WashU Hillel explains decision on Breaking the Silence exhibit

Jacqueline Ulin Levey is the executive director of Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis.

By Jacqueline Ulin Levey

Israel education and engagement are a key element of Hillel’s work on campus at Washington University. We are committed to fostering educational opportunities that showcase the diversity and breadth of perspectives about Israel. 

Given our commitment to pluralism, we were disappointed by the misleading op-ed by Washington University junior Aitan Groener about a Breaking the Silence photo exhibit that J Street U hosted on campus this past week.

WashU Hillel decided not to host the exhibit, and it stands by its decision. Some students have been critical of Hillel’s decision, but we believe that hosting this event would have run contrary to our educational vision.

The exhibit included roughly 60 poster-size photos, each accompanied by an anonymous quote. The photos paired with each quote purported to reflect the “moral corruption” of the Israeli Defense Forces in maintaining security in the West Bank. 

The exhibit was presented with little context of the nuances and complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and most visitors likely left overwhelmed by the appalling images. At a time when the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is rampant on college campuses throughout the country, the exhibit fuels the propaganda and momentum of Israel’s detractors.

Unlike the breaking the Silence exhibit, WashU Hillel seeks to facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning. 

Fostering difficult conversations among students with diverse perspectives on Israel was one of WashU Hillel’s goals in organizing an Israel Student Group Leader Roundtable this year.  Student leaders from the WashU Israel Public Affairs Committee  (WIPAC), an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), J Street U and WashU Students for Israel (WSI) groups engage in high-level learning about Israel, discuss challenging issues and explore opportunities for collaboration. 

Our hope is that the Roundtable will serve as a launch point for building dialogue across differences on Israel among the broader campus Jewish community.  

WashU Hillel subsidizes expenses for students to attend the national conferences of both J Street and AIPAC in Washington, D.C. We support many of their events, evaluating each program on an individual basis to ensure it is in keeping with our mission, vision and educational goals. 

In the past month alone, we’ve sponsored a WIPAC Leadership Dinner featuring U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis; a WSI spinning class guiding participants on a video tour through Israel with JerusalemU; a talk with Israeli supermodel Maayan Keret on body image; and a J Street U Passover Seder.

WashU Hillel staff suggested alternative program ideas to J Street U that would have allowed for constructive dialogue without undermining Hillel’s educational values, only to be rebuffed and then subjected to public condemnation by the J Street U leadership. There was no acceptable middle ground. 

Absent from Groener’s op-ed is the fact that the organizers initially sought to launch the exhibit at Hillel on May 1, Israel’s national day of public mourning for fallen soldiers. The op-ed also omitted any mention of our Hillel’s support for J Street U.  Whether the oversight was in error or intentional, it begs the question: Does J Street U truly want to be integrated within Hillel’s umbrella? Or is it more advantageous to its mission to claim that Hillel is not a supportive partner and that the voices of J Street U are marginalized? 

WashU Hillel hopes that in the future, J Street U will respect our deep commitment to dialogue and look for ways to work together even when the values and missions of our unique organizations diverge.

Jacqueline Ulin Levey is the executive director of Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis.