Should Adelson, Bennett and Lieberman be welcome at Hillel?

Originally published in Haaretz on January 1, 2014.
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Last week, the Swarthmore Hillel student board voted to reject Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, allowing them to work with students of all political perspectives. Hillel President Eric Fingerhut responded by taking the once suggested guidelines and declaring them mandatory practice. The guidelines lay out that, “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Fingerhut told the JTA that “under no circumstances” will Hillel host “anti-Zionists” who reject Israel’s Jewish character, as they undermine Hillel’s commitment to Israel as a Jewish homeland.

But what of those who impugn Israel’s democratic character?

In a follow-up interview, Fingerhut made clear that the guidelines will be “applied across the political spectrum.” If Hillel International is now enforcing the Israel guidelines, then we need to know how they will be applied for those on the hard right who challenge Israel’s democratic commitments.

Would a prominent member of Knesset, like Naftali Bennett, who unflinchingly opposes a two-state solution, be barred from the Hillel building? Would we ban Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, who has said that when push comes to shove, Jewish and Zionist values should trump democratic ones? When those on the left question Israel’s dual Jewish and democratic commitments by calling for one-state, Hillel draws the line. But will it do so for the right-wing one-staters in the Israeli cabinet?

The Haredi Jewish community poses another critical question. A sizable number of Haredi Jews are avowed non- or anti-Zionists. Of course not all are antagonistic towards the state of Israel, but it is crucial to know if Hillel will bar Haredi Jews who reject a modern state of Israel from the communal conversation. Can we write off the political commitments of the Haredi community, the fastest-growing segment of the Jewish community?

Hillel International endorses a two-state solution, as demonstrated by the strong consensus in our community that two-states is the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and democratic state in the future. If one calls for a one-state solution, can they still be in the tent?

Sheldon Adelson, a prominent funder of the program which provides Israel Fellows to 67 campus Hilllels across the country (not to mention one of the biggest funders of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program) has openly voiced his deep disdain for a two-state solution. If he believes in a one-state scenario in which a minority of Jews control a majority of Arabs, can he be welcome at Hillel? It certainly doesn’t seem like it under the current guidelines.

Unfortunately, there are also those who take active political steps to undermine Israel’s democracy. Members of the Jewish Home political party, now a part of the ruling coalition, called for a number of Arab parties to be banned from Parliamentary elections in 2009. Will the Jewish Home party be added to the list of banned groups with which Hillel refuses to co-sponsor?

If this is beginning to sound a bit crazy to you, it’s because it should. Even though they pose significant challenges to the Israel’s democratic commitments, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman should not be banned from Hillel. And though I find Sheldon Adelson’s politics reprehensible, I wouldn’t deny him the right to speak. Because I know my community is best served by a rigorous and deeply challenging conversation about Israel. I know that we cannot create a future generation of thoughtful, compassionate, intellectual Jewish leaders by barring uncomfortable voices. And those uncomfortable voices, especially on this issue, won’t go away by ignoring them.

Despite Fingerhut’s insistence that the overall discontent with the Israel conversation at Swarthmore is a mere “aberration,” this is not the case. As polls demonstrate time and again, young Jews want to see an end to the occupation through two-states. We’ll need a broad conversation to lead us there: a discussion that includes voices from across the political spectrum. As a pro-Israel and pro-peace student, I do not agree with anti-Zionists, but I still want to hear their perspectives. But I know I need to engage with everyone and take action with those who share my political values.

I take Eric Fingerhut at face value that from now on, speakers who question Israel’s democratic commitments will be as restricted as those who question Israel’s Jewish character. And so all invested in this discussion need to know: are Bennett, Lieberman, and Adelson welcome in the Hillel building?

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‘Apolitical’ Israel Fairs? No Such thing

Below is an an op-ed I had published in New Voices Magazine about the troubling trend that exists on many college campuses in America when celebrating or discussing Israel. Full article can be read here: http://www.newvoices.org/opinion?id=0160

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Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Image

Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Two weeks ago we celebrated Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s birthday. It’s an exciting time of year for those of us who care and advocate for the state of Israel. Celebrations commemorating Israel’s Independence Day happened on college campuses all over the country. And yet I observed two troubling trends surrounding many of these events that do injustice to Israel, to pro-Israel advocacy, and to the intelligence of college students.

