Standards of Partnership turn Hillels from gateways to Jewish identity into discriminatory gatekeepers
Dear Mr. Fingerhut,
In recent weeks, events at Hillel affiliates across the country have highlighted the inherent flaws of Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership (the “Standards”). The Standards, which you recently assured the Knesset are enforced “rigorously,” have been deployed to silence Jewish students and communities that oppose Israel’s occupation. Recent events at Princeton University and University of Michigan Ann Arbor demonstrate that the exclusionary Standards will not stop us, as Jewish students, from exercising our right to create politically pluralistic Jewish communities. Recent events have shown that the “Standards” are not standards at all, but rather are deployed arbitrarily by Hillel staff to discriminate against and exclude Jewish students based on political ideology. More »
Note: This is next in our series of posts on visions of fearless Jewish future, inspired by Naomi Adland’s dispatch from the GA, which we ran last week. We’ll be running one every week, and we want to hear from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at email@example.com with “Guest post” in the subject line.
Just now (it’s 6 am in Brooklyn), I woke abruptly from a dream that my MFA program was requiring us all to take a workshop in which we read Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. As soon as one of the workshop members started reading from the novel, the faces of everyone in the room became ghoulish, sharp toothed, black eyed. Terrified, I ran out the door of the building and into the street, but as I ran, I thought, you’ll go back, you have to go back. And I did. I turned around and went back into the building, which I think was a church, and as it turned out, there was a small group of people gathered in the lobby who had also decided they could not be in the room with the vampires.
I have a history of anxiety dreams, and of solving problems, literary ones of my own making, in my sleep. I might have been worrying about writing this piece for this series when I dreamt about the vampires, because in the awake version of myself, it’s obvious what the dream was about. It’s so obvious, it’s laughable: You are afraid, but you’ll go back. The vampires (self hate inflicted anti-Semitic imagery or result of watching too many horror movie trailers?) might be in the same building, but we can be in another room. They can’t have the whole structure. There are more of us than of them. We’ll get it all in the end. Maybe.
Here is where my painfully obvious dream parallels end. Judaism, particularly the observant part of it, and I are not on the best of terms right now, we have not been for a while. I could not build an organizational strategic plan based on my vision of a fearless Jewish community, but I am one hundred percent on the fact that it includes an active ingathering of those who scare us. Those who pose those questions that we can’t and/or don’t want to answer, they get a big space at whatever the table of the future is. Let everyone in, without a political or religious litmus test, if we say we want to be there, even if we’re not sure where exactly “there” is, even if we’re not sure if we can figure it out together, but that’s fine. Certainty is not a need any longer.
The future table isn’t convened by Islamophobia, or racism, capitalism, homophobia, misogyny, or people who have spent all their time sharpening one relentlessly narrow vision of a Jew. Men who claim to have beautiful politics but can neither listen nor hear simply don’t get space anymore, because it turns out, we don’t owe it to them. In the fearless future, that shit is over, because we are calling people out, and we don’t have to worry about what that calling out will do to our livelihood. Risk, intellectual and political, will be a value, but maybe even more important than risk will be accountability and challenge and, maybe here’s the center of it all : not running away, and not becoming a room or an organization or a building or a country full of panicked ghouls, powered by fear.
Editor’s Note: Inspired by this guest post, we’re looking for submissions from you – our creative, progressive readers- articulating a vision for a what a fearless Jewish future and community might look like. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Guest post” in the subject line. Look for posts on this subject from the Editors starting next week!
This is a guest post by Naomi Adland, a graduate student and Jewish professional living in Brooklyn, NY.
Three years ago, I sat down to write a personal statement for my application to the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and poured out my heart in an essay about the importance of honoring and respecting the work of those who came before us, as those communal roots are the ones that support our future endeavors. This week I had the opportunity to attend the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America with my Wexner class – my first serious introduction to the world of Federation professionals and lay leaders, and a real chance to explore what it might look like to engage with an institution that has shaped what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora. And 45 minutes before I left the conference yesterday, I was still waiting for someone – anyone – to articulate a compelling vision for the Jewish future that wasn’t rooted in fear.
In its own words, the GA is meant to “inspire and engage current and emerging Jewish leaders, tackle the most critical issues of the day and showcase the best of the Federation movement.” Despite the inherent complexity of programming for a varied Jewish community, it seems to me that delivering a compelling narrative at the GA should not be so hard. After all, the work of the Federation is integral to the health and wellbeing of our community. The Federation funds some of our most vital programs and institutions – social services for a vast array of populations, summer camps, schools, synagogues and more. I have heard the Federation system explained as the government of the North American Jewish community, meaning the GA is a three-day State of the Union address – a chance to articulate a vision for the coming year.
