Palestinian Students Engage With Members of Hillel
by Bradley Popkin
Temperaments are beginning to rise in recent weeks between Students for Justice in Palestine and the Hillel multi-faith center because of what Amy Posner, Director of Hillel, and other members call “antagonistic/semitic” behavior. Anti-Zionism is in opposition to the idea of a Jewish nation-state in the country defined as Israel.
“They paint this picture where they demonize Israel and I feel that is being transferred to Hillel. They have an agenda to promote Palestinian autonomy in the region of Israel [and] they don’t recognize Israel as a valid country,” said Posner.
This semester SJP became officially recognized as a chartered club by the Office of Student Life and, in the span of few months, have made their presence felt. When they had become chartered, President of Hillel Mitchell Harris had looked to open dialogue with counterpart Nerdeen Mohsen regarding the possibility of collaborating. Mohsen had felt the attempt by Hillel was “disingenuous”.
“She referred to me as ‘culturally incompetent’,” alleged Harris.
Amanda Rae Davis, President of Hillel at the time, and Harris approached members of SJP during a recent club fair to open dialogue before the conversation took on a new identity.
“They were constantly pushing the conversation towards politics, which I didn’t want to talk about,” said Harris. “They want people to think that they’re open for dialogue but they’re not.”
When he offered his contact information and a simple handshake, Harris alleged “he just looked at me with his hands crossed and folded.”
Then Harris claims the unidentified man said, “we will never collaborate with Hillel.” This incident marked the start of what has become a tumultuous relationship.
Posner and Harris have expressed displeasure towards tactics employed by members of the SJP. Posner and Harris both claim they themselves and others have been the target of fake Facebook accounts and internet memes. The pair also claim that their Facebook page has solicited responses from SJP.
Mohsen claims to have no knowledge of any attacks on the Hillel Facebook page and said she had met with administration to discuss the issue surrounding memes.
“Before and after discussing this with administration I have repeatedly questioned every member and they were all just as taken aback as I was,” said Mohsen. “I condemned it nonetheless as we want to maintain a civil and respectful environment at CSI.”
Ashley Dawson, Chairman and Professor of the English Dept., submitted materials from the American Association of University Professors to administration informing them that they have no right to interfere with students’ use of social media, according to distinguished English Professor Sarah Schulman.
“It’s not harassment or an attack because people disagree. It’s normal discourse,” said Schulman who is also a Faculty Adviser to SJP.
SJP claims that they’ve noticed fliers disappearing and have seen opposing fliers mocking the club distributed before an event.
A demonstration on March 4 resulted in, what Harris claims, a meme and Facebook page that shamed a Hillel member days after he had engaged in heated dialogue with SJP members outside of the performing arts building. The exchange was captured on video and uploaded to the SJP Facebook page labeling him as a former Israel Defense Force soldier. Mohsen claims the young man said, “unlike you I’m not going to blow myself up on a bus.”
“It was direct, confrontational, and triggering for many students, and frankly it even caused some of our members to feel unsafe. Especially those who have been to Palestine and were humiliated, harassed, intimidated, and even had family members injured or even killed by IDF soldiers,” said Mohsen. “Had this situation occurred in Palestine with the huge power imbalance present, we would have been rendered powerless as Palestinians. However, this grievance continues to be overlooked while the issue of the meme is amplified which is very bizarre to us.”
Posner and members of Hillel such as Justin Ortiz and Aderet Averick have attended a couple of events by SJP but they claim their presence was not well-received. During a discussion in which Ali Abunimah, of the Arab Action Network, spoke; Provost Fred Naider was shouted down after requesting more time to speak.
“He brought up suicide bombers,” said Schulman. “Very few people of his stature [Abunimah] come to CSI. I don’t agree with everything he said either.”
Provost Naider declined to comment on the event.
There is a double standard applied to clubs like SJP on college campuses says Schulman. According to Hillel and SJP, security has been sent to their meetings and high-level administrators have visited, one of them being Vice President of Student Affairs Ramona Brown.
