Wednesday, March 30, 2011

1,000 Brandeis Students and Faculty Call on Brandeis Hillel to Reconsider Its Herem Against Jewish Voice for Peace – and Hillel Continues To Say “Nyet”

On Monday night, the Jewish Voice for Peace at Brandeis presented the Brandeis Hillel Student Board with a petition with a thousand signatures calling on Hillel to reconsider its refusal to allow JVP be a member group. The Hillel Student board, predictably, said that it would not reconsider.

According to Fiona Lockyer,

Hillel President Andrea Wexler '11 said that Hillel is "not constitutionally subject to appeal by petition, which means that while [JVP is] welcome to appeal, ... we would need to see a different constitution which would be more in-line with our views," and she did not ask for a revote from the Hillel e-board.

"You are always welcome in our meetings, you are welcome to resubmit your constitution, you are welcome to appeal, but our constitution stands. We have already voted on it ... and thus we will not reconsider," Wexler said. "We don't see JVP as falling under our mission statement."

Or as the New York Post headline writer would say, "Brandeis Hillel to Jewish Voice of Peace Students: Drop Dead."

Among the strange things cited, the following takes the cake::

Hillel Education Coordinator Hannah Pollack '13 said, "If you want to define [Hillel] as the Jewish community, that would mean that any of the Jews on campus that don't associate themselves with us are not part of the Jewish community. There's Chabad on campus, there's lots of Jews that just choose ... not to be a part of us. You're not being excluded by the Jewish community by not being under the Hillel umbrella.

She has a point. You can join a heretical messianic cult like Chabad and not be under the Hillel umbrella. Or you can be one of the thousands of Jews who couldn't give a darn about Hillel or Judaism, the great disaffected. Hillel never cares about engagement, does it? Doesn't fall within their mission, according to Ms. Pollack. Jews doing Jewish? Jews engaged with their tradition? At Hillel? Hah!

But Brandeis Hillel's website announces:

Hillel is the nerve center of that Jewish community, and its mission is to promote individual student growth as well as enrich the life of the campus as a whole. Hillel at Brandeis supports over 20 student clubs, performing arts groups, and special project committees each year!

So while you can be a Jewish group at Brandeis (say, Jews for Jesus, or the Zionist Freedom Alliance), you can't be within the nerve center of the Jewish community if Ms.Pollack and her ilk have their way.

I, for one, would like to know what other Jewish groups has Brandeis Hillel's executive board rejected?

Hillel Campus Relations Coordinator Erica Shaps '13 expressed a desire for co-sponsored activities between Hillel and JVP and said that the debate "presents us with the unique opportunity to show the world what discourse and dialogue on a college campus looks like and to say that it's complicated."

Please let me know, Ms. Shaps, when Hillel reaches out to JVP and offers to co-sponsor activities. I will be the first to blog about that. Because you see, that is completely against the Hillel National Guidelines, which state:

Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice,,, Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.

JVP supports a boycott of settlers' goods and the artists' refusal to appear over the Green Line. And yet Ms. Shaps, to her credit, expresses a desire to co-sponsor activities. Figure that out

Until that time, my advice to Brandeis JVP is simple: Get organized politically, and make sure that you have strong representation on the next Hillel executive board. If the board is elected – frankly, I don't know that it s – make sure to get those who voted in favor of excluding kicked off the board.

Of course, the good news is that all this publicity has provided new members and new allies for Brandeis Jewish Voice for Peace at Brandeis – and made Brandeis Hillel look like a reactionary and close-minded institution, run by AIPAC.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stop It Right Now!

(I wrote the below eight hours ago, way before the bus bombing. I will say something about that tomorrow. The only intelligent thing to say is: this is what happens when you have idiots running the show.)

I don't care who started it; the deadly escalation between Hamas and Israel has to stop right now.

It is immaterial to me that Israel has been ratcheting up the violence, or reacting disproportionately and recklessly to the Kassam and Grad missile firings. It is immaterial to me that when a rogue group from Gaza fired a missle in February, Southern Command overreacted, attacking a Hamas training camp and killing a senior commander. It is immaterial to me that Israel has a checklist of targets that it has been compiling for a long time and is seizing the opportunity of the rocket firings to go down the list, such as bombing smuggling tunnels. Reprisals? Hardly.

When you have two rightwing governments kowtowing to their respective military wings – in other words, when you have bad boys with deadly toys –you have a recipe for trouble. And while the world is watching Japan and Libya, Israel's Knesset can pass discriminatory laws under the cover of grad missles fired by the gang who can't shoot straight (thank God. I wish our only missles were grads and kassams.)

I hold Hamas mostly responsible for waking the sleeping giant. Do they really think the world cares when innocent people in Gaza die after they fire Kassam rockets? After they were criticized by Human Rights Watch for hassling the Unity Marchers, do they think that their popularity will swell?

Sometimes I think that Hamas needs Israel to reinforce its victimhood and Israel needs Hamas to reinforce its victimhoood -- and that we are all caught in the crossfire. Israel is behaving more badly than is Hamas? So what! They should both be sent to the corners while we figure out what can be done to lift the siege on Gaza, unify the Palestinian people, and forge a strong and united front that demands liberation.

Please read Amira Hass giving it to Hamas here.

And please read Alex Fishman giving it to Israel below (hat tip to D. R. )

Unwise response

Analysis, Alex Fishman, Yediot, March 23 2010

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz declared yesterday that Israel did not want an escalation in the Gaza Strip, but the activity of the Southern Command projects the exact opposite message. We are conducting ourselves like an elephant in a china shop. Shooting and apologizing.

