Harvard Jews battle Hillel’s censorship of BDS discussion

on 11 Comments

We keep a close eye on community organizing inside the Jewish community because that community is so crucial to the US discourse on the Middle East and because an exciting movement of enlightened younger Jews is now taking on the extremely-conservative leadership of the community over the issue of Palestinian human rights.

Two news items about whether the Jewish community can hear arguments for boycotting Israel– or indeed, can even listen to Palestinians.

First, a tragic account from the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis about Hillel at SUNY Binghamton excommunicating a student:

In December, the Hillel at Binghamton University asked a student to resign from volunteer positions he held with the campus Hillel board after he organized a screening of “5 Broken Cameras,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about Palestinian non-violent resistance. A brother of one of the documentary’s directors, who is Palestinian and supports BDS, spoke at the screening.

“It goes without saying an [executive board] member of ours can’t bring a speaker like that,” a Hillel student leader told Pipe Dream, the Binghampton campus newspaper in explaining why the student was asked to resign his Hillel roles.

The second story is more hopeful, a petition at Harvard from Jews to Open Harvard Hillel, to allow discussions about boycott to take place inside the Jewish community. Note that this petition is pleading with Jewish community leaders to allow discussion between Palestinians and Jews on campus and that it is consistent with the effort by Jewish Voice for Peace to stand up for a forum at Brooklyn College next week about boycotting Israel. In the Brooklyn effort, Rebecca Vilkomerson of JVP said that broad support for the BDS movement now includes many in the Jewish community. From Harvard:


Recently, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), an affiliated group of Harvard Hillel, was prevented from holding one of its events in the Hillel building. This decision was not due to the event’s content, which was Jewish in nature and relevant to the Hillel community, but rather due to the fact that the event was co-sponsored with the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC). PSC, as an organization, supports the BDS movement, an international campaign to non-violently protest Israeli policies through a combination of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Harvard Hillel made this decision based on Hillel International’s guidelines, which state:

“Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel; Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

In the past, these guidelines have also been used to exclude Jewish groups from campus Hillels because of their political views, as occurred at Brandeis Hillel. Thus, these policies are doubly harmful: they prevent much-needed dialogue and cooperation between Jewish and Palestinian campus groups, and they exclude particular Jewish students from the Hillel community. While PJA does not support the international BDS movement, we believe that it is essential for Jewish and Palestinian groups to work together on those issues that we do agree on, and for all Jewish students to be included in the Hillel community.

Individual campus Hillels need not strictly follow the Hillel International guidelines and are allowed to form their own policies in accordance with the campus environment. However, Hillel International has recently put pressure on campus Hillels to maintain these more restrictive guidelines. As Jewish Harvard students and Hillel community members, we know that pluralism, inclusivity, and free discourse are some of Harvard Hillel’s most deeply held values. Thus, we believe that Harvard Hillel’s policies should be modified in order to fully embody these ideals and remove any political litmus tests for affiliation and co-sponsorship.

Petition Text:

We, the undersigned members of the Harvard Hillel community, Jewish Harvard students, and alums, ask that Harvard Hillel, in keeping with its values of inclusivity and pluralism, change its policies such that:

  1. student groups affiliated with Harvard Hillel will be permitted to co-sponsor events in the Hillel building with any other Harvard student organization, regardless of their political views, in the spirit of free discourse and inter-community dialogue,
  2. no Jewish student group will be prevented from affiliating with Harvard Hillel due to its political views, provided that those views are not anti-Semitic or racist, in keeping with Hillel’s mission as the “foundation for Jewish campus life.”
About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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11 Responses

  1. American
    February 1, 2013, 1:11 pm

    “why the student was asked to resign his Hillel roles.”

    I wonder if being asked to resign opened his eyes a bit to Hillel attitudes and censorship…iow, no dissenting on fixed zionist truth or other opinions allowed.
    Maybe his eyes were already opening and this was his way of challenging Hillel?
    Guessing that maybe his parents were/are supporters of Israel also–wonder if this treatment of their son by Hillel opened their eyes any.

    • W.Jones
      February 1, 2013, 2:18 pm


      If he knows about the Palestine issue for real, like he must from showing the videos, then he must know about censorship. He may not have expected to be asked to resign, although he may have guessed it from knowing his colleagues’ opinions.

  2. Annie Robbins
    February 1, 2013, 2:01 pm

    thus far there are 93 signatures on the petition, only 13 listed as ‘anonymous’ (an optional listing albeit one is required to identify oneself to sign the petition).

  3. sardelapasti
    February 1, 2013, 2:04 pm

    Your title is misleading.
    “Harvard Jews” would mean at the very least a majority of people identifying themselves as such and at Harvard, or residing there etc. , in the act of “battling Hillel”.

  4. W.Jones
    February 1, 2013, 2:26 pm

    Being asked to resign from a volunteer position isn’t the same as being excommunicated, ie explicitly kicked out of the group completely. That would have looked worse for the group, and he could have forced their hand. But that might not have been the best decision for himself. On the other hand, if he doesn’t plan on working with them in the future, why worry about it?