I was surprised to discover that the overwhelming narrative at the GA was not one of communal successes and impact, but rather one of fear. Ostensibly, the theme of the GA was “the world is our backyard.” Meant to evoke the importance of collective action, the exhibition hall was decorated like a backyard replete with picnic tables and fake picket fences. However, the three plenaries I attended over the course of two days and in breakout sessions, meals, and discussions in the hallway, the theme of collective action was consistently couched in the vocabulary of crisis. Be afraid of the imminent fall of the State of Israel. Be afraid of the dwindling Jewish population. Be afraid of BDS on campus. Be afraid of anyone who disagrees with our narrative. Be afraid of change. Be afraid.
Fear was present in the words of Michael Siegal, Chairman of JFNA, when he said he was “concerned that we have reached a plateau with interfaith families. Being Jewish is very much a numbers game, and some of the numbers should be keeping us all up at night.” It was in Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of Israel to a survivor of domestic abuse, and it was in the words of the three young women, all campus leaders, who vocalized anxiety about being Jewish on campus while standing in front of a banner branded with a swastika underneath the words “Boycott Israel.”
Perhaps there are moments when it makes sense to turn to a narrative of fear. After the complex events of the summer’s war in Gaza, the tensions of the past few days in Jerusalem, and with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, it is understandable that our communal conversations touch on themes of conflict and survival. When we are concerned for our own safety, we tend to act swiftly and respond from a place of deep emotion.
Despite the recent indications to the contrary, the Jewish community is living in a context of unprecedented safety and opportunity in a larger number of places than ever before. In committing to a narrative of fear, we miss an opportunity to elevate what Judaism and the work of the Federation is actually about. In caring for an aging population, supporting Jewish education, and strengthening the global Jewish community, the Federation is living out deep Jewish values of justice rooted in the notion of b’tzelem elohim (that we are all created in the image of God), and creating and supporting communities of joy and vitality.
Arguing that “we must support the Federation because if we don’t, Judaism as we know it will disappear” assumes that Jews who support the Federation are incapable of recognizing the value of the sacred work the Federation system is doing, and makes it impossible for those who don’t already feel a connection to the community to create one. Rather than operate from a place of fear, the Federation should be fearless – articulating a vision for the coming years that includes not just the power of collective action as a defense strategy, but the power of collective action as a way to build relationships between disparate parts of the Jewish community, that engages with complex value questions in a serious, thoughtful fashion, and that roots the work of caring for members of our community in rich Jewish values and traditions. The Federation already has a powerful legacy and a compelling narrative. Why try and supplant that with a message that is so far off the mark?
Editor’s Note: Jacob Ari Labendz has shared with us his talk “The Community has Stolen my Birthright” which he gave at Central Reform Synagogue, in St. Louis, MO on August 6, 2014. Background information and transcripts follow. Labendz is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis. He will be spending the 2014-2015 academic year on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin, sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation and Washington University.
On Wednesday, August 6, 2014, more than seventy people gathered in the sanctuary of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis (CRC) to hear from representatives of the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). We oppose the Israeli occupation and advocate for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with freedom and equality for all. We
opposed oppose the recent current war in Gaza.
In hosting this event, Rabbi Susan Talve and CRC took steps to distinguish St. Louis as a place safe for Jewish progressives and a community willing to engage in a thoughtful reevaluation of our community’s politics and alignments.
Rabbi Talve initiated the event after witnessing the police escort four JVP activists off of the campus of the Jewish Community Center on July 29. We had disrupted a “Solidarity Gathering in Support of Israel,” co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, and additional organizations. A fifth JVP member, a ninety year-old Holocaust survivor, spoke out as well. A member of the audience then struck her on the back in reprisal in plain view. No one except her friend did anything. Not even the police.
Such protests and responses have multiplied across the country, particularly during this last Gaza war, as an increasingly large and overwhelmingly young segment of the Jewish community has rethought its relationship with Israel and begun to stand against its policies regarding toward Palestinians. In major cities activists have taken to the streets, occupied Jewish communal institutions, and submitted petitions to Jewish and American leaders. There is talk of boycotting Jewish institutions that do not formally oppose the Occupation. We hope that St. Louis will be different. We had hope to be able continue trusting Rabbi Talve. It is to her credit that CRC released this video for distribution.
