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.
More than a year ago, Hillel President Eric Fingerhut declared that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” That statement came in response to the decision by Jewish students at Swarthmore College to open their doors to speakers and groups that oppose Israel’s occupation and those who support the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel.
This past week, Hillel International dramatically changed its position. Hillel International explicitly endorsed an event at Harvard’s Hillel that included a speaker who supported BDS, recognizing that the conversation taking place was part of a critical conversation in the American Jewish community. Open Hillel is proud to see that its campaign has made a positive impact on the nature of discourse at Harvard’s Hillel — and we hope that these types of conversations continue to take place at Hillel’s across the nation.
As Open Hillel has repeatedly emphasized, we do not support BDS — or any other political position. Open Hillel was founded with the sole purpose of advocating for open dialogue at college campuses across the country. The campaign has repeatedly refused to endorse any political positions relating to the Israel and Palestine conflict, and we have assiduously made attempts to engage all different members of the political spectrum. At Open Hillel we believe that only way to resolve the crisis in the Middle East is by resolving the crisis at home: we must respectfully listen to the other side, despite harsh ideological disagreements.
Harvard students pose at Yasser Arafat’s grave. / Twitter
Last Monday, the Harvard College Israel Trek went to the Muqata’a, the offices of the Palestinian government, in Ramallah. While they were there, the group took a picture with Yasser Arafat’s grave, which was inevitably Tweeted by the group’s tour guide. The photo was picked up by two far-right blogs — one Jewish, one not — and then nailed down by the Jewish Press, which ran the provocative headline “Jewish Donors Funded Harvard Students’ Trip to Arafat’s Grave.”
The headline, of course, is ridiculous: The family foundations and Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies funded a wide-ranging ten-day trip all over Israel for 50 of Harvard’s best and brightest, during which they spent half a day in Ramallah and 30 seconds for a photo shoot at Arafat’s grave.
But that’s not the point. The point is that allowing students to engage in conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Palestinians themselves is still taboo among the American Jewish establishment. And it’s high time that changed.
Florida’s Tea Party-backed Gov. Rick Scott announced that he will refuse to implement the Affordable Healthcare Act, despite President Barack Obama’s reelection. Refusing to set up a state exchange doesn’t necessarily matter that much, since the law empowers the federal government to set up an exchange for states that fail to do so on their own. But more than half the expanded coverage in the law is supposed to come from a federally-subsidized expansion of Medicaid. So if Scott refuses to permit his state’s Medicaid to be expanded despite the federal subsidy (the feds cover 100% of the cost of expansion through 2016, dropping to 90% by 2020 – not a big burden on the states), then the impact of the law is crippled.
Conservative groups are urging other governors to refuse.
This raises an interesting question. State nullification of federal law was supposed to have been settled by the Civil War, but it’s suddenly become a big issue again. And not just on the right. The legalization of marijuana in a growing (get it?) number of states is setting up a serious confrontation with Washington, which still classifies weed as a Class I illegal narcotic, right alongside heroin, and is still raiding growers even in states where they’re acting legally.