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It's time for American Jewish institutions to embrace dissent

In the age of Trump, American Jewish institutions need to include the majority of U.S. Jews who rejected his divisive rhetoric and give a platform to dissenting voices — whether they are speaking out against U.S. or Israeli government policy.

By Ben Pakman

American Jews from IfNotNow march at an anti-occupation protest, San Francisco, October 9, 2016.)

American Jews from IfNotNow march at an anti-occupation protest, San Francisco, October 9, 2016. 

The Jewish American people are entering what promises to be a tumultuous time under the Trump presidency. Our morals and resolve are being tested and, fairly or not, the rest of the world is observing us under a microscope.

The most prominent American Jews — Trump cohorts like David Friedman (recently appointed as U.S. ambassador to Israel), Sheldon Adelson and Jared Kushner — hardly represent the best of our community. Unfortunately, the same goes for the institutions that aim to serve and claim to represent the American Jewish community, such as the campus organization Hillel International.

It was this troubling reality that led me to stand with Open Hillel the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration, in order to protest Hillel International’s partnership with Mosaic United — a group co-founded and partially funded by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, led by far-right minister Naftali Bennett.

Mosaic United’s programming, which explicitly aims to combat “critical discourse” on Israel, will only put up blinders to the problems with which our domestic and global Jewish community is grappling, such as the military occupation of the West Bank, the siege on Gaza and institutional support for Trump’s oppressive rhetoric and policies.

It was simultaneously empowering and dismaying to be surrounded at the protest by so many students who share the experience of being silenced or alienated by Jewish institutions. Our institutions frequently marginalize liberal Zionist, non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish voices because of their donors’ politics.

One can expect Hillel’s partnership with Mosaic United to introduce a whole new degree of influence, further entrenching the divisions in our community responsible for our alienation and ensuring the kind of censorship that pushes critical youngsters like myself out of the tent.

Young American Jews take part in the Jewish People's Assembly outside the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Washington, D.C., November 8, 2015. (photo: Gili Getz)

Young American Jews take part in the Jewish People’s Assembly outside the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Washington, D.C., November 8, 2015. (photo: Gili Getz)

Among the most devastating examples of this was when Eric Fingerhut, CEO of Hillel International, refused to attend the 2015 J Street National Conference being held a 10-minute walk from his office — even though over 1,000 students from all over North America were present.

This behavior occurs at all levels of the Hillel institutional ladder. Students are encouraged to avoid forming a J Street U chapter in favor of participating in their school’s supposedly apolitical Students for Israel group. It’s seen, perhaps, as a slippery slope towards allowing students to be exposed to non-Zionist voices (Jewish or non-Jewish).

Mosaic United seeks to serve — or to create and foster — a population of Jewish students unaware of or unwilling to engage in the self-criticism we need today. It plays to our lowest instincts of fear, uniformity and insensitivity. Such tactics of exclusion and division put Mosaic and Naftali Bennett in the same camp as another political force we are dealing with today — Donald Trump.

We are in dire need of the very self-criticism that Hillel International’s standards of partnership strips from our Jewish communities. When Hillel brings onboard big money donors and partners such as Mosaic United, it inevitably lets the values of the donor organizations become the values of Hillel.

Jewish students have to fight tooth and nail simply to be given a platform on which to discuss the progressive values of the 71 percent of American Jewry who did not vote for the divisiveness and xenophobia espoused by Trump. On the other hand, representatives of organizations more aligned with Trumpian values are often invited by Jewish groups and institutions to peddle their agenda to students.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a Hillel International staffer in Washington D.C. who lamented that Hillel has neglected to engage with recent progressive movements on campus such as Black Lives Matter — even going so far as to actively shut down conversations about racial justice. As a result, we now aren’t even being offered a seat at the table to discuss these issues.

The Trump presidency is a chance for the Jewish community to stand up for our values and show the world what our 71 percent believes in: equality, freedom of speech and pluralistic community engagement, both religious and political. We can’t let the most powerful and least moral in our community dictate its values for the next four years.

And that’s why students and community members are telling Hillel International that the status quo is unacceptable. The time has come to embrace the full diversity of the Jewish community and create a truly positive future for ourselves and the world at large.

Ben Pakman is a New York City native and an undergraduate student at Hunter College.

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    1. Firentis

      There is no reason for Hillel and other organizations to accept into the tent people who side with those that incite against and murder Jews anywhere in the world. That would indeed be foolish.

      As to all other issues, I fail to see where the organized Jewish community is opposing the participation of people in any of the important debates of the day. For example, the link you provided suggests that Hillel banned speakers that were using their background in civil rights work to push students to support the enemies of Israel. That is, in simpler and less abstract terms, it banned speakers that insist that Jews support organizations whose goals consist of hurting the Jewish people that live in Israel. That a Jewish organization would not support such an agenda seems to be rather ethical, moral, and eminently reasonable.

      If individuals in the Jewish community in Israel were trying to go around Israeli University campuses to convince Israeli Jews to support American neo-Nazis or Islamic anti-Semites that live in America, I would imagine it would be uncontroversial to exclude them from the tent. In the same way, it is the function, and raison d’etre of Jewish organizations in the US to not promote individuals who are going around calling for inflicting damage on the Jews that live in Israel.