A teacher forum attended by Harris and other Hillel members included Faculty Adviser to SJP and speaker at the forum Schulman, whom Harris claims “made it her mission to point us out.” During the forum, Schulman spoke about her Jewish heritage, stance on Boycott Divestment and Sanctions as well as her desire to meet with members of Hillel.
“My grandparents were refugees from antisemitism. I have studied Jewish history and the holocaust all of my life. My personal lesson that I take from experience with my family is that, any kind of system of racial supremacy leads to social injustice,” exclaimed Schulman. “There can be no justification, under any circumstance, for any system of racial or religious supremacy.”
“I’m very proud to be the faculty adviser of Students for Justice in Palestine,” Schulman continued. “I think what they’re doing for our campus is tremendous because they’re bringing a rigorous and important conversation to the school.”
Hillel has an open door policy. Students from all faiths and belief systems are welcome to become a part of the office and attend events. This semester, Posner introduced the Hillel Initiative for Purpose and Peace which is a bi-weekly discussion of faith and community. In the past, they’ve held a multi-faith Thanksgiving dinner. Community service is another facet of Hillel. They’ve taken to trips to New Orleans and California and volunteered in impoverished neighborhoods.
Schulman and Posner met in the fall of last year to discuss the possibility of holding an event together.
“If Hillel was an organization for Jews, there would be no problem. It’s for people who support the Israeli government and their policies,” said Schulman. “I was told that Hillel could not include me in an event, even though I am Jewish, because of my position on Israel.”
Posner spoke on the likelihood of a collaboration between SJP and Hillel in the coming year saying that, “just because we don’t collaborate doesn’t mean we can’t listen” adding “We’re open to collaborating with any club on campus.”
The Hillel Foundation employs Posner for Jewish Campus Life. What’s important here, Schulman believes, is the work done by Hillel on campus; not social-media antics and handshakes.
“[They’re] a propagandist organization. Her job [Amy] is to be an advocate on our public campus for a very specific political agenda in favor of the policies of the Israeli government,” claimed Schulman. “All these complaints are strategy, that’s what she is there to do, [to] undermine a critique of the Israeli government.”
Under political pluralism guidelines that are defined in a Hillel statement, a diverse community of students are welcome with a variety of perspectives on Israel where “matters of interest and/or concern about Israel and the Jewish people” can be discussed in a civil manner. Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive college environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.
The complaints by Hillel are a smokescreen, alleges Schulman, which undermine issues of security, free travel and human rights. Hillel was founded in 1923 and adopted by B’nai B’rith in 1924; it has grown into the world’s largest Jewish campus organization. There are offices on 550 campuses world-wide.
Schulman stated that several other professors were contacted regarding the faculty adviser position with SJP but were reluctant to accept the offer because of the fear of administrative backlash. Members of administration have urged Schulman to cooperate with Hillel, which she believes is inappropriate. She also emphasizes that “Hillel is the only outside political entity to be given power at CSI.”
Posner maintains that it’s not an outside political entity and that Hillel “only makes campus life richer.” She also points to other clubs, such as NYPIRG, that are also given space on campus but aren’t hired by CSI.
Open-Hillel is new campaign towards creating an open discourse on campuses across America and Canada. It’s a student-run campaign that encourages inclusivity and seeks to reverse Hillel International’s guidelines which prohibit the inclusion and collaboration of groups who delegitimize Israel.
“She [Schulman] spoke out against Hillel saying that [we] don’t have a right on this campus,” says Harris. “So here’s a group questioning Israel as a Jewish state and Hillel’s right [to be] on campus. They’re claiming anti-zionism and antisemitism are two different things but if you [consider] the things they’ve done; it’s not as unconnected as they’re making it seem.”
Arrangements are coordinated between the Office of Student Life and Academic Affairs to station a multi-faith center on campus.
“There should not be a Hillel person on campus unless [they’re] vetted by CSI, and that can’t happen because they uphold policies that are racially discriminatory,” said Schulman.