Five speakers represented JVP at the CRC event, including a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli artist, a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at Washington University, and two local activists. Each spoke for ten minutes and called upon those assembled to stand against the violence in Gaza and the Occupation. Some addressed the need to support the Israeli left, others described their own visits to the Occupied Territories, and others spoke about the exclusion that progressives often face within the Jewish community when they speak out as Jews against Israeli policies. The JVP representatives encouraged audience members to seek out Palestinian voices and follow their lead in fighting against the recent war and the Occupation.
Following the formal remarks, the representatives from JVP answered thoughtful and challenging questions about their positions on Hamas’s tactics and the meaning of the Israeli siege. A number of audience members rose to express solidarity with some of the opinions expressed. A few explained that they too had felt silenced within the Jewish community. It is a testament to the openness for which Rabbi Talve and CRC strive that they opened their doors to dissenting voices of peace, despite repeatedly defending Israel’s war on Gaza and taking a position of tolerance for the Occupation. Few cities, if any, can boast of such openness to debate and protest.
Communities and organizations around the nation should take notice. More »
Washington, D.C. – May 11th, 2014 – Following pressure from the Open Hillel campaign, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut announced that Hillel will create an “Israel Strategy Committee” as well as a Student Cabinet. The Israel Strategy Committee will convene students and Hillel professionals to make recommendations on improving programing on Israel-Palestine, while the Student Cabinet will represent general student concerns in Hillel International. The Open Hillel campaign responded to these announcements with two statements commending Hillel International for these changes and urging Hillel to ensure that these bodies are more than just token gestures to students. More »
Check out the latest from Open Hillel- this video reminding us there is indeed more than one way to be Jewish, and more than one way to talk about Israel/Palestine.
x-posted to Justice in the City
In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.
This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.
This piece of wisdom came to mind as I was thinking of the brouhaha stirred up by the Open Hillel movement’s challenge to the Israel guidelines set by Hillel International, and Eric Fingerhut’s strong reaction to Open Hillel . More »
Just in case you’re keeping a scrap book of everything being said about the whole Open Hillel controversy, or you’re just interested in the broader issues about American Jews’ relationship to Israel and the place of dissent in the organized community, check out this smart piece in Tikkun by David Harris-Gershon. (Of course, if you’re like me, you may shake your head wondering how we got to a place where a writer as talented and thoughtful as David actually has to spend so much time on Planet Obvious. It’s embarrassing.)
Avid Jewschoolians may recall my October review of Harris-Gershon’s book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? A Memoir, which narrates the events surrounding his wife’s injury in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, healing, grief, and emotional breakdown leading to an obsessive pursuit of the apparently remorseful attacker and culminating with meeting his family. Not surprisingly, this book has led Harris-Gershon, a journalist with The Daily Kos and Tikkun, on a speaking circuit in Jewish communities. Recently, Santa Barbara Hillel invited him to speak, then discovered that Harris-Gershon, a two-state advocate, had written sympathetically about economic boycott as legitimate, non-violent protest, and consequently threatened to revoke his invitation and bar his entry into the Hillel building unless he made a public statement clarifying his positions on BDS. This is probably too much build-up already; just read what he has to say about the episode here.
After Swarthmore Hillel’s decision to break from Hillel’s rules regarding conversation about Israel, I sent a letter to Hillel’s President and CEO, Eric Fingerhut by clicking send on a message as part of Open Hillel’s campaign to open Hillel. The response was swift, cordial, perhaps prepackaged , and it suggested I take a look at Hillel’s Israel Guidelines page.
So I did and I came across this wonderfully written paragraph:
Hillel welcomes a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strives to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner. We encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel. We object to labeling, excluding or harassing any students for their beliefs and expressions thereof. As an indispensible partner to the university, Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.
It sounds as though they want to create some sort of inclusive, pluralistic space for students to discuss matters of interest and concern surrounding Israel. Great.
But the next section entitled “Standards of Partnership” seems to disagree with the previous section:
Hillel welcomes, partners with, and aids the efforts of organizations, groups, and speakers from diverse perspectives in support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice:
First of all they won’t let anyone talk who will “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Which seems reasonable at first, right? But of course this means that a speaker such as Israel’s Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett cannot be hosted by Hillel or Hillel’s partners as Minister Bennett does not support Israeli democracy. As well, the continuation of the occupation is quite possibly the policy that puts Israel’s security and borders at the most risk, so this list of banned speakers now must include a plethora of current and past Israeli government officials, ministers, members of Knesset, and a swath of authors, professors and other public voices that support continuation of the occupation.
