.
In his biography of Pyrrhus of Epirus, Plutarch recounts the details of the ancient Greek general’s costly victory against Rome at Asculum in 279 BCE. According to Plutarch’s account, shortly after the battle, Pyrrhus considered the devastating losses to his Macedonian troops and made the dark but prescient reflection: “If we were to be victorious in one more battle against the Romans, it would utterly destroy us.” [Life of Pyrrhus, 21:9]
The story of that long-ago battle comes to remind us that some victories produce a sense of exhilaration so intoxicating that they prevent us from realizing that we are actually marching unwittingly toward defeat. I write these lines in the immediate aftermath of a period in the life of our organization which looks unmistakably like a time of triumph. Nevertheless, as I write, I am keenly aware of how we have been diminished by the events of this year. I find myself surprised and concerned about how much we have lost, and about how much more we stand to lose in the future.
This has been a very difficult piece to write, in part because it has involved acknowledging my own complicity in an unhealthy system. But I know that it is important to express these reflections, so that all of us can begin correcting our flaws and continue strengthening the good work that takes place every day in the Jewish community.
Plenty has already been written about the increasingly shrill and divisive tone that dominates whenever the Jewish community convenes conversations about Israel. Mine is just the most recent in an ongoing chorus of voices speaking out about this reality and calling for a change of direction.
I spent close to two full years preparing for BDS legislation to arrive at the University of Washington. For months, our Hillel convened dozens upon dozens of face-to-face conversations with students, faculty members, university administrators, community members, and other Jewish professionals. These conversations gave us the opportunity to hear many different perspectives on Mideast politics, and different ideas about the limits of discourse about Israel. Most importantly, these discussions meant that our coalition of students, representing the broadest possible spectrum of opinions on Israel, were well-prepared when a resolution for financial divestment from Israel finally arrived in the student senate. It was this group of students which ultimately defeated the divestment bill by a wider margin than at any other university so far.
Now that the vote is over and the press has begun reporting on our strategy, it is finally appropriate for us to take credit for the ways in which we were successful, but also to acknowledge the costs of our decision to take part in the ever-escalating battle against the BDS movement. I’ll be clear: I did not hesitate to oppose this bill or to marshal Hillel’s resources behind my decision; the bill was deeply flawed, contained untruths and factual distortions, and like so many other pieces of BDS legislation, failed to offer any realistic progress toward resolving the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nevertheless – and here this essay becomes a confessional – I now realize that in my haste to chalk up a victory against Israel divestment, I did not fully appreciate the consequences of this course of action. While it is indisputable that our Hillel’s strategy was a successful one, the victory came at a significant cost. Our singular focus on defeating this resolution meant that Hillel had to sacrifice other, more meaningful programmatic content for our students, and that, despite our best efforts, even our nuanced, pluralistic strategy against BDS wound up alienating some students whose ideas about Israel placed them outside the wide tent we took such pains to construct.
It was in 1841 that Emerson made his clever observation about “the hobgoblin of little minds,” but his words remain relevant today in our own troubled community, where “a foolish consistency” seems to have become a requirement for entry into the debate about Israel and the Zionist future. Exploration, doubt, curiosity about the other, willingness to sit in open and inquisitive silence and listen to someone who holds a different opinion from one’s own – all of these have changed from educational prerequisites into intractable liabilities for which learners are ridiculed. Again and again, I have been saddened and disappointed by the “gotcha” tactics which mock and deride those who dare to acknowledge the ambiguities of what is arguably the most complex issue in Jewish life today.
“We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” once a darkly comic relic of a bygone era, has now become a legitimate tactic for activist organizations working on college campuses. Both on the left and on the right, the best funded and most visible approaches to Israel advocacy are of the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred variety. The moment a BDS resolution is introduced on a college campus, a mighty political advocacy engine roars to life and, before long, the entire community becomes characterized by a relentless scorched-earth approach. This approach appears in some pro-divestment activists’ inscrutable resistance to “normalization,” which asserts that conversation with Zionists is tantamount to capitulation, and it is manifest in the misbehavior of those pro-Israel community activists whose witch-hunts and name-calling drive thoughtful students to opt out of the conversation entirely.
Believe me: our students will continue to opt out if these tactics continue. Their ambivalence about engaging with difficult conversations about Israel will continue as long as educators and advocates in the Jewish community continue perpetuating the “you’re either with us or against us” ultimatums that undermine the richly nuanced conversations that are so valuable to the educational process. I do believe that BDS is a threat to the Jewish community – but not because it will usher in a new wave of anti-Semitism or violence against Jews anytime soon. Most immediately, it is a threat because it makes Jewish communal institutions entrench themselves like armies and forces educators to think like generals. And, predictably, it will always be our students who bear the most devastating casualties of this mode of engagement.
