Earlier this week I wrote a post criticizing Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, the director of the Ohio University Hillel, for supporting a group that denies the existence of the occupation, and she called me a “douchebag” and an “asshole” on her twitter feed, @RabbiDanielle. When others knocked Leshaw for her crudeness, the rabbi removed the namecalling, then repeated the “douchebag” comment, and at last made her Twitter feed private two days ago — available only to those she approves to follow her.
But I’d been reading her feed and copying tweets while it was public, for two reasons. One, Danielle Leshaw is an entertaining writer who in a sincere, profane, and pithy manner expresses the crisis of the liberal Zionist in an era of Jewish nationalist violence. Two, she has played a central role in what she calls the “shitshow” at her school over the Gaza bloodbucket challenge issued by Megan Marzec, the student Senate president, on September 2. I believe Leshaw helped create a climate of Jewish fear following the event.
But let’s go to the record.
I only got as far back as July in Leshaw’s twitter feed before it was shut down, but it was clear that the Gaza onslaught this summer caused Leshaw enormous anguish. She often expressed concern for the Gaza victims but quickly jumped back to support Israel. The images from Gaza generated pity and despair in her.
Here are some of those anguished tweets:
I want to be among people that feel really sad that lives have been lost. Not just the lives of Israelis.
I think everybody is losing their mind #Israel #Gaza
My only advice for the day, to a group of students: Don’t hate on Gaza. Hate on Hamas.
I just spent the past 30 minutes looking at photos of Gaza. And now I feel weak.
I’d rather be protesting in Tel Aviv right now
Emergency medical relief for gaza hospitals.
[A girl’s name evidently her daughter] asked yesterday: Who is going to help rebuild Gaza? How much is it going to cost? Where are they all living now? What next?
But it was clear where Leshaw’s heart was. On July 25, she tweeted:
Amsterdam tomorrow. Feeling like we’re deserting our people for cheese and canals and bright paint on pretty buildings. #JewishGuilt
I’m not sure where Leshaw was traveling from, but it seems she felt guilty that she wasn’t in Israel. Leshaw has spent recent summers in Israel and her twitter pin says that her home is “Ohio * Israel.”
Leshaw also expressed qualms about leaving New York this summer, where she has family, to return to Athens, Ohio:
I’m a little nervous to return to Athens. To be among a collective community of people that don’t grapple with Israel and Gaza… well…
But maybe I’m also relieved to not be returning to an urban center where blind solidarity is the only appropriate response?
Her ambivalence about Athens’s non-Jewishness was a theme of a piece she wrote in a Jewish journal of ideas earlier this year. She said that she felt “unsettled” as a Jew in one of the “least Jewish spaces in all of America,” and so did Jewish students who had grown up in Jewish suburbs. But maybe this was the Jewish condition:
There are regular and admittedly difficult moments when our family feels unsettled, Jewishly, in the place that we also feel deeply devoted to. My 8 year-old daughter might be the only member of the family completely satisfied with everything her little town offers: Rebecca, the American Girl doll, is enough Jewish company for her.
Being unsettled doesn’t mean being unhappy or unfulfilled or even ungrateful. I want my Jewish students to know that Judaism happens where you make it happen. Community gathers if — but only if — you agree to participate. And just because we’re in a town without the traditional Jewish infrastructure doesn’t mean that Judaism can’t happen here in truly creative and life-changing ways.
My college students are also unsettled. They’ve chosen to transplant themselves from Cleveland or Pittsburgh — urban or suburban areas with all the Jewish trimmings — and make a temporary home in one of the least Jewish spaces in all of America. They huddle and create micro-Jewish communities. They ghettoize their neighborhoods and sign lease agreements and live within a few feet of each other. They mourn the distance between themselves and their hometown kosher eateries that offer fluffy matzah balls and pastrami sandwiches. Their identities have shifted from majority to minority and from normal to exotic.
The Athens Leshaw returned to made her even more uncomfortable in the aftermath of the Gaza conflict. The Israel/Palestine issue was coming to Ohio in a new way, and Leshaw was apprehensive about the growing BDS movement, calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Four tweets opposed BDS:
Just sent my first ever email that said: We need to meet about BDS. #damn I thought we were immune in our little Appalachian hideaway.
We can either talk about Caterpillar or we can talk about kids that needs medical assistance.
Instead of a BDS campaign, I’d rather a tzedakah [charity] campaign for Gaza. Let’s actually do something.
Know what happens with #BDS? A whole lotta mansplaining. And I’m the lucky gal that gets to listen. No thanks
Leshaw continued to feel sympathy for the people of Gaza. On August 25 she tweeted:
Not a terrible idea to take a look at the #rubblebucketchallenge.
This was a reference to a Gaza initiative to have people pour buckets of rubble over their heads to memorialize the onslaught. That was of course a twist on the big charity trend, the ALS ice-bucket challenge, which left Leshaw cold. (“Every participant should be forced to give $100 for cancer research for subjecting us to their #IceBucketChallenge videos. #stop”)
Then came the bolt from the blue.
