Jewish Community Must Not Settle For Neutrality

by Maya Rosen and Joshua Leifer
Last week, Princeton undergraduates narrowly rejected a referendum that called on our University to divest from companies that profit from or contribute to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip. As active members of the Jewish community and the Princeton Divests Coalition, we were encouraged by the political shift on our campus but disappointed that the divestment initiative failed. However, this campaign has taught us a lot: the Jewish community has much to lose when considering how to respond to divestment.
In the fall, Princeton Hillel’s leadership publicly opposed a faculty petition that advocated for divestment from companies that profit from or contribute to the occupation. We wrote an open letter to Princeton Hillel’s leadership expressing our disappointment that they had taken an institutional stance on an issue on which there was no consensus. At the time, our letter was criticized for presenting our community as divided. However, we feel that the letter effectively stimulated conversation within the community. And when faced with a similar situation this spring about how to respond to the undergraduate referendum for selective divestment, Princeton Hillel’s leadership chose to respect the diversity of opinions within the community by not publicly opposing the referendum. This has made Princeton’s Hillel a stronger community, one that allows for diverse opinions and disagreement.
However, nominal neutrality during a divestment campaign is not enough. Pervasive support for the status quo in Israel/Palestine persists in the Jewish community. Supporting selective divestment from multinational corporations operating in the West Bank should not be viewed as transgressing Jewish ideological boundaries. We both attended Jewish day schools, have spent time living in Israel, speak Hebrew fluently, and live religiously engaged lives. Our politics stem from our Jewish upbringings and values. We are perplexed that selective divestment is placed outside the tent; we feel it is the best way to work towards a just and secure future for Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel and the Jewish people lose when its leaders present the American Jewish community as ideologically monolithic. Jews are not politically unified, and enforcing a false unity only divides us more. Doing so drives away liberal Jews and reduces a vibrant and complex tradition to one-sided talking points. Judaism is nothing if not polyphonic, and yet the current Jewish establishment attempts to silence left-wing voices. Further, given the recent cases at Stanford and UCLA, where students were questioned about their ability to be unbiased in student government given their involvement in the Jewish community, we must decouple Judaism from right-wing Israeli policies if we want to prevent others from conflating the two. When powerful Jewish institutions claim that all Jews support Israel’s current policies, we should not be surprised that Jewish college students face questions about their politics. There are real consequences for young, liberal Jews when the conservative establishment claims to speak on our behalf.
Throughout the referendum campaign at Princeton, the anti-divestment group and its supporters in Princeton’s Hillel claimed to oppose divestment as an ineffective tactic while still advocating for a two-state solution. However, in light of Hillel’s institutional ties to groups that operate in the West Bank, their commitment to the two-state solution remains to be proven. If the anti-divestment group truly supports an end to the occupation, they should do something about it. For instance, they could interrogate American Jewish sources of funding and ties to West Bank settlements. If we believe in two states, we should not bankroll the systematic subjugation and disenfranchisement of Palestinians.
As American college students, we have limited means to effect change in Israel/Palestine. We must do what we can where we are, and for us, that means supporting selective divestment. At Princeton, the referendum forced the anti-divestment coalition to support a two-state solution publicly, something that, to our knowledge, they have never done before. More so, political and economic pressure are our most effective nonviolent means for resisting the occupation. We will therefore bring the referendum to a vote again next year. As long as the occupation continues, the fight is not over.