In 1964, Queens College student Mark Levy – one of the four authors of this piece – traveled to Meridian, Mississippi with the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, registering African Americans to vote. When he tried to go to synagogue in Meridian, before he ascended the stairs outside, a representative of the synagogue came out and yelled, “Go away. You are not wanted here!”
Over 50 years later, many American Jews celebrate the history of Jews in the Civil Rights movement. Amidst celebrations of our work, again we are hearing the message, “Go away. You are not wanted here!”
Let’s take a step back. Last October, we were honored to speak to a diverse group of 350 passionate Jewish students and recent college graduates at the Open Hillel conference, which featured panels and discussions on topics ranging from race, gender, and sexuality in the Jewish community to potential solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are honored that since the conference, Hillel students around the country, from Boston to Chicago to North Carolina, have invited us to continue these conversations in their Jewish communities on campus.
Both we and the students who have invited us to speak feel that it’s crucial for older activists to share lessons from the Civil Rights movement – a time when we ourselves were student organizers. All too often, the Jewish community is divided not just by religious and political ideologies, but also by age. We see these conversations with Jewish students on campus as a key way to build connections between Jews of different generations.
We, four veterans of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, view our activism as rooted in Jewish values. We worked in the Deep South and put our lives in danger to stand in solidarity with African-Americans who were risking everything to overcome a system that was preventing them from exercising the civil rights that were theirs by birth. We are proud that Jewish tradition teaches that Jews must pursue justice, and we are proud that the Jewish people venerate sages such as Hillel who said that the entire Torah can be summed up in the phrase “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” We have learned from history that the Jewish people will never be free and secure unless all people are free and secure.
Our Jewish values and experiences in the Civil Rights Movement have propelled us to dedicate our lives to pursuing just and equitable societies. The recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement protesting racist police violence shows the continued need for people of all ages and all backgrounds to take a stand against racism and injustice in our local and national communities.
On December 10, UAW 2865, the union representing 13,000 University of California graduate student workers, announced that a resolution to align with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel had passed a membership vote. This is the first American union to join the BDS movement, and the outcome is deeply upsetting to many Jews, Israelis, and non-partisan opponents of one-sided boycott and divestment tactics.
For some, it might be tempting to argue that UC students, especially the Berkeley and UCLA students that made up the majority of the vote, are instinctively anti-Israel and that this fight was hopeless. I would advise against that defensive line of reasoning, convenient as it may be. I believe that there are three primary — and remediable — reasons we lost.
First, this was hardly a fair vote. The same union leadership first staked out its clearly partisan position in a one sided pro-BDS statement and then oversaw the voting process to support it. Nearly all materials sent out to membership strongly advocated a yes vote, and little space was given to the opposition. If you were not already a member, to vote, you had to join a union that had already made clear its vision of Israel as a “settler-colonialist” state. BDS supporters were also able to use an already mobilized base of union members and leaders to swing the vote their way. BDS opponents were fighting an uphill battle to both mobilize a new base and to convince ambivalent or uninformed union members.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrator argues with pro-Israeli demonstrator at UC Berkeley / Getty Images
On Thursday, my union as a graduate student at Berkeley, UAW 2865, is going to vote on a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) resolution against Israel. I’m going to vote “no,” although I oppose the occupation and support selective, non-BDS branded boycotts targeting the occupation.
I vote this way ambivalently. The Israeli occupation is more than 45 years long and involves deep injustice, and it ought to be resisted. One may not oppose BDS without offering an alternative vision for ending the occupation — my vision involves selective boycotts, investment in progressive elements in Israeli society and politics, political lobbying in DC. But I cannot sign onto the BDS proposal, and I hope that other union members will also vote “no.”
Here’s why I don’t think BDS is a good path. First, I worry the boycott will be counterproductive. An academic boycott, in particular, is likely to hit hardest precisely the sector of Jewish Israeli society from which the most trenchant criticism of the occupation comes — and I find it hard to believe an effective institutional boycott will not have reverberations for individual academics, especially given the examples of cultural boycotts of Israel we’ve seen so far. Especially in the sciences, individual careers, collaborations and institutions are deeply entangled — but even in the humanities, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) boycott guidelines hit study abroad relationships, joint conference funding and so-called “normalization projects” (i.e., dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians that does not presuppose conformity to the BDS position).