On September 2 Megan Marzec, the president of the Ohio Univeristy Student Senate, posted a video in which she accepted the ice bucket challenge from Roderick McDavis, the president of Ohio U, but with a twist: wearing a t-shirt that called for Ohio University to divest from Israel, she decried “genocide” in Gaza and occupation of the West Bank, called for academic boycott of Israel, and then dumped a bucket of fake blood over her head.
Rabbi Danielle Leshaw had greeted Marzec into her job last April– “Holy Shit. You won”– and she felt rage and betrayal on seeing the video. She seems to have learned about it the next day:
Tonight: the Jews of OU feel sad, betrayed, and angry. It’s possible this has never happened before in the history of this campus.
On September 4, she wrote an open letter to Marzec in The Post, the student paper, calling on her to resign and stating that she had made 800 Jewish students (out of an enrollment of 27,000) feel unsafe. The word unsafe or safety occurred four times in the piece, three of them in these excerpts:
how could you possibly do such a thing if you have a relationship with the campus rabbi?…
Your video marginalizes and isolates students. It makes Jewish parents want to bring their kids back home to the safety of the Jewish suburbs. It makes alumni want to pull their funding. It makes Jewish organizations call and demand that we do more. It makes people threaten, and when we don’t comply and do exactly what they say, they threaten some more. But I can’t do more. There’s actually not much for us to do, except gather our students and tell them that they’re safe and that they’re loved and that yes, it’s true, their student senate president isn’t qualified for the job….
Megan – that offer for drinks at Casa still stands. But I think you need to step down, and give somebody else the chance to lead our Ohio University student population. Somebody that won’t polarize, or divide, or marginalize, or ‘other,’ or cause hysteria, or make students feel unsafe. Yes, that’s what your video has done. You – Megan – the one person that would hate to ‘other’ another, has marginalized an entire group of students, an estimated 800 of them. Our Jewish students deserve a leader capable of serving everyone.
The call for Marzec’s resignation was also issued by a pro Israel group on campus, Bobcats for Israel, of which Leshaw is an administrator. And when an alumni petition started up calling for Marzec to step down, Leshaw’s Hillel called on people to sign it.
Leshaw threw herself into the campaign against Marzec as if it were a civil rights issue for Jews. Her tweets from the September 10 student Senate meeting at the school that was disrupted by Bobcats for Israel, resulting in the arrests of four of the students leading that “filibuster,” have a Freedom Rider partisan thrill:
A perfect storm seems to be assembling against the forces of pro-Israel. [quoting the Times of Israel]
The filibuster has begun. And it’s not going to stop.
Tonight, Jewish students were called Nazis and fascists.
Wake up and go to the Courthouse.
Athens is a shitshow right now
Two tweets suggested a climate of fear:
For everybody’s well being, we are not answering the land line at Hillel today. Email if you need to.
As if we didn’t have enough to deal with, there are escaped inmates all over the state of Ohio.
Obviously I’m not in Athens. Megan Marzec has gotten death threats, I am sure there have been threats to the other side. Though Leshaw has also received official support. Former Congressman Eric Fingerhut, the head of Hillel International, has backed her up all the way. So has Jenny Hall-Jones, the dean of students of Ohio University (who has also led a Peace Interfaith walk on campus). Recent tweets by Leshaw said that lawyers from around Ohio were reaching out to help the arrested students and that both the Cleveland Jewish Federation and the Israel on Campus Coalition — Zionist organizations — were “in the house.”
So that’s the shitshow. The political questions are whether or not Marzec survives this battle and whether Hillel is forced by Open Hillel to clamp down on Zionist rabblerousing by Hillel directors. Should a Hillel, which is dedicated to enriching Jewish life, be demanding the resignation of a student leader who has made a sensational appeal on behalf of victims of a massacre committed by Israel? That was the thrust of Shmuel Semoneta-Gertel’s comment on Leshaw, questioning
why a Hillel rabbi is an administrator of and active participant in a political club on campus. In the case of Israel, this serves to reinforce the widespread confusion between Judaism and Zionism that contributes directly to the sense of “unsafeness” you [Leshaw] say some Jewish students experience when Israel is criticised (certainly harshly in the case of Student Senate President Megan Marzec’s, recent actions and statements). Furthermore, openly taking such a political position would presumably alienate non-Zionist Jewish students, who should not be denied Jewish religious, cultural and communal ties and services (particularly on a campus where there are few Jewish alternatives), simply on the basis of their political beliefs.
Leshaw’s activism will surely be discussed at the Open Hillel conference in Cambridge next month aimed at liberating Hillels from Zionist orthodoxy.
The larger political issue involves Zionist claims. The premises of American Zionism are that Jews are often unsafe in the west and therefore we need our own country on ethnically-cleansed and militantly defended land in the Middle East that we have to support but where we don’t have to live. (“So honored to be on the front page of Haaretz supporting my country, ISRAEL,” Becky Sebo, one of the students arrested in Athens, who grew up in a Cleveland suburb, tweeted the other day) I am an anti-Zionist because these political ideas are profoundly misguided; I believe in doykeit, hereness, the idea of making your Athens, or Jerusalem, wherever you are. Leshaw believes in Jewish unsafety. And after an agonizing summer in which Israel slaughtered Palestinian children and Leshaw felt a need to defend the country from threats in the Middle East and in the U.S., she saw her fears personified in Megan Marzec.