We were not allowed to hear Palestinian peers — Rachel Sandalow-Ash on American Jewish censorship

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Last Wednesday night, the Reform rabbi at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, NY, conducted a forum of three young Jews on their attitudes toward Israel. One was a rightwing Zionist, one a liberal Zionist, but the forum was most remarkable for the dissenting views expressed by Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a co-founder and national organizer of the Open Hillel movement. Sandalow-Ash told her own story about discovering censorship in the Jewish community, and the role of donors in the discourse. What follows are extended portions of her observations.

My name is Rachel Sandalow-Ash. I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is the first suburb outside of Boston, and I went to a Solomon Schechter day school. I grew up in a conservative Jewish community, I was bat mitzvahed at a conservative synagogue. And growing up, I remember Israel being the one thing I wasn’t allowed to ask questions about.

So I remember when I was in 4th grade, I discovered what the words of the Aleinu meant, Jews were better than non-Jews. And there were lines in there that deeply disturbed me, and I brought it up to my teachers. They were so pleased I was actually paying attention to what the prayer said and I wasn’t falling asleep. I talked to this rabbi at the school and that rabbi at the school. And it was, Let’s talk about this interpretation and that interpretation. It made it very clear to me that asking that question was a sign of positive Jewish engagement.

I remember a couple years later, I was very excited about environmentalism and conservation. I was 11 or 12, and thought I was at the height of political consciousness, and I discovered that the ner tamid, the eternal fire that’s supposed to happen– there it is [pointing behind her in the sanctuary]– in synagogues, I thought it was an affront to conservation. I went to my teachers. I said, How can we have a flame that never goes out. And again: “you can talk to this rabbi, you can talk to that rabbi, I’m so glad you’re so engaged. This is what the Jewish text says about it.” It was made very clear to me again that this was a good and appropriate way of engaging with my Jewish identity and Jewish values and Jewish traditions.

Then I remember in 2006, this would have been the summer before my eight grade year, Israel invaded Lebanon, the second Lebanon war. I didn’t know a lot about these kinds of foreign policy issues, but I knew I was from Boston and everybody was a liberal, everybody opposed the Iraq war. Suddenly everybody in that community was supporting this war. I asked my teacher, “Why do we all oppose it when the U.S. invades other countries and support it when Israel invades other countries?” I got like stony silence. And that really stuck with me. It wasn’t that there was an answer to that question, it wasn’t there were multiple answers to the question. That was clearly not an acceptable question to ask. It was, That was a question you should not have even brought up, how dare you?

Ever since that moment and other moments in middle school, I realized that even asking questions about Israel made people tense up and get angry at you. I didn’t want to deal with that. I had vague memories of my mom taking me to see documentaries about Palestinians protesting something. I didn’t know what it was; I did remember that she checked at the movie theater entrance to make sure that no one from the community was watching us go in, because that would have been shameful! So you know, I’m not touching that with a ten foot pole. It’s thousands of miles away, what do I care?

I came to college, and I was deeply engaged in issues of domestic and campus and social justice, I was involved with labor justice on campus, I was involved with environmental justice on campus. These were fights that were really immediate to me. They were issues that were right here and in the present. I joined a group called the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Because I was progressive and Jewish, and I wanted to be around people who were both those things and saw a connection between them, and felt that it was important for their Jewish values and Jewish experiences and their Jewish history to inform their activism and their sense of social justice.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance spent about half of its time on domestic social justice issues and about half of its time having discussion events, basically about Israel and Palestine. The group was very dialogue-focused. We worked with both Harvard Students for Israel and the Palestine Solidarity Committee and really prided ourselves on bringing together the two groups, hearing from a wide variety of perspectives, opening up the conversation. I heard from activists, I heard from academics, we heard from journalists, we heard from politicians, on all sides of the political spectrum. And it was fascinating to me. I was learning so much that I had never known before.

And it started to dawn on me that I had had a lot of years of learning about Israel and I had never heard so many of the things I was starting to hear. I had never heard the word occupation before. I had never really heard any Palestinians talk before. This was all new. I was sort of like, Huh, maybe I was too young back then, and I had nostalgic Israeli teachers who missed home and they only taught me the good parts.

Then in my sophomore year, the Progressive Jewish Alliance tried to hold an event with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which is the Palestinian student group at Harvard, a discussion event that was normal for us. It was going to be in Harvard Hillel. Progressive Jewish Alliance is a Hillel-affiliated group. When we began publicizing it, with a poster and a Facebook event, and an email blast, our Hillel director called us into his office and said, “You can’t do this. Hillel has rules, standards of partnership: You cannot work with the Palestine Solidarity Committee inside of Hillel, we will lose a million dollars, this violates national policy.” I said, “Jewish students can’t talk to Palestinian students within, under Jewish auspices?” The Hillel director was like, “Yeah it seems that way, that’s what the rules are.”

