Here at Jewschool we have a long, illustrious history, 11 1/2 years of rambunctious, playful, earnest, free-thinking, alternative riffing on contemporary Jewish life. It’s worth taking stock of where we’ve come from, and in that light, the Jewschool editors are now inaugurating a new feature: Jewschool Throwback Thursdays. Every week, one of us will dig up a classic post from the Jewschool vault that we think is still timely and relevant, or that would benefit reconsideration, with some years of growth and maturity.
One of the signature features of Jewschool culture is criticizing things we think are destructive in the Jewish world, airing our dirty laundry out of the belief that it can be cleaned. This becomes especially contentious when it comes to criticism regarding Israel. In recent months, the Jewish world has seen a great deal of mudslinging and controversy over “Open Hillel” battles, un-invitations of speakers deemed too critical of Israel, or not critical enough of advocates of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, etc., and Jewschool has covered this closely. For this kick-of Throwback Thursday, we bring you a classic piece from five years ago by our current Editor-in-Chief articulating, in as clear and forceful a way as I know, why we criticize the Israeli government when we feel it deserves it. The piece drew a blizzard of comments in its time; we hope it stokes conversation again now:
Why I Post the Worst of Israeli News
by Kung Fu Jew, Thursday, February 19, 2009
This post originally appeared on allthesedays.org
Around the world, there is a growing willingness to boycott Israeli companies that operate and provide services to the West Bank Settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
Last year the European Union set a ban on funds going to projects operating in the settlements and there has also been a recent wave of boycott and divestment announcements from European companies. Danske, Denmark’s largest bank announced that it will begin boycotting Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest bank, and news soon followed that a key Swedish Bank may follow suit.
This is a guest post by Eli Ungar-Sargon, a Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker and new media producer. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his documentary film, A People Without a Land and is co-hosting the new podcast series Four Cubits.
In many ways, 2013 was a breakthrough year for the BDS movement. High-profile individuals like Stephen Hawking heeded the call, efforts to shut down a BDS event in Brooklyn College backfired in a dramatic and public fashion, and the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to join the academic boycott. Here are the top five reasons why the BDS movement is winning.
1) BDS is a non-violent way that ordinary people who care about Israel-Palestine can make a difference.
The spectacular twenty year failure of the so-called peace process has created an enormous amount of frustration in people who care about Israel/Palestine. The ineptitude of the United States, the silence of the EU, the impotence of the UN and the impunity with which Israel continues to make life worse for the Palestinians have all contributed to this frustration. The BDS movement is a morally sound way for ordinary people to do something. By putting non-violent but effective pressure on the State of Israel, BDS offers people of conscience a way to participate in a moral struggle to restore Palestinian rights.
2) The BDS call marks a shift away from a discourse of nationalism towards a discourse of human rights.
Perhaps the most brilliant part of the BDS call is its refusal to endorse any particular political solution. By remaining agnostic on the one-state/two-state debate, the BDS movement is able to both create alliances and maintain a laser-like focus on the rights of the Palestinian people. Tactically, this means that people who think there should be two-states can participate in the movement alongside their one-state fellows. Ideologically, when liberal-minded people compare the rights-based first principles of the BDS movement to the ethnonationalist first principles of Israel and its defenders, the former are much more appealing. 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.
The hatred being spewed toward Stephen Hawking is disturbing.
The man made a choice informed by his own views and information on the ground. Anyone hiding behind the “fact” that Israel is only democracy in the Middle East or that Palestinians have it better under Israeli rule or any of the other tired and lame excuses for the vile things being said about a physicist in a wheelchair, should be ashamed of themselves.
Perhaps as opposed to automatically blaming those who have the audacity to stand up and say something — even if it is seen as overbearing, inappropriate, or bias — the American Jewish community could say something about the Palestinians and how as Jews we don’t like the way they are being treated BY OTHER JEWS. I don’t know, that might actually work.
It might be time for a significant change in our approach to dealing with legitimate criticism of Israel. But it has been time for that for the last 15 years.
Ach, like I said, this was a short post.
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.
Event postings do not constitute endorsement by Jewschool or contributors.
GO AND LEARN: JEWISH COMMUNITIES AND BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT, AND SANCTIONS
What: A community workshop and open conversation hosted by Young, Jewish, and Proud NYC
When: Sunday, May 27, 3-5 PM
Where: The 14th Street Y Jewish Community Center, 344 E 14th St, NYC
How big is the Jewish tent? Across the US, Jewish communal institutions are restricting what young Jews CAN and CANNOT discuss when it comes to our relationship to Israel. But YOUNG JEWISH, & PROUD NYC believes that a strong Jewish community needs space to wrestle with difficult issues like Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli human rights violations. More »
This is the final post from our guestposters, Rae Abileah and Ariel Vegosen, Jewish Voice for Peace volunteer youth activist members on the ground at the United Methodist general conference leading up to the divestment vote.-ed.
When it comes to the nonviolent tactic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, the United Methodist Church now has B and S covered. But without the D, is it just BS? No, not entirely.
Yesterday, May 2, the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) failed to pass a measure to divest from three companies – Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and HP – profiting from Israeli occupation and human rights abuses of Palestinians, but succeeded in resolving to boycott Israeli settlement products. We were in Tampa at the UMC conference this past week as part of a Jewish advocacy team for boycott and divestment, and returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area just a day before the vote took place. Yesterday we watched the UMC livestream, twitter and twitter feed on the edge of our seats. The outcome was a deeply divided church that takes a firm stand against Occupation but isn’t yet willing to put its money where its values are. And “yet” is the operative word here, because the church is clearly now one step closer to a day when this will happen.