Yesterday, even the prime minister was compelled to apologize for the accidental killing of citizens in Gaza. We don't want an escalation so badly that for a week, the border has been heating up—and as of last night, the Gaza periphery communities were put on defensive alert. So what should we believe, the statements or the actions on the ground?

Yesterday, the Southern Command committed errors of judgment. Both in the decision to use an inaccurate weapon like mortars in a populated area, and in the way these mortars were used. Similar errors were made in the past when artillery fire was employed as responsive fire near civilians -- and all the lessons learned appear in the command books. Now, after we have apologized, we must prepare for the possibility that at the next stage, Hamas will not fire in response volleys of mortars at the Gaza perimeter, but rather volleys of Grad rockets deep into Israel. This in turn will require the IDF to ratchet up its response another notch. They are contemptible—and we are playing into their hands. Yes, it has been a while since we appeared in the headlines as a global problem. The eyes of the world are on other crises, they have off our back for a while -- and we are bored outside the limelight. Besides, the army has apparently decided, in advance of the festival that international organizations are preparing for us with regard to Gaza to mark the anniversary of the Mavi Marmara -- to contribute a few more unnecessary images for the delegitimization of Israel.

Both the IDF General Staff and the Southern Command knew full well that after the murder in Itamar, Hamas prepared for an aggressive Israeli action, which in its view was supposed to blow off steam for the Israeli public. And indeed, since the murder in Itamar, Israel has been doing everything possible to confirm Hamas's paranoia. Despite the fact that we understand that Hamas is waiting for a military operation, the Southern Command decides that this is the best timing to deal with Hamas's lack of control over the marginal organizations that are firing at Israel.

Yesterday evening the IDF carried out a targeted killing. A targeted killing is not just another stage in an uncontrolled deterioration. This is clear testimony to a planned escalation. Where the army insists on being right at all costs, the political echelon should play the part of the wise man.

(historical h/t to Max B)

Monday, March 21, 2011

How the Proposed Anti-Boycott Law is Virtually Unenforceable

I got around to reading the latest version of the proposed law purporting to make Israelis who call for a boycott on Israel liable to civil suits. When the bill first was proposed, I wrote a post called, "Don't Buy Golan Wines – And Sue Me." Now that it is Purim afternoon in Jerusalem, when many Jews are so drunk that they don't know the difference between blessing Mordecai and cursing Zev Elkin (the M.K. who proposed the bill), it's time to look at the clauses of the law that deal with the strictures on individuals. Here is the latest version:

In this law, "boycotting the state of Israel" is defined as intentionally refraining from economic, cultural, or academic ties with a person, or other party, only because of his connection to the State of Israel, one of its institutions, or territory under its control, whose intention is to harm economically, culturally, or academically.

One who knowingly publishes a public appeal to boycott the State of Israel, and according to the content of the appeal, and the circumstances in which it is published, there is a reasonable possibility that the appeal will lead to the aforementioned boycott, and the person who publishes it is aware of the this possibility, commits a civil injustice and the directives of the criminal law [new formulation] will apply to him.

And what are the directives? The violator will be liable to a suit for damages (including punitive damages) from the individuals and bodies affected.

Now at first glance, this sounds scary. Even if I sign a petition calling for a boycott, something can happen to me.

In fact, the law is riddled with holes so wide that an Israeli who publicly supports the international BDS movement could drive a Caterpillar bulldozer through it.

For example, say I call for a boycott of Golan wines on my blog. Or I start a petition on the web. Not only does there have to be a probability that my call will be answered in such numbers that it will have an affect on Golan wines, the companies affected will have to show that specific clients who would otherwise have bought Golan wines have now decided not to buy aforementioned wines because of my public appeal. How else can a court decide whether such an effect is likely or reasonable. Oy, if I only had such power!

Another example: An Israeli BDS group appeals to Elvis Costello to cancel a concert here. Say that the organizer of the concert decides to sue the group (hardly likely; think of the implications for business). What would a court do if Costello says that his cancellation was not a direct result of the appeal to boycott. How long would the trial drag on?

Another example: Artists publish an advert saying that they will not appear in the Occupied Territories. Such an example would not be covered by this law, which penalizes the parties that call for a boycott, not the boycotters.

Another example:A university professor in Israel, or a group of professors, calls for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. This has happened in the past and will happen in the future. Does anybody think that the universities will sue their faculty for damages? And how will they be able to prove it? Indeed, how they will be able to prove that the appeal has a reasonable chance of succeeding?

In short, the topsy-turvy (English for nahafokh hu) beauty of the law is that it will be virtually impossible to enforce, and yet its very presence will cause real damage to Israel's image.

Is Zev Elkin employed by the Global BDS movement?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Selling Purim to Progessives

This is the third year I've run this post. Sorry, but I have to watch the Adventures of Robin Hood before I go hear the megillah being read. Hope it helps.

However you look at it, the holiday is not exactly a favorite among Jewish progressives. The Megillah/Scroll of Esther celebrates a victory of the Jews over Haman, his sons, and a whole bunch of people inside and outside the Persian capital of Shushan who had it in for the Jews. OK, so the Jews did not take spoils, certainly an advance over today's IDF (which explicitly prohibits taking spoils, and has prosecuted a few soldiers for it, but where taking "souvenirs" is widespread, if I can believe the reports of soldiers in my family and in the group "Breaking the Silence")

Ah, but let's leave the IDF out of this one, shall we?