On a larger level, perceived world hostility to Israel drives the Israeli right; when National Home right-wing politician Naftali Bennett posts a video of him hectoring foreign journalists, it plays very well. BDS may well create the hard-right, recalcitrant Israel it imagines already exists. And knowing that people like Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman are reaching out to partners like Putin and to the Hindu nationalist government in India, we in the United States and Europe need to think strategically about how to pressure the Israeli government without pushing it into worse configurations.
Students walk past a statue of a former Princeton president on the school’s campus / Getty Images
A faculty petition recently appeared in The Daily Princetonian calling for the university to divest from companies operating in the West Bank. The Center for Jewish Life, Princeton’s Hillel, quickly responded with a letter stating that the CJL is “taking the best, positive strategic approach to defeat this action.”
As a Jewish undergraduate at Princeton, the CJL is a very important community to me. I go there every day, and most of my experiences are overwhelmingly positive. I am consistently impressed by the dedication of the CJL staff to their students.
I view the CJL as my home on campus, and so I was particularly surprised by the CJL’s letter. Because I am an observant Jew who cares deeply about Israel and opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, I was upset by the letter’s implication that such opposition is an unquestioned assumption in our community. Along with many other Jewish students, I signed an open letter to the CJL and Hillel International, explaining my discomfort with the CJL’s stance.
Our letter did not take a stand on the issue of divestment itself. Rather, we asked for the CJL to refrain from taking a unilateral position where there is no consensus in our community. I do not oppose people speaking out against the faculty petition. The counter-petition signed by many faculty members and a petition created by Tigers for Israel, an Israel advocacy student group, are both legitimate and worthwhile. What I do oppose is the CJL, an organization meant to represent all Jews on campus, making a statement about Israel as if it were unanimous. This complex issue calls for ideological diversity and discussion, not a top-down initiative to “defeat this action” that alienates students.
Judith Butler speaks at the inaugural Open Hillel conference in Boston/Photo by Gili Getz/Open Hillel
(JTA) — Four rabbis are engaged in an animated debate about Jewish law. Three of them agree, but the dissenter is adamant that he’s got it right. He cries out: “A sign, God, I beg You, a sign!”
It begins to rain, but the three in the majority are not swayed. “Another sign, please God!”
The rain picks up and lightning strikes near the rabbis, but still the three refuse to budge. After another plea from the one rabbi, a voice thunders from Heaven: “Heeeee’s Riiiiight!” The three rabbis look at each other, not sure how to react. Finally, one responds: “Well, all right. So it’s three against two.”
This lighthearted parable — an adapted version of the Talmud’s “Oven of Akhnai” story — highlights one of the foundational truths of Judaism: We do not always agree on our foundational truths.
Our disagreements are not a hindrance to communal existence but rather the source of an intellectual diversity. No matter the subject, it is precisely in and through these disagreements that Judaism finds its richest expression.
Open Hillel — a student-led campaign to change a Hillel International rule that, among other things, precludes it from partnering with groups that seek to change Israeli policies through nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) efforts — is hosting our first conference this week at Harvard. We are gathering because we believe that the principle of intellectual diversity ought to apply to our politics as well as our theology.
Courtesy of Assaf Gavron and Brooklyn Book Festival
The Brooklyn Book Festival is a highlight of New York City’s early autumn cultural lineup: a bibliophile carnival with back-to-back panel discussions featuring prominent authors from the United States and around the world.
This year Assaf Gavron, a critically acclaimed author who grew up in a moshav near Jerusalem, participated in a panel called “A Sense of Place: Writing from Within and Without.” This particular panel caught my attention because the four participating authors were all male. But the controversy that ensued, as reported by Uri Blau for Haaretz, was not over the panel’s gender imbalance. Instead, it was over Israel: Apparently rather more people reading the description of the event noticed the provenance of its sponsorship — the Israeli foreign ministry.
