Embracing Pluralism and Conflict at the Shabbat Table


Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This week, the Jewish student group, known formerly as (Open) Hillel, decided to change its name to reflect a more inclusive variety of viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a Jewish Swattie, I support this move as an active, intentional effort to reflect the diversity of opinions that the Jewish community at Swarthmore holds and is interested in exploring.

First, let’s start with a bit of history. Dissatisfaction with Hillel International has been brewing for a while, primarily because of its stipulations that its Chapters cannot bring in speakers critical of Israel. The catalyst for our group’s decision to become an “open” Hillel occurred in the fall of 2013: Hillel International blocked Harvard’s chapter from bringing in Avraham Burg because the event was co-sponsored by Harvard’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee. To show its disapproval of Hillel International’s silencing tactics, Swat Hillel decided to adopt the adjective “open,” signaling its stance.

Let me be clear: the idea of Open Hillel is not an anti-Zionist stance. It is a rejection of the idea that to be Jewish, one must support the state of Israel. These two ideas are conflated by Hillel International. Open Hillel is a movement designed to reaffirm the Jewish-ness of all at Swat who identify as Jewish, regardless of their political opinions.

Although there had been a lot of media attention and backlash from Hillel International about our repudiation of their restrictions, for a while nothing much concrete happened. Fast forward to spring 2015, when Open Hillel scheduled a week of Israel-Palestine programming and in turn was threatened with a lawsuit.

Included in this weeks’ presenters are four Civil Rights veterans who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). BDS is an Israel-critical tactic, support for which automatically bars speakers from being sponsored by Hillel-affiliated groups. Many in the Jewish community felt outrage that people who had struggled to obtain basic human rights for marginalized folks in America would be barred from speaking because of their views on Israel-Palestine.

Thus, faced with either the threat of a lawsuit if we kept the name Hillel, or the idea of giving up pluralistic programming, the board of Open Hillel decided to change its name. I believe this move is important, and while I appreciate the difficulty of the decision made, I believe it was the right course of action.

I understand that several Jews in our community feel strongly about being part of a Jewish campus chapter that is connected to other campus chapters across the country. I empathize with the desire for  the comfort that comes with being connected to a wider Jewish community, especially since we are such a small percentage of the country’s population. I understand that members of Swat’s Jewish community feel that breaking with Hillel International is and will be perceived as an active anti-Zionist stance. For many members of our community, Hillel International’s support of Israel match their own, and so I see why this clear break from the group could be upsetting.

That being said, if we are an organization that stands for Jewish values, which I believe include helping those who are suffering, it is our duty to listen to all marginalized voices, not just the ones with which we identify. This includes the voices of the many Palestinians who suffer at the hands of Israel’s violent, militaristic, and economically damaging policies. Palestinians are portrayed almost ubiquitously by the mainstream media as violent instigators, with little backstory or context given for fear of being viewed as antisemitic (because, again, Jews and Israel are so heavily conflated).

Furthermore, even if one does not have strong opinions on Israel or are still figuring these opinions out, or if one is a strong supporter of Israel, it is still useful and important to hear these voices, especially because they are voices of colonized and oppressed peoples. This does not mean we must all agree with them, but it is important to hear and to listen.

All of this being said, I know from personal experience and from friends’ experience that being a Jew who is actively critical of Israel is a tough position to hold. First of all, being a Jew critical of Israel is viewed by many as a contradiction of terms — a betrayal, even — since support of Israel is so intertwined with Judaism, an idea often taught at an early age. Therefore, it can be hard to feel, and to be included as, authentically Jewish if one is critical of one’s cultural homeland. Second of all, most mainstream American Jews (as well as the American government) support Israel. It can be an isolating experience to break with the views of your family, your synagogue, and your country regarding such an important facet of Jewish identity.

Plurality, regarding this conflict, is not just one that exists interpersonally in Swarthmore’s Jewish community, but also is one that exists within me. On one hand, Israel has been a second home to me from the time I was a baby; my father is from Israel, and all of his side of my family lives there now. Israel, for me, is a beautiful place, and thinking about the times I’ve spent there with my family bring me happiness and joy. I also feel very critical of the existence Israel as a colonial state, of their subjugation of the Palestinian population, and of the violence they’ve committed against Palestinians. This does not excuse violence on Palestinians’ part, but the violence against the Palestinians is ongoing and systemic, and there is a clear power differential.

Given how strong my views on this conflict are, it is natural that I would want to have these views represented in speakers brought to campus. In my ideal world, I would have our new organization, Kehilah, take a stronger stance criticizing Israel. Likewise, I am sure many Zionist Jews would prefer our group to be in unified support of Israel. However, a singular viewpoint is not the reality of our Jewish community, and thus it should not be represented in Kehilah’s activities, however much that might be my gut reaction. Therefore, as long as speakers do not call Arab culture a “failure,” I would be supportive of pro-Israeli speakers being brought in as well.

Our Jewish community is an intentionally pluralistic space, and room will be made for supporters on all sides of this conflict. This is important since the question of Israel-Palestine is so intrinsic to today’s lived experience of Judaism. We can all have our opinions, but if we want to have a group that re-affirms everyone’s Jewish-ness, we have to come to the Shabbat table with an accepting attitude of other’s different opinions, ready to actively listen to where other people are coming from.

Featured image courtesy of The New York Times.

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