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When ‘safety’ is a threat

by Lisa Goldstein | Published on November 5, 2010

Last year Jewish college students in San Diego were confronted with a signif­i­cant esca­la­tion of anti-Israel activity at two of our large state univer­si­ties. This included a divest­ment reso­lu­tion, a showy student-run “Apartheid Week,” which was co-sponsored by depart­ments at one univer­sity, and a stream of high-profile anti-Zionist speakers, many of whom were them­selves Jewish.

Hillel of San Diego, which serves approx­i­mately 5,000 Jewish students on eight campuses across San Diego County, has always taken pride in its proac­tive Israel agenda; last year at the University of California, San Diego, alone, students orga­nized over 90 Israel-related activ­i­ties, including musical perfor­mances, films, conver­sa­tional Hebrew language instruc­tion, displays show­casing Israel’s contri­bu­tions to tech­no­log­ical advance­ment and human­i­tarian needs across the world — and yes, also polit­ical speakers offering a variety of perspec­tives. However, in the face of the divest­ment reso­lu­tion (which was not approved ) and the visi­bility of the other anti-Israel activ­i­ties, some members of the local Jewish commu­nity expressed concern that Jewish students were not fighting back in a strong enough fashion.

The issue of how students should “fight back” against anti-Israel activ­i­ties on college campuses raises a dilemma for thoughtful people who care about the future of both the State of Israel and the Jewish people. On the one hand, we obvi­ously cannot let the viru­lence of anti-Israel propa­ganda go unchal­lenged. We all know the danger and the threat posed by the rise of dele­git­i­ma­tion efforts against the Jewish state.

On the other hand, fighting fiery speech with fiery speech serves only to enflame the campus. A polar­ized campus quickly turns into small groups of activists screaming at each other while the vast majority of students, who are unin­formed, uncer­tain or simply turned off by the rhetoric, flee to the perceived safety of apathy. “Safety” is the oper­a­tive word. Many students do not have the option of choosing their room­mates, class­mates or dining-hall mates. While well-meaning advi­sors usually have the luxury of going home in the evening to people who likely share their views, this refuge is not avail­able to many students.

As a conse­quence, we have found that in this envi­ron­ment of height­ened conflict, it is more diffi­cult to engage unin­volved students around Israel issues. Even worse, it becomes more diffi­cult to engage Jewish students around any aspect of Jewish life, not just Israel-related issues. They just don’t want to be asso­ci­ated with the hostility. Polarization signif­i­cantly under­mines our work of encour­aging both a love of Israel and a love of Judaism.

On the third hand, Jews have a long and distin­guished tradi­tion of “mahloket leshem shamayim,” an argu­ment for the sake of heaven, or disagree­ment expressed in a civil manner. On campus, as in the larger Jewish world, there are many views about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the midst of the height­ened tensions, we recog­nized anew that left-leaning Jewish students often feel bereft of commu­nity because of their poli­tics. They are uncom­fort­able both with Jewish leadership’s unwa­vering polit­ical support of Israel and with the demo­niza­tion of the country that they see among their friends on the left.

Hillel has long prided itself on being a plural­istic orga­ni­za­tion, where students can explore and expe­ri­ence a range of authentic Jewish perspec­tives so they can decide for them­selves where in the Jewish world they want to belong. Where do progres­sive students fit into the spec­trum and what is our respon­si­bility toward them?

Over the past two months, the board of Hillel of San Diego has gone through an in-depth process to address these ques­tions and to come up with guide­lines for Israel program­ming on campus. The guide­lines confirmed the impor­tance of the part­ner­ship of Hillel staff and students working together to create a proac­tive agenda that includes a wide range of Israeli cultural, social, educa­tional and polit­ical activ­i­ties that serve to strengthen students’ personal connec­tion with the country. In addi­tion, we continue to trust our students to engage thought­fully in the so-called market­place of ideas by striving to ensure a balance of polit­ical views. We encourage the creation of a space in which Jewish students can explore their values and commit­ments with regard to Israel without fear of being ostracized.

There are, however, limits to our multi-vocalism. Hillel of San Diego will not support any speaker or program that dele­git­imizes the State of Israel, demo­nizes Israel or promotes racism or hatred of any kind. We also are strongly opposed to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions move­ment, which we see as part of the dele­git­i­ma­tion effort. In the face of such activ­i­ties, Hillel of San Diego staff will work with student groups to be prepared with a strong, directly targeted response.

In the face of growing polar­iza­tion in the American cultural scene, the stan­dard joke that two Jews will have three opin­ions is rapidly changing to the unfunny scenario of two Jews with two opin­ions. At Hillel of San Diego we deplore this polar­iza­tion. We are looking for a new para­digm that fosters a lasting commit­ment to Jewish life, a deep and intel­lec­tu­ally honest attach­ment to Israel and oppor­tu­ni­ties for the next gener­a­tion of Jewish leaders to find their many voices. We hope our new approach will help create the kind of commu­nity in which that para­digm can emerge.

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein is exec­u­tive director of Hillel of San Diego. 

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