Hillel Uses the Pro-Israel Playbook on Socialists

The campus organization’s dispute with Georgia Tech’s YDSA chapter might be a sign of things to come.

Mari Cohen
December 10, 2019
Members of Georgia Tech YDSA tabling on campus. Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech YDSA’s Twitter account.

LAST MONTH, members of a campus group at Georgia Tech won a significant victory against the university administration, which overturned sanctions it had imposed on the group for allegations of antisemitism, stemming from a complaint by a Hillel staff member about a “Palestine 101” event. The outlines of the controversy are familiar to anyone who has observed conflict between Hillel and pro-Palestinian groups around the country over the last few years. But in this case, Hillel’s dispute was not with a group primarily focused on this issue—such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) or Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)—but rather with the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), the youth wing of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a movement that has exploded in popularity following Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign and Trump’s election. 

Pro-Israel organizations have clashed with DSA groups on- and off-campus ever since DSA voted, by a large margin, to back the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the national convention in August 2017. This vote represented a significant shift for DSA, which, as Abraham Riesman reported for The Daily Beast last year, had long operated as an explicitly pro-Israel group—a rare orientation for a US-based leftist organization. The move was not without controversy: some longtime DSA members complained and even resigned their membership over the vote.

But many others in the organization have been eager to take on Palestine solidarity work. And with YDSA looking to scale up its campus membership—the group lists 90 active chapters in 36 states and hopes to reach 100 by the end of its fall outreach campaign—the Georgia Tech incident is unlikely to be the last. Zoha Khalili, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, which  provides legal support to people speaking up about Palestine, says that her organization, which supported YDSA Georgia Tech in their appeal, has seen more incidents involving DSA and YDSA groups recently, given DSA’s expansion and support for Palestinian rights. 

For instance, the Portland chapter of DSA recently campaigned to get the Portland Trail Blazers to end a partnership with rifle scope manufacturer Leupold & Stevens, which supplies rifle scopes to the Israeli Defense Forces. Portland DSA claimed success when the NBA team dropped the partnership in September, though the Trail Blazers say it had nothing to do with the protests. While few other DSA chapters have run similarly prominent boycott campaigns, they have incorporated Palestine-related activities into work with their local chapters in other ways: NYC DSA has petitioned representatives asking them to support HR 2407, Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill prohibiting the use of US tax dollars for the military detention of Palestinian children; DSA in Washington, DC has joined a coalition of groups working to stop the DC police force from training with the Israeli military. Nationally, DSA has redoubled its commitment to Palestine solidarity activism: at this year’s convention, they passed a resolution to form a Palestine Working Group to help DSA activists doing Palestine-related work across the country connect with one another. 

At times, DSA members or chapters supporting Palestine have attracted controversy. In summer 2017, Illinois progressive gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss booted his running mate, Chicago City Council representative and DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, from the ticket because of Ramirez-Rosa’s support for BDS, though the issue had little to do with state politics. (Biss and Ramirez-Rosa did not respond to requests to discuss the controversy for Jewish Currents.) In May, a church in Queens caved to pressure from local pro-Israel activists—including right-wing former state legislator Dov Hikind—to cancel a Queens DSA event where Palestinian-Americans would be speaking about the Nakba. (The event was later rescheduled.) 

YDSA chapters, meanwhile, have followed their parent organization’s lead. On campuses from Emory to Swarthmore, YDSA groups have endorsed BDS resolutions; at Purdue and Boston College, they’ve co-hosted educational events about Palestine. At Wake Forest University, YDSA joined a coalition of students to hold a Wake Forest Palestine Rights Awareness Week. They were condemned in right-wing publications The Algemeiner and The Tower. The Wake Forest coalition later said they were harrassed so severely by pro-Israel students and faculty before and during their events that some panelists had to be escorted to their cars by police.  

YDSA’s “Palestine 101” event at Georgia Tech was hosted in partnership with SJP groups at Georgia State and Emory as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, an international week of programming to raise awareness about Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and to build support for BDS. The event took place during YDSA’s weekly meeting on April 1st. Speakers included a member of Joining Hands for Justice in Palestine & Israel, a Christian anti-occupation organization; a Palestinian-American Georgia Tech graduate; and a member of the Atlanta JVP chapter. 

When Ariella Ventura, who co-chairs YDSA Georgia Tech’s immigration committee, heard about the event, she felt a bit uneasy. Ventura, who is Jewish, didn’t have a particularly strong relationship with Israel, but she had attended Jewish day school and visited Israel on a school trip. The use of the term “apartheid” gave her pause, but she took it as an invitation to learn more. “I had never heard Israel being called an apartheid state before, but I was like, okay, if people have those feelings, there’s probably a reason,” she says. 

In response to the event and other Israeli Apartheid Week programming at partnering schools, the director of Georgia Tech’s Hillel, Lauren Blazofsky, sent an email to Hillel’s listserv to say that “several students and staff will attend some of the week’s programs to offer a counter-narrative and questions.” YDSA leadership obtained a copy of the email. Concerned that Hillel staff might disrupt their event, they decided to limit attendance to students, according to Nate Knauf, who was a co-chair of the group at the time. 

“We have members in Hillel and we know that this decision was not reflective of students on the membership, but rather astroturfing from staff,” Knauf says. 