And of course, anyone who would try to “Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” need not apply. I (honestly) wonder if Hillel’s version of ‘demonizing’ is meant to give Hillel staff space to put a stop to portrayals of Israel as the root of all evil in the world, or if it just a handy “d” word, so bereft of meaning that it can be applied to any, even much needed, negative talk about Israel. And I wonder if there is such a threat of delegitimization that it needs to be one of the “d’s” on this list. A recent report posits that its not such a big deal in the world today. Either way, I suppose this means that Alan Dershowitz can’t speak at Hillel events anymore since he has gone on record with the truly golden double standard that Israel should disregard international law.
The list continues with the denial of space to anyone who would “Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.” Shouldn’t Hillel stick to censoring people based on the content of their speeches and the aims of their tactics? Has Hillel thought about what it means to ban people for supporting a set of tactics? I mean, some of these are tactics that are supported by the North American Jewish establishment when aimed at others. So it’s not the tactics themselves that bother Hillel, otherwise JFNA CEO, Jerry Silverman would be on the list of banned speakers. It seems that Hillel has set up one standard for discussing sanctions on Israel and another for discussing sanctions on Iran. Perhaps someone should coin a term for when you have one standard for one thing and another for another. I wonder, does this rule include those who support a boycott of Israel’s policies? If so, then Hillel can kiss Peter Beinart goodbye. Does this include Israeli academics? Wouldn’t that be ironic given the hullabaloo over the ASA boycott decision.
The last point bans partnering with those that “Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” I guess they mean people who shout at speakers and stuff like that, but I can’t help but think of the pattern of disruption that Hillel itself has displayed when dealing with hosting productive dialogue on Israel, the occupation, BDS and other issues that quite obviously are “matters of interest and/or concern” for a great many of us.
If Hillel is serious about these rules they should be sure not invite speakers like Naftali Bennett, Binyamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz and others that hurt Israel with their anti-democratic, pro-occupation, double standards. My guess is that these types of speakers will keep getting invites though. So why not open the space up to other types of speakers who are also not so guided by Hillel’s lines?
A civil atmosphere from an educational community space demands open dialogue. These guidelines are imprecise and leave room for abuse. This list makes it easy to exclude and to label. It ensures that Hillel will be closed off to many who come looking for open ideas, a tradition of debate, and an emphasis on justice, peace and the finest of Jewish thought in the discourse on Israel.
A. Daniel Roth, 2006 Winner of Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Sydney Mendick Memorial Award for Building Pluralism and Diversity, is an educator and journalist living in South Tel Aviv. He was born and raised in Toronto and lived in a commune of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in New York City. Daniel is a member of the All That’s Left collective and a learner/organizer with This is Not an Ulpan. You can find more of his writing and photography at allthesedays.org and follow him on twitter @adanielroth.
Open Hillel is a student-led campaign to change Hillel’s policies to better reflect our community’s values of pluralism and inclusivity. The statement below is a response to “Working Together to Expand Support for Israel on Campus,” written byHillel’s President and CEO Eric Fingerhut AIPAC’s Leadership Development Director. The article announces a new partnership between Hillel and AIPAC.
Open Hillel Responds to AIPAC and Hillel’s new Partnership
Hillel has consistently demonstrated an admirable commitment to religious pluralism, welcoming students who span the full spectrum of Jewish religious practices and beliefs and encouraging students to connect with Judaism in ways that are meaningful to them. We are worried that this pluralistic spirit, so beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community, is lacking in the political arena. In particular, we are deeply troubled by Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut and AIPAC Leadership Development Director Jonathan Kessler’s recent declaration that Hillel and AIPAC “are working together to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus.” We fear that this new partnership will alienate Jewish students whose views do not align with those of AIPAC, stifle discussion and debate on issues concerning Israel-Palestine, and undermine Hillel’s commitment to creating an inclusive community.
AIPAC’s policy positions are highly controversial among Jewish college students and the American Jewish community at large. Thus, if Hillel operates with AIPAC’s definition of “pro-Israel” as the benchmark for what is and is not acceptable within the Jewish community on campus, it will alienate many Jewish students. For instance, Point 6 of AIPAC’s 2012 Action Plan calls for “the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.” However, since Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, many students believe that Jerusalem should be divided or shared. Indeed, 82% of American Jews support a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in exchange for full diplomatic recognition of Israel by the surrounding countries. Similarly, AIPAC’s national council voted down (by a large majority) a measure calling on Israel to dismantle “illegal settlement outposts,” the small minority of settlements that are illegal under Israeli law – not to mention, of course, that it tacitly supports the rest of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, all of which are illegal under international law. In contrast, nearly three times as many U.S. Jews believe that settlement construction hurts Israel’s security as do believe that it helps. Hillel is an umbrella organization serving all Jewish students, as its vision and mission statements express. AIPAC supporters can and must have a voice in Hillel. But that voice is just one voice; it is not and cannot be THE voice.
In their article, Fingerhut and Kessler describe the AIPAC-Hillel partnership as strategically necessary to combat “anti-Israel” activity on campus. However, in order for Jewish students to truly engage with Israel in a thoughtful manner, we should have the opportunity to hear a wide range of perspectives on Israel-Palestine — including voices that speak to Israel’s shortcomings and criticize its policies. For instance, in pointing to “anti-Israel organizing” at Stanford University, we assume that Fingerhut and Kessler refer to a national conference held at Stanford by Students for Justice in Palestine. Though SJP takes controversial positions, it raises important questions about the Occupation and human rights abuses in the Palestinian Territories. Many Jewish students (and American Jews in general) from across the political spectrum care deeply about these issues; indeed, many American Jews oppose and protest the Occupation. While some seek to write off conferences and events like these as malevolent and silence their efforts, we believe that Hillel, the campus center for all Jewish students, should provide a space for discussion and debate so that students can better understand the complexity of the situation in Israel-Palestine. As one Jewish student at Stanford explained last spring, when the Jewish community refuses to talk about controversial issues, it creates an image of unity but actually divides the community and alienates students who hold ‘dissident’ views or who simply are looking for honest and open discussion.
We also are saddened that AIPAC, in Fingerhut and Kessler’s piece, implied that the success of Hillel at Stanford’s Shabbat Across Differences somehow justifies this new AIPAC-Hillel partnership. Part of what made that Shabbat event so wonderful was that it was not run by AIPAC or any other one Israel/Palestine-related advocacy group. Students of all different political persuasions, as well as Hillel staff, worked together to create that Shabbat — and we believe that that is a model for other schools to follow. The picture that the article painted, of Hillel needing AIPAC to rally more students on campus in support of their form of pro-Israel advocacy, was not the reality and it should not be in the future.
AIPAC deserves a place within Hillel, as one of many voices on Israel-Palestine. However, given AIPAC’s specific and narrow policy agenda, it should not define what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Even more fundamentally, no political advocacy organization should set the boundaries of what is encouraged, acceptable, and forbidden within the Jewish community on campus; and we worry that this partnership means that AIPAC will be asked to do so. Just as, at Shabbat dinner, students of all denominations come together, share their experiences, and learn from one another; Hillel should encourage students with different political views to come together and discuss relevant issues for the sake of dialogue and mutual understanding. Ultimately, a strong community is one that acknowledges and embraces its own diversity.
Yesterday, the Open Hillel campaign, a student led initiative to change policies around permitted conversations on Israel on campus, presented their petition ( 801 signatures strong as of this writing) and letter to the Hillel International Board in Washington, D.C.
The grassroots initiative was started by members of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a Hillel-affiliated group, when PJA was prevented from co-sponsoring an event with the Palestine Solidarity Committee in Hillel. Open Hillel urges Hillel International to revise, reconsider, and ultimately remove its Standards for Partnership, which read: “Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, has chapters and affiliates on university campuses across the US and abroad. Hillel International currently publishes “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” which declare, “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
The Open Hillel campaign asks that Hillel ”remove all political litmus tests for co-sponsorships, affiliated groups, and invited speakers.”
More from the letter (written and signed by Jewish student leaders from universities across the country):
“Pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and no Jewish individual or group should be excluded from the community simply because of political views. The prohibition against anyone who “delegitimizes” or “applies a double standard” to Israel is used to silence students who are critical of Israeli policies or express views with which the Hillel leadership disagrees. These policies deny all students the opportunity to learn about a range of views and form well-supported and defensible opinions about Israel. We all lose out when important perspectives within our community are stifled.”
