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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

It takes two views to talk

Published: March 11, 2011
Section: Opinions

The American Jewish community has historically recognized the need for vigorous internal debate. But recently, the demand to support Israel has outweighed our commitment to listen to one another. This was made clear when Brandeis Hillel voted on Monday to exclude Jewish Voice for Peace (J.V.P.) from their organization. Following guidelines recently issued by national Hillel, J.V.P’s support for targeted boycotts of goods produced in Israeli settlements was deemed outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. Although the decision caters to the wishes of the Jewish establishment, The loss will be felt by the sudents. The national Hillel must abolish their exclusionary guidelines or risk fragmenting our community.

Growing up in a suburban Reform synagogue, I was taught to see the Middle East in shades of black and white. But this frame fell apart when I began to research the issues for myself. Like many of my peers, I felt alienated and did not know how to reconcile my questions about Israel with my community. I felt forced to choose between my values and my traditions, and either option would be a betrayal.

Thankfully, Jewish Voice for Peace has created a safe space for young Jews to promote progressive values. Our demands for social justice, peace and democracy are an expression of ahavat Yisrael, or love for Israel. We advocate for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, a just and stable peace for both peoples, and the strengthening of Israeli democracy against illiberal attacks. These positions are fundamentally pro-Israel, since they aim to make Israel a better place and truly provdide a “real light unto the nations.” The explosive growth of left-wing groups such as J.V.P. and J Street U is a testament that these values are moving into the mainstream.

It is sad but telling that major Jewish groups and organizations have marginalized and demonized JVP. In the eyes of the American Jewish establishment, support for Israel is reduced to blind support for Israel’s occupation and defiance of international law. But the real detractors of Israel are those who attack freedom of expression, promote intolerance and uphold militarism. Why, for instance, has the American Jewish community been so eager to team up with the Christian right, who only support Israel as a stepping-stone to Armageddon?

Defending Israel right or wrong has come at a steep price. As Peter Beinart has noted, the moral compass of our community has suffered; we have become insular and petty. American Jews were once at the forefront of the civil rights movement, but now our major institutions engage in vicious dehumanization of Palestinians. At home we have become reticent to stop attacks on Muslim-Americans, such as the racist opposition to the Park51 Islamic cultural center and Representative Peter King’s Congressional witch hunt.

It is in this context that the International Director of Hillel, Wayne Firestone, released a set of “guidelines” for local Hillel chapters to follow in partnering with other campus organizations.

These condescending and nakedly partisan guidelines seek to homogenize Jewish voices in regards to Israel. They refuse membership or cooperation with groups that “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state” or engage in “delegitimization” of Israel. Hillel never defines these terms, and local chapters are too intimidated to discuss them. Additionally, any group that supports boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) measures against Israel or Israeli products is not allowed access to Hillel. JVP’s boycott against goods produced in illegal settlements—which former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy has described as a truly Zionist position—is beyond the limits of acceptable discourse.

The importance of these guidelines is clear: however vague, they are meant to keep campus Hillel chapters ideologically rigid and in line with the opinions of older generations. Ludicrously, Firestone says that “we reject efforts that may divide the Jewish community on campus over the potentially rich debate and discussion that occurs about Israel.” And yet that is precisely what these guidelines do.

Excluding the voices of young Jews who challenge the status quo, they create false unity. This only serves to make Jewish institutions less relevant to inquisitive minds. Our community is in a sad state if it asks its young people to choose between their values and a narrow, political interpretation of Judaism.

Sadly, Brandeis Hillel has elected to continue this trend. Admittedly it is the safe thing to do. But the American Jewish community must cease policing the minds of its next generation or else it will cease to be a community.

Jon is the Jewish Voice for Peace Coordinator