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Optimistic about open dialogue

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: Opinions


Three weeks ago, Brandeis Hillel’s exclusion of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) caused a stir in the American Jewish community. It highlighted the controversial ambiguity between religion, community and politics by raising the question: Does Judaism necessarily mean Zionism? The exclusion of a Jewish group from Hillel based on our political beliefs, namely, opposition to illegal Israeli settlements, effectively imposes an ideological litmus test for participation in campus Jewish life.

Although Hillel remains fixed to a narrow political agenda, I am optimistic about open dialogue within the Brandeis community. During the past week, JVP has collected the signatures of more than 1,000 Brandeis students opposing Hillel’s exclusionary decision and demanding a truly pluralistic Jewish community. Hillel’s constituency trusts itself to think critically in an open marketplace of ideas, and acknowledges the necessity of uncensored discussion about Israel in order to achieve peace. Together, we have challenged the status quo of uncritical support for Israeli policy.

JVP’s petition for inclusion has sparked difficult and necessary conversations about the role of Palestinian solidarity in the Jewish community. The students we met during the signature-gathering process were overwhelmingly in favor of JVP’s inclusion, even when their feelings about JVP’s political positions ranged from discomfort to curiosity to excitement. We had hundreds of respectful conversations about boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a strategy for ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine, which broadened perspectives on both sides of the issue. Although we didn’t always agree, we usually reached the mutual conclusion that this topic demands conversation, especially within Jewish institutions.

Brandeis Hillel claims that JVP’s support for a settlement boycott was at odds with their “pro-Israel” mission.

This should come as a shock to the majority of American Jews—according to a recent J Street poll, 60 percent of American Jews are opposed to the expansion of settlements. A boycott of the settlements is a nonviolent yet direct strategy for opposing the human rights abuses that the settlements represent.

JVP seeks a just and stable peace in Israel/Palestine, and thus expresses support for a “democratic Israel based on Jewish values.” Brandeis Hillel Director Larry Sternberg, however, claims that this is not enough: To be sufficiently pro-Israel for Hillel, one must affirm Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Brandeis students should be concerned by the lack of precision with which Hillel throws these terms around. What does a Jewish and democratic state really mean, and why does Hillel want to shut off conversation about its meaning? Surely, so long as Israel maintains its military occupation of Palestinians but denies them voting rights, it cannot pretend to be either.

The American Jewish community stands to lose a great deal if this pattern of ideologically-motivated exclusion continues. Not only does it threaten the long-term unity of Jewish culture, but it seeks to quash the important tradition of Jewish political activism. Our history of oppression does not mean that we must continue to view ourselves as victims; let us unite in an effort to confront the injustices being perpetuated in our name.

JVP’s petition, endorsed by one out of every three undergraduates, was a call for the entire Brandeis community to embrace dialogue and give a voice to political opinions outside of the mainstream. Let us continue the fight by welcoming marginalized peoples and opinions. Let us challenge ourselves to attend events that promote differing conceptions of justice and to engage in conversations that make us uncomfortable. Together, we can provide a model of critical self-reflection for the broader Jewish community.