It's not just the Scroll of Esther that discomfits progressives; it's the Amalek thing; it's the Barukh Goldstein thing; it's the Hanan Porat "Purim Sameah" ("Happy Purim") thing (That's what the Gush Emunim leader allegedly said when he heard about the Goldstein massacre, though he claims that he was not celebrating Goldstein, but urging people to continue with the holiday, despite the horrible thing that had happened.) It's the primitive customs associated with reading the megillah, like making deafening noise when the villain Haman's name is mentioned, or getting stone drunk.

The stone-drunk business reminds me of a story. Once my family was invited to the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore for the festive meal on Purim. I thought, well, what could possibly go wrong? It's a happy holiday, and the yeshiva students at least know what they are doing. Well, when my children saw drunken yeshiva students vomiting on the lawn outside the yeshiva, my only consolation was that wouldn't want to go back and enroll in the joint. And they didn't, although they did go to some modern orthodox Israeli yeshivot.

All I know is that Maimonides, not exactly a liberal, would be aghast at how the holiday has been turned -- by some -- into a drunken orgy of Jewish ethnic particularism.'s my attempt to sell Purim to progressives a bit late for this year, but not for next year, or the year after that.

Consider the following:

The Scroll of Esther is not history. I mean, there probably never was an Esther or a Mordecai or Haman. The story of Purim is part of the Jewish collective memory, which means that it never happened. So don't worry about innocents being killed, because according to the story, no innocents were killed. According to the story, all of them were implicitly guilty, including the sons of Haman. Is that a primitive, tribalistic morality? Of course. But it helps a bit to realize that we are in the realm of fantasy. I can't shed tears over the death of Orcs either.

Once the book is understood as a fable written two thousand years ago, there are two possible ways of responding to it: by reading it literally as representing a morality that gets a B-(after all, Haman is indeed a villain that turns a personal slight into a call for genocide), or by reading into it, against the grain of the story, our own moral imperatives. I adopt both readings, but I prefer the latter. For one thing, I am doing what my medieval Jewish culture heroes, the rationalist philosophers, always did -- providing non-literal interpretations of scripture that were in tune with their own views.

James Kugel has argued pursuasively that if you detach the Bible from its classical interpreters -- which is what Protestant Judaism and modern Biblical criticism attempts to do -- then the book you are left with is pretty mediocre as literature, and only partly agreeable as ethics. The Bible has always undergone a process of interpretation, of mediation, because none of the classic readers could relate to it as a document produced in a certain time and place.

So for me to relate to the Scroll of Esther, and to the Purim holiday in general, I emphasize (and distort) those points that are congenial to my ethics and worldview, and just forget about the rest. I don't drink on Purim; if I am really feeling frum/religious, I will have a shot of scotch before I go to bed, whereupon I will not be able to distinguish between "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai". I will have a good time with my grandchildren, and pick a prayer service where there is a lot of decorum and the scroll is read in a respectful manner, without all the lunacy of the vulgar plebs (amkha, in Hebrew).

And, of course, I will overeat, give baked goods that my friends will regift and throw away, and distribute a modest amount of charity. (Note to me: why did Peter Singer have to make me feel guilty in a down year?)

I will read the story of Esther as a fictional fantasy about how my people, through political wisdom and without religious fanaticism, or the help of a Deus ex machina, triumphed over the enemies who wished to destroy us because we were different from them. And that is a message which I will apply not only to my people, but to all beleaguered peoples who are in danger of having their identity and culture -- and physical welfare-- destroyed by bad people in power, in the name of culture and ethnic homogeneity.

Because if what Haman wished to do to the Jews was wrong, then it is also wrong when anybody wishes to do this to any group.

Selling Purim to Progressives Redux

Hi, it's Purim here in Shushan – oops, I mean it's about to be Shushan Purim here in Jerusalem – and once again, I am out to defend Purim with my fellow progressives. But first a few stories.

A colleague at the university, a Jewish liberal-hawk-neocon turned Islamophobe, came rushing to my Jewish studies colleague and blurted out, "Have you ever read the Qur'an?" My colleague said he had read some of it. The Islamophobe then said, "Do you have any idea how heartless Allah is? I mean, he actually wipes out all of humanity with a flood!"

True story.

Another colleague, an atheist and a card carrying clergyman in the Universal Life Church (don't ask; so am I) told me he is upset with "Old Testament Morality". Actually, were he to read the New Testament, he would be just as upset. He doesn't think much of Biblical morality at all.

Can you blame him?

Two classes of people should be warned before reading scripture. The non religiously-observant and the very religiously-observant. Those are the groups who take what the text says literally. I don't mind the non religiously-observant reading the text; what harm can it do anybody? But I would ban all religious fundamentalists from reading the Bible. They take the word of God too literally, especially when it gives them license to be immoral.

Some people I know have given up on Purim. Henry Norr (whom I don't know, but I hope to meet one day) wrote this post about the Book of Esther on Mondoweiss

Progressive Jews often claim that Zionism, or at least its cruder and more violent expressions, contradict the real essence of Judaism, which they believe lies in the prophets' cries for justice or in the modern tradition of social activism among some Jews. But Purim is a good occasion to remind ourselves that there's another, darker side - a history of tribalistic violence - that's at least as deeply rooted in our traditions.

There is a dark side of all religion, just as there is a dark side of most ideologies. And, indeed, we deny the dark side at our peril. But there is also a danger of taking texts that are thousands of years old too literally. Is their morality ours? In many respects, no. Neither, for that matter, is the morality of much classical literature. All texts are to be filtered through our God-given intellect, and our God-given morality (read "evolutionally-developed" if God-talk bothers you.)

