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Princeton Jewish Community Split Over Hillel Stand on Divestment

When 60 tenured professors called on Princeton University’s trustees to divest the school from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, campus Hillel leaders did what might seem natural: They promoted a student counter-petition strongly defending Israel.

But now, Princeton Hillel is facing public criticism from a surprising source: some students from within its own community, including two Hillel student board members and several of the campus center’s most active student leaders.

By sending out a mass email to the Hillel community urging opposition to the faculty members’ petition, these students say, Hillel’s executive director, Rabbi Julie Roth, spoke out wrongly in the name of the whole Jewish community.

In an open letter to the Center for Jewish Life, as Princeton’s Hillel is known, the 38 Princeton Jewish students complained that Roth had taken a position against the tenured professors’ divestment petition “as though taking such action is a foregone conclusion for our community.”

Roth’s action “gave an institutional stance on a political issue that’s still up for debate in the community,” Josh Leifer, one of the letter’s authors, told the Forward.

In the letter, which was published November 12 in the Daily Princetonian, the campus newspaper, the students also criticized the policy of Hillel International, CJL’s parent body, which precludes CJL from hosting or participating in discussions with people or groups that support boycotting, divesting from or sanctioning Israel, or BDS, as the movement is known.

The internal reaction suggested the degree to which concern has grown among some highly involved Jewish students at this elite Ivy League school about Israel’s current policies, along with opposition to Hillel International’s restrictions on those with whom their local Hillel may work. Among those who signed the open letter criticizing CJL were CJL student board members Gabriel Fisher and Yossi Quint, and five of the center’s community engagement interns, who conduct outreach activities on CJL’s behalf in the broader Princeton community.

“I am at the CJL every single day,” said Maya Rosen, a sophomore at the University who signed the petition critical of CJL and described herself as “an observant Jew who cares deeply about Israel and opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.” Rosen added that she was pleased with the discussion in the CJL community that had resulted from the open letter, and the initial faculty petition.

“Our letter did not take a stand on the issue of divestment itself,” she stressed later in an article she published on the Forward’s blog site, Forward Thinking. “The counter-petition signed by many faculty members and a petition created by Tigers for Israel, an Israel advocacy student group, are both legitimate and worthwhile. What I do oppose is the CJL, an organization meant to represent all Jews on campus, making a statement about Israel as if it were unanimous.”

But Princeton senior Tehila Wenger, who is also active at the CJL, countered that the Jewish students opposed to Hillel should not air their grievance in a public forum.

“It becomes a shouting match,” she said. “I think it was an honest attempt but not the right way to go about it.”

Wenger said that there are students who feel much more comfortable as a result of CJL’s policy against hosting or working with pro-divestment speakers or organizations. “I think a lot of students on campus feel uncomfortable to the point of feeling attacked in certain classes and certain social settings,” Wenger said. “I think the CJL is a haven for those students.”

The CJL critics, however, said this policy came at the cost of comfort for Jewish students who are more critical of Israeli policy.

“We wanted to make sure it was clear to Jewish students across campus that they should have a home at the CJL,” said Rosen. “No one should feel alienated from an inclusive and pluralistic Jewish institution because of their political beliefs.”

The internal debate was but the latest development set off by the tenured faculty members’ divestment petition, which was published November 5 in the Daily Princetonian.

“The intention of our petition was to clarify that there is faculty support for divestment,” said Max Weiss, a professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at the university. “There is already student activism which is operating on its own terms.”

There are about 550 tenured faculty member at Princeton, meaning about 11% have signed the petition. Organizers say they limited the list to tenured faculty to protect junior faculty from having to take a stand on such a controversial topic. Weiss said that many of the professors who signed the petition were galvanized to take a stand by the Israeli war in Gaza last summer. Among those who signed was sociology professor Douglas Massey, who is president of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. “If you’re critical of a policy position, and you don’t take a stand, that’s cowardly,” he told the Forward.

Roth declined to comment about the internal CJL debate to the Forward. But in an interview with the Daily Princetonian, she said that her purpose in sending out the mass email to CJL’s listserve was to counter any impression that the tenured professors’ petition represented a campus consensus. Her second purpose, she said, was to publicize the belief of those who signed the Tigers for Israel letter that Israel was being unfairly singled out.

“When I saw the faculty petition to divest, I was struck by the one-sided blame based on Israel and the missed opportunity to promote a more constructive pro-solution conversation,” she told the campus paper.

The faculty divestment petition stated that Israel has been occupying the West Bank “for nearly half a century” while seizing Palestinian land and building an ever-increasing number of exclusively Jewish settlements there. It called on Princeton to “divest from all companies that contribute to or profit from” the occupation, and cited three by name: Motorola, Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard, all of which sell products or services to the Israeli security forces that are used in their West Bank operations.

The organizers of the faculty divestment petition planned to present it to Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber on November 19. The university has not so far publicly commented on the pro-divestment petition.

A faculty counter-petition was published later that week, with 63 signatures from tenured and non-tenured faculty members. And a counter-petition for students by a campus pro-Israel group, Tigers for Israel, which was distributed in Roth’s email, has gathered at least 300 signatures.

The Princeton Committee on Palestine, a pro-Palestinian group, is also gathering signatures for a pro-divestment petition of its own. They claim to have gathered 500 signatures.

The Tigers for Israel petition called for direct negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian parties and criticized divestment as counterproductive.

“When we saw the divestment letter, we — or at least I — felt that it was important that students on campus saw that many people disagreed with it,” Samuel Major, the president of Tigers for Israel, told the Daily Princetonian. He declined two interview requests from the Forward.

Some of the Jewish students who supported the divestment petition stressed that it targets only companies that profit from their involvement in Israel’s West Bank occupation. But Wenger was unconvinced by this distinction.

“They’re coming from the same place, in my eyes,” she said, of the professors’ petition and the broader boycott Israel movement.

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