Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hillels Should Engage, Not Boycott, Jewish Voice for Peace

In an op-ed on the JTA website Wayne Firestone, President and CEO of the Hillel, has articulated guidelines for local Hillels' sponsorship of students groups. ("Sponsorship" includes allowing student groups to use Hillel facilities.) The need for these guidelines is apparent: chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace have been sprouting on campuses like mushrooms after the rain, and some of the Jewish activists in these groups are involved Jewishly and at Hillel. Apparently, there have been incidents where local Hillels have allowed JVP to use their facilities, and this has annoyed parents, donors, and the national office. Rather than include all Jewish groups that are motivated inter alia by ahavat Yisrael (the love of the Jewish people) Hillel has decided that the litmus test for sponsorship to be ahavat medinat yisrael (the love of the State of Israel) So a rightwing ultranationalist group like Zionist Freedom Alliance, which doesn't recognize the Palestinian people and asserts that the Jews have sovereign rights over every inch of the Land of Israel from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, is kosher; but Jewish Voices for Peace, which supports self-determination for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, is treif:

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 toward campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.

Note that ideological sins are coupled with sins of civility; one wonders whether Hillels have banned rightwing Jewish student groups after heckling pro-Palestinian speakers.

Note also that excluding the groups that "deligitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel" is a very broad category. Groups on the right have criticized NIF, J Street, and Israeli human rights groups for that. Last spring, parents of Penn students tried to have J Street banned from using the Penn Hillel facilities.

Why is all this mistaken from Hillel's standpoint? Well, according to its website, "Hillel's mission is to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world." One needn't be a Peter Beinart to realize that many Jewish students on campus support justice for the Palestinians, and many are increasingly getting involved in the BDS movement – and that includes liberal Zionists who think that partial divestment, like a boycott of settler products, is an effective way to draw attention to the horrors of the Occupation. Heck, even J-Street has said:

We note positively that some promoting BDS tactics are trying to narrow the scope of boycotts or divestment initiatives to oppose simply the occupation and not Israel itself.  The Palestinian Authority, for instance, calls not for a boycott of Israel itself or Israeli goods, but of settlement products, unlike the all-encompassing boycott of Israel promoted by the global BDS Movement.  J Street, however, will not participate in targeted boycott or divestment initiatives. 

This is clearly a reference to JVP's campaign and is hardly a call for boycotting the boycotters.

Hillel has every right to promote a pro-State of Israel and pro-Zionist agenda. But making adherence to Zionism a litmus test for participation at Hillel, of all places, is counterproductive. Hillel should be inclusive of all Jewish groups and all Jewish ideologies, Zionist, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist. I can understand it not wishing to sponsor non-Jewish groups like SJP (Students for Justice for Palestine); its "mission" is towards Jews on campus. But groups like JVP often attract Jews who are not that connected to Hillel. Why won't Hillel reach out to those groups?

Fortunately, Hillels are run locally and not by a national office. I am personal friends with some Hillel directors who feel secure enough in their position and their identity to formulate their own guidelines. I trust their judgment and their knowledge of the campus scene to guide them to do the right thing and engage JVP.

After all, I don't look forward to the day when a thousand Jewish JVPers dress up as Barukh Spinoza and picket Hillels on campuses throughout the countries. What I would rather see, as a college educator, former board member, and current supporter of my local Hillel, would be for local Hillel directors to engage JVP student groups.

Why not start by having a Hillel-sponsored event that explores the limits of Hillel's policy of exclusiveness – inviting JVP and other groups to discuss the question civilly?

Engage, not boycott – isn't that the message Hillel wants to get to the Jewish students?

h/t to Rob Browne



Matt, thanks for the clarification.


Now can I get you to admit that there is a difference in approach to JVP by J Street, which respectfully disagrees with them, and Ameinu, which considers them beyond the pale, and not worthy of being part of the Jewish communal discussion on Israel?


Look at J Street's statement on BDS. It "notes positively" the attempts to limit BDS to partial divestment and partial boycott" -- and then says that J Street will not take that route. It does not diss JVP; it disagrees with them.


And speaking of J Street (by now you have gathered that I highly respect that organization as a model of progressive Zionism, though I don't agree with it) -- look at their position on Gaza after the Gaza Op that got them in so much hot water with Rabbi Eric Yoffe (a progressive Zionist in your eyes?) They took what I considered to be a responsible progressive position -- blasting Israel for its conduct of the Gaza campaign in real time, at a time when other organizations inside and outside Israel (Meretz, for one) were stuttering -- Meretz lost a seat to Hadash for that blunder. And while J Street disagreed with elements of the Goldstone report, it condemned the delegitimization and demonization of Goldstone not only by the right but by many mainstream groups -- and J Street took the heat for that.


Progressive Zionism has had a history of selling out on its progressiveness, such as socialist Zionism has had a history of selling out on its socialism. As a progressive Zionist, I am sure you are familiar with Zeev Sternhell (himself a progressive Zionist)'s book, Israel's Founding Myths, in which he shows how Labor Zionism abandoned socialist principles for its nationalism.


All that having been said, I still maintain that it is possible to be progressive and Zionist -- and you will see many progressive Zionists protesting side-by-side with Palestinians and non-Zionist Jews at the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan demonstrations here in Jerusalem.