Fortunately, there is a long tradition in Judaism of reinterpreting the texts in light of both intellect and morality (and social customs, etc.) Like Catholicism, and unlike Protestantism, traditional Jews have their text mediated by…tradition. And, believe you me, nothing is sacred when it comes to interpreting sacred texts. Did you know that the book of Esther is a philosophical allegory?

I have to go now. I am watching with my grandchildren The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. For those who may not remember, it is about how a rebel named Robin Hood fights the injustice of an oppressive occupier Prince John, who preaches ethnic superiority against the natives. Sounds familiar? When Lady Marian, a Norman raised to be prejudiced against Saxons, asks him, "What's your reward?" Robin replies, "You just don't understand" She looks at him and says, "I think I begin to understand now," and he replies, "That's reward enough for me."

That's what the ganze Megillah is about. It's about fighting injustice and group hatred. At the end of the Megillah, the bad guys get it. Since this is an ancient tale, where family is considered to be an extension of the individual, the "bad guys" include Haman's family and a lot of others. But no innocents according to the views of the ancients are killed. Just like the end of the Adventures of Robin Hood. Only bad guys die.

No, it's not the most lofty morality. But it's a step in the right direction. The challenge is to teach that part and not the others.

If you haven't read the next post already, please do.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Condemnation II

There is a well-known midrash that Pharoah, at the time of the enslavement of Israel, would bathe in the blood of Israelite children to cure himself of leprosy. The image is foul and disgusting, but it does teach us that people do foul and disgusting things to further their selfish aims. A leper is an outcast from society -- but can outcasts purify themselves by such foul methods?

I am reminded of that midrash when I read that the government of Israel has decided to improve its standing in the world by distributing gruesome photos of the Itamar murders to win some hasbara points. What do these murders, as condemnable as they are, say about the fundamental situation on the ground that we didn’t know already?

At the height of the Second Intifada, I was sent emails containing gruesome pictures of Arab children who were butchered by Israeli bombs, and others containing gruesome pictures of Israeli Jewish children who were blown up by Arab suicide bombers. I made a collection of both pictures, and sent them to both groups of people – with the request to stop using these horrible incidents to win political points.

The funeral of the Fogel family members, which was covered live, on the radio, was replete with speeches demonizing Palestinians (not just the group that carried out the murders) and calling for the appropriate Zionist response, the code-word for settlement, which itself is a form of terrorism. One speech, however, took a different tack – it was delivered by Motti Fogel, the brother of Udi Fogel, who was murdered:

Motti Fogel, brother of Udi Fogel, eulogized his younger brother but warned that his death cannot be used as a tool in a national struggle.

"All of the slogans we hear are trying to efface the simple fact that you're dead, and nothing can efface that. This funeral has to be a private affair," Fogel said, adding: "A man dies to himself, to his children. Udi, you are no a national event. You're horrible death mustn't make your life into a tool."

There is no symmetry between the Palestinians, the occupied, and the Israelis, the occupiers. Now that the "price tag" revenge actions have commenced, those charged with defending the Palestinians -- the Israel Defense Forces -- are incapable of doing their duty. Here, too, is another dishonoring of the memory of the Fogel family. Demonization dishonors; revenge killings and destruction of property dishonor; making political and hasbara hay dishonors; building settlements on Palestinian land dishonors. I wasn’t happy when I got gruesome pictures; I certainly am not happy when Israel dances on the blood, to use the Hebrew expression, in order to win points and to provide cover for building settlements. That is to be condemned especially because it is the work of the government.

And one final word….when I was growing up, I was taught that what was particularly horrific about the Nazi extermination of the Jews was its cold, methodical, bureaucratic approach. The Jews were not even considered worthy to be killed out of hatred or passion; they were just bugs to be exterminated.

Now, I am being told that brutally killing a baby by knife is more barbaric than bombing houses with civilians, where the killing is not deliberate (excuse me, does the IDF drop bombs accidentally?)

Both claims are morally irrelevant. This kind of moral one-upmanship is repulsive. The bottom line: We kill their civilians and they kill ours.

There are, however, two fundamental differences. First, we kill a lot more of theirs than they do of ours. And second, only one people subjugates another. I divide my moral universe into those who condemn the killing of civilians – whomever they may be – and those who don’t, whoever they may be. And those who condemn the subjugation of one people by another.

And please read Yossi Gurevitz’s post here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


The murders at Itamar are just that -- murders. All decent people condemn them, or should condemn them. They are not to be condemned because Jews were murdered, or because settlers were murdered, but because human beings were murdered.

What does this say about the Palestinian struggle? After all, the al-Akseh brigade has taken responsibility. Well, my answer is simple – insofar as murder is murder is murder, it says nothing. If you are asking me, "What are the consequences in the bigger scheme of things," my answer is, probably, none. There have been murders in the past, and there will be murders, I fear, in the future. Were a thousand Palestinians murdered or a thousand Israelis Jews murdered, I would say the same thing. When Whites were murdered in South Africa during the apartheid era – and after apartheid was over, I condemned those murders. Being part of a persecuted minority doesn't give you the right to kill civilians

That those murdered were settlers means nothing to me. I believe that the settlement enterprise is criminal, and that the settlements have destroyed the lives of innocent people. Settlements are, in that sense, terrorism.. But nobody forfeits his right to life, even if he lives in a battle zone, and even if he is part of a criminal enterprise.