In response to the program note that the panel was made possible “…with the support of Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs in New York,” Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign to Boycott Israel, published an open letter on its website, calling it “deeply regrettable” that the organizers accepted funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Operation Protective Edge. They note that Israel’s latest assault on Gaza “involved numerous potential war crimes.” Among the hundreds of signatories are Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, and Anand Gopal, the Wall Street Journal correspondent whose book on U.S policy in Afghanistan has won wide critical acclaim.
Also in the Adalah-NY letter is this important bit: “This is not, we emphasize, a call to isolate or boycott individual Israelis, but an effort to renounce business as usual with a state that routinely violates international law and basic human rights with impunity.”
I do believe that Adalah-NY is absolutely sincere in its insistence that it is not calling for a boycott of individual Israelis. I also believe that boycott is a legitimate means of non-violent protest. The problem is not the intention, but the potential repercussions. A ban on accepting Israeli government sponsorship would mean, de facto, that Israeli authors, dancers, filmmakers, artists and even academics would be unable to participate in international cultural and academic events.
Yesterday, Jane Eisner, with whom I most often agree, wrote about the Presbyterian vote to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. These are three companies that reportedly participate in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by providing heavy equipment for the construction of the barrier-fence, the destruction of Palestinian homes and building settlement roads. The vote passed at this year’s biennial assembly by a slim margin of 310-303.
Eisner wrote about an implied argument of Netanyahu’s in a speech he gave to a group of journalists last Tuesday night at the first Jewish Media Summit. The Prime Minister, in a “snide tone” according to Eisner, had two suggestions for the Presbyterians whom he invited for a tour of the region (Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq): “One, make sure the bus is an armor-plated bus, and two, don’t say you’re Christian.”
This implied that the Presbyterian decision to divest held Israel to an unfair double standard. For Eisner that meant something very stark and very disturbing: the Presbyterian vote, by virtue of the fact that it singled out Israel while ignoring the abuses perpetrated by Israel’s neighbors, particularly against Christians, was “biased, hypocritical and, yes, anti-Semitic.”
But I’m not sure it is. Far be it from me to claim expertise in identifying anti-Semitism, but it’s worth noting that the resolution includes a line that explicitly distances the Church from “an alignment with the overall strategy of global BDS,” a movement which can at times arguably be accused of real, historically recognizable anti-Semitic tropes (I personally do not support BDS for reasons explained here, here and here). And while I’ll admit that neither this distancing nor even explicit statements of philo-Semitism are any kind of proof — one can claim to love bananas and still hate bananas — I’d like to point out a few things about the perhaps more specific argument of “double standard” that the Presbyterians purportedly uphold.
Choir members at the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida / Getty Images
When Christians fight, Jews are collateral damage. The prize is Israel, or at least how Americans perceive Israel. That’s one lesson to take away from the Presbyterian Church-USA’s (PC-USA) decision on June 20 to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank: Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.
The debate preceding the vote at the PC-USA’s General Assembly was emotional, or at least as emotional as a debate can be that features speakers whose lilting cadence is reminiscent of Mr. Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister. At one point, the bow-tie-wearing moderator sighed, “Guess I won’t be going to Israel next week.”
The divestment resolution passed by the slimmest of margins — the vote was 310-303. Shortly after, groups associated with the BDS movement trumpeted their achievement and a remarkably unified American Jewish establishment issued ritualized statements complete with finger-pointing and outrage. Even J Street’s senior vice president for community relations, Rachel Lerner, who attended the General Assembly to protest the resolution, expressed her exasperation with the PC-USA. “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads,” she told me.
You’d think that this was the first time a church group had voted to use economic pressure to call attention to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. It’s not. The Mennonite Central Committee voted to divest last year. The Quaker American Friends Service Committee did so even earlier. Nor does the PC-USA vote signal a wholesale divestment from Israel or announce the latest dubious success of the BDS movement. The final text of the PC-USA resolution explicitly rejects the “alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS movement.” The fact that the vote will be misconstrued by observers and manipulated by BDS partisans who lobbied PC-USA delegates doesn’t alter the narrow scope of the resolution. BDS supporters will not be cheered that the resolution reaffirms the Church’s longstanding support of a two-state solution and the importance of “a secure and universally recognized State of Israel.”
