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.”
I appreciate Hillel Halkin’s passionate response to a cartoon that supports the boycott of Israel, promotes anti-Semitism, and advocates a viewpoint that he insists must not be permitted in a Jewish newspaper.
Unfortunately, that is not the cartoon I drew.
My cartoon pilloried the absurdity and intellectual vacuity of hasbara, the public relations effort by Israel and its supporters to disseminate the Israeli point of view. It was a satire of chauvinistic Jewish discourse on the issue of Israel in light of the recent uproar against Stephen Hawking, and it made no comment either for or against what Halkin calls “the Israel boycott movement.”
To be sure, Halkin alludes to the actual content of my cartoon in order to summarily dismiss it, insisting that the most jingoistic critiques of Hawking — particularly of the “He Should Discard His Israeli-Made Intel Voice Chip” variety — were fringe and marginal. Hillel Halkin’s claim is not supported by fact. But having made this claim, he goes on to insist that my cartoon can only be read as a championing of boycotts. “It is a pro-boycott cartoon,” Halkin concludes about a satire of contemporary Jewish debate.
If Halkin would prefer to discuss the boycott movement rather than a cartoon about hasbara, he might be surprised to learn that I am not an advocate of boycotting Israel for the same reason that I am not an advocate of censoring items from Jewish newspapers based on ideological filters. I have faith in open discourse, I have confidence in the capacity of people to reason and grapple with opinions they might not agree with, and I feel that when we start outlawing the free exchange of ideas, we sacrifice much more than a single cultural exchange or cartoon.
British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking waded into the Israel debate last week by announcing his decision to boycott an academic conference. Eli Valley, the Forward’s artist in residence, offers his own unique graphic take on the controversy.
Got wheels, Mr. Hawking?
As it transpired, the brouhaha surrounding Brooklyn College’s BDS event was a good deal of hullabaloo over not a lot. Roughly 300 people turned up to listen to Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti speak about the need to boycott and divest from Israel, while outside the hall 150 protested either in favour of or against the event and the movement. In the end, those proposing that the event be shut down were made to look rather foolish.
Far better, perhaps, that Alan Dershowitz and others sought to negate their right to speak redirect their efforts and energies into cautioning against BDS’ even tacit acceptance by those liberal Zionists who earnestly wish to see the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the coming about of two states for two peoples. BDS, it has become apparent, has no interest in this – indeed, as a movement and an idea, it is fundamentally incompatible with Zionism.
That much is evident from its manifesto. For, in addition to advocating an end to the occupation, the dismantling of the Security Barrier, and the recognition of full rights for Arab Israelis, BDS demands “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” At present, there are five million Palestinians – one third residing in villages and camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding states – who are refugees according to the UNWRA standard.
Setting aside the impracticality of the proposition — would the Israeli authorities evict Jewish families from their homes in Haifa and Yafo? — permitting the influx of that many Palestinian exiles would only serve to undo and end the Zionist project. Instead of there being one Jewish and one Arab state between the river and the sea, there would instead be two Arab-majority states, and with time, one state. As such, and as Yair Rosenberg has argued, the right of return and BDS is “antithetical to the two-state solution, the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accepted by majorities on both sides and the international community.”
In his latest column, Philologos correctly parses the linguistic problems with Yitzhak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg’s invented term, “Jew-washing.” His political analysis, alas, fails miserably.
Philologos has it completely wrong when he speaks of the “anti-Semitism in boycotts of Israel.” To begin with, Santis and Steinberg did not use the term “Jew-washing” in reference to a boycott of Israel as a whole, but rather to a resolution recently brought to the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that called for divestment of their pension funds from three specific companies that profit from Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank.
Regardless, it is highly disingenuous for Philologos to accuse the Presbyterian Church of anti-Semitism. Our Christian friends’ response to the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), reflects their deeply held commitment to justice in a land their tradition also considers holy.
While I am not a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, I can’t help but be pulled into the controversy surrounding a prized neighborhood institution as it debates whether or not to take a position on boycotting Israeli food products. The coop will vote on March 27th on whether or not to hold a referendum for the coop to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement. What I don’t understand is: What is the goal of the organizers of this effort? If their goal is to end Israel’s occupation and create a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, then this is the wrong way to go about it. If the goal is delegitimize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state, then full speed ahead.
For months now, I have been dissecting communications and articles by BDS activists, for a range of reasons, both personal and professional. In one case, I was helping a friend to decide whether or not to perform in Israel. That’s why I found myself going through literally dozens and dozens of Facebook posts imploring him not to frequent Israel, posted by BDS activists all apparently reading from the same hymnal.