As for the method of the murder, stabbings, etc., I see no difference between wielding a knife to kill a baby and dropping a bomb to kill a baby. One is as inhuman as another.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How To End the Brandeis Hillel Brouhaha

Phil Weiss published parts of the rejection letter that Jewish Voice for Peace received from the Brandeis Hillel student board. A careful reading of that letter shows something quite remarkable – the student board appears to be quite uncomfortable with its own decision. Instead of giving its own justification for the rejection, the letter refers several times to the International Hillel’s guidelines, as if to say, “What can we do? Our hands are tied.” The same almost legalistic language appears in BIPAC’s (Brandeis’s student AIPAC, a political student organization at Brandies’ Hillel) letter, which I have seen. One of Phil’s readers suggested that Brandeis Hillel should cut its ties with International Hilllel.

1) Whooa there, folks. Brandeis Hilllel has no legal ties to International Hilllel. In fact, all Hillels are administered locally and are autonomous organizations. Of course, they can apply to International Hillel for some grants, and professional training. But Hillels hire and fire locally, and they set policy – locally.

2) And here is something else interesting. It took quite a long time for the Brandeis Hillel student board to come to its decision. The meeting ended on Monday night, and the JVP students were only informed of the decision Tuesday afternoon. Why did it take so long for Brandeis Hillel to come to its decision? The letter was carefully worded. What phone calls were conducted between International Hillel and Brandeis Hillel? Was Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, who made such a good imporession at the J Street Conference, involved?

3) International Hilllel’s recently published guidelines on Hillel’s involvement with Israel are just that – guidelines. They are not binding on any local Hillel. A Hillel director recently told me, “This is my Hillel; nobody tells me what to do.”

By promulgating such guidelines, International Hillel thought it would provide cover for local Hillels. Instead, it has placed Hillel student boards in the uncomfortable and untenable position of rejecting their classmates. They may hide under International Hillel’s apron springs. But at the same time they hurt their fellow students.

Was this necessary? When Richard Joel, now President of Yeshiva University, was head of International Hillel, the divestent movement started up on campus. Joel did not have to deal with JVP. But he had the diplomatic skills to avoid the gaffes and adverse publicity that the current International Hillel administration lacks.

Folks, it’s time for both sides to seek a reasonable compromise. The guidelines should be recognized as guidelines that are not binding, and JVP should be admitted at Brandeis Hillel, perhaps initially on a trial basis. In return,JVP student groups should be prepared to abide by the only guideline that makes sense -- the civility guideline. That should be the price of admission.

This is the Jewish Group that Brandeis Hillel Rejected

Here is the opening statement made by Jewish Voice for Peace in its bid to be recognized as a Jewish group under Hillel auspices. I think it is as important document because it shows the sort of group that has no place at the Hillel communal table. Let us not forget that Hillel was never intended to be the Zionist Organization of America. It was intended to be a place for Jewish students to interact with other Jewish students in a Jewish environment. At some point, however – was it when the former head of the Israel Coalition Campus became the Executive Director? – the mission changed. Hillel was also to serve as a center for political advocacy for Israel. As support for Israel has become more and more controversial, Hillel has decided to cut its ties with Jewish organizations that are Jewishly committed but that do not toe the party line.

I ask all my readers, Jewish and non-Jewish, whether the following statement reads like an illegitimate Jewish group. Because in rejecting the Jewish Voice for Peace, Brandeis Hillel has staked out what is legitimate and illegitimate in Jewish belief. Maimonides wrote a credo with thirteen principles. Hillel replaced that with one: Support Israel.

We are Jewish Voice for Peace and we are coming to Hillel tonight to become part of Brandeis Hillel, as full and equal members of the organized Jewish community. 

Motivated by our Jewish values and our belief in Ahavat Yisrael, we advocate for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. We believe that both peoples have a right to safety, security, human rights and full self-determination. We fully support the right of the Jewish and Palestinian people to live in their historic homeland.  We believe in the principle of non-violent peacemaking, and to that end we oppose terrorism and military force as strategies to accomplish political goals. 

The mission statement of the Brandeis Hillel constitution reads: "We… affirm the necessity of a pluralistic Jewish community on campus, with partisanship to none." In line with this, Jewish Voice for Peace strives for a pluralistic, welcoming, and inclusive Jewish community. We offer Brandeis' Jewish community an outlet for political views and ideologies that fall beyond the mainstream, and we allow students to grow intellectually by having an opportunity to expand and develop  their beliefs. JVP, like Hillel, pursues the Jewish values of tzedek and tikkun olam: we want to heal Israel's many wounds left by internal conflict and unnecessary violence while longing for justice and peace in the area.

There is an old joke about a man stranded on a desert island. When he is rescued years and years later, he shows his rescuers the two synagogues he constructed. "Why two?" They ask. "This is the synagogue I pray in," he says, "and this is the synagogue you wouldn't catch me dead in!" Internal divisions within the Jewish community have always existed. Jewish communal organizations should exist in order to foster healthy dialogue between these assorted political opinions. Excluding us from Hillel would serve to increase polarization, while bringing us in would allow for increased learning and co-operation among the Jewish community.

National Hillel declares that it "is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," We, too, support a democratic state in Eretz Yisrael based on Jewish values." We urge you to ask any questions so we may clear up misconceptions. Today, you as a Hillel board will make a powerful statement.  You can reject Jewish Voice for Peace, and indicate to the Brandeis community that Hillel is an exclusive institution, and that only those who fall in line politically are welcome. Or you can accept us, and signal to the world that Hillel is the true umbrella organization for the whole Jewish community; a pluralistic community, with partisanship to none.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Brandeis J Street U Does the Right Thing

While I am still waiting for Brandeis JVP to get me their press release after Hillel rejected their bid to be recognized as a Hillel student group, I thought I would publish Brandeis J Street U's statement.

