A lot has happened at Brown RISD Hillel over the past few days after a group of Jewish students planned an event that they framed as a dialogue on competing Jewish and Palestinian narratives around the 1948 War of Independence.
As members of Brown Students for Israel (BSI), we don’t shrink from discussions that challenge Israeli policies or are unflattering to the Jewish state. Instead we seek to provide the appropriate context to temper these challenges with measured, thoughtful and historically accurate counterargument. That’s why we agreed to sponsor the event along with J Street, so that Hillel would be able to host it in its building. But shortly before the event, titled “Jews Facing the Nakba,” it became apparent that the program was an opening move to establish an anti-Zionist student group within Brown RISD Hillel, and to make political statements that are contrary to BSI’s mission and to the core principles of the Hillel International movement. BSI deliberated further and we decided that the program was something we could not in good conscience support.
Brown RISD Hillel, in consultation with Hillel International, withdrew its sponsorship and logo because it had approved the event on the condition of unanimous sponsorship from all Israel-oriented student groups.
The student organizers of “Jews Facing the Nakba” then took advantage of Brown RISD Hillel’s open door policy and secretly went forward with the event at Hillel using a public meeting room within the Hillel building. From what we understand, the program was a guided exercise in identifying, parsing and atoning for every sin that the world’s only Jewish country may or may not have committed in order to exist on land which comprises just 0.22% of the Middle East.
It’s perfectly acceptable for an event to be partisan, and Brown’s campus certainly does not want for one-sided, anti-Israel events. But it’s hard to see how Hillel would be an appropriate place for this sort of event. Hillel must be open to the religious and social participation of all Jews, but it does not have to entertain proposals that operate against the interests of the Jewish community simply because there are Jews who support them.
Hillel is open to speakers whose criticisms of Israel might seem unreasonable or unfair to most of the Jewish community — and it should be. What Hillel cannot be open to, however, is programming that seeks to carve out an alcove for Jewish anti-Zionism within American-Jewish institutions. For BSI to have lent its name to this event would have been to concede that Jewish anti-Zionism deserves a home in our institutions. It doesn’t.
It seems that the first thing the organizers did after their event was to inform Open Hillel that they broke Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, and boast about their “accomplishment” on Facebook. This behavior makes sense, because a publicity stunt isn’t very effective without publicity. They could have exposed students to those films in any lecture hall at Brown, but they didn’t, because the program would have been meaningless to them if it didn’t work in concert with Open Hillel to challenge Hillel International.
The films shown at “Jews Facing the Nakba” were produced by Zochrot, a European-funded Israeli NGO that never misses an opportunity to weaken and slander the country that gives it the freedom to operate.
We emphasize that BSI pulled out not because we were afraid of the content or because we didn’t want the videos to “influence” other students against Israel. Students are certainly capable of sifting through competing information, analyzing bias and forming an opinion, and BSI has hosted events that discuss different perspectives on 1948 before, including one this semester. We reneged because the event represents a challenge to Hillel as a Zionist outpost on hostile terrain. Israel is unpopular at universities across the country — including Brown.
Some Jewish students rely on Hillel as a place to practice their religion. Others find a Jewish cultural home at Hillel. And still others need a community that respects their right to national peoplehood. Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people.
These Zionist students are targeted on campuses across America, and it is only at Hillels that we are safe from the discrimination, malice, ridicule, ad hominem attacks and sometimes even physical danger we experience elsewhere. Unlike anti-Zionists, who reign powerfully on many campuses, Zionists don’t have anywhere else to go. We need a single space where we can voice our ideas without fear.
Although we acknowledge that there are Jews who want to voluntarily surrender their right to self-determination, we bear no obligation to let them co-opt Zionist-built Jewish communal infrastructure to undermine us. We wouldn’t expect a women’s institution to invite anti-feminist groups (of any gender) into their spaces or an institution that represents people of color to invite groups (of any race) that oppose Black Lives Matter. Jews likewise need a space for those who believe in our liberation movement; we are not an exception.
Jewish students who oppose Israel’s right to exist are welcome into Hillel’s space to practice their Judaism. Anti-Zionist students are welcome at conversations hosted by BSI, which are always open and advertised to the public. They are also free to express their anti-Zionism in history classes, university programs, existing student groups and public spaces on campus in ways that Zionist students, even those of us who are frequently critical of the policies of the current Israeli government, often are not. But Hillel does not have a responsibility to bring into our space programming that seeks the reversal of our national liberation and equality movement.
Benjamin Gladstone and Jared Samilow are students at Brown University.