Divisions in the US Jewish community surface at Brandeis

March 10, 2011
Richard Kuper

magneszionistJeremiah Haber, 8-9 March 2011

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

A posting in four parts – just keep scrolling down.

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 Hillel. Unless 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.

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.

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 abandon its codepink tactics when speakers they don’t like come to campus. They should 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 RejectedHere 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.

© Copyright JFJFP 2017