The Conspiracy

Hillel International, Don’t Define “Pro-Israel” For Us

When I was a student at Wesleyan University, the Jewish community was my home. It was a safe space to question, to deepen and nuance my connection to Israel/Palestine, and to learn to articulate my own beliefs about Judaism through hearing a variety of others’. Essentially, it was a place where discomfort was valued as a key tenet to understanding.

“It was a place where discomfort was valued as a key tenet to understanding.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

Last week, I heard the news that Hinenu, Hillel International’s Israel Education and Engagement department, will partner with The David Project, an Israel advocacy organization intent on “building diverse pro-Israel support on campus.”

Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International, lauded this initiative that “complements Hillel’s vision of broadening the network of support for Israel throughout the campus.” But this collaboration is deeply troubling. It sends the message to students that there is only one way to practice Judaism, one way to support Israel, and one way to publicly demonstrate those identities.

Now that I’ve graduated and left the intentional, thoughtful community I helped lead at Wesleyan these past four years, I have been thinking deeply about the term “pro-Israel.” What does it actually mean? For Eric Fingerhut, Israel’s Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, and The David Project’s Executive Director Philip Brodsky, the term “pro-Israel” means unabashed support for a nation with which many students have a complicated, sometimes messy, but often meaningful relationship.

I believe that these Jewish leaders, and more importantly, Jewish college students, should dig into the ambiguous term “pro-Israel” and imbue it with new meaning. Identifying as “pro-Israel” could mean, for some, supporting and appreciating their diaspora Jewish communities. It could mean thoughtfully critiquing Israel’s leaders, Occupation, and often oppressive tactics to strive for Israel’s betterment. It could mean advocating for, and working toward, a shared society in which both Israelis and Palestinians are treated fairly and are given equal opportunities.

Hillel International’s partnership with The David Project signals to young American Jews that key Jewish values like open dialogue and diversity of thought are second to Israel advocacy. This collaboration encourages a fear of difference and elevates a singular narrative about what Zionism should look like.

After Charlottesville, many of my Jewish friends are, for the first time in their lives, at times fearful for their safety. The Trump administration has incited violence, bigotry, and white supremacy. And this escalation (or at least, increased media attention) has allowed my peers and me to better understand the fear and oppression other marginalized groups face every day.

Now is the time for Hillel International to open its arms to students, regardless of religious, political, or cultural affiliation – not to shut out Jews who could use a Jewish space for processing, reflection, and hopefully, activism and action.

At Wesleyan, I was lucky to have a Jewish home that allowed for these possibilities, but I recognize that many other campuses do not afford their students the same vital opportunities. In a few weeks, when I start as a post-baccalaureate premedical student at a new university, I wonder if I will feel supported in my questioning or if my questions will be squelched by my campus Jewish community.

So, Mr. Fingerhut, retract this partnership with The David Project. Begin to own Hillel’s mission of “[creating] an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest… and facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and inclusive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.” Your actions contradict your goals. You are not giving students the opportunity for discourse and dialogue by promoting an exclusive initiative as part of Hillel’s umbrella organization. Give students the intellectual freedom to come to their own conclusions about Israel/Palestine, their Judaism, and their connection to both as American Jews. Let us give American Jewish students the opportunity to experience and appreciate difference – of all kinds – in the midst of this unsettling, dystopic political climate.

Sonya Levine is a recent graduate from Wesleyan University.

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