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Sunday, November 23, 2014

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Where’s the line in campus debates about Israel?

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A student passes by Hillel of Greater Toronto’s office. [Cara Stern photo]

When Hillel Ottawa’s Israel Awareness Committee (IAC) updated its Facebook page last month to include a social media code of conduct, Tyler Levitan noticed a clause that he says violates the committee’s stated goal of “engaging in debate, discussion and dialogue on Israeli society, culture and politics.”

Based on Hillel International’s general operational guidelines for all its chapters, the code says the IAC will remove posts that endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel, which it views as “hateful rhetoric.”

But Levitan, national campaigns co-ordinator for Independent Jewish Voices, said the IAC policy stifles discussion by silencing people who disagree with Hillel’s position on Israel.

His challenge echoes a debate going on south of the border, where a backlash against Hillel’s chapter guidelines has spawned a growing “Open Hillel” movement.

Among other things, the guidelines contain a clause that says Hillel is open to partnering with organizations that have diverse perspectives in support of Israel, but won’t partner with groups or host speakers that support BDS campaigns.

This past fall, Levitan started an organization called Young Jews for Social Justice, which, according to its Facebook page, is “made up of Jewish youth in Canada whose critical views of Israel’s policies are marginalized and ignored by the mainstream Jewish community.”

When Levitan tried to advertise the group’s first event through Hillel in order to reach Jewish students, he found he wasn’t welcome to do so.

“Hillel creates this atmosphere of not wanting critical discussion of Israel,” said the Ottawa-based Levitan, who graduated from Carleton two years ago with a master’s degree in political economy.

“It’s a very simplistic, very dishonest way of categorizing the Palestinian solidarity movement. On Hillel’s part, it’s very irresponsible to their mandate of providing a space for diversity of Jewish opinions.”

Zane Colt, a fourth-year public administration student at Carleton University and city-wide president of Ottawa’s IAC, said the social media code of conduct isn’t new, but the IAC only recently posted it on its Facebook page in response to pro-BDS comments there.

Colt said the IAC is open to diverse opinions, as long as they promote positive dialogue, which BDS does not.

“[BDS] shuts down the debate,” he said. “If [the BDS campaign] were ever successful, it would result in the destruction of Israel. As the world’s only Jewish state, we don’t want to give a platform to support BDS rhetoric.”

At Harvard University, Emily Unger discovered the implications of Hillel’s policy of not partnering with pro-BDS organizations when she tried to run a joint event in November 2012 between her group, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC).

The event, called “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation,” brought in two speakers, one Israeli and one American, to talk about their experience in non-violent activism against Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinian territories.

Harvard Hillel leaders agreed to host the event in Hillel’s building, but changed their mind after learning the event was being co-sponsored by the PSC.

That’s when Unger – who describes herself as a non-Zionist, religiously observant Jew – decided to take action.

“It’s very important to not completely cut off the Jewish community from hearing Palestinian voices,” she told The CJN. “We should be able to hear all of those views and debate them openly and not limit what political views are considered.”

In January 2013, Unger co-founded the Open Hillel movement, which seeks to change Hillel’s guidelines to make them more inclusive of all viewpoints, including those on the far right and far left.

A resolution passed by the Hillel chapter at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia this past December officially rejected the guidelines, declaring itself to be the first “Open Hillel.”

Since then, Hillel International CEO and president Eric Fingerhut has called for a review of Hillel’s chapter guidelines. Hillel International did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Isaac Kates Rose, a University of Toronto student and national youth director of Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth group, said he’d like to see Hillel chapters organize town hall events to discuss Hillel policies, and “how Hillel can be a centre for healthy conversation, even with those with whom we disagree vehemently.

“I would courageously advise we loosen those strictures and bring in speakers and groups who challenge us but also force us to have a nuanced understanding [of the issues],” he said.

But Scott Goldstein, executive director of Hillel Ottawa, said support for BDS is beyond the pale – and, therefore, working with groups that support it is prohibited under the guidelines – because it questions Israel’s right to exist and doesn’t promote positive dialogue.

However, Unger said she disagrees with the argument that a successful BDS campaign would destroy Israel as a Jewish state.

“I think that there are a lot of people, especially Jewish people, who support BDS as a way of putting pressure to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories… not to make Israel stop being a Jewish state,” she said.

Levitan added that Hillel Ottawa has even refused to acknowledge that there are Jewish students who support targeted boycotts, such as only boycotting products made in West Bank settlements.

In response, Goldstein said Hillel opposes partial, targeted BDS actions, because such an approach “isn’t an effective way of bringing dialogue.”

Unger said she believes Hillel should open its doors even wider by including students who are morally against ethnic nation-states in general.

Goldstein said Hillel Ottawa welcomes all Jewish students to its events, and debates are welcome at its numerous Shabbat dinners, but political debates fall under the IAC’s jurisdiction, and the IAC does endorse specific political positions. Thus, any events advertised through or sponsored by the IAC must be in support of Israel as a Jewish state.

“This [division] allows Jewish students who may be critical of Israel’s policies to pursue Jewish campus life and feel welcome at all our events without feeling pressured to conform to the Israel component of our mandate,” he said.

But religion aside, Unger said there’s no reason to avoid partnering with non-Jewish students who do hold those beliefs.

“It’s not productive to cut off dialogue. Lots of Palestinian students have legitimate and non-hateful reasons for supporting a secular bi-national state or supporting BDS to end occupation of their homeland,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to be able to hear those views even if we don’t agree with them.”

Still, Goldstein said that while there are many places on campus for these discussions to take place, Hillel is not one of them.

“They’re welcome to express their views within their own forum but can’t use our platform to express those views.”

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