Nonetheless, David Brog, executive director of Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), vented his frustration with the Presbyterians before the vote in an email statement to me: “The fact that they are focusing their attention on the one democracy in the Middle East…raises troubling questions.” Indeed there are troubling questions at the heart of the PC-USA’s decision, but those questions have as much to do with Christian sectarianism as with anti-Israel politics.
Members of the Presbyterian Church in Ohio attend a service in 2012 / Getty Images
Since the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly convened in Detroit on June 14, attendees have been preparing to vote on a resolution to divest from Israel-related investments. If we can assume the goal of the Presbyterian Church is to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, attendees should consider a better alternative: Rather than divesting from Israel, they should invest in ways that can improve the situation.
Historically, divestment has been used by socially responsible investors, but it is not effective in promoting compromise between two parties. Instead, a popular new approach called “impact investing” holds much more promise. Impact investors see a challenge in the world, such as climate change or poverty, and proactively pursue investments that attempt to remedy the problem — for example, clean energy or microfinance.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an enormous challenge, but so far investors have had very little positive impact on efforts to reach a peaceful solution. The divestment resolutions sponsored by the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) campaign damage any real prospects for peace. This one-sided approach targets Israel alone, despite the fact that both sides play a role in the prolonged conflict. BDS does nothing but exacerbate tensions, and creates a new avenue for non-military warfare between the parties instead of creating new avenues for cooperation.
Many BDS proponents are not peace activists seeking a negotiated agreement, but rather anti-Israel activists seeking the elimination of the Jewish homeland. Unfortunately some investors who genuinely want peace have become beguiled by the BDS campaign’s rhetoric.
Young British Jews stake out a liberal stance on Israel. / YouTube
American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”
In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.
But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”
Pro-Palestinian activists hold a banner reading ‘Boycott Israel’ in Paris in 2010. / Getty Images
Score this one in the victory column for BDS supporters and, much more broadly, for anyone who believes we should use language accurately — especially when we’re dealing with loaded terms like “anti-Semitism.”
EBSCO Information Services, a major provider of library resources and online research databases, raised eyebrows when it initially classified articles about BDS — the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — under the heading “Anti-Jewish Boycotts.” After some sharp-eyed EBSCO users took to Twitter on Sunday and Monday to complain about the classification, the company acknowledged its mistake and changed the indexing to “Boycotts.”
Finally submitted a complaint to EBSCO to get them to stop using “Anti-Jewish Boycotts” to describe articles about BDS/boycotts of Israel.ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
@edrabinski Yeah, and then I found an article about actual anti-Jewish boycotting (Nazi-era), and it didn't have that descriptor.ampmdash; Informed Agitation (@InfAgit) March 9, 2014
It’s not hard to see why people were upset to discover that an American research database was defining BDS as “anti-Jewish.” That definition buys into the popular but deeply flawed rhetoric that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown fond of promoting, and that other Israeli politicians and American Jewish leaders have grown fond of parroting. It’s a definition that assumes all Israel boycotts are inherently anti-Semitic — a logical fallacy that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Writing in Tablet Magazine, Liel Liebovitz — or perhaps Tablet’s headline writer — recently asked the apparently rhetorical question “Why Talk About Israel With People Who Want It To Disappear?”
Here are five answers.
1. Because many of them and their supporters are Jews.
Hillel, the Jewish Museum, Ramaz and other organizations that have lately banned anyone who supports BDS or is otherwise insufficiently pro-Israel all have missions that involve outreach to Jews. Are some Jews simply beyond the pale? Do we give up on Jewish peoplehood when Jewish people aren’t supportive enough of Israel? Perhaps instead of swearing fealty to an ideological position, organizations that do outreach to Jews should do outreach to Jews.
2. Because talking with people who disagree with us is good.
I’m not really clear why this has to be stated, but since Liebovitz argues forcefully that it’s better not to talk to some people, I guess it does. Encountering people we disagree with is part of the process of becoming a grown-up. Thoughtful people listen to people we disagree with, and dialogue with them to see where we disagree and why. This process may not persuade anyone, but that’s not the point; the point is to be thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed. At Hillel, in particular, this should be an obvious value, since it works in a university context. Should students not read disagreeable philosophers? Should they boycott their disagreeable peers down the dorm room hall? Oh, and saying “you can go hear this anti-Israel speaker somewhere else” is not a reply. What that says is there’s a place for the free exchange of ideas, and then there’s a little Jewish ghetto where we don’t talk of such things.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Meir Porush at a Jerusalem polling station in 2008. / Getty Images
A boycott of West Bank settlements is a favorite subject for discussion among Palestinian activists and Western liberals alike. Surprisingly, it’s getting some ultra-Orthodox Israelis talking too.
