Brandeis Hillel imposes pro-Israel litmus test, excluding ‘Jewish Voice for Peace’ chapter

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Hillel, the national organization for Jewish life on campus, says that it seeks to enrich Jewish pluralism. But its idea of Jewish identity demands fierce support for Israel.

And sadly, the Brandeis Hillel yesterday formally rejected the Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace as a member of the organization because JVP supports boycott of products of the settlements. So much for pluralism. “The latest failure of the American Jewish establishment,” Lev Hirschhorn of the JVP chapter said in announcing the news.

The decision has been celebrated by the Jewish Federations, the huge philanthropic body that supports Hillel (thanks Ali Gharib).

Below are portions of three emails I received today. The first is from Hirschhorn, a leader of JVP at Brandeis, giving the news from Waltham, MA. The second includes portions of the JVP application to Hillel. You can see how JVP sought to appeal to pro-Israel students, and even this wasn’t good enough. And third are portions of an email from Andrea Wexler, a student exec at Brandeis Hillel, explaining the reasoning (and sent to JVP folks; though my source is not Lev Hirschhorn).

1. Brandeis JVP news release:

On March 8, 2011, Brandeis University Hillel rejected the campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) from becoming a Hillel member group. In line with controversial guidelines recently issued by National Hillel, the decision was based on JVP’s support for targetted boycotts of goods produced in Israeli settlements.

In response to the decision, Brandeis senior and JVP activist Jon Sussman stated “Brandeis students have lost an opportunity to learn from one another. Jewish students must demand the national Hillel organization change its condescending guidelines which marginalize progressive Jewish opinion on campus.”

Hillel is the center of Jewish life on-campus , and its constitution affirms “the necessity of a pluralistic Jewish community on campus, with partisanship to none.” Regardless of this affirmation, Hillel’s new guidelines exclude Jewish groups on the basis of political opinions.

These guidelines are representative of a trend in the Jewish community to prevent open dialogue on Israel.

2. From the Brandeis Hillel application by Jewish Voice for Peace:

We are Jewish Voice for Peace and we are coming to Hillel tonight to become part of Brandeis Hillel, as full and equal members of the organized Jewish community.

Motivated by our Jewish values and our belief in Ahavat Yisrael (love of the Jewish people), we advocate for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. We believe that both peoples have a right to safety, security, human rights and full self-determination. We fully support the right of the Jewish and Palestinian people to live in their historic homeland. We believe in the principle of non-violent peacemaking, and to that end we oppose terrorism and military force as strategies to accomplish political goals.

…We offer Brandeis’ Jewish community an outlet for political views and ideologies that fall beyond the mainstream, and we allow students to grow intellectually by having an opportunity to expand and develop their beliefs. JVP, like Hillel, pursues the Jewish values of tzedek and tikkun olam: we want to heal Israel’s many wounds left by internal conflict and unnecessary violence while longing for justice and peace in the area.

There is an old joke about a man stranded on a desert island. When he is rescued years and years later, he shows his rescuers the two synagogues he constructed. “Why two?” They ask. “This is the synagogue I pray in,” he says, “and this is the synagogue you wouldn’t catch me dead in!” Internal divisions within the Jewish community have always existed. Jewish communal organizations should exist in order to foster healthy dialogue between these assorted political opinions.

Excluding us from Hillel would serve to increase polarization, while bringing us in would allow for increased learning and co-operation among the Jewish community. “National Hillel declares that it “is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” We, too, support a democratic state in Eretz Yisrael based on Jewish values.” We urge you to ask any questions so we may clear up misconceptions.

Today, you as a Hillel board will make a powerful statement. You can reject Jewish Voice for Peace, and indicate to the Brandeis community that Hillel is an exclusive institution, and that only those who fall in line politically are welcome. Or you can accept us, and signal to the world that Hillel is the true umbrella organization for the whole Jewish community; a pluralistic community, with partisanship to none.

3. Here is a portion of the note from Andrea Wexler of Hillel to the Jewish Voice for Peace Club:

Dear Lev and the Jewish Voice for Peace club,

Thank you so much for coming to meet with Hillel board last night. Unfortunately, we will not be able to accept Jewish Voice for Peace as a member group of Hillel at Brandeis. We as a board stand strong in support and agreement with the International Hillel organization, with which we are affiliated. While you noted that Judaism is an ever moving movement, as an organization, Hillel aims to support Israel to the best of our abilities. Our policy, consistent with our international guidelines, states that “Hillel is pro-Israel; steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations”.

While, based on your presentation, we understand that JVP at Brandeis considers itself a pro Israel club, based on positions and programming JVP has sponsored, we do not believe that JVP can be included under Hillel’s umbrella. One example, as we discussed last night, is that JVP supports a boycott of settlement goods. Hillel’s position is to oppose groups that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel”.

…You noted that Hillel should be a home to all Jewish students and not a litmus test for Zionism. While we understand this point of view, and we hope to be a home to all Jewish students at Brandeis, we do not think that politics is the only way to define home. We are a home in many ways, but politically we stand behind Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. That being said, we at Hillel, “welcome a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and strive to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss in a civil manner matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people […] and we encourage students’ inquiry as they explore their relationship with Israel”. We understand that Hillel, as a pro-Israel organization, may not serve the needs of all Brandeis students.

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