While sitting at an Open Hillel workshop on combating Islamophobia in the Jewish community, I was reminded of a photograph I had taken several months before in Jerusalem. The photograph shows a billboard above a fenced-off construction site atop a historic Muslim cemetery. It reads: “Museum of Tolerance: Opening 2017.”
This image flashed into my mind when the workshop’s facilitator, Donna Nevel, mentioned that the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs the LA-based Museum of Tolerance, was involved in the Islamophobic campaign to ban the construction of a mosque near the site of Ground Zero.
How do we square this campaign, motivated out of a fear that equates all Muslims with the terrorist “Other,” with the identity of an institution dedicated to “tolerance?” Isn’t tolerance supposed to be about accepting people who are different from us and ideas that are different from our own?
The Problem with Tolerance
Understanding this seeming discrepancy requires a more thoughtful analysis of the concept of tolerance, which at its core constructs and maintains relationships of difference, power, and oppression. Scholar Wendy Brown’s work Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Empire lays out a critical analysis of the concept of tolerance and its impact on sociopolitical relationships.
Tolerance, Brown explains, implies a regulation of difference, a further codification of traits that mark bodies as “Other” and reify the marginalization of those traits deemed deviant from the norm. Tolerance sets up a binary power relationship between the normal and the deviant, the civilized and the barbarian, the tolerator and the tolerated. Tolerance-talk, as she calls it, brings with it pacification, enforced civility, and the foreclosure of real challenges to systemic injustices.
After the conference I looked back in my notes from reading Wendy Brown’s book back in April 2014 to see that I had written #OpenHillelProblems under a transcription of a quote reading: “Tolerance is a mode of regulating and incorporating the presence of the threatening other while maintaining its exclusion and dangerousness, it involves designating limits and drawing moral boundaries.”
Designating limits and drawing moral boundaries? This language is not so unlike the language Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut uses to defend the red lines drawn by Hillel—red lines that effectively determine which ideas and criticisms are to be tolerated and which are to be excluded. Speaking at the Hillel General Assembly on December 10, 2014, Fingerhut emphasized that “Hillel also has a special role in setting boundaries around appropriate arguments,” an indirect reference to the Open Hillel movement.
Open Hillel, a student-led movement to open up Jewish debate on the subject of Israel and Palestine, advocates for Jews with severe criticisms of Israel’s policies, including supporters of the BDS movement, to be included in Jewish communal institutions.
The Strengths and Limits of Open Hillel
Brown’s analysis of the rhetoric of tolerance gives me—an Open Hillel organizer who has found a political home in Jewish Voice for Peace—cause to be concerned about Open Hillel’s rhetoric as well. The campaign calls for all political opinions to be tolerated in Jewish communities. It is a call for political inclusion, yet I worry that inclusion simply reifies the demarcation of certain ideas as deviant, to be tolerated but not to be heard and acted upon.
Within Open Hillel, we often talk about the value of embracing the discomfort we experience when hearing opinions that we disagree with. After all, ideas that make us uncomfortable may challenge our intellectual or emotional security, but rarely challenge our actual physical safety. Open Hillel thus resists Hillel International’s attempts to cast expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for dignity, justice, and human rights as active threats to “Jewish student safety.”
Open Hillel’s call is for the tolerance of “deviant ideas” (like the idea that Jewish religion, peoplehood, and identity should be distinguished from the colonial ideology of political Zionism), but my worry is that the work of Open Hillel may itself play a role in depoliticizing dissent and stripping it of its power to challenge the status quo.
Tolerance, to me, goes hand in hand with the concepts of civility, coexistence, and dialogue. These are nice sounding words, but in practice they are often used as tools to silence strong dissent, occlude power dynamics, and erase histories of oppression.
Wendy Brown devotes an entire chapter to deconstructing the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance as an institution that, in line with its staunchly pro-Israel agenda, presents Jews as paragons of tolerance, while portraying Palestinians as its barbarous enemies. The museum portrays Jews as the interminable victims of intolerance, presents the Holocaust as exceptional, and portrays Israel as the constant victim of terrorism but never as the perpetrator of state violence. Meanwhile, its only portrayals of Arabs and Muslims present them as haters of the Jews, targets for racial profiling, and women-oppressors. In light of these portrayals, Brown writes, “the stage is set for unanimous sympathy with Israel, not only as a Jewish homeland after the Shoah but as a beacon of civilization in a barbarous land.”
The fact that the construction of the Jerusalem campus of the Museum of Tolerance requires the uprooting and destruction of a historic Muslim cemetery is just icing on the cake of irony.
This placing of Jews and Israel at the forefront of an Orientalist struggle of “civilized” versus “barbarian” perpetuates the demonization of Palestinians and seeks to erase Israeli culpability for aggression, displacement, ethnic cleansing, colonization, occupation, and systematic oppression. Jews who speak out against these injustices and who advocate for Palestinian dignity and human rights are then marginalized, excluded, and demonized as “self-hating” in Jewish communities.
However, our participation in groups like Open Hillel is not merely a call to be included at the table, to be listened to by the Jewish establishment. No, we demand to be heard. We aren’t seeking mere tolerance for the “radical” idea that Palestinians should have human rights too. Rather, we demand that our institutions join us in our call for systemic changes to Israeli policy so as to address decades of occupation, oppression, and injustice.
This is not about civil discourse, coexistence with the Other, or tolerance of “beyond the pale” politics. Without justice, “civility” is a means to police political speech, “coexistence” falsely normalizes an imbalance of power, and “tolerance” is a tool by which the establishment perpetuates the status quo.
(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)