Harvard Jews battle Hillel’s censorship of BDS discussion

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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.”

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