It all started innocently enough: The Israel Committee of Santa Barbara, Calif., which works with the local chapter of Hillel, American Jewry’s on campus program for students, invited author David Harris-Gershon to keynote its annual Israel educational event in April.
Harris-Gershon expected to talk about his recent book, which tells the tale of his reconciliation with the family of a Palestinian terrorist who nearly killed his wife.
Yet after extending the invitation, leaders of the Hillel chapter learned that Harris-Gershon, a self-proclaimed progressive Zionist who supports Israel as a Jewish state and backs a two-state solution, had also publicly endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement. On Jan. 8, they decided to rescind the invitation, citing the still-raw atmosphere following a campus push for divestment from Israel last year.
That stunned Harris-Gershon, particularly given that the focus of his talk was to be on his book – not boycotting Israel.
Thus, just one month after a feud broke out between Hillel International and its Swarthmore College chapter over its pro-Israel guidelines, began the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy on another college campus some 3,000 miles away.
“It’s an example of how far an organization can go to limit dialogue and debate based upon Hillel International’s guidelines,” said Harris-Gershon. “How on earth does Hillel intend to actually advertise itself as an open place for university students when large swaths of university students won’t [fit in]?”
The author even wrote a statement expressing his support for Israel’s right to exist as a democratic Jewish state, a document he called a “loyalty oath.” He says he did so at the behest of organizers; they deny asking him to do so. Either way, it didn’t sway them to change their minds.
Rabbi Evan Goodman, executive director of the Hillel chapter at the University of California, Santa Barbara, strongly stood by the decision, noting it was taken against the backdrop of a tense environment on campus following debate over a resolution supported by pro-Palestinian groups calling on the University of California to divest from specific international companies deemed linked to the Israeli occupation.