A Jewish student group at Columbia University canceled its sponsorship of a talk by a top Gaza-based United Nations official after facing pressure from the campus Hillel.
John Ging, who runs the Gaza operations of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, spoke at the New York City campus of Columbia’s Barnard College on November 14. His appearance was part of a speaking tour sponsored by the dovish Israel group J Street and its national campus arm, J Street U.
But J Street’s campus affiliate at Columbia, Just Peace, ended up withdrawing its co-sponsorship of the event. The Columbia/Barnard Hillel had urged Just Peace to cancel the event after unsuccessful attempts to find a mutually acceptable moderator who could respond to Ging’s criticism of Israeli policies.
The head of the main umbrella organization for national Jewish groups that work on Israel advocacy issues on college campuses expressed support for the campus Hillel’s handling of the issue.
“John Ging’s viewpoints are well known, as are his past history,” said Stephen Kuperberg, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition.
But J Street U’s national director, Daniel May, who introduced Ging at the Columbia event, took exception to the notion that Ging’s views are beyond the pale. If an event with Ging is considered illegitimate, May said, “then we are effectively saying that any criticism, any questioning of the effectiveness of Israel’s policies, is illegitimate.”
Columbia/Barnard Hillel representatives said that they would have liked to see the talk happen under Hillel’s umbrella, but that time constraints and the inability to settle on a mutually acceptable format led them to recommend that Just Peace, a campus group operating within the Hillel structure, withdraw its support.
Hillel staff and student leaders raised concerns about the Ging event in late October. The event as planned would have consisted of a speech by Ging and no moderator, a format with which campus Hillel leaders were uncomfortable.
“A format that is simply standing up at a podium, lecturing for an hour, and answering questions if there is time, is not conducive or compatible to a learning experience in which students can have real exchange of ideas,” said Simon Klarfeld, executive director of Columbia/Barnard Hillel.
Both Klarfeld and Jonah Liben, a Columbia senior and the Hillel’s Israel coordinator, noted as points of concern allegations that Ging had expressed support for the May effort by pro-Palestinian activists to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza with a flotilla of ships — an attempt that ended in the deaths of nine passengers when Israeli forces boarded the largest ship and clashed violently with people onboard.
“Why John Ging’s support of the flotilla was particularly problematic for this community was because it was perceived… [as] saying that Israel’s right to defend its borders, or even its legally recognized borders, is not the primary concern,” Klarfeld said. “Hillel stands firmly by Israel’s right to be a Jewish, democratic state within secure borders, and therefore an individual who has questioned the legality and need for Israel to defend its borders is potentially questioning Israel’s right to be a sovereign nation, and therefore incredibly controversial.”
Ging has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and of Israel’s actions in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. In the lead-up to the flotilla bloodshed, Ging was widely quoted saying: “The international community must take responsibility on this issue and embrace practical ways to break the siege, because it is possible to break it.” That quote and others — originally from an interview in a Norwegian newspaper — were interpreted as supporting the flotilla. But Ging maintains that they were taken out of context.
In an interview with the Forward, Ging denied supporting the May flotilla. “I am opposed to illegal actions, however justified the cause might be,” Ging said. He continued: “I don’t support divestment, I don’t support boycotting, I don’t support an anti-Israel approach.”
Klarfeld and Liben said that they had wanted Ging’s speech to be sponsored by the Hillel-affiliated student group, and that intensive efforts were made to come to a resolution. Moderators suggested by Hillel were either unavailable or unacceptable to Just Peace.
On the evening of November 9, Hillel administrators sent an e-mail to the leadership of Just Peace in which they said that they “strongly advise” that the group cancel the event. Instead, the group removed its name from the event, but it went on with other sponsors, including the Columbia University Democrats, among other groups.
Klarfeld said that he did not think Ging’s views meant he should be denied an opportunity to speak.
“The clear line is, do you support Israel’s right to exist; do you support a two-state solution, do you support Israel’s right to defend itself,” Klarfeld said. “What made it such an important and difficult process was the gray area that we felt [Ging] fell into, which is why it’s controversial to have him speak, but it’s not a reason to not have him speak, which was why the efforts were really, really made to have it happen.”
“We tried everything we could to ensure the conversation stayed within the Jewish community,” said Abby Backer, a Barnard College sophomore and president of Just Peace. “Unfortunately, time just really didn’t allow for that.”
The controversy over the Ging event comes at a time of heightened anxiety within the Jewish community over what are seen as efforts to delegitimize Israel, with college campuses emerging as a particular area of concern.
On November 15, the Israel on Campus Coalition and Hillel’s international body announced a new arrangement between the two groups, whereby the ICC — formerly a part of Hillel’s nonprofit structure — will become its own nonprofit. The ICC will reform itself primarily as an advocacy organization, with a particular focus on opposing delegitimization efforts, while the international Hillel organization’s Israel programs will focus on education, and on Birthright Israel follow-up.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.