Last week Avraham Infeld, president of the Jewish campus organization Hillel, rightfully stated that tzedakah is easier than tzedek . The difference between charity and justice, he pointed out at the Spitzer Forum on Public Policy/JCPA Plenum, is the difference between providing essentials like food or clothing and dealing with the root causes of poverty and inequality.
Infeld’s insight was so right. Why, then, was Hillel’s Spitzer Forum, which was ostensibly committed to social justice, so very wrong?
According to the conference literature, the forum’s priority was to “make the connection between being a responsible citizen and a responsible Jew, by exploring social justice work through a Jewish lens.” But what we experienced during this three-day bonanza was a culture of luxury, condescension and half-hearted commitments that was embarrassingly inconsistent with the mission. The apparent contradiction of hosting a social justice convention in a four-star hotel, the insulting infantilization of students, and the noticeable failure to address the structural inequities within the Jewish state, prompted us to question not only how Hillel defines social justice, but how it is training the next generation of Jewish leaders.
Held at a world-class hotel in Washington, D.C., the convention included a workshop on living on an activist’s budget — though Hillel money was spent on hotel rooms plusher than “shoestring” might imply. Though it included a workshop on environmentalism, the conference distributed hundreds of bottles of spring water — but no recycling bins to responsibly dispose of any event-created waste. Nominally committed to not just charity but to justice, the forum opened with two speakers and a film about bone-marrow donations — which is an important and noble undertaking, but is not a case of structural injustice. Furthermore, even if the conference had momentarily changed its focus to charity, the program was remiss: There was no way to register with the National Marrow Donor Program.
While we hoped the forum would model responsible citizenship, we found ourselves wondering when the conference would end so we could resume being the socially, politically and environmentally responsible citizens we try to be.
Ostensibly, the forum was about more than just gestures toward charity and environmentalism. It was also an opportunity for students to learn about the political process firsthand by lobbying Congress on important issues — or so we were told.
Though the Spitzer Forum was held in conjunction with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ annual plenum, participants would end up JCPA’s political pawns. One morning’s lobbying activity for both the adults of the JCPA and the students of Spitzer contradicted, both in form and content, the kind of civic engagement the conference advocated.
In striking opposition to its mission of training responsible citizens, the forum used students to push contentious legislation that the JCPA had decided upon months before the convention. The bills included the renewal of the highly controversial Patriot Act with only minor revisions, and H.R. Bill 4681, which would curtail the critical Palestinian aid that pays the salaries of 130,000 employees, and would restrict our government’s ability to work with moderates like President Mahmoud Abbas.
As of the night before the lobbying activity, an informal survey of student participants revealed that the vast majority had no idea what they were lobbying for or why. Why would a conference that claims to want students, as its literature proclaims, to “Organize,” “Protest” and “Vote,” deprive them the opportunity to dissent from, or at least engage with, the highly suspect political agendas of both the JCPA and the American government itself?
The JCPA and the conference might have put their authority and ideology on the line had they opened themselves up to students’ participation. Indeed, we would have called it creating a culture of democracy.
The infantilization of students was part of a tactical decision to push a narrow agenda that obscured the thorny sides of the subjects at hand, and it began early. The Spitzer Forum opened with a celebration of Hillel’s 500th Birthright Israel trip. To us, this was not an example of the responsible Jewish global citizenship for which students were encouraged to strive, but an early sign of the conspicuous omission of sensitive, honest discussion about moral troubles in Israel.
By not mentioning Israel’s discrimination against its Arab citizens, its deepening gap between rich and poor, or the injustices resulting from occupation and the settlements, the introductory speakers glossed over two hard-hitting question on the domestic front: where our leaders want students’ priorities to be, on the one hand, and the self-criticism it really takes to achieve Jewish social justice, on the other.
While we respect the Bundist tradition of doykayt , which privileges local social justice initiatives over globetrotting good will, the Spitzer Forum’s giant moral sidestep was not motivated by such a principle. The conference, after all, made an honorable attempt to pick from the dossier of national and international issues, from rebuilding communities in the Gulf Coast to ending the genocide in Darfur.
The silence regarding the second-class status of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians was not only inconsistent with the sweeping vision of the conference; it actively encouraged another generation of Jewish leaders to follow the lead of the mainstream Jewish world in granting Israel a moral exemption. Indeed, the single Palestinian speaker spoke not about structural discrimination in Israeli society, but about the problem of racism in Palestinian society.
As two young Jewish professionals, ourselves undergraduates less than two semesters ago, we have faith in the intellectual and political agency of students. We want Hillel, as a central part of Jewish campus life, to foster a culture of responsibility, consciousness and democratic participation. As we see it, a generation critical in the classroom but curtailed at the Capitol is a generation cut off from a rich tradition of Jewish dissent and a contemporary reality full of pressing political issues.
We encourage the organizers of the next Spitzer Forum to regard Infeld’s distinction between tzedakah and tzedek with gravity. Even the most concerned citizens will never successfully tackle injustice if they can’t see the breadth and depth of it. Jewish students are the next generation of a community rooted in a deep commitment to living ethical lives. They deserve to be treated as equals, not as tools for an agenda not their own.
Benjamin Murane and Ilana Sichel are, respectively, executive director and editor in chief of New Voices Magazine and the Jewish Student Press Service.