Just as Hillel provides a home for Jewish student groups without consideration to their denomination, it should also be a place where Jewish student groups of all political persuasions are welcomed and engaged. While J Street U and JVP strongly disagree about many issues related to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the BDS movement, we nonetheless believe that they should be a part of the Jewish communal conversation.Fostering the open and vigorous exchange of ideas is a fundamental Jewish and American value that has generated volumes of human ingenuity, and has kept our religion alive and thriving over the millennia. Furthermore, we believe it would be the greatest testament to Hillel's strength if it brought all Jewish organizations-- from JVP to ZOA and everything in

between--into conversation with one another, because doing so would highlight Hillel's ability to be a great unifying factor in an ever-fractious American Jewish community.


--J Street U Brandeis


It is nice to know that there are tzadikim bi-Sdom like J Street U. (Full disclosure: I am the J Street U faculty advisor at my university.) But I still thinkthat it would be better that organized Jewish activity in favor of Israel not take place at Hillel since Israel is now a catalyst for division and polarization on campus.

Brandeis Hillel Should Exclude Israel And Not Jewish Students From Its Tent

(NB: This is the first part of a two-part post.  Please read the second post later, which will include the statement of the JVP students who were told by the Brandeis Hillel student board that their organization is not wanted at Hillel)

To tell you the truth, I thought it would go the other way. When I read the elegant and respectful statement of the student members of Brandeis U Jewish Voice for Peace (see next post), I actually thought – optimist that I am -- that they would be accepted. I was even prepared to write a post congratulating the Brandeis Hillel student board for doing the right thing, despite the pressures of International Hillel, which issued a lamentable series of guidelines that its brand of Israel-advocacy a litmus test for political student  groups under the Hillel rubric.

Well, the student board at Brandeis Hillel didn't do the right thing. They rejected the JVP bid for membership as a student group – because JVP's politics on Israel are not in line with Hillel's politics.

According to reliable sources, the student board argued that National Hillel has issued guidelines that only allows "pro-Israel" groups within Hillel. And even though JVP sees itself as pro-Israel, the Hillel board reserves the right to check its "tzizis" and to determine who is pro-Israel and who is not. In other words, Hillel as an organization has declared that only groups that it considers pro-Israel can apply. Were a Hillel to say that J Street is not pro-Israel, then that alone would be reason to exclude it.

How Jewish is that?

The board effectively said to JVP, "Even though we recognize that you express your Judaism politically, and even though we admit other Jewish political groups here, your vision of Judaism and your political vision of Israel has no place in HillelUnless you say the magic words ,"Jewish and democratic" and mean by them what we say you should mean, your organization is treif (unkosher).

(Note to J Street U at Brandeis – if you bring the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement to Brandeis, a movement that has been supported by David Grossman, Paul Mendes Flohr, James Kugel, and Moshe Halbertal, but which was lately labeled as "anti-Zionist" by the Jewish Agency – your group may be kicked out of Brandeis Hillel – maybe not by this board, but by the next.)

What clinched the rejection was that JVP supports a boycott of settlers' products. So were the likes of Theodore Bikel, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and a host of the best and brightest Israelis – who support the artistic boycott of the settlers – to come to Hillel, they would not be allowed to form as a student group in Hillel – because their public endorsement of a partial boycott is not pro-Israel enough.

But hang on – surely an organization has the right to determine who is recognized and supported by that group! Since Hillel defines itself as Zionist politically why blame the student board at Hillel for doing nothing more than following their announced policy?

Well, first of all, I don't blame the student board. And anyway, who am I to throw stones? After all, I come from Israel, where Reform and Conservative Jews are allowed to practice their religion – as long as they don't go anywhere near the "historical home" of the Jewish people – the Western Wall, where their groups are not welcome (Of course, they are welcome to go there as individuals.)  And doesn't Israel have a right to define itself as a state that will not recognize Reform and Conservative religious ceremonies? How can I blame Hillel when it only follows in the best Israeli traditions of fostering Jewish pluralism?

Of course, Hillel can exclude any Jewish group it wants. Legally, it can draw up guidelines that exclude J Street U and include Zionist Freedom Alliance and Kahane Lives (both good Zionist organizations, by Hillel's standards; none of the guidelines says anything about racism. How many times have I heard orthodox Jews sing at Hillel "La'asot nekamah ba-goyim" (To take vengeance on the goyyim).  Nothing wrong with that according to the  Hillel guidelines)

But how Jewish is it to say to a group of young Jews,"We won't give you funds to buy sodas and popcorn for a meeting about challenging Israel's policies on the West Bank.  It is not just that we don't agree with you; we don't think your position is a legitimate position for Jews at the home for the Jews on campus – although, of course, we will defend to the death your right to that position."

Again, I don't really blame Brandeis Hillel's Student Board, any more than I blame National Hillel. We Jews live in a dark age – where ideological conformity on Israel counts more than observance of commandments, or love of fellow Jews. Perhaps it is best that the JVP students were turned down.Maybe it's time for a truly inclusive Jewish home on campus that makes ahavat Yisrael/love of Israel the litmus test for Jews and not ahavat medinat Yisrael/the love of the State of Israel  – according to Big Brother's determination of what that is.

After all, most Jews on campus don't bother with Hillel anyway. In many schools, it has become a refuge for the orthodox kids. Most Jewish students don't care about doing Jewish. The problem with the Jewish Voice for Peace students is that they do. And Hillel has shut the door on their Jewish identity.