Many of these fairs are framed as “cultural events” – an effort to create an apolitical space for the discussion of Israel. This goal is impossible. Whether the organizers realize it or not, Israeli society and the American Jewish conception of it is so heavily politicized that it is incredibly difficult to have, do or say anything about Israel that is totally apolitical. As a result, the organizers of these events end up presenting political opinions disguised as facts.

In January I read a powerful op-ed by Haaretz journalist Merav Michaeli. She wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘not political.’ Everything is political. Economics, culture, the media, fashion, consumerism – they are all political. The statement ‘I am not political’ is in itself political. It is a politics that accepts the existing order and reinforces it. It is the politics of not taking responsibility.”

Even though she was talking about Israeli citizens, her sentiments ring true for American Jews as well.

At Johns Hopkins University we recently held our annual Israel Fair, a large campus-wide event. The event was advertised as a day to “learn about the history of Israel and all the amazing accomplishments that have been achieved over the past 64 years.” The event was fun. The falafel tasted delicious. The music was happy and familiar. And yet, something about the event was disconcerting.

I am the leader of our chapter of J Street U – the college arm of J Street, the American pro-Israel pro-peace group. As a co-sponsor of the event, we were told explicitly that this event was intended to be apolitical. Meaning, in effect, that there should be no discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the peace process in general. The goal of the organizers was to avoid creating an environment that could potentially elicit “anti-Israel sentiment.”

This type of event happens at campuses all across the country.

At the University of Michigan every year they have Israel Birthday Bash where the mainstream pro-Israel group sets up a big moon-bounce in the center of campus and distributes falafel and cake – along with facts about Israel’s achievements and history. Recently at the University of Maryland they celebrated Israel Fest, pitched as “a celebration of Israeli culture with free food, camel rides, inflatable activities, face painting, and more!”

There is nothing wrong with celebrating Israel’s successes, but doing so is only one part of the broader picture of how we should engage with Israel, and the way these successes are presented inevitably carries with it political implications.

All too often, events that are framed as “cultural” partner with national organizations that have explicit political agendas. I watched as pamphlets were distributed at our Israel Fair that reported on Israel’s human rights record, Israeli LGBT tolerance and Arab voting rights. Maps of Israel were disseminated. Fact sheets were passed out about the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s humanitarian aid to other countries. I do not oppose these topics being discussed, however I reject the claim that these are somehow “not political.” They are.

One popular handout used on college campuses, including mine, is the StandWithUs “Pocket Facts” booklet.  Some “facts” from this booklet:

  • “Israelis resettled lands their families had owned in the West Bank, where Jews had lived for millennia until the 1948 War when they were expelled.”
  • “Iranian leaders are racing to build nuclear weapons.”

When the Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, says that Iran is likely not building a weapon, it is not a fact to say Iran is “racing to build nuclear weapons.” It might be a mainstream opinion, but it is certainly not a settled fact. When the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly, in accordance with the law, that numerous settlements in the West Bank are built on Palestinian land, or land with contested ownership because it was not farmed by anyone for a certain number of years, it is not a fact to say that settlements are categorically built on land once owned by Jews, as implied by the StandWithUs literature. Let us be intellectually honest. These statements are opinions.

Israel fairs are great. We should have them. But they should also directly address the political situation Israel faces. And if they opt not to, we must acknowledge that these fairs are still political. Even when we engage in discussions about Israel’s technological achievements or their treatment of the LGBT community, we must be open about the political nature of these things. Politics does not have to be a dirty word.

More importantly, we’re not doing Israel any good by avoiding the peace process. We should be talking about the two-state solution, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements, and rocket attacks. All of these are crucial elements in envisioning and understanding Israel and its future. We should embrace the complexity, and give people actual answers instead of pretending that these issues don’t exist. This is how we can do justice to Israel, get more people involved in pro-Israel activism and show students that we trust them to be smart people.

Pro-Israel advocates cannot shield college students from the conflict. Students will read about it in newspapers. They will watch documentaries they find on Netflix. It is unavoidable. But let’s be proactive and embrace the challenges head on, precisely at a campus-wide event created to learn about Israel. We can provide people with the opportunity to develop a real, deep relationship with Israel, not just one that’s based on a universal love of falafel.