Top Jewish Leader: Many Progressives No Longer Welcome in the Jewish Communal Tent


The story of me being barred from speaking about my book at a university student center (UCSB Hillel) gained national attention this week. And with this exposure came American Jewish leaders who exposed their desire for Hillel International, and Jewish organizations at large, to bar progressives such as myself from being allowed to stand within the communal tent.
Such expressions served to further concretize the existence of a true crisis facing the American Jewish community: a crisis over Jewish institutions deciding who should, and should not, be considered legitimate members of the community on the basis of their political views.
The most prominent among them was William Daroff, Senior Vice President for Public Policy & Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America, who wrote in support of UCSB Hillel banning me:

“I just do not support giving communal hecsher to those who are outside the bounds of legitimate discourse … Your [political views] place you outside our communal tent.”

Now, one might think, based upon this, that I’m a horrendous individual with wildly offensive views to be cast outside a vast, nondenominational tent. So, who am I? Brace yourself: I’m a Jewish educator who teaches biblical and rabbinic texts at a North American day school. I’m an author whose memoir focuses on my reconciliation with a Palestinian family. And I’m a progressive Zionist who would like to see Israel thrive as a Jewish, democratic state resulting from a finalized two-state agreement.
Clearly, I’m a vile anti-Semite who should be banned from ever speaking within an Jewish building (save the classroom where I teach daily, I suppose).

So, what it is, exactly, that drives the likes of Daroff to place me outside the normative Jewish community’s gates? Apparently, this:

I am one who views Palestinians’ use of economic sanctions as a legitimate form of nonviolent opposition, and believes that the BDS movement is exactly the type of peaceful resistance observers have long been clamoring for Palestinians to use. (I don’t share the movement’s vision of a bi-national state, nor agree with some of its tactics.)

And it is this particular political view on this narrow issue which, as we now see, prompted Daroff to write the following:

“I just do not support giving communal hecsher to those who are outside the bounds of legitimate discourse … Your refusal to state your categorical opposition to the BDS movement place you outside our communal tent.”

And it is this issue which has similarly prompted Eric Fingerhut, President of Hillel International, to affirm the organization’s right to ban all Jews from speaking who harshly critique Israel or support, in any fashion, BDS, and to reject Swarthmore Hillel’s move to open its doors to all Jews, regardless of their political leanings.
If someone like me should be placed outside the Jewish communal tent based upon my progressive political views with regard to Israel, consider the hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of liberal or progressive Jews who would similarly be banned or exiled, since they too would be standing “outside the bounds of legitimate discourse.”
To be clear: this is not an issue of free speech. This is a crisis of paralysis. An institutional Jewish community which is afraid to engage with some of its most difficult and pressing issues, willing instead to cast aside valuable members in the service of ‘pro-Israel’ stances which are anything but.
For such stances do nothing but cause internal communal damage while ignoring a very real, and expanding, phenomenon which is causing Israel real economic distress: international sanctions against and growing isolation of Israel due to its geo-political policies.
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the need to engage in difficult discussions on issues of importance, and were able to recognize nuanced distinctions within oppositional views.
It’s an example Daroff and other Jewish institutional leaders would do well to follow.


What Do You Buy For the Children
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.

0 thoughts on “Top Jewish Leader: Many Progressives No Longer Welcome in the Jewish Communal Tent

  1. Many in the Jewish community view BDS as hateful and hurtful. They cite in support its goal of ending Israel, the double standards, the targeting of Jewish Israelis and exemption of Arab Israelis, and the incidents on a few campuses of BDS members verbally and physically harassing Jewish opponents of BDS.
    Given the legitimate reasons for viewing BDS as hateful and hurtful, and given the pronouncement that you “endorse and embrace BDS,” and given that you have used the book and the incident it describes as a vehicle for promoting BDS activity, and given the lack of understanding of why some find BDS hateful and hurtful, the decision to disinvite you from speaking at the event is not necessarily such a shanda.

    • .
      Since nothing you stated in the above comment is factually accurate, I’m not going to address it point-by-point. The tactic you used, by the way, has a name. It’s called the Gish Gallop (though usually only applied to real-time debating).
      On second thought, I’ll just point out a couple your falsehoods:
      1) “You have used the book and the incident it describes as a vehicle for promoting BDS activity” – False. I have never brought up, nor even discussed, BDS in any of my book tours or appearances.
      2) BDS is hateful – False. You may disagree with the bi-national vision, as I do, with regard to the view that U.N. resolution 194 should be honored. However, the BDS movement focuses on Palestinian rights while respecting the deomocratic rights of all. Again, you and I may disagree with the implicit vision of a bi-national state, but it is not a hateful movement. I challenge you to read its actual positions.

          • I think there is no doubt that you have used the incident and the book as a premise for your writings that advocate BDS. You have used it as a foot in the door, and have thereby connected the incident to your subsequent views about Israel, Palestine, and BDS.
            It is not unreasonable to view BDS as hateful. BDS does not respect the rights of the Jewish people to have their state; BDS wants to end that. Not only does it not respect something that is dearly important to the Jewish community, it aggressively opposes that. I get that you do not view the goal of ending Israel as a nation for the Jewish people as hateful, but a substantial part of the Jewish community does. It is not an unreasonable view.

