WashU exhibit puts campus Jewish groups at odds

Washington University students Reuben Siegman and Joanna LeFebvre lead a panel discussion on topics such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and treatment of dissenting views in the Jewish community with Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier representing the left-wing group Breaking the Silence, and Karen Aroesty, director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

An exhibit last week at Washington University produced by a controversial group of former Israeli soldiers led some Jewish students to accuse the campus Hillel of stifling critical views of Israel.  

Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis declined to host an exhibit and a related event staged by Breaking the Silence, a group that features discussions with disillusioned Israeli soldiers and graphic images to bring attention to the IDF’s alleged abuse of Palestinians. 

The exhibit, which ran from April 25-27, featured photos and video of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers serving in the Israeli settlements in often disturbing scenes with Palestinians and captions containing anonymous quotes from soldiers or a brief description.

Hillel declined to host the exhibit, which was sponsored by J Street U, a student left-wing Israel advocacy organization, because “the program runs contrary to our educational vision,” WashU Hillel director Jacqueline Ulin Levey said in a statement. 

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Students with J Street are upset because they see Hillel’s denial as an example of the organization only allowing certain voices on Israel to be heard. 

The group ultimately held the exhibit and a panel discussion featuring the director of Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois at a common space elsewhere on the Washington University campus. 

“It definitely hurts to feel that my politics are considered too radical or divisive, [even] when they are shared by Israeli soldiers,” said Reuben Siegman, 21, a junior who helped organize the exhibit.

The disagreement over the exhibit serves as another test for Hillel International, an organization that has faced similar issues at other schools, on how to accommodate Jewish students on the left who are taking new measures to try and end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. 

Two soldiers visited the campus to talk about their experience in the IDF during tours of the exhibit and in panel discussions. Avner Gvaryahu, 32, grew up in an Orthodox community in Rehovot and served as a sergeant in a paratroopers brigade from 2004 to 2007. During the panel discussion, Gvaryahu shared a story about “barging into” a home in Nablus with his unit in the middle of the night — for strategic reasons — and then tying up a Palestinian doctor and his family. But he then untied the doctor’s hands and took off his blindfold “to clear my conscience” and “for the first time, had a real, genuine conversation with a Palestinian” even though Gvaryahu was holding a gun, he said.

“There, in that house in Nablus, I realized how much I didn’t know,” said Gvaryahu, who is now also a graduate student at Columbia University. 

This was not the first time that a former IDF soldier visited Wash U to discuss how his service made him question the Israeli government’s policies. In 2014, Hillel allowed J Street to host a former IDF soldier with Breaking the Silence and received significant backlash. 

“We chose to work with these emerging Jewish leaders in an educational setting rather than push them outside of our tent,” Wash U Hillel executive director Jacqueline Ulin Levey wrote at the time. The organization did not allow Breaking the Silence to share any photos, videos or similar materials that could be taken out of context, she stated.

This time around, Hillel declined to host the organization, citing the photos and video.

“The images and anonymous quotes displayed as part of the exhibit lack any context and fail to present the nuances and complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Levey stated. 

Students with J Street said they offered to connect the Hillel director with Gvaryahu to discuss “the structure of the photo exhibit and what you are comfortable including or not including,” but that the director did not follow up.

The Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University, which is affiliated with Hillel International, also did not allow J Street students to host the exhibit this week, and there, the students also held it elsewhere on campus. In that case, the CJL staff said they did not want to host the event around Israel’s Memorial and Independence days.

The rift over the exhibit follows Jewish students’ efforts to have Hillel International change its guidelines, which prevent campus Hillels from hosting people or groups that “delegitimize” the Jewish State, or support efforts of the BDS movement targeted at Israel.

“At a time when the [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement is rampant on college campuses throughout the country, the exhibit fuels the propaganda and momentum of Israel’s detractors,” Levey stated. 

Some students also said that such an exhibit would naturally lead students to support the BDS movement.

For students who do not know much about Israel or the conflict with the Palestinians, “rather than engaging students properly,” [the soldiers and photos] without context “will lead them to say Israel does not have a right to exist and isn’t a legitimate state that properly punishes soldiers who commit wrongdoing,” said Paul Felder, president of Washington University Students for Israel.

The J Street organizers said they are not supporters of the BDS movement but saw the exhibit and soldiers’ visit as a “good way to facilitate tough conversation about Israel,” said Joanna LeFebvre, 22. 

“There have been a lot of positive reactions and a lot of negative reactions [to the exhibit], and I think the negative reactions would not have been so outspoken and hurtful if it had been hosted in a Jewish environment,”said LeFebvre, a junior.

The J Street students also said they saw the Hillel decision as part of a larger trend in the U.S. Jewish community and in Israel. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a meeting with Germany’s foreign minister after demanding that he cancel a scheduled meeting with representatives of Breaking the Silence.

“That same dynamic of shutting out, of delegitimizing voices on the left is exactly what is happening here,” said LeFebvre. 

Despite not hosting the exhibit, Levey, the Hillel director, suggested other programming options and did attend the panel discussion, featuring an audience of about 25 people. When asked why she attended and what she thought of the discussion, she declined to comment.

Karen Aroesty, the regional ADL director, said she had no reluctance about participating in the panel.

“I think ADL has made it very clear that even if we are not entirely in agreement with views and strategies from Breaking the Silence, we at least want to be at the table to learn,” she said.