The Conspiracy

Why Palestinian Advocacy Groups Don’t Partner With Hillel

Israeli bulldozer. | CC via Wikimedia Commons

In his post on New Voices last week, Tomer Kornfeld recounts how he worked with his campus Hillel to set up “a debate, or ‘mock peace talk’ with Students for Justice in Palestine.” But “instead of reciprocating our goodwill, sitting down with us and working things out, S.J.P. sent out an email to club members announcing that they will host a speaker who will explain to them why ‘SJP refuses to cooperate with Zionist groups, like Hillel.’” Tomer feels frustrated about the rejection of his offer, and asks for “suggestions for how to get students on both sides of the divide to work together for peace.” As a Jewish Israeli alumnus of S.J.P. at UC Berkeley, I would like to take this opportunity to respond and to explain why S.J.P.’s are likely to reject such seemingly benign suggestions, and what people like Tomer can do if they are genuinely interested in peace.

Tomer defines himself as “pro-Palestinian” (as well as “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace”). Our definition is very different. At its first national conference in 2010,  S.J.P. endorsed the following three points of unity:

1. Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

For us, to be pro-Palestinian means actively working to advance those rights for all parts of the Palestinian people: those living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza (Point One), Palestinian citizens of Israel (Point Two), and Palestinians in the diaspora, including many students on American campuses who are often barred  from even entering the country to visit their relatives – and certainly from living in it (Point Three). We see these goals as achievable and as a condition for peace, because peace (to quote the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) is not merely the absence of tension – it is the presence of justice.

What is the position of Hillel and its student groups in relation to these three goals? From AIPAC to J Street, they actively oppose them. S.J.P.’s across the U.S. try to end their universities’ investments in international corporations that violate human rights in the West Bank and Gaza. Whenever this happens, Hillel groups go out of their way to maintain current investments in these corporations, which oppress the communities of Palestinian S.J.P. members – for instance, by profiting from the demolition of Palestinian homes. Instead of joining the international campaigns to stop the displacement of Bedouin citizens of Israel, many Hillel groups spread false propaganda suggesting that Arabs in Israel enjoy full equality. Successive Israeli governments ban Palestinians born in Palestine, as well as their descendants, from returning to where their families lived for generations. Hillel groups work with these governments to organize Birthright trips that offer more opportunities for Jewish-American students to visit or relocate to Israel than to those born there. This policy is causing tremendous anguish to Palestinian-American students.

The current Israeli government wants to have its cake and eat it: to accelerate the construction of illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian lands, while calling for the continuation of endless peace talks. Netanyahu’s aim is transparent: peace talks deflect pressure on Israel to change its policies.

Hillel, a member of the Israel on Campus coalition, seems inspired by the same tactic: insist on robbing Palestinians of their rights, then call for campus “peace talks.” Probably unintentionally, this tactic is echoed in the suggestion Tomer makes in his post: instead of raising awareness about the systematic segregation and inequality between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, on both sides of the Green Line, S.J.P.’s need to stop organizing Israeli Apartheid Weeks and replace them with more vaguely named “peace weeks.”

This tactic of presenting complicity with oppression as something natural and normal that we can all agree on, is what we refer to as “normalization.”  The problem is not with people’s identities (S.J.P. chapters are highly diverse, and include many American and Israeli Jews), but with their behavior: if you insist on actively denying Palestinians their basic rights, we see no need to co-produce a feel-good public event with you. Individual S.J.P. members can (and do) engage whomever they want, but public events with Hillel are unlikely to happen until it changes its current policies.

Tomer, you end your post asking for suggestions for how to advance peace on campus. I can tell you from my experience that as an Israeli Jew, it was hard for me to grapple with these issues, especially the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland. But once I did, I was warmly accepted by my fellow Palestinian and non-Palestinian students in S.J.P. Your call to “spread a message of peace, love, and co-existence” rings completely hollow as long as you ally yourself with anti-Palestinian organizations. Speak up for the rights of your fellow students, oppose the affiliation of Hillel with these oppressive policies, and you will see campus climate improve dramatically. That is the real model for peace.

Tom Pessah is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley.

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