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?

College Organizing and the BDS Controversy

Originally published in The Daily Beast on February 6, 2013.

In thinking through the most recent BDS controversy now unfolding at Brooklyn College—where the political science department is co-sponsoring a panel in support of a controversial movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies—it is helpful to keep in mind some of the basic rules of college organizing. Students understand these intuitively, but adults often confuse them. The most important one, obviously, is that free food is the best recruiting tool there is to bring students to events.

But beyond food, students know that co-sponsorship does not equal endorsement. It has to be that way. If a student group contacts your organization saying they have a speaker they want to bring to campus and would like your co-sponsorship, how can you be sure their speaker will say 100 percent things your organization agrees with? You can’t. Thus it’s implicitly understood that you will co-sponsor on principle, because you believe this is the type of discussion or event that should be happening at your school. After the event, you have the prerogative of holding whatever debrief or critical analysis your group sees fit. You might also make a point to open the event with the acknowledgement that there are multiple perspectives on an issue. But you all agree that sharing views, whether or not they are your own, is a worthy thing to do in an academic setting. And you understand that working collaboratively on events is often the only way to afford any programming at all.

Last semester, a student group at Johns Hopkins (where I’m currently an undergraduate) organized an event called “Living Under Drones at JHU,” which was created to raise awareness about drone warfare and to start a public discussion about the role the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab plays in drone development. At the event, a petition was circulated to demand Hopkins halt drone research until more information is brought into the public forum. The Johns Hopkins Political Science department proudly co-sponsored this event because they support students organizing events like these. Everyone understood that that does not mean the Political Science department endorses anti-drone activity, or the petition itself, and that even if they did, they would not be able to go on record about it. I thought it was great that the school provided institutional support to student efforts, legitimizing the students’ drive to have conversation, while not endorsing any specific views.

A third rule of college organizing is that controversy sells. If BDS opponents think that a public uproar against it will make students uninterested in the material, then they should probably consider enrolling in Intro to Psychology. When the University President and Political Science professors support the event and government officials and activists oppose it, who do they think students will trust more? To be sure, the Brooklyn College Political Science department should make clear that there are multiple views on this issue and that they fully support events that present alternative perspectives.

I am against BDS, but I’ve reached this position through many long, difficult conversations trying to wrap my head around what it is about it that I agree and disagree with. I’m grateful that J Street U, the student wing of the liberal pro-Israel group, gave me the opportunities to hold those discussions, and even exposed me to speakers who do support it in order to challenge me. The BDS movement exists, it is influential, and it is growing. Trying to shove the issue under the rug does not make the ideas disappear. The only reason that I feel comfortable opposing BDS is that I’ve been given the honest chance to research, discuss and figure out what I really think about it.

Many of us grew up in American public schools where boycotts are taught as quintessential, proud staples of our country’s history. We’re raised to venerate the bus boycotts of the Civil Rights movement. We applaud labor boycotts as a non-violent means for workers to protest fairer conditions. We understand that the international boycott played a major role in helping to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.

My point is, if Jewish community leaders think it is self-evident that boycotts are a poor tactic for opposing occupation, they’re unfortunately mistaken. For many students, that question is confusing. So when Hillels across the country say they refuse to associate with BDS speakers or to even hold discussions about BDS because they’re “drawing a red line,” who do you then think will ultimately be left to influence students’ perspectives on BDS? Chances are it won’t be the pro-Israel students who didn’t come to the table. And that’s a real missed opportunity on the pro-Israel community’s part.

The real way to battle bad ideas is with better ideas. Hillels should feel confident in the merits of their arguments against BDS. Especially at college, when students are continually confronted with perspectives of the world that challenge, confuse and contradict what we think, we really need individuals who support us in making sense of it all, not those who dismiss or reject ideas from the outset.

Birthright’s Triumphs and Flaws

Op-ed published originally in JTA.
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WYNNEWOOD, Pa. (JTA) – After being privileged last year to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip with 40 students from Johns Hopkins University, last month I traveled with 12 other student leaders to Israel and the West Bank with J Street U. Since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on these two very different experiences.

Birthright helped to provide a stronger connection to my Jewish identity. After the trip, I began to take more Jewish studies courses and engage more with the campus Hillel. I took an internship with Hillel’s Peer Network Engagement Internship program and started organizing my own events.

I realize, though, that the Birthright model is not designed to instill a strong sense of responsibility in Diaspora Jews toward Israel. After all, it is rather easy not to feel responsible for issues that no one asks you to think about. Rather, the program focuses more upon fostering a general sense of connection. This dynamic often leaves students unable or uninterested in being the “ambassadors” that Birthright so often asks us to be back home.

Birthright prides itself on being apolitical, and indeed on the trip I learned little of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard arguments for why Birthright does not venture into exploring the conflict, and to an extent I understand why. The trip is targeting a broad-based group of Jewish people and there’s only so much that can be accomplished in 10 days.

But reflecting further, I can’t help but find it unsettling that Birthright takes tens of thousands of young, uninformed Jews to Israel without providing any real briefing or debriefing on pressing Israeli societal issues while all the while telling us to go home and “tell the truth about Israel” and “love Israel and be a proud Jew.”

We do fall in love with the land, with the Mediterranean Sea, with the food and with the Israelis we meet. We have energizing hikes and a lot of fun. Yet Birthright does not prepare us to engage with legitimate and difficult questions back at our college campuses and in our communities.

A few weeks after returning home from Birthright, I was telling some people about my exciting trip. A peer asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have been living on the land for generations that face burdensome restrictions of movement.

I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.

“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only wasn’t I able to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.

Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about with regards to “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew so little of “the truth” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked me and thousands of other participants at Birthright’s Mega Event to relay back on campus.

In contrast, while at times on the J Street U trip I felt uncomfortable by the Israel I saw, I left feeling deeply committed to its future. I saw Israel not simply as a place to which I wanted to return but as a story of which I wanted to be a part.

On the J Street U trip we met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, an Israeli scholar specializing in deligitimization, leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of Jews of the Diaspora. At the end of it all, we emerged exhausted, intellectually humbled and more motivated to work to help Israel.

J Street U refused to present Israel as what Ir-Amim founder Danny Seidemann called a “Jewish Disneyland.” And I’m grateful for that. I still love Israel, but confronting the challenging parts of the country compelled me to have a much deeper sense of responsibility.

If those same students from last year ask me questions now about Palestinian freedom of movement or settlement expansion, I’m not sure I would necessarily have all the answers. But I am positioned in a place where I am ready to seriously engage and grapple with the ideas, concerns, questions and consequences of the conflict. I am working to create a situation in which Palestinians, Israelis and I can all move more freely in peace and security, with self-determination for both peoples.

I am not suggesting that Birthright start distributing talking points on the conflict during their trips. But I am recommending that Birthright provide far greater opportunities for participants to struggle and engage with Israel’s real issues. Do not underestimate us. Then maybe we all can come home better equipped to be responsible ambassadors.