    In any case, it’s a bad move by the group, because it is a religious group penalizing someone for their political free speech- and on top of that, other rabbinical groups have religious statements in line with the individual’s actions.

  5. DICKERSON3870
    February 1, 2013, 4:13 pm

    RE: “Recently, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), an affiliated group of Harvard Hillel, was prevented from holding one of its events in the Hillel building.” ~ Background (above)

    SEE: “The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics”, by David Theo Goldberg & Saree Makdisi, Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2009

    [EXCERPT] . . . It is an extraordinary fact that no fewer than thirty-three distinct organizations – including AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund – are gathered together today as members or affiliates of the Israel on Campus Coalition. The coalition is an overwhelmingly powerful presence on American college campuses for which there is simply no equivalent on the Palestinian or Arab side. Its self-proclaimed mission is not merely to monitor our colleges and universities. That, after all, is the commitment of Campus Watch, which was started by pro-Israel activists in 2002. It is, rather (and in its own words), to generate “a pro-active, pro-Israel agenda on campus.”
    There is, accordingly, disproportionate and unbalanced intervention on campuses across the country by a coalition of well-funded organizations, who have no time for — and even less interest in — the niceties of intellectual exchange and academic process. Insinuation, accusation, and defamation have become the weapons of first resort to respond to argument and criticism directed at Israeli policies. As far as these outside pressure groups (and their campus representatives) are concerned, the intellectual and academic price that the scholarly community pays as a result of this kind of intervention amounts to little more than collateral damage. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/sept_oct_09_goldberg_makdisi

  6. EChandler
    February 1, 2013, 5:50 pm

    So Hillel has a policy of boycotting any speaker, organization or group who believes that boycott is a legitimate tool of non-violent political speech, action & dissent of Israeli government policies. It is fine with Hillel to question policies of all other governments, but not Israel. Isn’t Hillel singling out Israel?

    • sardelapasti
      February 1, 2013, 7:03 pm

      Chandler: “Isn’t Hillel singling out Israel?”
      By excepting the Zionist entity, this self-appointed, officially “Jewish”organization charges all persons defining themselves “Jewish” as participants in the crimes being denounced.

  7. Rusty Pipes
    February 1, 2013, 7:09 pm

    How many degrees of separation are required between Hillel and censored ideas? The Hillel student board member, Sheridan, did not sponsor the event at or through Hillel, but as a member of an unrelated student group. In addition, he disagrees with Burnat and BDS and said so when introducing the film. From the Binghamton College Newspaper:

    Sheridan organized an open screening of “5 Broken Cameras,” a documentary about non-violent Palestinian activism, and a talk on campus by Iyad Burnat, the brother of the filmmaker who is featured in the film, for Dorm Room Diplomacy (DRD), an apolitical international student organization that coordinates weekly teleconferences between American and Middle Eastern students.

    Leaders of Hillel at Binghamton contested that Sheridan, as the vice president of Bearcats for Israel (BC4I) and a MASA intern, violated his obligations as a representative of Hillel, which extended beyond his direct involvement with Hillel, and asked him to resign from both positions.

    Sheridan, who openly disagrees with Burnat and prefaced the talk by saying Burnat’s views do not reflect the views of DRD, said Hillel’s policy represents a “myopia” that limits the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    “I still fundamentally disagree with Iyad Burnat, but the monopoly on political discourse that Hillel at Binghamton conveys is infinitely more dangerous than anything Iyad said in his presentation,” said Sheridan, a junior majoring in political science, in a written statement to Pipe Dream. “In all, I knew there was little chance I could convince Mr. Burnat to accept Israel as a Jewish state, but that was not the point of the event. Maybe one day, I could apply what I learned by listening to him towards a revamped peace process.”

  8. W.Jones
    February 2, 2013, 4:06 am

    A constructive criticism about the petition: The second part is at best neutral, at worst harmful:
    “no Jewish student group will be prevented from affiliating with Harvard Hillel due to its political views, provided that those views are not anti-Semitic or racist”
    Practically speaking, no Jewish student is going to be “anti-Semitic”, because after all, it is a Jewish group. That would be like an environmental group that is dedicated to pollution.

    So what this clause does in effect is provide a way to exclude dissident views that could be labeled as against the people. Like “Anti-American”, the term could be used in an accusatory fashion against political dissent. So while the risk of a group that is by definition opposed to the religious/national group itself is unrealistic, the term could be abused to label and stifle political dissent.


  9. Mondowise
    February 2, 2013, 6:24 pm

    i’m just always so amused (actually disgusted) at how zionists scream against violence (usually involving twisted conflations, fabrications, manipulations & paranoid psychosis), then vehemently attack NON-violent tactics as if the two opposing tactics, violent & non-violent, are equal in nature. simply put, they spazz out over ANYTHING other than 100% unquestioned acceptance and compliance with their criminally corrupted world view & policies. even more amusing is that they don’t see the glaring contradiction in this…or…that we won’t see it. zionists are nothing but a pathetic clown show, on paper thrones wearing paper crowns.

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