Guest column by J Street U Penn | Unproductive dialogue

· March 19, 2014, 7:14 pm   ·  Updated March 20, 2014, 2:23 am

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P rogressive student voices are under attack.

Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the parent organization of our campus Hillel, is participating in the screening of a film called “The J Street Challenge,” which attacks and maligns the work of J Street U Penn , a progressive student organization dedicated to Israel and a future state of Palestine. HGP decided to do this without consulting any students, and their actions are akin to the Office of Student Affairs attacking one of its own member groups.

On a campus where myriad ideas and opinions abound, no larger institution should ever try to delegitimize its own students. Hillel’s involvement in this event is unprecedented and unacceptable, and must be corrected at once.

J Street U Penn was founded to empower Penn students who want to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution. We encourage the American government to take a more active role in securing a safe Israel beside a vibrant Palestine in a climate long dominated by belligerent and extreme attitudes. Over the years, we have become one of the largest and most active student groups in Penn’s Hillel.

Despite representing a significant constituency of Penn students, HGP nonetheless deemed it appropriate to attack us. We cannot imagine a scenario in which HGP would attack a conservative pro-Israel group, and we would condemn it if it did so. Why then is HGP targeting us through a movie filled with far-right critics of our work? HGP is actively promoting this screening to the wider Philadelphia Jewish community, and is helping operate buses from local campuses to encourage student attendance.

We believe in an intellectually rigorous conversation around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with open debate and disagreement. We welcome discussions about the substance of our work for two states, which is why J Street leaders have debated many of our critics featured in the movie. Despite the movie being a direct attack, we do not even oppose it being screened. On a college campus, all have the right to have their voices heard. However, HGP’s active participation sends a chilling message to thousands of progressive Penn students.

The Jewish community has a long and storied history of progressive activism and leadership, from the labor movement to the struggle for women’s empowerment. We are gratified that Penn Hillel supports student groups that represent the best values of the Jewish community, including a Jewish LGBT group and many social justice-oriented initiatives. But by participating in this, HGP turns its back on this commitment . Whether for the sake of far-right donors or on their own accord, the heads of HGP are abdicating responsibility for empowering a diverse Jewish campus leadership.

Sadly, HGP’s participation puts the organization in unsavory company. One of the other co-sponsors of the film is the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The Anti-Defamation League and the Center for American Progress have both condemned the Freedom Center’s work on campus as extreme. The ADL reported that the Freedom Center’s campus work “promotes anti-Muslim views and features events with anti-Muslim activists.” While we are not equating HGP with the Freedom Center or its work, HGP ought to consider whether it wants to be associated with an organization that has long been a bad actor on Penn’s campus and others around the country.

Thankfully, many among the student leadership of Penn Hillel disagree with HGP. They are calling on Penn Hillel’s staff to reject HGP’s participation in this attack on progressive students.

We need to demonstrate to HGP that maliciously stifling its member groups is not acceptable. If you agree that opinions on campus should be generated by students and reflected in institutions, not generated by institutions and imposed on students, then join us in building a progressive voice for two-states. Amplify this voice by signing our petition supporting current US-led negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As we come under this unprecedented attack, we hope the staff of Penn Hillel will finally listen to its students. Every other Hillel in the country has refused to screen this film, and we expect Penn to be no different.

J Street U Penn is Penn’s pro-Israel, pro-peace student organization. Sign their petition at tinyurl.com/penn2.

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