      One must wonder where American Jews, like the author, lost their moral compass and seem to imagine that it is now a respectable and acceptable Jewish value to call for inflicting damage on other Jews. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be given a platform in *Jewish* organizations.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Carmen

      “One must wonder where American Jews, like the author, lost their moral compass and seem to imagine that it is now a respectable and acceptable Jewish value to call for inflicting damage on other Jews. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be given a platform in *Jewish* organizations.”

      You’ve completely missed the boat, bus, train or plane and instead of just disagreeing, you turn it into bullshit. Standing up for what’s right and not oppressing anyone are Jewish values and values period! This definitely should have a platform in jewish organizations although I don’t think they need the approval or prestige of a jewish organization. Jews don’t have the market on morality, but when some demonstrate their moral compass is in perfect working order, others show their’s isn’t.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        I beg to disagree. Any moral compass to distinguish between right and wrong should exclude organisations and individuals that choose racial hatred as their primary tactic. The strategic goal is clearly stated: the dismantling of Israel.

        There’s no lack of public platform for anyone who holds such views.

        Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        Jewish organizations are meant to represent and protect Jews wherever they might be. There is no room in such organizations for those that ally themselves with people that target or harm Jews anywhere in the world. This is pretty basic stuff. If someone disagrees with this statement then they have excluded themselves from the tent.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          It sure is pretty basic stuff. And pretty crude. What you’re doing is defining non-right-wing-Zionist voices as “un-Jewish” and “anti-Jewish” and out to murder Jews and “hurt the Jewish people.” And naturally if this *were* the case it would merit urgent martial law type actions. This is exactly the manipulative language fascists have always used. Your language is not subtle, it is characteristic of fascism. “We Jews all have to stick together and be unified, like bundles of rods or fascia, for strength, against evil outside forces that want to poison us and if they can’t do it from without they will poison us from within. They have fifth columns.” Just change “un-Jewish to “un-German,” “the German people,” etc., and ramp up the intensity and this is the kind of language that was used against the Jews.

          Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            We Jews do need to stick together. That is the whole idea behind *Jewish* organizations. I am sorry that this concept is so complicated for you. And yes, I am defining those that support/work with groups that inflict damage to Jews in other parts of the world as being anti-Jewish. That isn’t particularly controversial either.

            The rest of your reply is just bulls$h1t Godwin analogies.

            If we are already in Godwin territory, then I must strongly protest against the exclusion of the voices of National Socialist and Holocaust-questioning voices from Jewish organizations in the United States. It is against Jewish values to exclude voices from a debate and I call upon Jewish organizations to be open-minded in extending the tent to those that wish to discuss the historical facts that are relevant to Jewish history in Europe.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            ​We’ll see there you go you just did it again, you define as un-Jewish any Jew who says “not in my name” to your pet racist right wing project. Or even has doubts and wants to hear non-Zionist voices! And re Godwin, I said fascism not Herr H. You’re trying to dismiss appropriate discussion of fascism as internet crank material, and that is a dodge. In your view, all good Jews worldwide must think the same rightist thought or else they are the enemy, a fifth column out to destroy Israel and the Jewish people. (This is the actual perverse and anti-Semitic internet crank idea.) In classic 1930s fascist style. And you trucked in the “National Socialist voices” crap just to smear non-right wing Jews as some kind of soft kapos. Nice. Of course you tone it down just so. But it’s the same basic maneuver. I’ve noticed you also do this normalizing maneuver where you say “this isn’t particularly controversial,” just because you say so. I’m calling bullshit on all of it. But you do a nice job of showing just how fascistic Naftali Bennett really is behind the chipmunk smile and also how eerily in thrall already to Naftali are the Israeli masses and the Israeli press.

            “…his gang represents only eight Knesset seats worth of votes, and at the very most another four seats worth of votes for Netanyahu. How is it possible to allow these marginal people determine our fate and take control of the future and all our lives?
            Netanyahu is afraid of them, but what worries him in particular is the fact that the media in great part continues to relate to this extremist gang, and Bennett in particular, as a wunderkind.
            Look at the admiration for his feats, the smile and open affection that accompany any mention of his behavior; listen to the talk about him as a candidate for prime minister! The media that gives Bennett and his colleagues continual legitimacy, everyday, is dangerous for the rest of us. The press needs to come to its senses.”
            read more: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.771283

            Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      US Jewish organizations are well on their way to assimilating, intermarrying and voiding themselves to death. In fact, apart from a hard core of Frumers, the rest are just 1 step away from disappearance.

      This truth is much more important than whether these organization support Trump or Hillary so why doesn’t 972 mag report it?

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        Because leaving a religion isn’t news, but reasons for leaving are all over these pages.

        Reply to Comment
        • Mark

          It’s news when Muslims attempt to leave their religion in a public manner, usually when liberated by exile in the West.

          Hard to know how many slip quietly away but chances are that they are up for escape to enjoy the freedoms of the West.

          Reply to Comment