Ousted Student Leader Becomes Darling of Left

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 07, 2004, issue of May 07, 2004.
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An irate e-mail to the Israeli Embassy in Washington may have cost Jilian Redford her job as the leader of the Jewish student organization on her campus, but it transformed the 20-year-old into a darling of Jewish peace activists nationwide.

Since her ouster in February as president of the Hillel at the University of Richmond, Redford has been embraced by the left-wing Jewish organization Tikkun. She was invited to the group’s teach-in at the Rayburn Congress Building in Washington on April 27, where she delivered an impassioned speech.

Redford described the e-mail that started it all as a political “coming out” in an interview with the Forward. During most of her time as Hillel president, Redford had muzzled her political views on Israel. One day in February, however, after receiving two copies of the same e-mail message from the Israeli Embassy, she says she decided not to hold her tongue any more.

In her impromptu response, Redford wrote, “Could you please stop sending me email after email about radical zionist propaganda [sic], I don’t know if you realize that Hillel’s mission statement is based on fostering religious life on college campuses and not organizing marches, protests, or listening to speakers who encourage us to hate our Palestinian neighbors in Israel.”

Growing up in Arkansas and then moving to the relatively sheltered Jewish community in Richmond, Va., Redford said she had little sense of the political reverberations that would be triggered by her informal e-mail retort to the embassy. That quickly changed.

The next morning, February 13, Redford was called in to speak with Lisa Looney, the staff adviser for Hillel at the Richmond Jewish Community Center, who had been alerted to Redford’s e-mail by the Israeli Embassy. Two weeks later, after Redford refused to resign, Looney relieved Redford of her duties.

The political views Redford disclosed in her e-mail were part of the problem, according to Looney, but the larger issue was that Redford’s e-mail to the embassy, which ended with Redford’s standard e-mail signature as “UR Hillel President,” was “disrespectful and inappropriate.”

In dismissing Redford, Looney also cited a previous incident just weeks earlier, when Redford had called a professor at the university “racist.” That professor, Redford says, had told her privately that Palestinians were “inherently evil.”

Redford’s dismissal highlights difficult questions about the proper boundaries of political dissent over Israel — particularly on campuses, where students are still working through their political ideas and how to present them properly. Tikkun and another organization, Jewish Voices for Peace, have picked up on these issues by making Redford a poster child for dissent.

But the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition at Hillel’s national office, Wayne Firestone, says the matter should not be turned into a crusade for free speech or the right to criticize Israel.

“All of her views are invited at Hillel,” Firestone said. “The problem comes when you are expected to play a leadership role, and be respectful in correspondence, and instead you say, no I’ll respond any way I want. That is pretty inconsistent with any type of organizational affiliation.”

Firestone was referring to an e-mail Redford wrote to Looney, after their first meeting, in which Redford defiantly wrote: “I’ll respond to any email I receive in a way I see fit.”

Redford said her unwillingness to back down put her in a rather lonely position on campus. She says that she felt uncomfortable going to Hillel for the Passover holiday, and spent the first night at home, alone. Since the story has come out, though, she has had no shortage of friends.

Richmond history professor Robert Blecher, initiated a petition, demanding that Richmond’s Hillel offer Redford an apology.

Blecher sees the story in less stark terms than Tikkun and Jewish Voices for Peace. He admitted that Redford’s statement was perhaps “impolitic,” but, he told the Forward, “she was a college student trying to find her political voice. If a professor had written her note, it might have been inappropriate, but it’s the purpose of a university to encourage students to speak their minds even when they do so in an unpolished way.”

Explaining his support for Redford, Blecher pointed to a wide array of political programming that the student put together as Hillel president. She organized one event with Blecher – who is left-leaning on Israel – but she also brought in a politically moderate professor and a speaker from the pro-Israel media watchdog group, CAMERA.

Blecher was particularly distressed by Redford’s claim that Looney told her the Israeli embassy had asked for her removal. The embassy and Looney both denied that charge, and said the embassy had done nothing more than forward Redford’s e-mail back to the Hillel.

The University of Richmond administration did not ignore Blecher’s request for further attention to be paid to Redford’s case. The vice president for student affairs at the university, Leonard Goldberg, called Redford in after she was dismissed to express his concern. Following this discussion, Goldberg worked with the JCC to ensure that any future decisions about Hillel policy are made by students rather than JCC officials, who are not affiliated with the university.

Like Firestone, though, Goldberg said that Redford’s e-mail to the embassy was inappropriate for a student leader. Equally troubling to Goldberg was that Redford called a Richmond professor “racist.”

That incident, Redford says, was the first true step in her political liberation. Redford had gone to speak with the professor because of her lingering uncertainties about the peace process in the Middle East. When she began college, Redford had almost no knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she began poring over the topic in courses during her sophomore year.

When she asked the professor about the peace process, though, Redford says she was told that Palestinians have an “innate capability of killing people in cold blood” and are “inherently evil.”

“For a girl who grew up in the South around people who use the N-word all the time, it sounded strangely familiar,” Redford told the Forward.

The matter only blew up weeks later when JCC officials asked Redford if she would invite the professor in to speak to Hillel. Redford refused and called the professor a “racist.”

The university has denied that the professor made the remarks, and Redford says she has been told that she could be the subject of a libel lawsuit if she publicly stated the professor’s name.

For now, with the spring semester over, Redford is leaving all the accusations and threatening rhetoric behind. As she spoke to the Forward she was packing her bags in preparation for a summer trip to London, where she will begin an internship at the House of Parliament next week.

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