Hillel fosters pro-Israel community on campus

By Jacqueline Ulin Levey

At St. Louis Hillel, we work each day toward one goal: ensuring the Jewish future. Given this goal, engaging our students with Israel through immersive experiences and cultural, educational and advocacy programs is a key pillar of our work. For if we wish to help our students tap into the Jewish narrative and their connection to global Jewish peoplehood, the nation-state of the Jewish people must be at the core of our efforts.

St. Louis Hillel serves a diverse campus Jewish community of more than 1,500 Jewish students and is a microcosm of the broader Jewish community. A spectrum of opinions and diverse political and ideological perspectives thrive among those who support Israel and believe in its right to exist as the Jewish homeland. 

It is Hillel’s role to provide a forum for thoughtful and respectful exploration of, and dialogue about, these diverse views and perspectives so long as these views do not demonize or delegitimize Israel and its right to exist or otherwise advocate for actions such as boycotts, divestment or sanctions intended to punish Israel.

Unlike other pro-Israel organizations that sponsor speakers and other one-off events on campus, Hillel is part of the fabric of campus life. Through our trained professionals, including campus Israel Fellows (in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel), the Israel student groups we advise, our broad Israel programming and the relationships we cultivate with students, Hillels are uniquely situated to educate about Israel. Hillel helps frame the Israel conversation on campus and ensure that our students who are grappling with tough questions about Israel are doing so with a foundational understanding of the complexities of the conflict and the richness of all that Israel is beyond that conflict. 

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It is with this background in mind that we allowed our campus J Street U chapter to host Israel Defense Forces veteran and Harvard graduate student Oded Na’aman of Breaking the Silence at the St. Louis Hillel building March 31 (see related story on page 3). This decision was not made lightly. It was made in consultation with International Hillel after a review of past Breaking the Silence events at the University of Maryland and University of Pennsylvania Hillels. Our decision was also supported by our local Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council executives.

A number of pertinent details about the program were left out of recent articles condemning the event. First, this program was going to happen here on the Washington University campus regardless of our involvement. The students who invited Oded are active members of our campus Jewish community who have studied abroad in Israel and were seeking to engage their peers in conversation around difficult issues concerning Israel. 

We chose to work with these emerging Jewish leaders in an educational setting rather than push them outside of our tent. By having the program at Hillel, we were able to work with the students to frame Oded’s presentation and set various parameters. For instance, Oded shared his personal story and perspectives based on his experience and observations. At our request, he did not share any anonymous testimonies or statements of others. Moreover, Oded was not permitted to share any photos, videos or similar materials that could be taken out of context.

Second, in coordination with International Hillel, the Yale Hillel Israel Fellow came to our Hillel for the day to engage with our student leadership leading up to the presentation. He attended the program, debriefed with students, and facilitated a session immediately following on the history and geopolitics of the conflict. 

A critique of Israel and its military and government policies by a former member of the IDF who put his life on the line to protect Israel does not equate to demonizing Israel, as painful and difficult to hear such opinions and perspectives may be. While many might resent the actions of IDF veterans involved in Breaking the Silence for disparaging the IDF, our students are grappling with many of the issues touched upon during Oded’s talk — namely, the challenges involved in securing Israel and the West Bank and what the settlements mean for the future of Israel and the prospect of securing a just and lasting peace.

The articles denouncing the event and the many communications we’ve received in response to an organized viral campaign initiated by Stand With Us and others to condemn our Hillel are troublesome for many reasons. First, they reflect a desire to suppress the conversation out of fear that if we allow our students to be exposed to Oded’s story after numerous visits by other IDF veterans, the floodgates will open to Israel’s detractors and unnecessarily sway our students.

This argument is flawed in that it disregards Hillel’s educational role, underestimates our students’ intelligence and ignores the fact that conversations around these very issues are already happening among the future leaders of our Jewish community who love Israel and support Israel and are grappling with all of the issues that a contemporary Israel is facing.

If these conversations can’t be held at Hillel, the safest of spaces for challenging Jewish conversations, then we’re doing a significant disservice to our students. The more we, as an organized Jewish community, seek to quash or avoid the conversation, the more we are going to turn away these young Jewish leaders, the very students that every facet of our Jewish community is seeking so hard to engage.

The articles posted and incendiary emails we received are also problematic because they are creating a divide within our community that ultimately benefits no one other than Israel’s detractors. Despite the fact that this event was limited to a student audience and that a handful of IDF veterans were present (including the Yale Hillel Israel Fellow), Stand With Us insisted on sending their representative Hen Mazzig (see above), author of articles condemning the event. 

Hen was graciously welcomed by the student organizers and even introduced during the program. I invited Hen to come back to our Hillel to share his story. But that was not sufficient. If Hen couldn’t speak alongside Oded, then Stand With Us was going to create a national firestorm based on an article Hen had prepared before stepping into the event. 

This “our way or the highway” approach is not productive and should not be tolerated as part of our community discourse. If we are going to work alongside one another to develop the next generation of Jewish leaders committed to a strong Israel, if we are going to work together to address the greater threat  defending Israel from those who wish to destroy her  then let’s model for our students best practices of collaboration and mutual respect. 

In a world where many are seeking to hurt Israel and deny its right to exist, Hillel remains a bastion of hope for ensuring its future.