It doesn't have to be this way. Hillel doesn't have to be "pro-Israel." It could be pro-Jewish and leave Israeli politics to the student groups outside Hillel.

 Maybe it's time for a Beit Shammai, which is truly inclusive of Jewish groups doing Jewish.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

When the Interventionists Hear Voices

Charles Krauthammer, like Joan of Arc , hears voices -- only the voices he hears from "around the world, from Europe to America to Libya are calling for U.S. intervention to help bring down Moammar Gadhafi." Yet, also like Joan of Arc, he seems to be the only one hearing those voices. Who, besides the folks who brought us Iraq 2, the liberal-hawk-neocon-usual suspects, has called for unilateral US intervention?

At best, you have John Kerry calling for putting potholes in airport runways. Kerry would not have the US attack Libya's airforce unless it was used for massacring civilians. I haven't heard the Libyan people ask for Uncle Sam to start the bombing campaign. They're not stupid; they saw how the United States destroyed Iraq in order to make it safe for democracy, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and US soldiers, sending the middle class into exile, and then propping up a pro-Western authoritarian ruler that replaced another authoritarian ruler not to its liking. As for Pakistan and Afghanistan – well, I am not one to cite Tom Friedman, but he has a valid point when he writes, "What are we doing spending $110 billion this year supporting corrupt and unpopular regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are almost identical to the governments we're applauding the Arab people for overthrowing?"

Those "voices from around the world" may indeed be calling for intervention, but not for unilateral intervention led by the US and some of its allies, but for international intervention. And last I heard, the US did not go to war against Saddam Hussein in order to stop him from mass killing his own civilians. When that happened we did nothing, and when he couldn't do it again, we went in to get rid of him.

But even if you are a liberal interventionist, when do you decide when to intervene? When civilians are being massacred in a bombing that is called disproportionate by the United Nations? I may be deaf, but I didn't hear any of the neocon hawk voices call for US intervention when Israel killed over 1400 civilians in Gaza, the vast majority of them non-combatants. Where was the call for a no-fly zone then? I didn't hear a peep from Messrs.' Krauthammer and friends at the outset of the Second Intifada, when the IDF killed 275 unarmed protesters, while suffering minimal (yet regrettable) losses. I didn't hear Mr. Krauthammer praise the Mitchell Committee report calling on the Government of Israel to "ensure that the IDF adopt and enforce policies and procedures. encouraging non-lethal responses to unarmed demonstrators, with a view to minimizing casualties and friction between the two communities" and "adopt tactics of crowd-control that minimize the potential for deaths and casualties, including the withdrawal of metal-cored rubber rounds from general use. "

And please don't respond that there is a fundamental difference between the cases; the Arab governments are going after their own citizens, whereas Israel is in a never-ending conflict with another…what? Because if there is a distinction, it is to the disadvantage of Israel. Israel has been oppressing the Palestinians under occupation for over forty years. They have much fewer rights than do the Libyans, Tunisians, Jordanians because they are being ruled not only by an authoritarian regime but one which sees them as aliens who can be dispossessed at will – something that no Arab under the most authoritarian regime feels.

This inconsistency shows that liberal interventionists are highly selective in their moral outrage, and that they suffer from a "Saving-Private-Ryan" complex – they will intervene to save people with whom they identify, people on their side. But if the civilians happen to be on other the side of their tribal divide, they become silent.

I don't hear their voices.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

To BDS or not to BDS? If You’re a Liberal Zionist, Try TBDS

I had the privilege of meeting Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of Jewish Voice for Peace, in Jerusalem a few months ago. At the time I was deeply pessimistic about the future. After months of reading Haaretz's print edition, of seeing a society I once fell in love with sink deeper and deeper into a moral morass, I was amazed to find her upbeat. "Every one here seems so pessimistic," she said. "Things are looking much better in America." What she meant was that that the direct action program that JVP and others have been engaging in was beginning to show results – the solid support for Israel's policies of hafrada and expropriation was not only crumbling, but fundamental questions about Zionism were being asked by the younger generation of those who care about their Judaism, and even about the millions of Jews living in Israel.

That feeling of upbeatness spilled over to the recently concluded J Street Conference. Actually, there were two J Street Conferences: the one for the old guard of liberal Zionists, those who actually are interested to hear what failed negotiators like Dennis Ross and Ron Pundak have to say; and the other for, well, "Beinart's army" – the Jews who would be perfectly happy to see Jewish self-determination fulfilled in an Israeli-Palestinian entity or entities that replace the Jewish ethnocracy founded hastily, and with so much injustice, in 1948. These Jews want to see the end of the regime of ethnic privilege, to quote Asaf Sharon, of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement. (For a sense of that upbeatness, you won't find a better report than Phil Weiss's here. If there were a National Jewish Award for optimism, it should rightly go to Phil and to Mondoweiss.)

The question of questions do we get there? There is no single answer and there is no single way. But we won't get anywhere without building coalitions. So once again, I am writing to my liberal Zionist friends to endorse the Global BDS Solidarity Movement.

I am not asking liberal Zionists to support boycott, divestment, and sanctions in all cases. Let them target the boycotts, sanctions, and divestment, depending upon what they think will work, and what they think is right. Targeted BDS, or TBDS, has already been adopted by many Jewish progressives, including two of the three speakers who opposed BDS at the J-Street Conference session on that topic. But many have been hesitant to call what they advocate "BDS" because they don't want to be tarred with the "deligitimization brush", or because they are liberal Zionists who are concerned about their coalition partners.