          • .
            This is the last time I’ll be responding to you, for this statement is patently ridiculous at best, and wildly offensive at worst:

            “I think there is no doubt that you have used the incident and the book as a premise for your writings that advocate BDS.”

            So you think that I have used my wife being injured in a terrorist attack, the PTSD I suffered, and my journey back to reconcile with the Palestinian family of the bomber as some long-range, grand scheme to promote BDS, a movement to which I don’t belong and whose goals I don’t share? (A book, mind you, that I finished in 2009 focused on a personal story of reconciliation?) Really, now?
            You just lost all credibility.
            Good night.

          • No, David. “Grand scheme” is your term, not mine. But you most certainly do use your experiences as a means to give yourself credibility in your advocacy. Nice try . . . not.
            Laila Tov, David. I’m heading off tomorrow to take my kid on a college visit. As with each campus we visit, one of the things we try to find out about is the kind of the BDS activity that has occurred. My kid has high hopes for the school we’re visiting tomorrow, so I hope we don’t find the ugliness that we found on a few campuses . . .

  2. By: Omar Barghouti
    Date: April 2011
    “While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict.”
    Norman Finklestein
    February, 2012
    “I mean we have to be honest, and I loathe the disingenuous. They don’t want Israel. They think they are being very clever; they call it their three-tier. We want the end of the occupation, the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they think they are very clever because they know the result of implementing all three is what, what is the result?
    You know and I know what the result is. There’s no Israel!”
    Barghouti and Finklestein trump what is offered here in this post. Hillel does right. It has no obligation to provide a forum for those who mislead about their true intention to destroy the Jewish state, for whatever misguided and concealed reason they may have.

  3. What’s interesting about the Hillel purity-of-opinion-test is [1] that it purports to define opinion acceptable to JEWS rather than opinion acceptable to ZIONISTS (Hillel is nominilly about JEWS, not about ZIONISTS) and then adopts a rule which is clearly about ZIONIST credentials and [2] was presumably meant to be secret (that is, just-among-the-family).
    Now it is all over the place, not secret at all. Big-money Jews (who else supports Hillel or any other establishment Jewish organizations?) are saying, in effect, that a Jew who is not ready to knuckle under to Zionist pressure and to espouse Zionist opinion is not an acceptable Jew.
    And some thought that Jewish people were about argument, difference of opinion, etc. Party-lines were for totalitarians, and the 20th century saw enough of those which were not after all all that friendly to Jews, ere they? But I digreses — here we’re talking about Jewish totalitarianism.
    So Jewish totalitarianism is now public. Even those who do not remember the Boston Symphony firing Vanessa Redgrave now have aqmple evidence of the totalitarian leanings, the speech-suppressive leanings, the thought-control and thought-police leanings of the big-money establishment Jewish organizations. (As if AIPAC and the current IRAN business weren’t enough).
    My question is this: when are ordinary Jews going to stand up on their legs and tell the Jewish establishment where to get off?
    Two Jews, One opinion?
    One Thousand Jews, One opinion?
    This is not about PO-TAY-TOE and PO-TAH-TO. It’s time to call this whole thing off.

  4. While it’s obvious we have a standoff here, as a rhetorician I’m in deep sympathy with Mr. Harris-Gershon and look forward to reading his book. Pabelmont’s point about the distinction between Jews and Zionists is extremely important, because the heart of a political issue is what constitutes an appropriate Jewish state, and (far more important to me fundamentally) what constitutes legitimate debate about a Jewish state.
    We know quite well that there are very conservative and leftist practicing Jews who are not Zionists. This fact gets hushed up in the broader media, and apparently in college Jewish organizations as well. Nonetheless, there are practicing Jews who are anti-zionist; and a lot of zionist Jews who wouldn’t receive the State of Israel’s approval.
    So yeah, I’m with the People on this one. And that means it’s time to encourage Israel’s opponents to fight through legitimate nonviolent means. Better yet, to encourage Israel’s friendsto fight through legitimate means. Because shutting up Jews who disagree with the Powers That Be is hateful, and wrong. And, oh yes — impossible.
    But struggling to silence debate, rather than to explore positions, is stupid. I am a former professor. Being older, I’ve watched movements from the Vietnam War, disarmament, anti-apartheid in South Africa, and a thousand others. I’ve watched the American government fail to contain the terms of those debates. Forbidding the “wrong” ideas to appear in class simply meant they appeared elsewhere, without informed discussion or historical framing.
    A lot of American Jews (I’m unfamiliar with most others) are sincerely questioning the violent behavior of the state of Israel towards strangers among them. Not meeting those questions directly, and responding only by forbidding them to hear discussion of those questions, will never lead to a greater trust and loyalty of the state of Israel. Because it never works well without state power and control — Israel’s control over American Jews is slipping, and the ability to threaten us is limited.
    Instead of moving into persuasion, the government and its mouthpieces merely try more force and threats. Guess how persuasive we find such tactics.

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