Last week, the Hillel Board of Greater Philadelphia and the Penn Hillel Board of Overseers gave J Street U Penn approval to host an organization called Breaking the Silence at Penn Hillel. We are a Hillel-affiliated, pro-Israel, pro-peace student group that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Normally these types of events don’t require such high-level approval. But because of the political beliefs of certain donors to Penn Hillel, this one was fraught with controversy.
Breaking the Silence is an organization of former Israeli Defense Forces soldiers who speak openly about their experiences serving in the West Bank and Gaza. They shed light on the price of military occupation for both Israelis and Palestinians and argue that bringing it to an end is in Israel’s best long-term interests. The most important goal of Breaking the Silence is to foster dialogue and awareness about the facts on the ground. This, above all, is why we wanted to host them.
As we were planning our event in early October, we were informed that the HGP board would not allow us to hold an event with Breaking the Silence in the Hillel building. A few board members apparently believed that the testimony of IDF soldiers was somehow “anti-Israel” or not suitable for an audience among Penn’s Jewish community. Dismayed and confused, we decided to postpone the event. It was important to us to fully hear out any objections, defend our mission and the speaker to the board and ensure that the event would eventually be held in Hillel, Penn’s center of Jewish life.
When little progress had been made by January, we decided to turn to our Hillel student leadership for support. We drafted a letter expressing why we felt it was important to bring Breaking the Silence to Hillel and invited them to sign a petition arguing for our right to do so. Those who signed did not necessarily do so because they agreed with the message of Breaking the Silence (many did not) but because they supported open and vigorous conversation within the Jewish community.
In all, we collected 27 signatures of Penn Hillel student leaders spanning a broad range of Jewish denominational affiliations, political views on Israel and types of involvement in the Jewish community. These signatures, including those from leaders of other pro-Israel organizations at Penn, finally pushed the HGP board to recognize that the Jewish student community is much too strong to succumb to a fear of ideas. We are ready to demand free speech in our building and to engage in challenging conversations about Israel. Indeed, open discourse and constructive criticism, rooted in love, are the only ways for us to achieve a brighter and safer future for the State of Israel. Like similar events being held by J Street U chapters on campuses across the country, our success in bringing Breaking the Silence to Hillel exemplifies the gradual mending of a still broken dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As far as the board of J Street U Penn is concerned, the most important thing about this event is the discussion that will follow. We encourage students of all political persuasions and religious beliefs, Jewish or not, to come and engage with us tonight at Hillel. Join us in exploring and debating one of the most hotly contested and geopolitically important issues of our time. It is our firm belief that nothing will change in the region without strong American investment in and support for peace and a two-state solution.
President Obama laid out a vision of peace and reconciliation in his speech in Jerusalem this past week, but his vision requires vocal backers across the region and the world — especially in the United States. As the president said, “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” Only if we take the time as students to learn what has gone wrong in Israel and Palestine can we begin to help make things right. If you’re in, join us tonight at 6:30 to make a start.
J Street U Penn is Penn’s chapter of a nationwide pro-Israel, pro-Peace student movement that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.