Last week, it became painfully clear to the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) that Hillel is moving farther and farther from being “the foundation of Jewish campus life” that it claims to be.
As an affiliated group of Harvard Hillel, PJA tries to promote dialogue and discussion between Jews and Palestinians on campus and to bring progressive voices on the Israel-Palestine conflict to the Hillel community. As such, we planned an event for this Thursday, “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation,” to feature two Jewish pro-peace activists speaking about their work in non-violent anti-occupation organizing.
After originally approving the event, the executive director of Harvard Hillel, Jonah Steinberg, told us that he had been pressured by groups including the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Hillel International to forbid us from hosting our event within Harvard Hillel. The rationale? We are co-sponsoring the event with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), a student group that supports the 2005 call for an international boycott of, divestment from, and sanction (BDS) of Israel. They believe this is a means of pressuring it to end its occupation and halt discrimination against Palestinians. According to Hillel International’s Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities, Hillels may not host, affiliate with, or invite speakers from any groups that “as a matter of policy or practice” support BDS. In fact, the guidelines also forbid Hillels from partnering with those who do any of the following: “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders,” “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel,” or “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” We believe these are vague guidelines that could be applied to many Jewish and Palestinian pro-peace groups.
The “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” event, since relocated to another building, will go ahead–and will still be sponsored by both PJA and PSC. Yet removing this event from Hillel sends the message that the organized Jewish community on campus rejects cooperation with Palestinian groups. Too often, Palestinian voices are silenced from discussions about their own right to self-determination. Hillel International’s policy perpetuates this, ensuring that most on-campus Palestine groups, like Students for Justice in Palestine, can never co-sponsor with or even walk into Hillel.
We are disturbed that a conversation about non-violent organizing for peace could not happen in Hillel, nominally a campus center for Jewish life and discussion about Israel. If it truly wishes to allow students to engage critically with American and Israeli politics, Hillel International should have no policy on the political affiliation of groups, organizations, and speakers that it partners with, houses, and hosts.
As the pro-peace movement evolves, Hillel International’s narrow political restrictions are increasingly unrepresentative of the opinions of the wider American Jewish community. For example, avowed Zionist Peter Beinart advocates for a boycott of products produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a means of protest against Israel’s expansionism, for he argues that such expansionism both infringes on the rights and future statehood of Palestinians and endangers Israel’s own long-term security. Hillel’s policies led Brandeis’s Hillel to reject the appeal for membership of the Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, because JVP advocates for divestment from companies that profit from the occupation.
On Monday, PJA sent an open letter to the Harvard Hillel community in which we noted that “we feel less welcome and included in a community that sets a political litmus test to determine which Jewish students and groups will be allowed in.” Casting all calls for boycott as essentially “anti-Semitic” and unilaterally removing them from conversation actually excludes Jewish as well as Palestinian voices from the Hillel community, and can only hamper efforts to achieve peace in Israel and Palestine.
In the coming weeks, we will be joining with pro-peace students at Hillels across the country to ask Hillel International to change its policy so that Hillel can truly be a campus center of dialogue about Israel and Palestine. No matter what our personal political views are, we know that true peace can only be achieved through open discussion, cooperation, and inclusion. Excluding Palestinian voices and pro-peace Jewish voices from Jewish campus centers is not a move towards peace. Learning from others may be.
Harvard students Emily Unger and Rachel Sandalow-Ash also served as co-authors for this op-ed.