The Center for Jewish Life is stifling free speech at Princeton University

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I have never met Slav Leibin.

Nonetheless, it recently came to my attention that he vetoed, with the approval of the Center for Jewish Life, my right to participate in a proposed panel on the recent hostilities in Gaza. Apparently this preemptive act of exclusion was carried out on entirely political grounds. This strikes me as an attempt to stifle the exchange of views on an important, if contentious, issue of concern to many in the Princeton University community — an egregious violation of our community’s values.

Slav Leibin is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at the Center for Jewish Life, which is home to Hillel at Princeton. Founded in 1923, Hillel is the world’s largest Jewish student organization, with branches at more than 550 colleges and universities, guided by the mission of helping students “to explore, experience, and create vibrant Jewish lives.”

Beginning in 2003, Hillel International has partnered with the Jewish Agency for Israel in order to place some 60 such Israel Fellows on almost 70 North American campuses, including Princeton. Prior to its creation in 1929, the JA was known as the “Palestine Zionist Executive,” and during the pre-1948 period it was responsible for Jewish settlement, immigration, and defense in Palestine. Since 1948, the JA has been the leading international Jewish nonprofit organization, funded by the Jewish Federations of North America as well as private donors in Israel and abroad, “providing meaningful Israel engagement and facilitating Aliyah” — literally, going up — that is, immigration of Jews to Israel and their naturalization as citizens there.

Although technically autonomous, the JA effectively operates as an advocate for the government of Israel. For someone representing the JA to bar a member of the Princeton faculty from sharing his or her expertise and perspectives is no more acceptable than it would be for an envoy of the Chinese, Canadian or any other government to do the same.

As a tenured member of the Princeton faculty with a joint appointment in the Departments of History and Near Eastern Studies, and as a scholar of the modern Middle East with considerable expertise in the history of Israel/Palestine, I am deeply troubled to discover that our campus life is not only being patrolled but even policed by non-academic figures here with a political mandate.

In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, Princeton students attempted to organize a public event that would address the context and consequences of the Israeli assault on Gaza in July that left over 2,100 Palestinians and nearly 70 Israelis dead. Students then reached out to the Center for Jewish Life for co-sponsorship, presumably for an event to which I was going to be invited (I did not know of these plans at the time). In response, Mr. Leibin wrote in an email on Sept. 8, “I would like to bring to your attention that Max Weiss has recently signed a public statement supporting boycott of Israel. This issue complicates the program for us, as it is Highly [sic] sensitive for a CJL ASG to sponsor a program with a speaker who made a statement like this, which is one of the red lines in our Israel policy.”

This point about “red lines in our Israel policy” needs to be understood in a larger context. Hillel International has a policy barring local chapters from sponsoring talks by, or symposia including, people whom Hillel deems overly critical of Israel. This policy has prompted a revolt by many students in Hillel chapters around the country, who insist they have a right to hear all perspectives, and a national Open Hillel movement, which held its first national conference this past weekend at Harvard.

On October 10, president and chief executive officer of Hillel International Eric Fingerhut affirmed in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that Hillel is committed to promoting “an environment that is “intellectually rigorous, respectful of difference and committed to honest conversation.” What Hillel International will not do, Fingerhut wrote, is “partner with organizations that espouse anti-Semitism, apply a double standard to Israel, spout racism or promote Islamophobia.” Recently Fingerhut met with Open Hillel activists, however, and told them, “every student is welcome at Hillel regardless of his or her personal views on Israel or any other topic in Jewish life.”

Apparently, at Princeton, the same does not hold for faculty.

I therefore ask the CJL to explain whether it believes that Mr. Leibin’s decision to bar a faculty member from sharing his expertise and perspective on an issue of concern to many members of our community is acceptable behavior and serves our students by promoting the free and full exchange of ideas and opinions. According to its own mission statement, the CJL “acts as a liaison with Princeton University on matters related to Israel.” How does the CJL understand the role of such a liaison? Is the CJL committed to sponsoring open debate and the free exchange of ideas with respect to “Israel or any other topic in Jewish life?” Or, does the CJL favor excluding some viewpoints and certain members of the Princeton community based on political criteria?