During the event, Knauf checked prospective attendees’ student IDs. When Blazofsky arrived, he recognized her as the person who had sent the Hillel email. He informed her that she could not attend, both because she was not a student and because she had expressed an intention to disrupt the event. Knauf admitted that one non-student was allowed in: the father of a student who happened to have tagged along for the program. Two Hillel-affiliated students who arrived with Blazofsky were allowed in. Knauf and Ventura say that those two students became disruptive, heckling the Palestinian speakers at the meeting.

That evening, YDSA leaders sent an email to Hillel staff (which they provided to Jewish Currents), saying they regretted having to turn away a staff member, but they did so because they feared disruption. “We in no way intended this as a slight against the organization, and we welcomed student members of Hillel to our meeting,” the email says. YDSA leaders offered to meet with student leaders at Hillel to hear their concerns. Hillel’s student president responded but did not acknowledge the request for a meeting. 

The following week, Blazofsky sent an email to “stakeholders of Jewish life at Georgia Tech”—which included parents and donors, but not students—letting them know that she had been turned away from the event, that she believed this violated her First Amendment rights, and that she had filed a complaint against YDSA with the university’s Office of Student Integrity. “What is likely is that they targeted me for being Jewish or affiliated with a Jewish organization,” she wrote. 

YDSA members vehemently deny that turning away Blazofsky had anything to do with her Jewish identity. They emphasize that other Jewish students were let in, and that a significant number of YDSA’s 100 members are Jewish. Some YDSA members have been active in both YDSA and Hillel leadership. 

After Blazofsky filed her complaint, YDSA faced a convoluted and opaque disciplinary process before the Office of Student Integrity, Ventura and Knauf say. The hearing was delayed until September, and the students did not receive evidence and information about the charges against them, which was supposed to be provided according to school procedure. In October, YDSA was informed that they had violated Student Code of Conduct rule 21.b, which prohibits “[o]bjectively offensive conduct directed at a particular person or persons based upon that person or persons’ race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, or any class protected by law.” The Office of Student Integrity included no justification for its decision, but placed the club on disciplinary probation and, as a form of sanction, announced that they would be required to host three events to “discuss differing viewpoints on subject matters.” 

YDSA views Hillel’s complaint—and the university’s initial support for it—as a political tactic rather than a good-faith attempt to address antisemitism.“We definitely think it is a reaction by the campus right, which has grown increasingly conscious of us because we’re the largest left organization on campus that we know of in contemporary history,” Knauf says.  

Blazofsky did not respond to emails seeking comment on the events, nor did a spokesperson for Hillel International. However, after the school’s ruling against YDSA, the Hillels of Georgia Facebook page published a lengthy post celebrating the decision and condemning the YDSA students, arguing that “[t]hey singled out Lauren because of her religious beliefs, because of her assumed politics, because of her connection to the Jewish community, AND because of her ethnicity.” They criticized YDSA for pledging to fight the decision, rather than apologizing: “The fact that they have been found liable first by their peers and now by the university administration is sadly lost on the unrepentant club.”  

With help from the social justice advocacy group Project South, YDSA appealed the decision. They also created an online petition demanding the university rescind the charges. Various organizations—including Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Council on Islamic-American Relations Georgia, and roughly 30 YDSA chapters from across the country—signed on; in total, nearly 1000 supporters signed the petition. Palestine Legal offered advice and support. On November 7th, Associate Dean of Students Colleen Riggle sent YDSA a brief email announcing that the charges had been overturned and all sanctions had been dropped. YDSA celebrated the news on social media and announced that they would hold a “Palestine 102” event at a meeting later in the semester to continue educating members about Palestine. Hillel has, at this time, issued no public comment on the decision. 

“I was really thrilled to see that Georgia Tech YDSA’s response to winning this appeal is to reaffirm their commitment to talking about Palestine on campus,” says Khalili. “The fact that they have gone through this process and have been successful sends a great message to other student groups.”

Pro-Israel organizations have pulled from the typical playbook for quashing criticism of Israel when targeting DSA-related groups by accusing them of antisemitism. This playbook is used not just on campus, but in the halls of Congress: pro-Israel groups like the American Jewish Committee hurl accusations of antisemitism at Ilhan Omar (while largely letting Trump and the far right off the hook); Jewish establishment figures in Detroit have expressed intent to fund efforts to unseat DSA-affiliated Rashida Tlaib. 

Khalili predicts that democratic socialist groups doing Palestine solidarity work will see continued opposition from a right-wing movement that sees intersectional organizing as a threat. One sign that this is already underway is that the right-wing blacklisting site Canary Mission, which collections information about pro-Palestinian academics and student activists and accuses them of antisemitism and terrorism, has begun noting some activists’ affiliation with YDSA in their profiles, though the group is not yet included on its list of officially blacklisted organizations.  

“It’s always been the case that people who are supportive of Palestine have been involved in a diverse range of movements. But one criticism that people have of Palestine solidarity organizations is that because of their focus on the issue of Palestine, they’re singling out Israel the Jewish state,” says Khalili. “The fact that that these organizations that are working on a broad range of issues—talking about workers’ rights here in the US, talking about women’s rights, and recognizing the parallels with Palestine—eliminates one of the arguments that pro-Israel groups have been trying to use.”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.