Throughout our work over this past year, our students labored tirelessly to uphold Hillel’s commitment to a pluralistic and open conversation about Israel, and strove to include as many voices at the table as possible, even when hawkish voices from the community delivered hysterical warnings that diversity would be a fatal liability. Still, the students remained calm and fearless in their demands for a reasonable, moderate response. I am unspeakably proud of them, especially now that I recognize the cost they paid for their principles.
Over the course of this year, as tensions rose on campus and at Hillel, one student after another sought me out for private conversations. In these chats, they admitted to me that they were struggling with insomnia, digestive problems and anxiety. Some of them had had nightmares. Some admitted that they were self-medicating with alcohol or prescription medications. A dysfunctional approach to Israel on campus has deep effects on our students – physical, emotional, and intellectual – of which the larger community is largely unaware. When will the Jewish community acknowledge that there is no such thing as sustainable ideals whose preservation requires that we sacrifice our young?
The Akedah retains its commanding presence in the epic history of Jewish religious life precisely because the rebuke delivered to Abraham still retains its relevance. The inspiring story about the knight of faith who places ideology above all else is, at the same time, a cautionary tale about the dangers of zealous belief. Many Jewish educators – and here, again, I confess my own inclusion in this group – promise our students a Judaism that inspires and elevates, but send them up one holy mountain after another, laden with wood for their own immolation.
As educators and communal leaders, our job is to equip young adults with knowledge and confidence, and to assure them that the Jewish community loves and desires them. But love that is conditional on unquestioning agreement is not true love at all, and any victories accrued on these terms are doomed to be Pyrrhic at best.
When we fail to treat college students as persons, and instead relate to them as objects to be manipulated for our political or ideological goals, we hasten our own downfall. Since the BDS campaign began on our campus, I have heard activists on both sides of the issue speak about college students in the most dehumanizing ways. Students were referred to as “troops” to be mustered, “vessels” to be filled, “fields” to be planted, and “assets” to be positioned. Rarely, if ever, were they celebrated as thinkers, partners, or colleagues.
The emotional effects of this mode of engagement are lamentable – but it is time for us to consider the long-term communal effects of this approach as well. Do we really wish to distance ourselves from committed, learned Jews who are deeply concerned about Palestinian suffering? Shall we not protest the lie that one cannot fight for another people’s self-determination and still call oneself a Zionist? And isn’t it finally time for us to do away with smear tactics and find new ways of reaching out to those Jews who, after searching for a legitimate, nonviolent way of raising their voices in protest, have found themselves welcomed more warmly in the BDS community than in our own?
It is clear that changes need to be made. It is no longer tenable for Jewish communities or Jewish leaders to pretend that young American Jews’ relationships with Israel are unambiguous or uncomplicated. We have to convene conversations with people who make us uncomfortable, and talk about ideas that make us uneasy. And we must insist on the highest possible standards of conduct for the way we speak to – and about – the others who join us at the table for these conversations.
During our experience with BDS on our campus, Hillel’s students demonstrated to the world that a multifaceted approach to Israel is not only a successful way forward, it is the best way to display the beauty of our community’s diversity. I believe that Hillel is uniquely positioned to lead the Jewish community forward in this difficult process, and I am hopeful that some brave conclusions will emerge from the reevaluation of Hillel International’s rules of engagement about Israel. Hillel has always been the address for young Jewish adults who undertake the hard and holy work of laying cornerstones for the Jewish future, and we will continue to play this privileged role lovingly and supportively.
This chapter of the story of BDS at the University of Washington is finally drawing to a close. The professional activists and agitators are packing up and leaving town, but when they have gone, our students will still be here. It will be up to them to pick up the pieces and figure out how to rebuild a community where dialogue and understanding are of primary importance, even in the aftermath of divisive and hurtful politicking. I can only hope that at that time, when we regard each other across the scorched turf, our students will continue to see Hillel as a worthy partner, and allow us to assist in their work of reconstruction.
And then, after the healing is complete, another chapter in this story will almost certainly begin next year. At that time, we will have to face our students’ questions as we stand with them at the foot of yet another mountain.
“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” they will ask.
What should I tell these students then? What, at long last, will all of us tell them?