Princeton must remain a place where open debate and academic exchange is encouraged and allowed to flourish, even on the most controversial issues. Now is a particularly urgent moment for the Princeton community — faculty and students alike — to sit up and take notice of the struggle to protect free speech and academic freedom in this country. After all, it’s happening in our own backyard.

A version of this article first appeared in The Daily Princetonian

Editor’s Note: The Center for Jewish Life responded to Weiss’s piece in The Daily Princetonian:

Every member of the Princeton community is always welcome at the Center for Jewish Life. However, participation in a panel that we sponsor is a privilege and not a right. Our decision to sponsor or co-sponsor an event is an opportunity we evaluate in each case, not an entitlement on the one hand, nor an infringement of free speech on the other.

The CJL is a community that promotes dialogue and open conversation. Last week, the CJL sponsored a program together with the Princeton Committee on Palestine, the Muslim Student Association, Near Eastern Studies, Tigers for Israel, and J-Street U featuring a Palestinian peace activist, Ali Abu Awwad. We were happy to sponsor a compelling program promoting a constructive, pro-solution perspective on ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Like any other organization, we have policies that inform our programming decisions.  A few years ago the CJL Board of Directors carefully crafted guidelines that embody our values. Under these guidelines, the CJL sponsors programs that provide opportunities for open discussion and the expression of differing views in the spirit of University life and in commitment to a pluralistic Jewish community. The CJL will not, however, sponsor groups or speakers that intend to harm Israel or promote racism or hatred of any kind.

When Professor Max Weiss was suggested as one of many possible faculty speakers for a program that two CJL-affiliated student groups were hoping to co-sponsor with the Princeton Committee on Palestine in response to this summer’s conflict in Gaza, some of the student organizers ultimately decided not to invite him. They did so in consultation with CJL staff member Slav Leibin, and on the basis of the fact that Professor Weiss has supported the cultural and academic boycott of Israeli professors and institutions of higher learning, a position that infringes academic freedom and is incompatible with CJL event sponsorship on the basis of our guidelines outlined above. Professor Weiss’s personal attack on Slav Leibin, and the Jewish Agency with whom we partner, was unwarranted, and we believe Professor Weiss owes Slav and the CJL an apology.

The CJL is committed to ongoing learning and exchange of ideas through panel discussions, travel experiences, ongoing dialogues such as the Muslim-Jewish and Black-Jewish dialogues and hundreds of one-on-one conversations. We believe these efforts are more likely to bring about positive change than boycotts or newspaper articles that attack those working to find common ground.

Rabbi Julie Roth, Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Life

Pierre Gentin ’89, Chair, Center for Jewish Life Board of Directors

Melissa Lane, Class of 1943 Professor of Politics, Princeton University, and Vice-Chair, Center for Jewish Life Board of Directors

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Is the infection spreading, are folks becoming more desperate, or are these issues just coming to light?

Weiss, meet Salaita. Salaita, Weiss. Of course, the outrageous sidelining of Prof. Weiss isn’t as bad as the retraction of a job offer, but still, branches from the same tree. I am appalled at the shabby treatment Prof. Weiss received. Never fails to astonish me that otherwise sober and intelligent… Read more »

From the response: “Professor Weiss has supported the cultural and academic boycott of Israeli professors and institutions of higher learning, a position that infringes academic freedom and is incompatible with CJL event sponsorship”. This is dishonest. The call for the academic boycott is clear that it stands for academic freedom… Read more »

I wonder if Princeton has a centre for Roman Life or Latino ,or Celtic or dare i say it , Arab Life.

Just wondering.

Based on the above information, it seems that 2 pro-Israel groups (“CJIL-affiliated”, whatever that means) tried to organise an event about Gaza, together with the Princeton Committee on Palestine. Someone proposed Prof. Weiss’ name (perhaps the Committee on Palestine). The “CGIL-afiliated” students ran the proposals by CGIL and were told… Read more »