It was an illuminating exercise. I discovered that many of the emails were orchestrated from activists in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, much less so from the Palestinian Authority areas (which I usually call Palestine), and a good amount from inside Israel from Israeli Jewish BDS activists. The language was almost uniformly against “Israeli apartheid,” and never once against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the onerous conditions still partly the domain of Israel regarding border crossing and closures in Gaza. In fact, there was almost zero distinction between the occupied territories and what I consider to be Israel proper (as does much of the world’s powers), Israel within the 1967 borders more or less.
There is a reason for this. BDS’s prime motivation, if their messaging is to be believed, is not to end the occupation at all; rather, it is to end Israel. This plays directly into the very hands of those who are maintaining the occupation and who have an interest, even, in strengthening the occupation.
The first national conference of the BDS movement, going on now at the University of Pennsylvania, has certainly riled up people on all sides of this controversial topic, as our Naomi Zeveloff reports here.
Let’s put aside for a moment whether this movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel is about undoing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory or eliminating Israel as a Jewish state. (I fear the latter). But one thing ought to be clear: If our adherence to the principle of free speech means that Penn was right to allow the conference to take place — and I think the university was right — then the conference organizers ought to treat all members of the media equally.
It’s not for PennBDS, or any other self-appointed arbiter, to decide who gets to cover a newsworthy event. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Jewish Exponent, the newspaper covering the Jewish community in the Philadelphia area.
We recently ran a symposium on our op-ed pages gathering together various opinions on what will happen in September when the Palestinians ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state. Even though there was quite a range of opinion — from condemnation to encouragement — I was surprised to find that the overall tone of all the contributions was gloomy. Even Maen Areikat, the PLO’s representative to the United States, characterized the move as a “last resort” — a far cry from the excitement I would expect to accompany the birth of one’s nation.
Now it seems even the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, that international web of activists that works to advance the goals of a committee of Palestinian civil society organizations, sees no real positive gain from UN-approved statehood.
The BDS National Committee issued a statement earlier this week reiterating their position on the unilateral UN push. Basically it boils down to seeing it as a nice gesture, but hardly making a dent in achieving their goals (goals, I should add, that they always leave purposefully vague — a clear desire for a one-state solution, which they never state explicitly but hides just under the cover of asking Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law). The new statement actually makes this stance much more explicit. They are not satisfied with Palestinian statehood, since that would not take into the account all the Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza. They should be allowed to return to their pre-1948 homes. This, of course, as everyone knows, means death by demography for the Jewish state.
I’m still reeling from the news yesterday that the Knesset passed the anti-boycott law. It’s reassuring to know that it’s not just Israelis on the left that are outraged by this. In this morning’s Maariv, Ben Caspit, one of Israel’s most prominent and influential columnists, tears into the new law, expressing much anguish — you can read the original Hebrew or a translation. He is not, by any stretch, sympathetic to boycotts, which he calls “childish” and “fairly silly.” Caspit was in fact the first Israeli journalist to publicize the findings of the right-wing group Im Tirzu, which painted an ominous picture of the human rights NGOs operating in Israel. This is no knee-jerk leftie. He’s just shocked about what happened yesterday:
The idea of a boycott law was not born in sin, but the baby itself yesterday emerged into the world as a bad thing. Yes, I too think that Israeli companies that won tenders to build in the Palestinian city of Rawabi on condition that they boycott the settlements should suffer from government sanctions. The government has the tools to do this. And I also think that theaters that receive government funding cannot boycott Ariel. In this matter too, there are tools to handle this. But when this law is also applied to private people, and when the determination as to “what is a boycott” is taken away from the court and given to bureaucrats, and when private citizens can be convicted for voicing their opinion, based on the determination of those bureaucrats and also to sentence them to pay compensation even without proving damage, this is fascism. This is a blatant and a resounding shutting of people’s mouths. This is a thought police. There is no choice but to use this word. Fascism at its worst is raging.
Even if you don’t agree with the aims of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, there is great reason to be concerned about what is transpiring in the Israeli parliament at this moment (for Hebrew speakers, live proceedings can be seen here). Debate is underway over a bill that would impose harsh punishment and financial fines on anyone engaged in the nonviolent protest tactic of boycotting, directly or indirectly, Israeli goods or institutions (even if the boycott is not successful).
This is an odious law for the ways in which it chills free speech in Israel — if democracy’s greatest test is its ability to allow the harshest criticism, whether the flag burners or the boycotters, Israel will be failing if it passes this law.
But what makes it even worse is that it purposefully conflates protest against the occupation with protest against Israel. The text of the bill, courtesy of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, defines a “a boycott against the State of Israel” in the following way: “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage.” (emphasis mine)