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Hillel International Must Reject the David Project in Favor of Inclusive Community

August 29, 2017

by Nancy Ko, Open Hillel

To Hillel International President and CEO Mr. Eric Fingerhut:

On August 23, 2017, you announced a merger with an Israel advocacy group called The David Project by stating, “Hillel values the approach The David Project has taken to build strong relationships on campus with a wide array of students to strengthen the pro-Israel community.”

As a Harvard Hillel alumna committed to the liberal arts tradition and the Jewish spirit of machloket l’shem shamayim — disagreement for the sake of heaven — I cannot in good conscience remain silent as you disguise political indoctrination in the language of pluralism.

I, for one, am not fooled. Take the diplomatic verbiage away, and Hillel “values the approach the David Project has strengthen the pro-Israel community.”

In 2012, the David Project underwent a makeover in an attempt to abandon its unsavory reputation as an aggressive right-wing Israel advocacy group. In name, its stated principles seem to promote productive dialogue: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” But in deed, the David Project has remained more “pro-Israel” than pro-dialogue, or even pro-Jewish community: the 2012 report detailing the Project’s change in direction defined its concern as “not the welfare of Jewish students,” but the maintenance of “strong bipartisan support for Israel.”

This merger reflects the belief that the Jewish community should only serve students who embrace a particular set of opinions on Israel, while excluding those who don’t — even as we have never questioned our commitment to pluralism with regard to Jewish tradition, Jewish identity, or God.

THE KEY to machloket l’shem shamayim is the mutual search for truth. Yet Hillel International’s merger with the David Project is one in a string of actions coming at the expense not only of pluralism and community, but also fact.

Last May, the Hillel chapters of Washington University in St. Louis and Princeton University barred J Street U events with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization comprised of former IDF soldiers who testify about their experiences in the Occupied Territories.

Jacqueline Levey, Executive Director at Washington University’s Hillel, wrote that the organization’s photo exhibit at Washington University was incompatible with Hillel’s aim to “facilitate civil discourse about Israel in a safe and supportive environment that is fertile for dialogue and learning.”

But “appalling images” of military occupation do not constitute an unsafe or unsupportive environment for dialogue and learning. To the contrary, a substantive dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian issue cannot occur without acknowledgement of the appalling facts that constitute it — facts that Jewish groups like Breaking the Silence, J Street U, and Jewish Voice for Peace have long expressed a desire to acknowledge within Hillel. Hillel International pretends to endorse “dialogue and learning.” But its actions have only reflected an interest in “pro-Israel” monologue.

If we limit the range of “acceptable” opinions in Jewish communities, we also shield ourselves from the inevitably inconvenient facts, nuances, and realities that may disturb our most deeply felt loyalties. Conversely, the more we shield ourselves from these facts, the further entrenched our limits on acceptable opinions will become.

WHY SHOULD Hillel resist this cycle of indoctrination?

By merging with the David Project and banning Breaking the Silence, Hillel International continues to conflate the Jewish community with the “pro-Israel community,” a term the reductive absurdity of which no one has summarized better than Israeli author Etgar Keret.

Whether Hillel International likes it or not, the record is far from settled with regard to American Jewish support of today’s Israel. An increasing number of American Jews want to, and are, voicing criticism of Israel: of its settlement policy, of its military occupation, of its key political figures. By merging with the David Project, Hillel is alienating itself from the growing population of Jewish community members whose opinions depart from the Project’s script. (The steady growth of the Open Hillel movement and its nearly 200-strong academic and rabbinic councils are evidence of this.)

THE COMMUNITY members whom Hillel International alienates are also the ones whom the world, and Israel, are paying attention to. So even if your the donors and board members do not agree with all members of the campus Jewish community, they would be wise to value us as engaged members of that community, rather than exclude some as pariahs.

I think you and I agree that the Jewish community should remain relevant to the ongoing and consequential discussions about Israel happening across social movements, in international courts, between scholars, amongst policymakers and most importantly within Israel itself. The question is whether Hillel International will be part of that relevant Jewish community.

I recognize the pressures you face from donors less committed to fostering pluralistic and democratic Jewish communities. It’s no secret that donor pressure can keep leadership quiet, even when the issue is as urgent as fighting anti-Semitism. But for the sake of Hillel’s future, I urge Hillel International to practice real leadership: cut ties with the David Project and commit to promoting meaningful and open dialogue about Israel, as Hillel has always done with regard to every other issue of Jewish tradition and identity. The alternative, to cave in to donors’ interests, is a dead-end path that will lead to Hillel’s irrelevancy. That’s an outcome both you and I would mourn.

Nancy Ko is a 2017 graduate of Harvard University and a proud alumna of Harvard Hillel. She served on the first steering committee for Open Hillel in 2014 and will begin her graduate studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford this fall.

Photo credit Gili Getz