Recently, due to my writing on the issue of boycotts and Israel, I was asked by a prominent Jewish organization to make a public, 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?
This request, as well as its troubling implications, are part of a sudden controversy which has arisen in the American Jewish community over what can, and cannot, be discussed regarding Israel.
I recently had the honor of being invited by the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara to be a keynote speaker at its annual, signature event this spring. The event is physically housed by Santa Barbara Hillel, which describes itself as a home for Jews open to all political and religious stripes, stating, “We are as diverse as the human race.”
At first, it was going to be my temporary home – a place in which I was to tell the narrative of my reconciliation with a Palestinian family. However, when a member of the Hillel staff 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.
Which is when the request, or pre-condition, came from Santa Barbara Hillel after it viewed my post as a violation of Hillel’s guidelines:
Make a political statement clarifying your position on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, and you may enter our building. Otherwise, you are not allowed within our walls.
As a former Hillel employee, a current Jewish educator, and an author who has been touring the country and doing events for my book in diverse Jewish communities, the request from Hillel was surprising.
However, when one considers what has concurrently been happening in America these past few weeks, the request isn’t surprising at all. 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 deciding who is, and is not, a sanctioned member of the Jewish community.
Swarthmore College’s Story
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 locked out of the building. Literally.
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 three weeks 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:
[Hillel’s] policy has resulted in the barring of speakers from organizations such as Breaking the Silence and [members of] the Israeli Knesset.
All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.
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.
On Political Statements and Inclusion [My Requested Statement]
And so, we come to the political statement Santa Barbara Hillel requested – a statement I will now make not because I feel compelled to do so, but because it is a statement I believe, the articulation of which I have been contemplating for some time.
The statement itself will seem anticlimactic, for making reasoned political pronouncements should not be a particularly controversial endeavor. However, as I will explore after its articulation, what is problematic and controversial is a political statement being a prerequisite for anyone to enter a Hillel building, much less a Jewish author and educator such as myself.
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 or its implicit vision of a single, bi-national state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While I am saddened by the fact that Palestinians do not have full academic freedoms, I do not support the academic boycott of Israeli universities and institutions as a productive tactic. And while I have written extensively on the suffering Israel’s continued occupation has brought upon Palestinians living in the West Bank, and while I support pressure being brought to bear upon Israel to reject its settlement enterprise and push toward a final peace agreement, I reject those anti-Semitic streams which unofficially surface within the BDS movement.
In short, when I endorsed the concept of boycotts and sanctions in 2012, my intention was not to join the BDS movement or endorse its outcome (as Haaretz noted). Rather, it was to express the idea that economic sanctions are a legitimate, nonviolent method for countering undesirable policies and change behavior, regardless of the country being targeted. (It’s a position U.S. politicians understand intimately with regard to Iran, and a position I knew would be difficult within the Jewish community.)
Now, the above statement is not one I should have been compelled to make in order to gain entry into a Jewish building – a statement which will now allow me to speak on issues of dire importance within Hillel’s walls in Santa Barbara.
It’s also a statement and political view which can, and should, be legitimately criticized or debated by people on all sides – Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, progressives and conservatives.
For 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.
I have now experienced this personally.
Why? Perhaps because, in self-identifying as a progressive Zionist while also sharply critiquing Israel’s geo-political policies, I am seen as one who “demonizes” Israel. Or perhaps by stating that I want Israel to thrive as a Jewish, democratic state while recognizing boycotts as a legitimate form of nonviolent, political opposition (in contrast to violence), I am viewed as an enemy by zero-sum advocates who choose to ignore nuance.
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).
We will always debate them. Which is why the historian Gershom Gorenberg recently wrote:
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.
The only fights we should be having are about the issues at hand, and not about whether or not they can even be discussed. Which is why, to those who might oppose my views, and who would wish to respectfully debate or discuss them, I welcome such dialogue with open arms. Because only by engaging the toughest issues can we solve them.
It’s a perspective I hope American Jewish institutions will recognize as the only productive way forward. A path Hillel and Shammai would have chosen.
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.