On Wednesday, May 11, in the midst of final exams, over 70 Brown University students in the Brown/RISD Hillel community gathered in the Hillel building to watch three short films about the Palestinian Nakba, produced by the Israeli NGO, Zochrot. As members of the Hillel community, we came together to watch these films on the eve of Yom HaAtzmaut, eager to make a space for Jewish students to learn about a history often excluded from mainstream Jewish discourse. In the post-screening discussion, students from diverse political backgrounds reflected on the thought-provoking films and unpacked their relationship to the Nakba as American Jews.

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The Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe) refers to the expulsion and displacement of approximately 700,000 Palestinians and the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes in 1948, as well as the ongoing violence committed against Palestinians by the state of Israel. This narrative is not often discussed within the Jewish community. In Israel, a law (referred to as the Nakba law, passed in 2011) authorizes the Finance minister to reduce funding and support for any organization that commemorates the Nakba. In the United States, American Jewish institutions, from AIPAC to Birthright, privilege an exclusionary Zionist narrative of 1948 that ignores the injustices carried out during the creation of the state. By failing to acknowledge this history, these institutions maintain their complicity in the ongoing Nakba, from the displacement of Bedouin communities in the Naqab/Negev to settlement construction in the West Bank. Zochrot (the female form of “remembering” in Hebrew), founded in 2002, promotes acknowledgement and accountability for the Nakba, thus seeking to confront Israeli society with a history that challenges the dominant Jewish narrative of 1948.

Over the past five months, we worked to build a broad-based coalition of Jewish Brown University students interested in pushing the boundaries of the discourse allowed within our Hillel. Institutional frameworks, along with external pressures on Brown RISD Hillel, made the process of planning and executing the “Nakba Film Screening and Discussion” difficult and drawn-out. Throughout this process, the Brown/RISD Hillel staff and student leadership were very supportive of our efforts to achieve greater openness in our community.

However, two days before the screening, one of our co-sponsoring groups, Brown Students for Israel, withdrew support for the event. Without unanimous student group support for the event, our Hillel could no longer endorse the event in an official capacity. Then, after a student leaked information about the event to right-wing pro-Israel publications, security concerns made the gathering at the planned time and place unfeasible. The Hillel building was locked on the day of the event at 7pm due to these concerns.

This event was too important to cancel and we decided to meet informally as a group of students three hours before the planned time of the event to watch and discuss these films. Given the last minute nature of the time-change, we were inspired and thrilled by the large turn-out.

We gathered last night to watch these films and discuss them at Hillel, despite the lack of official Hillel sponsorship. We gathered as Jewish students in the space designated for Jewish life on campus, actively creating the pluralistic community together that we want to see realized in the American Jewish institutions that claim to represent us.

This event was a success not only because it demonstrated the openness of the students in our community, but also because it challenged Brown RISD Hillel to reflect on its ability to facilitate and provide space for this openness. Ultimately, the process of planning this event forced our Hillel to recognize its own lack of openness and to begin reworking its guidelines on Israel/Palestine programming. These guidelines will not be in keeping with the guidelines published and enforced by Hillel International’s in their ‘Standards of Partnership,’ which have been used time and again to silence critical Jewish voices on Israel/Palestine. In order for Hillel to maintain its integrity as a pluralistic Jewish space, the community must embrace Jews who currently feel excluded from mainstream Jewish discourse and who seek to question dominant narratives about Israel.

sophie eital benjamin williams