If Jewish Organizations Want to Secure the Jewish Future, They Need to Stop Alienating It

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Hannah Silverfine’s experience with a Jewish education that taught only a very narrow definition of “pro Israel” is not only a problem in the Reform Movement.  I agree that a good argument can be made for teaching children why support of Israel is important first, then leave the messy stuff for when they’re old enough to handle it. The only problem is that in the Jewish world today, no one seems to be old enough.  The recent controversies surrounding J Street and J Street U serve as cases in point.

On April 30, in spite of receiving support from such fringe liberal groups as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Anti-Defamation League, J Street was denied entry into the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP) by a 22-17 vote. As J.J. Goldberg reported in the Forward, the small right-wing and Orthodox groups that make up 20% of the electorate are largely responsible.

CoP seems to be a good acronym for this organization, as its goal seems to be policing what is and is not acceptable in the “official” Jewish community or in “official” Jewish communal discourse.

This purpose becomes problematic when, as many, including Reform Movement president Rabbi Rick Jacobs have pointed out, as an organization with branches in every major Jewish population center in the country, a campus arm that’s gaining in popularity by the day, and an annual Conference that this year drew Israeli politicians from all sides and featured the Vice-President of the United States as its keynote speaker makes clear, J Street actually represents the views of quite a lot of American Jews (or at least as many as Emunah Women).

When the official representative body of American Jewry chooses not to include one of the most popular and most powerful voices in American Jewry (while including at least one organization, AIPAC, that does not officially consider itself Jewish. Really.) it loses all claim to its mission.

Recent events at Boston University serve as a microcosm of this madness as much as an apt metaphor for the state of Israel dialogue in much of the organized Jewish world.

Shortly before the CoP vote, Hillel at BU voted to reject BU’s J Street U chapter’s bid to come under its auspices, in spite of Hillel officials telling the New York Times that J Street U is “more than welcome” at Hillel in December in the wake of the Swarthmore affair, and J Street U finding a welcome home at many Hillels across the country. The reason BU Hillel gave for its decision is that they wish “to keep Hillel a politics-free community.”

And this is where we need to get angry.

As a political entity, any and all talk about Israel is, by definition, political. And even if this weren’t so, as BU student Solomon Tarlin points out in his fantastic editorial in the Times of Israel, in its mission statement, BU Hillel explicitly states that it represents ”the University’s Jewish students in a pro-Israel manner with social, cultural, and political programs and events” (emphasis mine). If anyone can tell me how you can be “pro-Israel” in your “political programs and events” while simultaneously being “a politics-free community,” I have several difficult passages in the Gemara I would like you to solve for me next.

Now here’s where it gets really ridiculous—BU’s Hillel also happens to be where the “Safe Hillel” movement started. Formed as a reaction against Open Hillel, Safe Hillel’s goal is to ensure that all views expressed at Hillel conform to one narrow, right-wing definition of “pro-Israel”; they originally even hoped to establish a “tip-line” concerned students could call to inform Hillel professionals when they caught fellow students having discussions on Israel in a Hillel that went against their orthodoxy. So BU Hillel is apolitical indeed.

Were Hillel’s Israel Guidelines applied fairly, whoever issued the “politics-free community” statement would be barred from ever speaking at a Hillel because they clearly have a double-standard on Israel.

What happened at BU is happening everywhere—The Jewish Week reported that some right-wing groups (albeit mostly on the fringe) are considering pulling out of New York’s annual Israel Parade because such organizations as the New Israel Fund, B’Tselem, and Partners for Progressive Israel will be marching in it as well. And let’s not forget how many Jewish organizations just spent a lot of time blasting Secretary Kerry for something he never said and virtually none reflecting on what it means that such an expert on the situation just warned us that under the current situation, Israel risks one day potentially becoming an apartheid state.

As Jewish educator and Tikkun blogger David Harris-Gershon told New Voices in January, the gag-order surrounding serious discussion of Israel is nearly unprecedented in our history. This brings me back to  the question I started with: When are Jews old enough to understand nuance? We used to begin teaching our children Mishna at 10, then Gemara at 15. These complicated texts question the reader’s (nearly) every assumption and pull no punches. Judaism is a religion of debate and nuance, and as such, the views espoused by Hannah Silverfine, Solomon Tarlin, and former New Voices writer Rachel Cohen in the Forward, are actually far more in line with Jewish tradition than bodies that claim to be a pluralistic centers for Jews (be they the CoP or BU Hillel) while excluding a plurality of them. The irony that so many Jewish organizations are responsible for actually turning countless young Jews away from a deeper engagement with their heritage is even more bitter than the neon purple horseradish on mucusy gefilte fish that’s supposed to make you want to stay for dinner after services. If you’re reading this on New Voices, it should come as no surprise to you that as usual, it’s the Jewish youth who are bringing the nuance and depth back into the communal conversation, and it’s the established voices that need to grow up.

On one foot: Leaders of Jewish organizations—if you really want to secure the Jewish future, stop turning so much of it away with small-minded rhetoric.

 

Derek M. Kwait graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and is editor in chief of New Voices.

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