When Bernard Avishai finds nothing wrong in boycotting settler's products, why call that TBDS? Well, for better or for worse, the BDS label is now a worldwide trademark, and it is a rallying point for groups opposed to ethnic injustice against Palestinians. At J- Street, the question, "Do you support BDS?" popped up all over the place. And why? Because people want Israel to understand that there are consequences for their actions, that the world won't accept what they do in silence. The Global BDS movement is not merely against the Occupation, but also against ethnic discrimination against Palestinians within Israel, and against those who are barred from returning to their homes. Global BDS is at its core an anti ethnic-discrimination movement. And the common denominator for all the progressive movements on Israel should be just that – opposing ethnic discrimination.

Actually, I would prefer another trademark besides BDS, one that articulates a vision for a decent, if not just society for Palestinians and Israelis. Perhaps that trademark will emerge, perhaps BDS will lead to it. But in the meantime, supporters of TBDS or of BDS should work together, and not against each other, in trying to advance the vision via non-violent platforms like BDS.

Were a colleague to ask me whether he should accept an invitation to go to Israel to speak, I would say to him, "Go to Israel; deliver your speech; but please, go to Hebron, Bil'in, Taybeh, or Sheikh Jarrah. See with your own eyes; become a witness. Return and get active." Some one else may say to the same colleague, "Don't go to Israel; let them understand by your absence your disapproval of their policies." Let my colleague make her decision, but she should also know that both her colleagues are on the same side – and that our disagreement is tactical. (I happen to support the international artistic boycott of Israel proper; at least I do at the time of writing today.)

At the moment, BDS is largely symbolic – it doesn't really hurt Israel's economy to the detriment of Israeli citizens. (Would that other sanctions be so considerate of civilians) But it does say to the world, Israel is not a normal state; its actions are reprehensible, and there will be consequences.

Liberal Zionist Jews who care deeply about Israelis should ask themselves, What do I do when a beloved relative's addiction has caused him to become violent and abusive? Should I talk with him and try to mend his ways? Should I go to the authorities, thereby shaming him and risking our relationship? Or should I just try to forget about it, and hope for the best?

When somebody reports an abusive family member to the police, she is not delegitimizing him or demonizing him. She is protecting the lives of those around him, and of himself.

Its time for an intervention.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Some Thoughts from the J Street Conference

I didn't attend the plenary sessions at the J Street conference in DC; the last people I wanted to hear from were Kadima MKs and Dennis Ross (though I did hear some of the panel discussion afterwards. I never knew that Bernard Avishai was a kohen.) If Jeremy Ben Ami wants to tell the Israel press that J Street is Kadima, that's his business. As for the people in the plenary sessions I would be interested in hearing, I can get that on their website.

No, I came to talk with the old and the young, and not with the middle generation, my generation, on which I have virtually given up hope. I went to a session on the New Left in Israel and was treated to a ½ generational debate between Hagit Ofran of Peace Now's Settlement Watch, and Oded Naaman and Asaf Sharon of Breaking the Silence and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. Hagit supported translating the activists message into a program that more mainstream Israelis could buy into; Oded and Asaf were more interested in education over the long-haul, through doing what their organizations are doing – and for direct action on the ground.

The session on the campus climate for Israel was a big surprise to me. I thought that the International Hillel representative, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, would be there to defend the guidelines that International Hillel drew up to exclude Jewish Voice for Peace, and other organizations to the left of J Street. Instead, she clearly displayed her personal discomfort with the guidelines, as did the other panelists on the dais, with the exception of Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, herself a Hillel Director. She explained that Hillel has to exclude groups whose presence are campus are polarizing, like Jewish groups that are racist or those that support BDS. It was not that she wished to equate racism with adopting BDS as a tactic for furthering justice; she simply felt that Hillel should be a space where Jews can feel comfortable without this polarization. Hillel is not just about Israel, she said; it is about shabbat dinners; social action, etc. Of course, one could counter that if the Hillel community doesn't want polarization, it should simply exclude Israel from its space. If Israel is polarizing the Jewish community on campus, let the Zionist activity go on elsewhere in the campus, and let Hillel focus on matters related to Judaism, learning, social action, etc.

Not one of the questioners in the q & a accepted Rabbi Goldstein's position. After all, this was J Street, and J Street – especially J Street U -- has not endorsed Hillel's "McCarthyite guidelines," to quote one of the questioners. My position was summed up best by Aliyah Donsky, a first year Princeton student who had opposed the Princeton Hillel Director's decision to interfere in the Sabra Humus referendum held earlier this year (The director urged Jewish students to vote down a referendum calling for an alternative to Sabra Humus). Aliyah thought that Hillel was a space where all Jews should be welcome – without having to leave their political opinions and activities at the door.

I missed the BDS panel with Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of JVP, but I urge you to read her statement at Max Blumenthal's blog here.

And one more thing: I had a nice chat with Leonard – Leibel - Fein, that grand old liberal Jew, whose life reads like a history of the "Jews for a just peace" movement. Those of us who are over 50 and still have our memories, would do well to remind the J Street U generation that J Street was not created ex nihilo, and that progressive Jews – and progressive Jewish critics of Israel like Leibel -- have a long and distinguished history. The young people who form "Beinart's army" (yes, J Street U sold a t-shirt with that slogan!) – can still learn a lot from their elders – and from their elders' mistakes, of course.

Note to JBA: It would be a good idea to have a session next year honoring some of those progressive Jewish "lions in winter."