Israel, Politics

An Open Letter To Columbia/Barnard Hillel

This letter was drafted by Columbia and Barnard alums and sent to Kraft Center Executive Director Simon Klarfeld, today, and Columbia President Lee Bollinger was CC’d.

Dear Simon:
Congratulations on the tenth anniversary of the Kraft Center. It sounds like some wonderful things are going on there.
While much of what is happening at Columbia/Barnard Hillel calls for celebration, we do want to express dismay at the reports that Hillel put pressure on Just Peace, the campus affiliate of JStreet, to cancel its sponsorship of a talk by John Ging, the leader of UNRWA in Gaza.
The Forward newspaper reports that Hillel opposed this event because there would be no moderator who represented the other side of the Israel debate. The paper quotes you as saying, “A format that is simply standing up at a podium, lecturing for an hour, and answering questions if there is time, is not conducive or compatible to a learning experience in which students can have real exchange of ideas.”
We are rabbis, Jewish communal professionals, and involved members of the Jewish community who may, personally, differ on the specifics of Israeli policy. However, we remain committed to encouraging an open discussion on Israel within the Jewish community. We owe much of this commitment to open dialogue to the lessons we learned at Columbia.
We chose to attend Columbia in order to be in an environment that encourages a “real exchange of ideas.” The Core Curriculum and other courses, the extraordinary diversity of the student body, and the wide range of speakers who visited campus all contributed to this rich exchange of ideas that makes the university so special. We experienced Columbia as a place where faculty and staff guided, advised, and sometimes criticized student initiative, but where such initiative would not be limited.
Encouraging an exchange of ideas does not require that every opinionated speaker be countered with a speaker representing the other side. Indeed, in the past, Hillel or its affiliated groups have hosted Israel speakers including Khaled Abu Toameh, a controversial Palestinian figure who is associated with the conservative Hudson Institute; Jonathan Adelman, a spokesperson for AIPAC; and several official representatives of the Israeli Defense Forces. As far as we know, Hillel made no similar demand that these speakers be balanced by representatives of the left.

Not every speaker has the right to speak on campus. Certainly, speakers who incite violence or encourage harassment should not be offered a platform to speak. In this case, though, there were no allegations in this regard. Rather, the stated objection by Hillel concerns the potential speaker’s views on a political issue.
Fifteen years ago, the major debate within Columbia/Barnard Hillel concerned the question of whether Gayava, the LGBTQ Jewish group could be part of the Hillel umbrella. Many representatives of the more traditional Jewish community argued that homosexuality could never be consistent with Judaism, and that Gayava would delegitimize the entire Hillel organization. Today, this group is accepted as a full member of Hillel, with no residual controversy. We only hope that a few years from now, Hillel students similarly cannot remember a time when certain perspectives on Israel could not be tolerated within the organization.
We are writing to ask you for a commitment that Hillel will, in the future, respect the initiative of students—from the left, right, and center—to host speakers who represent a range of viewpoints on Israel. We look forward to your response.
Best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving,
Dr. Mark Bunin Benor, CC’97
Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, CC’97
Rabbi Sharon Brous, CC’95
Dr. Steven M. Cohen, CC’70
Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg, CC’97
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CC’97
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, BC’01
Sarah Katz, CC’97
Rabbi Jason Klein, CC’97
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, BC’81
Annie Lainer, CC’01, Law’06
Dr. Dan Lainer-Vos, GSAS’08
Jesse Lainer-Vos, SSW’05
Shawn Landres, CC’94
Dr. Paul Lerner, GSAS’96
David Light, CC’95
Hon. Howard Matz, CC’65
Jonathan Rafi Matz, CC’02
Dr. Ilana Nossel, CC’98
Jeff Rake, CC’90
Rabbi Shira Stutman, CC’95
Beth Packman Weinman, CC’97

14 thoughts on “An Open Letter To Columbia/Barnard Hillel

  1. As a more recent alumnus, I want to express my support for this letter. It is such an honor to fall among the ranks of the movers and shakers named above.

  2. Is there a way to sign on now (after the fact)? Because I would. Thank you for writing this, co-alums.

  3. 1/ I never knew there were so few Jewish grads of Columbia/Barnard over 5 decades. Are there still quotas?
    2/ What’s this ‘Thanksgiving’? Is it some sort of festival? I know Hanukkah is coming up. Why not mention that?
    Oh year, right. Maccabees.
    3/ The signers claim to be ‘rabbis, Jewish communal professionals and involved members of the Jewish community’. Yet not a single congregation or Jewish community organization is named. Is unemployment that bad?
    Maybe UNRWA can teach you to make tea towels (In UNRWA-talk that’s called advanced economic development).