The campaign is currently awaiting a response from Hillel International and will continue to expand if Hillel International is resistant to the requests of the petition and letter,
This is an interview with Emily Unger, a Harvard senior majoring in biology, and the former chair of the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance, the student group organizing a protest
against Hillel’s ban on partnerships with groups back boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Jewschool: Give us some background about your experience with this issue at Harvard.
Emily Unger: I’ve been involved in the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) since the beginning of my first year at college, and this entire time, we’ve prided ourselves on working together with both Harvard Students for Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and co-sponsoring events with both groups. Last semester, we planned to co-sponsor an event with PSC called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation”, which brought two speakers, an Israeli Jew and an American Jew, to talk about their experiences doing non-violent activism against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories (protesting home demolitions in the West Bank, etc.) and how this related to their Jewish identity. We wanted to hold the event in the Hillel building, since it was a Jewish event and we thought it would appeal to Jewish students.
Sandy Fox is a graduate student in History and Israel Studies at NYU, studying the history of Israeli education and youth culture. Her work includes research on the history and politics of Israeli and Palestinian Sesame Street programs. Sandy is a Brooklyn resident and a camp counselor for life.
This is our Gchat conversation about staffing Birthright.
Me: So, Sandy Fox, you and I have both staffed Birthright trips. What do you have to say about propaganda?
Sandy: Plenty of that, but much less than I expected?
Me: There’s the “make aliyah” thing. Is that what you were thinking of?
Sandy: A lot more “Jewish peoplehood” propaganda rather than Israeli hasbara (advocacy) political propaganda. I didn’t feel that our guide was pushing a political agenda regarding Zionism or the occupation or any of that. If anything, he was an earthy crunchy type, in the best way possible.
Me: That’s been my experience as well. Is that bad, do you think? Jewish peoplehood as propaganda?
Sandy: I don’t actually think that the whole Jewish peoplehood agenda – which also includes inviting people to explore their Jewish identity – is a bad thing. In fact, I found that most of my participants came on the trip looking for a connection to Judaism that they felt they lacked. We had a particularly emotional experience during Friday night tefillot overlooking the Kotel. I was the staff member in charge, and I basically got a bunch of participants to agree to help me lead. But it wasn’t going to be traditional tefillot in any way, because most of them had no knowledge of liturgy. What I asked of them was to bring something – a poem, a story, whatever they wanted – to share with the group, maybe a reflection on a Shabbat experience they’ve had, or something about the week, or if it was their first Shabbat ever, to talk about that. I think about 6 participants got up and talked, and it was incredibly powerful. They all told such personal stories of searching for connections to Judaism, trials and loss and it seemed like practically everyone cried.
I can’t call that propaganda. All I did was sit them in a circle and say, hey, talk to the group about whatever you want. It could have ended up being very superficial, but people wanted to share, and talk, and cry. Maybe something is in the food?
Me: It’s definitely in the food.
Sandy: The schnitzel is laced with cocaine?
Me: I think we’ve uncovered the secret.
Sandy: The other aspect of Taglit is that it’s not like we can make a blanket statement about it. There are all these buses and trip providers that operate differently. Even the dynamic of each staff is so varied. So I can say, hey Chanel, on my trip, everything was so cool and open, and people asked the tough questions and cried. But on other trips I’m quite sure there is serious propaganda, in the hasbara sense of the word.
Me: Do you think your group was expecting hasbara?
Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine
Recently, Tufts University Students for Justice in Palestine created, published and distributed a Zine called “Birthright? A Primer” for folks contemplating going on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. The primer includes testimonies from previous trip participants, as well as resources for exploring Israel/Palestine after the trip. Tufts SJP organizers Matthew Parsons, Anna Furman and Dani Moscovitch spoke with Jewschool about the primer, how and why it happened, and what impact they hope it will have.
Jewschool: What was the impetus for creating the primer? What’s the goal?
Anna Furman: The goal of our zine is to equip students who have chosen to go on Birthright with a body of knowledge that they will not find otherwise. I think the most important section of our zine may be the section that encourages students to extend their trips and to go with various groups to the West Bank. If I had a zine like this when I had gone on Birthright 3 years ago, I am pretty certain that my whole understanding of the region and my relation to it would have been very different.
Who says there are no paying jobs left in journalism?
By day, I’m the editor of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and the director of the 40-years-young organization that publishes it, the Jewish Student Press Service. Since the JSPS was founded (New Voices itself is 20 years old), we’ve been a home for independent Jewish journalism–written and published entirely by college students.
