Last week, I wrote about how, due to my writing on the issue of boycotts and Israel, I was asked by a prominent Jewish organization (Hillel) to publish a favorable political statement before being allowed into its building to speak about my book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?
Despite my discomfort with such a problematic request, I published it. For I thought, If there are places where talking about reconciliation and understanding might be meaningful and important, this is one of them.
The statement I made affirmed my desire, as a progressive Zionist, for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while acknowledging the legitimacy of economic sanctions against Israel as a nonviolent form of opposition. I made this statement, even though its focus has little to do with the focus of my book.
Despite this, and our prior agreement regarding the statement, I’ve come to learn that I have been barred from speaking. And so, this is now my story – a story tragically being replicated far too often today in America as Jewish institutions decide not just what may, and may not, be discussed with regard to Israel, but who may discuss such issues as well.
You May Not Speak Here
I recently had the honor being invited by the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara to be a keynote speaker at its annual, signature event this spring. The event is housed by Santa Barbara Hillel, a cultural home for a diverse range of UCSB students.
It was here that I was going to tell the narrative of my reconciliation with a Palestinian family. However, when the Hillel executive director, Rabbi Evan Goodman, found a political post of mine in which I attempted to argue that boycotts and sanctions against Israel are legitimate forms of nonviolent protest – and which understandably was misunderstood as my joining the BDS movement – I was no longer welcome.
I wished to speak with Rabbi Goodman, to reach out and discuss personally this issue of a Jewish educator and progressive Zionist, such as myself, being barred from speaking at Hillel. Unfortunately, the two of us were never able to have a direct conversation. Though it was relayed to me that Rabbi Goodman had a request:
Publish a favorable political statement clarifying your position on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, and we will allow you to speak at UCSB Hillel.
As a Jewish educator who teaches elementary- and middle-school students biblical and Rabbinic texts, as well as an author who has been speaking about my book at Jewish community centers and synagogues across the country, I found UCSB’s pre-condition perplexing.
More than that, though, I was deeply troubled by the request’s implications, and how it related to a controversy brewing within the American Jewish community currently over Jews being barred by Hillel for their political beliefs. (More on that below.)
Despite this, I decided to make the statement, encouraged by Rabbi Goodman’s openness, and understanding his need to follow Hillel International’s guidelines, which direct Hillel centers across North America (and beyond) to forbid Jews from speaking who “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”
And so I made my statement, part of which appears below:
I am a progressive Zionist who believes firmly in the idea that Israel should be a Jewish, democratic state, despite the inherent challenges and contradictions such an existence presents. I am also one who fully supports a two-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which each side is able to live within defined, secure borders.
I believe that economic sanctions, such as boycotts, are legitimate forms of nonviolent protest, in contrast to, say, violence or vandalism. I do not, however, subscribe to the BDS movement’s implicit vision of a single, bi-national state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It was my assumption that, upon making this requested statement, I would be allowed into Hillel to speak. And I was uplifted by the prospect of being able to engage personally with members of the Santa Barbara community, despite our political differences. To have honest, respectful dialogue about issues of importance.
Unfortunately, it was just decided by the UCSB Hillel leadership that I should be barred from speaking. Why? I cannot say for sure, since I have not had the opportunity to speak directly with Rabbi Goodman, or anyone else, at UCSB Hillel. Perhaps it’s because UCSB Hillel’s leadership felt constrained by Hillel International’s guidelines. Perhaps it’s because the post I published at Rabbi Goodman’s request was found to be offensive by members of the community. (I wrote a direct letter to Rabbi Goodman and members of the community, apologizing profusely for any pain my post might have caused, which was not my intent. I never heard back from anyone.)
The good news is that, while I won’t be joining the Santa Barbara community for a meaningful discussion, I have been contacted by other Hillel centers which would like to host me.
The bad news is that UCSB Hillel’s decision is not an isolated incident. Rather, it’s part of a larger controversy in which some Jewish institutions, instead of fostering open debates on difficult, critical issues, are censoring dialogue on Israel by essentially deciding who is, and is not, a sanctioned member of the Jewish community.
The Struggle to Foster ‘Open’ Dialogue at Hillel
Hillel International is an enormous Jewish institution – the umbrella organization for Hillel centers on college campuses across North America (and beyond). And while it advertises itself as being a pluralistic home for diverse political views on Israel, it has created guidelines which exclude anyone who supports BDS or who might “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.”
Meaning: anyone who harshly critiques Israel’s geo-political policies – or does so without similarly critiquing all other nations worthy of rebuke – can be forbidden from speaking.
This means some prominent progressive Zionists – those, like myself, who share Hillel’s vision of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” – have been blacklisted. Peter Beinart comes to mind. So too does Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli army veterans who speak about the military’s abuses and their effect on Israeli society.
This blacklisting held true for all Hillel chapters until a month ago, when something important happened: Swarthmore Hillel became the first local center to defy Hillel International’s guidelines, declaring itself as an “open” Hillel willing to host anyone for debate or dialogue, regardless of their political views.
Its statement made clear that it no longer wanted to censor who could and could not speak within its walls, thus constraining the open dialogue on Israel its students wished to have.
This declaration has made waves in the American Jewish community, sparking a renewed discussion about how the American Jewish community can solve some of its most pressing problems if, out of an existential fear for Israel’s survival, we exclude engaged and invested members of the community due to their political beliefs.
I Wish This Were Satire
The historian Gershom Gorenberg said it best when, with regard to this current dynamic within the American Jewish community, he quipped:
The American fight about what you can’t say about Israel, and where you can’t say it, will always sound to an Israeli as if Lewis Carroll scripted it.
He is right: there are moments in which this debate about, well, what can be debated within the U.S. Jewish community seems like farce. And it might be funny if the stakes weren’t so high.
There have been times, when the stakes were no less high, in which Jews throughout history have been willing to fully debate issues of immense importance. So much so that the art of debating, of making distinctions and recognizing nuance, have became a foundational part of our collective intellectual, cultural and religious identities. It is a part of who we are, as a people.
In addressing this, I wrote:
I don’t pretend to possess all the answers, nor all the ‘correct’ views. More importantly, I believe that the world is complex, and that it can only be viewed fully by recognizing nuances and making distinctions. This is a view the Rabbis of the Talmud shared – Rabbis who refined the art of recognizing nuances and making distinctions as a matter of legal discourse. In truth, this art of arguing – of parsing complex legal issues in order to solve problems – is the intellectual lineage from which we as Jews come.
Unfortunately, when it comes to political discourse on Israel, the American Jewish community has become partially paralyzed by our collective inability to recognize nuances and distinctions – to engage fully in open debates and dialogues.
But we ignore nuance at our own peril. Or rather, Jewish institutions today do so at their own peril. For we, as a people, have always debated those issues of critical importance, be they how to properly scour a pan to make it kosher (700 CE) or where to build the future Jewish state (1897).
If we are going to solve some of our most pressing and difficult issues as a people, we must continue to debate them, openly, honestly and respectfully.
The risks associated with doing otherwise are too great to consider.
(Note: parts of this piece appeared in a previous post.)
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.