My Letter to Vassar’s Jewish Union

To the members of the VSU,

As a Rabbi, former President of the Jewish Alumni Foundation and someone who discovered my Jewish identity while at Vassar, I am truly disappointed and disturbed by the VJU’s decision to become an “Open Hillel”.

PLEASE VISIT MY TIMES OF ISRAEL BLOG FOR THE REST OF MY LETTER…

11 thoughts on “My Letter to Vassar’s Jewish Union

  1. You and Hillel are not doing Israel any favors by excluding people and views you deem contrarian. Such censorship and demonizing are tactics more traditionally associated with Arab society, and are unbecoming an enlightened Jewish community.

    BDS is gaining traction worldwide. It’s anti-Semitic goals are best exposed and countered through engagement. Hillel groups should welcome opportunities to debate proponents of BDS. Instead of preëmpting debate, why not mount a vigorous and persuasive defense of Zionism?

    – Jon Rapaport, Vassar ’93

    • Jon thank you for sharing your opinion with me. Good to connect with another Vassar person on this complex and loaded issue. I agree that we need to be more vocal about Zionism. I just wrote a piece that I posted on my blog about how our silence has empowered the anti-Israel groups. However, where we disagree is where these debates should be happening. I am not in favor of censorship. I say let the BDS groups speak on campus – just not in Hillel a place where Jewish students come for many reasons – including spirituality, Shabbat, prayer, meditation, etc….I know first hand that anti-Israel groups threaten many students and create an unsafe atmosphere. Hillel should not be unsafe. We agree that BDS has anti-semitic goals. I don’t want to see any anti-semitic group given a platform in any Jewish space. There is plenty of other space out there for them to share their views.

      • Hi again. While I’ve no doubt you’re arguing in good faith (pun mostly unintended), I think you’re sidestepping the issue. No one is suggesting that Hillel invite disruptive people to Shabbat or prayer or meditation. My concern is that by forbidding speakers supportive of BDS, Hillel’s Israel Guidelines are driving members right into the arms of the opposition.

        By all means, keep the spiritual side of Jewish campus life safe. But encourage a vibrant political atmosphere that tolerates dissent. I know you don’t want to give a platform to Israel’s enemies. But unfortunately there is a lot of overlap between Israel’s enemies and her critics. Lots of liberal Jews struggle with their political support for Israel in face of Palestinian suffering.

        BDS has generated acceptance and support from many well-intentioned (if grossly misguided) liberals. Academics in the US and UK feel perfectly comfortable boycotting Israel. Hillel’s paternalistic guidelines close off venues that are vital to that debate. Debate is good. Debate is healthy. It is also very Jewish.

        If Hillel were smart, they’d own the issue by sponsoring a traveling campus debate between Alan Dershowitz and Omar Barghouti. The Dersh would demolish him :-J

  2. I agree with Rabbi Jacobs. It is difficult to “engage” anyone who starts with hate vocabulary.
    Talking to Palestinians is different than talking to BDS organized groups.
    Peace can happen, but insulting language has got to go (Apartheid Fence?)

    I understand Jon’s point. I really do. But, “engaging” this group will undermine true dialogue.
    They will take it as a victory towards totally delegitimizing Israel.
    And, then what will happen to so many suffering Palestinians?

    Jon, I believe Palestinians suffer. But, until they own their own role we have a stand off.
    Obviously, you are entitled to disagree.

    • Clearly any acceptable debate must be predicated on civility, if not respect. As for “hate vocabulary,” framing the debate is half the battle. As long as no one is using slurs, I say have at it. If BDS groups want to get into an argument using terms like “apartheid,” they will lose.

      Incidentally I’m not sure where you inferred my views on Palestinian suffering, because you and I have no disagreement there. The Palestinians have been failed by their own leaders, not Israel.

      • Thanks again for this dicussion!

        VJU’s statement on their website makes it quite clear they want to toss Hillel’s standards which seem to me to prevent hate speech and lies from beind endorsed by the Jewish community:

        “The Standards of Partnership at Hillel International currently prohibit partnering with, housing, or hosting organizations, groups, or speakers who: “1) Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; 2) Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; 3) Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; and 4) Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

        We believe that this policy censors and delegitimizes the diverse range of personal and political opinions held by Jewish students.”

  3. Jon,

    BDS is an advocacy group which wants to eliminate Israel, by brand the country with the word “evil” and various synonyms for “evil.” You really can’t have a discussion wth people who have no interest in dialogue or understanding but, rather, are engaged in agitprop.So, your premise here is just not right.

    Even if BDS would be willing to debate those who are pro-Israel – something they normally refuse to do -, what would the discussion be about? There are no terms for a discussion because there is no agreement on the most basic underlying facts. In fact, BDS has shown repeatedly that it does not care whether what it claims is true, only whether it is effective to inciting hatred of Israel. That why some who are part of BDS claim that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are “progressive” and on the “Left.” It is politically convenient to so claim. Only a committed ideololgue would ever say such a thing because it is idiotic; Hamas and Hezbollah are reactionary holy rollers.

    As for the behavior of the Israelis, countries in long term wars, as the Israelis have been in since the founding of Israel in 1948, are not always nice. So, bad things have occasionally occurred. Worse things would occur if BDS had its way. Among the worse things that might occur would be that the “progessive” Hamas group might actually commit the acts against Israel’s Jews that they promise to do, namely, kill them all (as stated explicitly in Hamas’s covenant. In the scheme of things, I prefer some occasional bad behavior from the Israeli to the massacres that Hamas proudly advocates.

    • Hi Neal,

      I haven’t written a word in defense of BDS, or Hamas and Hezbollah for that matter. So it’s unclear why you’re enumerating their evils. My only point is that Hillel Int’l will lose members and relevance if it insists on its Israel Guidelines.

      College students are formulating their values and forging their identities, which Hillel ostensibly supports. If those students think (however naïvely) that there is something to be gained through dialogue with any group, preventing them will only breed resentment. If my premise were wrong, as you wrote, then the Open Hillel movement would not exist.

      Andrew quoted some of Hillel’s guidelines to which students object. One forbids contact with anyone who holds Israel to a double-standard. Well guess what? We all hold Israel to higher standards than we expect of, say, Russia, Iran, Egypt, China, et al. It’s just that we believe in most cases, Israel meets or exceeds those standards. So I would scrap that guideline.

      The guidelines also compel support of Israel as a Jewish state with recognized borders. But what if those borders are a square-mile ghetto? I could give more examples of how the guidelines may be misconstrued, and Hillel could respond by tightening up the wording. But wouldn’t it be better if Hillel were simply committed to the broad principle of Israel as the permanent Jewish homeland?

      College students aren’t in charge of foreign policy. They are in charge of themselves. Hillel should focus its efforts on fostering a strong Jewish identity and a commitment to Eretz Yisrael, but without the litmus tests for either.

  4. I think in some ways the “apartheid” slur is what’s given the BDS movement so much traction. I remember as a student in the early 90s our protests against investments in oil companies and others with investments in South Africa. They succeeded in getting Connecticut College to divest from South Africa. The idea behind the 2005 Durban anti-Israel hate fest was figuring out ways Israel’s opponents could get the same reaction on campuses in 2006 and beyond that they/we had in the late 80s and early 90s. It succeeds in oversimplifying the issue, silences any Jewish/Zionist narrative or claims to the land, makes us sound like greedy colonialists and usurpers, etc. For the most part, if you give a eager young 18 and 19-year-old a cause that makes them feel empowered, they’re in. And “apartheid” sounds shitty, so why not oppose it?

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