  4. This goes to show that the Jewish People are in need of a reformation, a great schism we could call it. For those Jews who believe that The Government of Israel is the centerpiece of their identity, they can go live in the Hillel Building. For everyone else, who knows that the Jewish State is a serious travesty, who know that the Jewish People were placed here to bring justice and peace, we shall rise! WE SHALL RISE.

  5. The signers seem to confuse the questions of whether (a) one-sided anti-Israel speakers have a right to speak on Columbia’s campus, which few would dispute, and (b) whether groups that proclaim themselves as pro-Jewish and pro-Israel (such as J Street U) should be sponsoring such one-sided anti-Israel events, with no pro-Israel view. It is the latter that Hillel questioned. It is not logically contradictory, as you state, for Hillel and other admittedly pro-Israel groups to sponsor pro-Israel forums. (And I would be very surprised if any anti-Israel group ever sponsired such a Hillel event.)

  6. I have been lecturing for 40 years without anyone to debate me except students who ask good questions. Does every lecture in every class require an official spokesman of a different point of view?

  7. “2/ What’s this ‘Thanksgiving’? Is it some sort of festival? I know Hanukkah is coming up. Why not mention that?
    Oh year, right. Maccabees.”
    Thanksgiving Day Services
    Since 1781 by proclamation of the first President of the United States, Thanksgiving Day Services have been held in houses of worship throughout the United States. Congregation Shearith Israel has held services on Thanksgiving Day without interruption since that time.
    Also, the Rabbanim hated the Maccabees. Which is why Hanukkah became a holiday about OIL, not murderous fundamentalists.
    Keep failtrolling.

  8. I am CC’62, and am in total support with the above letter. The point of Columbia is to provide exposure to ideas of all kinds.
    I was under the impression that Israel presents itself to the world as a democracy, which is why I find it so odd that the Columbia / Barnard Hillel, would seek to censor exposure to ideas in which they do not believe. Yes, I am a supporter of J Street, and am proud of it, because it seeks to promote exposure to different ideas within the Jewish community, and seeks to support the idea of Israel as a democracy.

  9. The “real exchange of ideas” is indeed the raison d’etre of a university, and Columbia is no exception. That said, when a proposed speaker’s stated ideology runs directly counter to the mainstream of virtually all groups that operate under the Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s umbrella, it’s not unreasonable that the administration of the Hillel require that a degree of balance be added to the agenda. The speaker was not silenced, rather the Hillel was merely asking for a reasonable adjustment to the program. In a similar vein, one might find it ‘educational’ to invite David Duke to speak, but the signators at the bottom of the “open letter” would undoubtedly find it repugnant to allow him to present in an unmoderated fashion.

  10. Columbia/Barnard Hillel is committed to Jewish pluralism, reaching out to all Jews – regardless of their origin or destination – and assisting them along their Jewish journeys. In order to fulfill this goal, Columbia/Barnard Hillel provides numerous opportunities for Jewish students to engage in learning and open dialogue on all aspects of Jewish life and values. In part, we do this through supporting the student groups that fall under Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s umbrella. Columbia/Barnard Hillel therefore welcomes views expressed from across the spectrum of religious, political and cultural ideas. All student groups that fall under the Columbia/Barnard Hillel umbrella have embraced these principles and are committed – not only to building their own groups through meaningful programming, events and activities – but to building the Columbia/Barnard Jewish community at large: a belief in klal Yisrael – the unity of the Jewish People.
    Columbia/Barnard Hillel did not oppose UNRWA Gaza Director John Ging’s speaking at an event in November 2010. Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s advice to Just Peace – the Progressive Zionist group under Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s umbrella – who had originally planned to sponsor the event, was about format/methodology of the event. We welcome the fact that so many diverse voices can be heard within the Columbia/Barnard Hillel community, thanks in large measure due to that advisement and support offered our groups by our student and staff leadership. Columbia/Barnard Hillel has advised similarly with regard to other controversial events in the past – from across the political and religious spectrum. We do not feel that any individual is in a position to “judge” the appropriateness of a speaker invited by one of its groups, as long as such a speaker falls within the parameters and guidelines established by the student group’s constitution, the mission of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, and by Columbia University and its Student Governing Board.
    Given the highly controversial nature of several cited quotes regarding Israel by Mr. Ging, Columbia/Barnard Hillel leadership, student and staff, held several conversations with Just Peace Leadership in attempts to structure a program that would have led to an educational and civil exchange of ideas among a broad group of students within the campus community. Regrettably, with very little advance time, we were unable to put together such a program that would have allowed Mr. Ging to be heard as well as questioned in a meaningful way. Columbia/Barnard Hillel is committed to making sure that we provide models of how to structure such difficult exchanges, which will not impede on the creativity and activism of our individual groups.
    Simon Klarfeld
    Executive Director, Columbia/Barnard Hillel

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