And that was really shocking to me. So Progressive Jewish Alliance started a campaign to get rid of Hillel’s rules, its standards of partnership, so we could have open discourse…

That’s sort of how I came into this. There was a moment where I sort of felt it wasn’t really a coincidence that I hadn’t heard so many views and so many angles before. It wasn’t just that our teachers thought it wasn’t age appropriate or whatever. There was national policy in place to prevent me as a college student from hearing all the sides of the story, from engaging with my Palestinian peers, from engaging with certain speakers, because those ideas were seen as too dangerous for me to hear.

There was a policy in place to keep Jewish students from learning, and that just seemed very un-Jewish to me….

That’s when I saw that this issue that was 1000s of miles away was also deeply personal and was also deeply about my own Jewish community. That my own Jewish community was playing a role in perpetuating a certain kind of reality over there. That through all the money we were sending over directly, through all the money we are spending on Israel advocacy, and through all the effort we were expending in educating our young people in a particular way, through the kinds of conversation we were having or not being allowed to have, we were shaping the way the American Jewish community, which was very influential in our own politics, was relating to this country, and we were responsible in a certain sense, for what was going on over there. And the decisions we made here at home really did have an impact over there. Because the American Jewish community has power and has influence on both governments in both countries…

I think that on any issue, the first step toward moving toward justice or a greater degree of justice is to listen to the people who are most impacted, and listen to the people who are in some way harmed or oppressed or whatever kind of term you want to use. And right now in American Jewish institutions, Palestinian individuals and groups are almost nearly universally excluded from the conversation.

Hillel has standards of partnership that they established in 2010 that say they won’t work with anyone who is deemed to delegitimize or apply a double standard to Israel or support any form of boycott. In practice, that means anyone too critical of Israeli policy, anyone too critical of the occupation. And most Palestinians are not allowed to speak within Hillel.

Other broadbased and communal Jewish institutions have similar restrictions.

And much in the same way that if we are going to have a conversation about issues of racial justice in the U.S., we need to hear first and foremost from black communities and communities of color, I think if we’re going to address the issues of injustice happening in the occupied territories, the fact that there are 4 million Palestinians who for the past 47 years have not been able to vote in any country’s elections, have serious restrictions on their freedom of movement, on their right to water, healthcare, education to all sorts of things. The first thing we have to do is listen to what they have to say. And coming up with solutions is complicated and we’ll disagree and ultimately I think a lot of that will be decided by Israelis and Palestinians over there.

But much of what I’m doing at Open Hillel, this campaign, is mobilizing American Jewish students and community members to oppose these restrictions and to call for an open debate so we can hear both sides of the debate and hear from the people whose voices have been silenced…

[What political outcome do you seek over there?]

First off, I should reiterate that Open Hillel doesn’t take a position on Israel Palestine. So I’m speaking only for myself. I’m not sure what the endgame will be, I think a lot of the geopolitics there are really hard and really complicated, and probably best figured out by Israelis and Palestinians.

But whatever sort of arrangement happens, I want everybody living in the region to have basic civil, economic, and democratic rights, the right to vote for their government, the right of free movement, the right to education, the right to a home, the right to form a family with whom they choose.

The question that actually concerns me more as an American Jew is what’s the future I want in 20 years for our community. Because right now I see a community that is in many ways torn apart by this issue, where there is a small group–not to sound like Bernie Sanders too much– but there is a small group of disproportionately very wealthy people who have very strong opinions, often rightwing, who get to circumscribe the debate and discussion that we have. Who get to set standards and set restrictions on what we can talk about.

And as a result, a lot of people of my generation, I think the other panelists spoke to that as well, are moving away from the Jewish community, and that’s really sad. People are feeling that there isn’t space here to think, to question, to find a home for their Jewish values of social justice, and so they move away. So I hope that in 20 years we can have a community, and hopefully much sooner than that, we can have a community where discussion and debate are welcome and where all voices are heard, regardless of if there’s some wealthy donor involved.

[On the anti-Semitism issue]

I just think it’s important as we talk about the discourse, to distinguish between anti-semitism, which is real, and criticism of Israel, even harsh criticism of Israel; and I think conflation of the two things is really dangerous. And it’s sort of easy to call anything we don’t like anti-Semitism, but that’s sort of to diminish what real anti-Semitsm is. And I think it’s very important to call that out when and where it exists but not to use anti-Semitism and the fear of it as a way of shutting down voices that challenge accepted viewpoints in our community.

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“I just think it’s important as we talk about the discourse, to distinguish between anti-semitism, which is real,” Why must we always bring up anti-Semitism when Israel is discussed? Why do we never ever hear about anti any other religion or ethnicity? Were we called anti – Boer or anti-Afrikaan… Read more »

Terrific talk, I bet it was very persuasive. Congratulations for pursuing your curiosity,and sense of right and wrong, in a meaningful and effective way. Your generation of American Jews can play a big and necessary historical role in moving towards greater justice on this really important issue. We Christians can’t… Read more »

I am very impressed and inspired by the young woman’s story and analysis.

“Hillel has standards of partnership that they established in 2010 that say they won’t work with anyone who is deemed to … apply a double standard to Israel”

This must be the most exclusive group on campus. They won’t even work with themselves!