In fact, a Haredi lawmaker has revealed that he’s coming under “tremendous pressure” to initiate a boycott of settlement enterprises. Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism is “preventing it” for the moment but said that he doesn’t know if he can keep a lid on it. “I do not know if this matter will remain under control,” he said.
Porush made the comments on the religious Kol Berama radio station and they were reported by the pro-settler news service Arutz Sheva.
So what’s the rationale behind this Haredi boycott mindset?
Pro-Palestinians activists demonstrate in 2010 in Paris, France. / Getty Images
No. It’s not.
The Prime Minister of Israel and the Grand Poobah of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Marching Band can say it as much and as loudly as they want. But the BDS movement is not, as Grand Poobah Malcolm Hoenlein put it yesterday, the “21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism.” And despite what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, when “people on the soil of Europe [talk] about the boycott of Jews,” they are not “classical anti-Semites in modern garb.”
No. Stop it.
Though I boycott the settlements, I don’t personally support BDS, for reasons that Bernard Avishai once expressed perfectly in The Nation, and I do not doubt that some members of that movement are unrepentant anti-Semites — just as some members of the Greater Israel movement are unrepentant racists and Islamophobes. Yesh ve’yesh, as we say in Hebrew. There are all kinds.
But there is simply nothing inherent to a call to boycott/divest from/sanction the modern nation state of Israel that is — inherently — an expression of (and here I quote the dictionary) “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”
David Harris-Gershon signs copies of his book / Austin Hill
When it comes to the communal tent of dialogue around Israel, the last few years have seen a concerted attempt by Jewish leaders and institutions to delineate who should be considered “in” and who should be kept “out.” On the heels of the controversy surrounding Hillel’s guidelines, the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center has now entered the fray in an embarrassing way.
Writing in Haaretz, David Harris-Gershon revealed this week that the DCJCC uninvited him from a previously scheduled book event. Harris-Gershon was to speak on his memoir “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” The reason for the cancellation? A July 2012 blog post Harris-Gershon wrote in Tikkun called “Today I’m Coming Out in Favor of BDS.” This is the second time in a few weeks that Harris-Gershon has been disinvited; as the Forward reported, last month, Hillel in Santa Barbara canceled an event at which he was slated to speak.
Last November, I wrote about the decision by Le Mood Montreal to bar two panelists due to their controversial views on Israel. But what we’re seeing now is a self-declared Zionist being barred from Jewish institutions for not being loyal enough — a new low in attempting to discipline discourse and silence meaningful dialogue.
In addition to the Scarlett Johansson Super Bowl ad, part of the reason that SodaStream has gotten so much attention — as opposed to many other products on the boycott Israel list — is because it presents an ethical conundrum for its lefty customers. SodaStream has become a symbol for health and environmentalism, but also for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
In other words, if you want to make your soda at home, but you’re also a BDS adherent — or even if you’re practicing limited, West-Bank-only BDS — you’re mostly out of luck. As a recent New York Magazine story pointed out, “Even the most fervent anti-Zionists will admit that, for seltzer addicts, SodaStream’s competitors leave something to be desired.”
But what happens if you’re a SodaStream detractor who happens to own a SodaStream — whether by dint of a gift, or a purchase made previous to a political awakening (or maybe even a guilty one-time acquisition)? Rather than toss their seltzer makers, some SodaStream owners are taking a cue from hackers who have figured out how to use the machines without continuing to support the company by buying its CO2. For the hackers, it’s all about saving money — a SodaStream CO2 cartridge, which must be replaced every two to four months, costs between $15 and $45. For the anti-occupation SodaStream owners, on the other hand, it’s political.
