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.
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.