The line between criticism and conversation isn’t always clear.
Last Thursday, the documentary “J Street Challenge” was screened as part of an event co-sponsored by Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and other Jewish organizations in the area that addressed the question of what it means to be pro-Israel.
In the documentary, J Street activists were criticized for being “moral narcissists” because of their support for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.
Penn’s chapter of the organization, which describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” and advocates for a two state solution for Arab-Israeli conflict, felt “shocked and betrayed” said J Street U Penn co-chair Ryan Daniels, a College senior and former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist. J Street is part of the Penn Hillel umbrella organization, and by extension HGP, “so it was really surprising to hear that they would be sponsoring an event that is so marginalizing toward our organization,” he said.
For some students, the documentary’s open criticism of J Street has raised many questions about the openness of HGP itself. The documentary screening has made other students within the HGP umbrella question HGP’s loyalty to its constituent groups.
“Our issue is not with the movie itself being screened, but rather the fact that HGP has associated itself with it,” Daniels said. “We rely on HGP for funding and support. We are really confused as to why they would sponsor an event that attacks us, especially without student support,” he said.
While HGP admits that they didn’t have time to consult students before endorsing the event, a fact that they “deeply regret,” they maintain that this event is not an attack on J Street U Penn. “We do have certain misgivings about the movie, but we felt that, because of the other aspects of the event, it would have some sort of educational value, and, because of that, we had to support it,” Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of HGP, said.
Rabbi Mike Uram of Penn Hillel also maintained that Hillel is supportive of J Street U Penn. “Hillel is incredibly proud of J Street and the work they do,” he said. “They do an incredible job of being pro-Israel activists and contributing to larger discussions on campus,” he said.
In addition to the screening, the event also featured a panel discussion between several prominent Jewish professionals and academics in the Philadelphia area.
“I hope that this event will lead to a robust conversation both about the topic of the program itself — asking the question ‘What constitutes support for Israel?’ — and I hope this will lead to a robust conversation about the larger idea of expression.” Alpert said.
Daniels, however, disagrees. “This isn’t going to create dialogue. This is a bunch of board members making a decision behind closed doors that directly attacks some of their own students,” he said. “This is the kind of event that stifles student voices and conversations on campus.”
Engineering senior and J Street U Penn member Israel Geselowitz attended the event and said that “there was no sort of discussion at all.”
“There was no way to see this as educational at all. It was entirely centered around the movie and the tone of the event was completely anti-J Street,” he said. “It wasn’t even worth it to ask a question or create some sort of dialogue, because we knew we’d just be shot down.”
This is not the first time J Street’s views have come under attack on campuses.
Three years ago, when J Street was not yet a recognized member group of Hillel nationwide, there was pushback from students to the appearance of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami at Penn Hillel.
J Street U Penn is now a member organization of Penn Hillel, but members say the organization still faces criticism from HGP. In October 2012, J Street U Penn was informed they could not hold an event featuring “Breaking the Silence,” a group of former Israeli Defense Force soldiers, in the Hillel building on campus. “Breaking the Silence” speakers have come to disagree with Israeli military policy and speak about their experiences serving in the West Bank and Gaza.
After the group delivered a petition signed by 27 Penn Hillel student leaders, the event was approved by HGP on March 13 and took place at Hillel.
Hillel, as an international organization, does have “certain guidelines about what kinds of events and programs it can support,” said Alpert.
Hillel International’s “Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities” says the organization believes that Israel is central to students’ Jewish experience, writing that “Hillel views Israel as a core element of Jewish life and a gateway to Jewish identification for students.”
The guidelines encourage Hillels across the country to foster “a diversity of student perspectives on Israel and [strive] to create an inclusive, pluralistic community where students can discuss matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people in a civil manner.” However, events which “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; Delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel; [or] Support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel” are not allowed.
Earlier this semester, students of Swarthmore Hillel, at the small and elite liberal arts college outside Philadelphia, faced pushback from Hillel International over the decision to become an Open Hillel, which allows Zionist as well as anti-Zionist people and groups to speak at the Hillel. Swarthmore Hillel, which is under the HGP umbrella, made these changes despite warnings from Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel International , who later told the New York Times that “anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof under any circumstances.”
Overall, Swarthmore students reacted positively to the change, said Isabel Knight, a Swarthmore student and reporter who covered the controversy for the Swarthmore Daily Gazette . “Many Jewish students felt even more welcome at Hillel than before because they felt this decision meant they were being told directly that they would not be persecuted or judged for their stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, regardless of whether they were Zionist or anti-Zionist,” she said in an email.
Though the international branch of Hillel may not have been supportive of Swarthmore Hillel’s change, HGP says they have remained committed to the students.
“The students of Swarthmore Hillel are wonderful,” Alpert said. “They were struggling with what it means to be an all-inclusive Jewish community, and they have behaved only in ways that are appropriate and responsible.”