I would love to say that powerful argument won the day. I’d like to claim that intellect and facts persuaded the members, and whether the resolution was won or lost, its decisive outcome was a result of profound and significant reflection.
The first resolution before the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly served to censure the Israeli government for preventing the free and open travel of American academics to Palestine passed, despite little but anecdotal evidence.
The removal of the term ‘arbitrary’ from the original proposal in response to critical evidence proving the procedural legitimacy of Israel’s actions left a resolution which declaimed that Israel should no longer be allowed to control its own borders. With only 142 Americans denied access to Israel out of 626,000 last year, it seems ludicrous to consider a denial rate of 0.023% prejudicial and illegal. But that didn’t stop the resolution from passing 60:53.
Unfortunately, the public farce that was the Delegate Assembly made it impossible to take any of the process seriously. United in condemnation of the MLA officers who managed the room, both those who spoke for the resolution and those who spoke against it were mainly silenced by the arbitrary application of rules of governance, which frequently left the officers huddled at the back of the stage.
This year’s MLA was supposed to be discussing the crisis of affairs in the Humanities. Only a lucky few of the graduate students on the market with their freshly minted PhDs will find jobs in academia — ever.
The increasing corporatization of higher education is driving the scholarly agenda, as funders begin to dictate the scope of the university’s educational mission. Students are being pushed into ever higher debt in order to get undergraduate degrees, which further drives the expectation that only high paying jobs in business, accounting, and computing, to name but a few fields are worth their time and money.
Only those who anticipate that they will be able to carry mortgage sized debt, some for the next 25 years, can embark on advanced degrees in Law, Psychology, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary sciences, without strong financial support from family. All that is to say, we are making education for the rich, and for those who think they’ll probably be rich. We are making it for those who don’t already carry financial burdens for their families, for the families they hope to have, and the communities they’d like to one day contribute to.
Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student. Flickr: Hillel News and Views.
Hillel, the ancient sage, was famously impossible to insult. The Talmud portrays intellectuals, rebellious students, passersby and would-be converts as offering jokes, specious arguments, and outrageous claims — all to rattle the unflappable teacher. But in the face of faulty arguments, Hillel prevailed with a calm demeanor, taking it all in and returning volley with an equanimity and integrity that won him wide acclaim as one of Judaism’s greatest teachers.
Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century sage and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, quit Judaism in a moment of personal crisis, denied the existence of God, and left the Jewish people entirely. And yet, the Talmud preserves his story, too, even sharing tales of his rabbinic colleagues seeking his insights to Torah while riding horseback on the Sabbath. While the Talmud says that Elisha “pulled up the shoots,” uprooting his essential connection to Jewish identity, his story is nevertheless preserved.
In the case of Hillel and Elisha (and many others), the ancient and venerable Jewish literary tradition upholds the value and centrality of debate within the Jewish community.
It is therefore troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the “Open Hillel” movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella.
There’s a new weapon in the anti-BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) arsenal. It’s a viral video by Cleveland-based Orthodox hip-hop artist Ari Lesser, and, based on the more than 18,000 hits it’s gotten since Monday, it’s proving to be pretty powerful.
Lesser raps “Boycott Israel,” a catchy reggae number pointing out the hypocrisy of boycotting Israel when countries all over the world are committing human rights violations—many of them far worse than anything Israel is doing to the Palestinians. Lesser points out specific offences and atrocities committed globally—from North Korea to Syria to Russia to Ecuador, and every point in between.
The song’s refrain pretty much sums up Lesser’s point:
Boycott Israel if you think that’s just, But unless you have a double standard you must Also boycott the rest of the nations, Where there are human rights allegations. We’re not perfect, but if you think we’re the worst, First take a look at the rest of the Earth. Don’t pick and choose, to pick on the Jews, Pick up the paper and read the news.
The musician was commissioned by Here Is Israel, a new pro-Israel campus advocacy group, to write and perform the song.
“It’s not to say that Israel is always right — I definitely criticize when I disagree — but I don’t think a boycott of the whole country is honest,” Lesser told The Times of Israel. “Really, you see if you’re not willing to boycott every major country — and minor country — in the world, then BDS is anti-Semitism, or anti-Israelism, or whatever.”