Last Thursday, the Harvard Crimson reported that the Harvard Hillel had dropped an event organized by Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) because the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) was listed as a co-sponsor. The event “Jewish Voices against the Israeli Occupation” was to feature Israeli Jew Noam Lekach and American Jew Jeff Stein discussing activism in Israel/Palestine. Hillel cancelled the event saying that the PSC’s co-sponsorship conflicted with Hillel International guidelines which states that Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
In response, PJA has issued the following open letter to the Hillel Community:
Dear Hillel Community,We, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), are writing to inform you of something deeply troubling that happened recently. Several weeks ago, PJA—a Hillel affiliated group—began working with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) to plan a speaker event, “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation.” As two campus organizations that both work for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, PJA and PSC often co-sponsor events. We planned to bring an Israeli Jew and an American Jew to talk about their work doing non-violent activism against the Israeli occupation, such as peaceful protests against the demolition of Palestinian homes. The speakers would also discuss how Jewish students going on Birthright could extend their stays in order to visit the West Bank in addition to Israel on their trip. Since this event is explicitly Jewish in nature and directed mainly at Jewish students, we believed that Hillel would be the ideal location for the event.
Initially, Jonah Steinberg (Hillel’s executive director) approved this event and told us that we could hold it in the Hillel building. We believed, after this first conversation, that Jonah had understood that PJA and PSC would be co-sponsoring the event, although we later learned that he had not. Once we put out advertisements for the event, Jonah began receiving complaints about this co-sponsorship, and he expressed uncertainty to us about whether this event could in fact be held in Hillel. Hillel International’s standards of partnership declare that “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that… support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions [BDS] against the State of Israel,” which PSC does. After major donors threatened to withdraw their money from Harvard Hillel, Jonah informed us that the event could no longer take place in the Hillel building.
We are disturbed and saddened by this decision to remove our event from Hillel. As progressive Jews working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, we believe that collaboration with Palestinian groups is essential. We see such cooperation as a step on the path to peace, and we are disappointed that even when Palestinian groups reach out to partner with us, their overtures are rejected by our Jewish community.
The BDS movement is the largest non-violent campaign protesting the injustices of the Israeli occupation. Although we may have disagreements with this movement, we believe it is essential to find common ground and collaborate where we can. Completely shutting out any groups that advocate for BDS cuts off a huge portion of the population that cares about Israel/Palestine, including almost every Palestinian student group across the country. Excluding these ideas from the Hillel building does not make them disappear, but serves only to prevent productive dialogue and alienate people from Hillel. Jewish people who care about peace must frame our disagreements respectfully, allowing for discussion and thoughtful exchange of ideas, instead of putting up barriers to cooperation with others who seek peace.
Hillel International’s policy also excludes some Jews and Jewish groups from Hillel. For example, the Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, was recently prevented from affiliating with Brandeis Hillel. We are disturbed to see progressive Jews excluded from Hillels for their political views. Although PJA is not currently in this situation, we feel less welcome and included in a community that sets a political litmus test to determine which Jewish students and groups will be allowed in. Such a community is not one that reflects our Jewish values of social justice and vigorous debate.
Within the Jewish community, boycott calls are becoming more mainstream. Peter Beinart, a well-known liberal Zionist who spoke at Harvard Hillel last spring, recently called for Jews who care about Israel to boycott the settlements as a protest against Israel’s continued expansion into Palestinian territory and the unequal treatment of Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. Many progressive Jews agree with his position, yet Hillel International’s policies would exclude these voices from its Jewish community. If Hillel truly wants to be “the foundation for Jewish campus life,” it must represent and support all of the diverse views held by Jewish people.
Universities should promote open discussion, critical thinking, and debate, and Hillel should similarly uphold these values—values essential to a democratic society. This, of course, does not mean that Hillel needs to provide space for the expression of racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise hateful views. However, Hillel must not fall prey to the common fallacy that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. BDS is not an irrational, hate-based ideology—rather, it is a political position that can, and should, be discussed and debated.
Finally, we strongly object to the idea that outside organizations and donors can step in to prevent student-initiated programming in Hillel whenever they disagree with it. Hillel is, and should be, a student-driven community, and students ought to play the primary role in determining its policies and programming. Jonah wrote that Hillel’s Israel policy should be determined by “students, Board of Directors members, and stakeholders.” We wonder who these “stakeholders” are, and why they are given influence over Hillel’s policies equal to that of students. If students’ programming can only go forth according to the whims of Hillel’s donors, Hillel will quickly cease to be a meaningful center for Jewish student life.
In response to these recent events, we conclude that Hillel should have no policy on the political affiliation of groups, organizations, and speakers that it partners with, houses, and hosts. We ask that Hillel International remove its guidelines for Standards of Partnership for campus Israel activities, which currently work to exclude groups and individuals with particular political views from campus Hillels. Regardless of the actions taken by Hillel International, we believe that Harvard Hillel should not establish policies that put in place a political test for its co-sponsorships or affiliated groups. Rather, we hope that Harvard Hillel will lead the push for more inclusive policies on a national level.
PJA and PSC will still be holding the “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” event—now in Emerson Hall 305 at 7:30pm this Thursday. We invite students from Hillel to attend and to talk to members of PSC, so that Hillel’s current restrictions will not stand in the way of dialogue between Jews and Palestinians on campus.
Most of all, we hope that a broad coalition of Hillel students of all political affiliations can come together in support of more open and inclusive policies. If you have any questions or concerns, members of PJA will be in the Hillel dining hall from 5-7 pm tonight, tomorrow, and Wednesday, and would be happy to talk to you. You can also contact Emily, the chair of PJA, at [email protected] to bring up any thoughts or to find a time to talk about this in person.
With hope for a more peaceful and inclusive future,
The Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance