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.
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