We operate on the most shoestring of budgets, but occasionally, we get the exciting the chance to actually hire someone. In this case, I’m looking for 10 someones! If you know a student journalist who might be interested in this, let me know in the comments or by emailing me at david(at)newvoices.org.
Here’s my full pitch:
Jewish Student Journalists: We Want to Pay You!
New Voices Magazine, the national Jewish student magazine, is seeking student journalists to do paid reporting from their campuses this fall! More »
Crossposted to New Voices
On Tuesday, Nov. 23 Hebrew College is hosting a conversation with four Boston-area Jewish presidents of colleges: Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann of Hebrew College, Leonard A. Schlesinger of Babson College, Jehuda Reinharz of Brandies University and Lawrence S. Bacow of Tufts University.
I’ve got universities on the brain lately as my own Drew has recently intensified our so-far lackluster work on our “Strategic Plan.” So this event caught my eye.
The HC website lists these questions as up for discussion at the event:
- How will colleges and universities meet the challenges of the shifting paradigms in higher education?
- What should their roles be in developing the next generation of Jewish leadership?
- Students who have experienced Birthright Israel are ready for more engagement with Israel and with Jewish life; are we ready for them?
- What aspects of higher education should the Jewish community support?
The first, second and fourth questions sound great. The third one is giving me some trouble.
First of all, it acknowledges a premise that I reject: that the Birthright is the source of engaged young Jews in America. It’s part of the clod of notions that spring forth from the idea that young Jews, especially college Jews, are not engaged with Jewish life, and that the only way to engage them is through Israel.
Second of all, and even more narrow-sighted, is this problem: Do any of these college presidents think that the only source of engaged Jewish students at their institutions is Birthright? If they’re focused on “are we ready for them [Birthright alumni]?” how is that going to affect their readiness for Jewish students engaged with Jewish life in some other way? And what does it even mean that they need to be ready?
These questions are not meant as rhetorical, by the way. I’m looking for y’all’s ideas on this. So if anyone goes to this, I’d love to hear how it goes.
It’s like I’m staring down the barrel of something. Not a gun, that’s too dramatic, but something that you’d stare down in a moment of pure adrenaline and uncertainty and fear, if those things could ever go together.
I leave for Israel in four days. I can’t stop thinking about kashrut certificates on my El Al dinner plate, the awkwardly sized “Tzevet” name tag that I’ll be gifted with as a Birthright staffer, the impossibly long days, conversations that will feel dangerous and therefore desperately important. I want to be a better staffer this time, one with eyes wide open, amenable to the distractions that I know are really teachable moments.
I’m not the same Jew I was the last time I was in Israel, two years ago. I’m more skeptical that things in the region can change. I’m more cynical about Jewish communities and more radical in my politics. I’m less traditionally observant. I’m tired.
I hope I’m wrong in thinking that these brave folks about to travel with me are expecting a sanitized version of Israel- a place that is purely and simply anything. There are experiences like that, of course, moments where nothing else would be appropriate, and you have to let them exist. But I’m not too tired to be honest. I’m done existing in a space where people are too afraid to think, where we put the future of the Jewish community at risk in the name of being right (pun intended).
Something has survived, though, some part of me is clearly not done, or I couldn’t bring myself to take on this adventure that will be sleepless, frustrating, and ultimately an exercise in willing suspension of disbelief. Birthright works, according to research, as in, it connects young Jews to each other and to their identities, but what does that mean? Is connection the same thing as being able to criticize and push, as saying you believe we can do better? It takes much more than ten days to do that. If we’re lucky, it might take less than a lifetime.
In his May 6, 2010 Op-ed “Fighting the new divestment effort on campus,” Hillel CEO Wayne Firestone puts forth a plan that continues to ignore any sort of reality that might allow local student groups to beat back the ever growing Israel divestment movements.
The Firestone Plan outlines three steps to address the divestment movement. First student groups should address their needs locally, without outside help which is interesting coming from the CEO of Hillel International. Then students should build coalitions (again without outside help) by bringing student government officials to AIPAC events and other such “get to know Israel” programs. And finally, student groups should remain on the branding message that Israel is a high-tech leader that shares Western values. As a former student senator and Jewish activist at the University of California, Davis, I can tell you without any shadow of a doubt that the Firestone Plan is fatally flawed. More »