Last week, Leah Grynheim, a senior at Indiana University Bloomington, published her first blog post for The Times of Israel: “Hillel excludes pro-Israel narratives.” Grynheim condemned the acts of Hillels across the nation, claiming that the organization has “failed to uphold their mission statement” and she specifically mentioned my college, Clark University.
Yet what Grynheim claims to be true in reality holds no water to what is actually occurring on campus.
I am lucky to be the President of ClarkU Hillel. I am able to be part of an organization that allows me to find Judaism in my own life. I joined my freshman year and found a community in which I felt safe and included. As President, I have been able to watch this organization grow, reaching out to more and more student organizations each week to collaborate on events and welcome them into our space. I have been able to meet with people throughout the campus, from students to administrators, whom I may not have had the chance to without such a position. I have even been able to go into the community and talk with leaders, finding connections and ways to work together.
Hillel is the biggest club at Clark. We are an inclusive group—contrary to Grynheim’s beliefs. Everyone is welcome to all of our events, including ones geared to Jewish holidays. In fact, we specifically note at the end of our descriptions on our Shabbat Facebook events, we always include “All are welcome!”
And I know, not every event is going to attract every student at Clark, Jewish or not. But no one at Hillel is telling students that they must come to each and every Hillel event, or any specific event. That’s the beauty of Hillel. We have events for everyone. Maybe a student wants to get involved with the community; our Tikkun Olam committee hosts monthly Challah for Hunger bakes to raise money for Rachel’s Table. Maybe he wants to only come to religious event; the Religious Observance Committee assures that we take care of that. Or maybe she wants to be involved but not in a particularly Judaic-like setting; Social Arts and Culture ensures that fun events like Bagel Brunches also take place for our community.
And if serious discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict is wanted—as a lot of our J Street friends, along with many of us, would like—the Israel and Zionism committee has that covered, and they welcome people of diverse social and political opinions to join them.
Grynheim claims that J Street U is a pro-Israel, pro-peace movement that advocates for a two-state solution. As she asserted for Hillel (and I have refuted above), I will return the sentiment: J Street has not been following its mission on campuses throughout the United States. Advocacy of a two-state solution is welcomed within ClarkU Hillel. But what is not welcomed is creation of a climate of fear and intimidation or use of bullying tactics to prevent student participation in any of our programs. Sadly, that’s what some members of J Street have been doing recently.
In mid-January, two J Street members; Jeff Narod, ClarkU Hillel’s interim director; and I met at a coffee shop off-campus. The J Street members presented us with their survey of students across campus, who said they wanted a Palestinian speaker on our Birthright trip. While the number of students reached into the hundreds, only about 40 of them were Jewish students and would even be eligible for such a gift. I explained to the J Street members how we do not have control over the trip and neither does our Birthright coordinator. We continued to discuss our own Birthright trips, as I had just returned from my trip that month where I can assure there was no Palestinian erasure the J Street members swear by. They seemed to understand—at least until a few hours later when we received an email stating there was a “miscommunication” and requesting another meeting.
Two weeks later, we met again. This time the J Street members presented us with a list of Palestinian speakers. They requested we ask Birthright Israel to include them on our trip. It was agreed that I would look into the list, which I did, in-depth. The list included people arrested for throwing stones or injuring Israelis, such as Ali Abu Awwad, and as well as those who were not speaking about a common solution for both Palestinians and Israelis, such as Eid Suleman. These speakers present a very one-sided biased perspective of the conflict, working with organizations such as B’telsem, who is known for fabricating information and leaving out important details such as reporting when a Palestinian was killed without noting if they were involved in violent activities or part of Hamas. (J Street also brought one of the speakers, Asmahan Simry, to campus this semester. I attended this talk, as it was open to the whole Clark community, and saw a skewed view and poorly organized discussion.) We never said no. We simply asked for more information about or YouTube clips of the speakers. We were denied those requests, claiming that the speakers do not have YouTube pages because they have families and communities. Ali Abu Awwad is on YouTube and the other two have several published pages after a simple Google search.
Another two weeks pass, but this time there was no meeting. Instead, members of J Street joined our Bagel Brunch with the intention of degrading ClarkU Hillel and our Birthright chapter. They wanted to target students eligible for Birthright and convince them to not support a trip without a Palestinian speaker. We warned administration and the police in the case anybody felt threatened at our event.
ClarkU Hillel has zero tolerance for people who use intimidation and fear to prevent in any of our members from participating in our programs, including Birthright. It is disgraceful that students have marginalized and made their peers feel uncomfortable. Again, no one is saying that every student should participate in, or even approve of, all of our programs. Some may not approve of Birthright specifically. That’s fine. We do not however support this behavior or even a disruption of a Hillel event by anyone, let alone another club. Waging campaigns to intimate Hillel student violates basic principles of mutual respect and tolerance that are the foundation of any diverse Jewish community.
Everyone is welcome at ClarkU Hillel. That will never change. We’re just asking for mutual respect, as all students should always feel free and encouraged to participate in whatever programs we may sponsor, including Birthright.