That spirit of cooperation has already has its effect on campuses where J Street U and JVP coordinate their activities -- a model of the coalition building I am calling for.



Aron said...


This is sad, but not surprising. Not much has changed at Hillel since I worked for them on a campus as program coordinator several years ago.

I was there at the beginning of the 2nd Intifada, and was very uncomfortable with the expectation that I should be directing and supporting students in Israel 'advocacy.' I was nearly lynched (professionally speaking) for writing an op-ed in a local newspaper on behalf of an inter-faith peace and justice group. The local board brought in a rep from the national organization to clarify the official stance. This was before BDS and there was nothing in anything I said or wrote on campus or off that implied that Israel should not exist.

I tried to argue as you do that engaging Jewish students requires a more open-minded policy.

Aron said...

cont'd. I am now involved in founding a local JVP chapter along with a professor from the same campus who co-wrote the offending op-ed and has been continually vilified by the Jewish community on campus for her pro-Palestinian activism.

Recently I tried to join the board of the local UJC or whatever they call it now. I was interrogated about my political views, and told that I would not be an appropriate candidate at this time. And this is in a very liberal college town.

At this point, I've about had it with the organized Jewish community. I lived in Israel for several years and have tried to be a part of Jewish life in the U.S. It's not worth it.

Anonymous said...

"After all, I don't look forward to the day when a thousand Jewish JVPers dress up as Barukh Spinoza and picket Hillels on campuses throughout the countries."

dont think you have to fear that at all jerry...there will never come a day when jvp has close to a thousand college aged members.

and why should an organization that is engaged in bringing youth closer to their jewish roots,engage with one that wishes to deny those roots?

Anonymous said...

update on jvp's response to hillel

this is from ms lynn gottleib (she aint no rabbi)

As a target of Hillel’s effort to silence dissent before selective divestment and BDS arose on the horizon as a tactic to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, and as someone who remembers when speaking to Palestinians was considered heresy, when supporting a two state solution was heresy, when protesting settlement expansion was heresy, when supporting Goldstone’s call for an investigation of Operation Cast Lead was considered heresy, it seems as if Hillel, once again, is failing to understand the positive contribution of nonviolent dissent to militarism and occupation to rabbinic and Jewish life.

By silencing dissent in broad and highly idiosyncratic language, Hillel is exiling thousands of young Jewish activists to life outside our own community. As for boycott, it has an honored place in Jewish life, especially when it is used to express non-cooperation with actions that are harmful to the public.

"Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is held responsible and liable for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is liable for the transgressions of the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b) R. Zera said to R. Simon: Did you rebuke those of the Exilarch’s house? He replied: they will not take it from me. R. Zera said: Even so, you should rebuke them. (Shabbat 55a and cf. Tanhuma Tazria parag. 9).

It has been further been taught: "It is forbidden to sell them weapons or accessories to weapons, nor should one sharpen weapons for them. One may not sell them blocks or neck-ands placed on prisoners or ropes or iron chains-neither to idolators (Romans) nor to Cuthites (a sect of Judaism). R. Nahman said in the name of Rabbah b. Avuha: Just as they ruled that it forbidden to sell (these items) to an idolator so is it forbidden to them to an Israelite who is suspected of selling them to an idolator (Roman). The rabbis taught: It is forbidden to sell them shields, but others say that shields may be sold to them. (They were used for decorative purposes) Said R. Nahman in the name of Rabba b. Avuha: The law agrees with the others. Yerushalmi 15b-16a The text describes a form of boycott in order to avoid cooperating with Roman military rule, even if one is making a profit. Noncooperation with acts that violate human rights in an ancient and honored form of religious action.

Finally, the Jewish American community supported the farmer workers’ boycott of grapes and the boycott of Nestle products because they believed in the universal principle of human rights which both boycotts supported. Why is selective divestment or other forms of consumer boycott different because it is directed at Israeli violations of human rights in the form of illegal land seizure?
Especially when these violations are being committed in our name? Rather than a form of delegitimization of Israel, the very act of protest by supporting selective divestment and public protest in the media and on the street is upholding the democracy that those who love Israel claim to cherish and promote."

so jerry, tell us again why hillel should engage with such people...who use the gemorah very much like those who can be found on jew hate websites?e

nice try

Anonymous said...

jerry, did you read ms lynn gottleib's response to hillel?

would love to see your defense of how she uses the germarah to support her side

Jerry Haber said...

bacci40, I fail to see any problem with Rabbi Gottlieb's response. I don't think she is paskening halakha; I think she is interpreting Talmudic sources in a perfectly legitimate and time-honored fashion (for a rabbi and a darshan). I have heard my own rabbi do a lot worse.

jak said...

I'm confused by Bacci40's claim that Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb isn't a rabbi.

Even the Jewish Virtual Library, which describes itself as an 'american-israeli enterprise' and surely is no anti-zionist sympathizer, describes her ordination as a rabbi, including the support of her teachers Rabbis Zalman Schachter, Everett Gendler and Shlomo Carlebach. So that little comment is a little out of left field.

On top of Bacci40 really dissing Baruch Spinoza? Really?