Sunday, June 26, 2011
The Hillel identity crisis
Jewish-American student organization Hillel Foundation in hot seat over anti-Israel activities including 'Apartheid Week,' financial boycott of Israel. Hillel: We won't allow anyone calling for boycott against Israel to be part of us
Published: 06.26.11/ Israel News
On a wall at the entrance to the prestige Berkeley University campus in California posters hung with anti-Israel slogans. Apartheid, genocide, Nazism – they read. Nearby stood representatives of Muslim organizations and acted out a blockage scenario, accompanied by anti-Israeli chanting behind them.
There are nearly 5,000 Jewish students in UC Berkeley, but only mere few were willing to protest the event and others like it. Missing most of all, it seems, is any censure by the Hillel Foundation – "the largest Jewish campus organization in the world." The Hillel Foundation was established in the 1920's in order to enrich the lives of Jewish students across college campuses in the United States. Present in 500 colleges and universities in the US, Hillel took it upon itself to encourage the students to support the State of Israel.
However, internal political shifts within the Jewish community in the US, and especially the weakening of ties between young American Jews to Israel, have allowed for anti-Israeli voices to penetrate the organization.
This shift has created a paradox: A national pro-Israeli organization under which anti-Israeli activities are being held across some US universities. At times, it means simply turning a blind eye to hostile events; but at other times there is actual and intentional criticism against Israel.
The bottom line is that many Hillel centers are being swept away in the tidal wave of pro-Palestinian protests. Not all Hillel centers take part in these anti-Israeli demonstrations, but these events are a sign of what's yet to come for the future generation of Israeli and Jewish American ties.
'Wake up call'
In the spring of 2010, UC Berkeley became the first university to declare a boycott against companies that do business with Israel. The message behind the bill, proposed by the members of the Students for Justice in Palestine organization, was to cause financial harm to Israel and its supporters.
Pro-Israeli activist John Moghtader was present at that meeting and was surprised to see members of the Hillel organization "Kesher Enoshi" ("human contact") speak out against Israel. "They introduced themselves as Hillel members, spoke about their Jewish identity and at the same time discussed their great objection to the 'war crimes' committed by the Jewish State," said Moghtader.
The UC Berkeley student senate voted 16-4 in favor of the divestment bill. "The fact that the student senate condemned Israel for alleged war crimes, called it an apartheid state – it was a wake up call for us."
However following an Israeli diplomatic effort and a roaring objection, the Berkeley student body president overturned the decision.
But the damage had already been done and similar events began to take place across other well-known universities in the country.
'Ground is ready for extremism'
These anti-Israeli incidences are not happening by chance. There has always been a great duality amongst liberal American Jews towards Israel, which has only increased in recent years, manifesting into antagonism.
A recent survey showed that Jewish Americans under the age of 35 would not consider the disappearance of the State of Israel to be a great personal loss.
"Unlike their grandparents and parents, these youngsters are not connected to Israel by past traumas," explained researcher and author Shmuel Rosner.
"They have stronger identity circles than Israel… In college they are detached from their parents for the first time and begin to rebel. "That kind of ground is ready for extremism."
Anti-Israeli Muslim organizations recognized this phenomenon and realized the best way to harm Israel is by convincing American Jews that Israel is doing them wrong. These organizations chose to fight it out in the greenhouses of politicians, economists, intellectuals and industrialists – in the prestige American universities.
One such organization is the Muslim Student Association, known to be behind infamous anti-Israeli protests like the Israeli Apartheid Week. With over 600 branches across the US and a public connection to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, the Association's agenda is to display Israel, and sometimes the US, as the enemy.
The Association provides lectures across US campuses under the names "Holocaust in the Holy Land" and "Israel – a third Reich state." It was also previously linked to organizations defined by the State Department as terror organizations.
Atmosphere effects Jewish students
This harsh atmosphere has a negative effect on the Jewish students.
"As a Jew, the feeling in the campus isn't good," described Jonathan Weinberg, a former student at UC Berkeley. "Those who chose to support Israel risk their careers… There were violent acts in the past. I felt like I was walking around with a target on my back."
Weinberg added that they had tried to get Hillel to object and get involved, but said they refused to cooperate. They even declined to place Israeli flags in Berkeley claiming some find them disturbing.
Berkeley was only the beginning. "There is an atmosphere of fear and terror here," said Tammi Benjamin, a lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz. "It's turned into a situation in which you can say anything against Israel and the Jews in the name of freedom of expression, including caricatures and hate marches. If such things were being said against Hispanics, Afro-Americans and even about Muslims the university would have objected."
"Those who support Israel pay a heavy personal price when it comes to promotions and social ties. It's obvious that one should stick to doing research and keep his head down. It's no wonder that students cannot fight this phenomenon, because in doing so they would be going against their lecturers and hurting their grades," she added.
In light of such feelings one would think a Jewish organization like Hillel would not be linked to anti-Israeli movements. However this has not stopped Hillel from being apart of such events.
It seems the anti-Israeli organization become a lot more powerful when their claims are being backed up by Jews and Israelis.
Hillel - an empty vessel?
In once such incident, in September 2009, the Students for Justice in Palestine organization invited two Israeli girls, who wrote an anti-Israeli petition, to an event conducted by Hillel's Kesher Enoshi. The event called for a boycott against Israel.
In 2009, the organization held a rock concert together with Kesher Enoshi members composed of anti-Israeli songs comparing the State to a Nazi regime and to an apartheid state.
A few months late some Breaking The Silence activists, sponsored by the Students for Justice in Palestine, Muslim organizations and Kesher Enoshi, took the stage. In February 2011, a Sheikh Jarrah representative was there as well.
Meanwhile some worried citizens have tried to object. Dr. Ealon Joelson, 44, a neurologist, established a pro-Israeli organization by the name of Israel Peace Initiative.
"Organization like Hillel are empty vessels. If those in charge were better directors they would be able to turn it into a pro-Israeli organization," claimed Joelson.
Professor Abraham Miller of the University of Cincinnati and a former consultant to the National Institute of Justice on counter terrorism recalled his time in UC Berkeley.
"I saw a lot of slogans and posters against Israel. I didn't see such things against any other group…. When Jewish student organizations cooperate with this it's unbearable," said Miller.
When lecturers expressed their wish to talk about Israel from a positive perspective, the Hillel organization said they would rather not bring in people who speak about controversial issues.
"Hillel is committed to creating deep and supportive relations with the State of Israel and everything we do it with that in mind," said Berkeley Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Adam Naftalin. "We will not allow anyone calling for a boycott against Israel to become part of us."
The Hillel administration at Washington University stated: "The foundation is the cornerstone of pro-Israeli activities in north-American campuses, working together with the Jewish Agency and other organizations to provide students of different backgrounds the opportunity to build a relationship with Israel."
"The foundation has established rules and regulations intended to prevent activities with organizations calling to boycott Israel," they added.