What do Oded Na’aman of Breaking the Silence and Hen Mazzig of Stand With Us have in common? They are both former IDF soldiers who tour the United States to speak about their experiences serving Israel.
What makes them different? In the opinion of Hillel International, the one that opposes the occupation needs several layers of “context” for his story to be heard by students. The other does not. We must ask ourselves why that is.
The J Street U chapter at Washington University of St. Louis recently brought Na’aman to speak at St. Louis Hillel, working closely with our Hillel Director, Jackie Ulin Levey, and with the support of our Hillel board. Just days before the program, Levey was contacted by Stand With Us CEO Roz Rothstein, urging her to cancel Na’aman’s talk. When Levey refused, Rothstein began preparations to fly in Stand With Us staff member and former IDF soldier Hen Mazzig from Seattle. When Levey asked that Mazzig be sent at a later date instead, she was ignored, and he was sent anyway.
A week later, Brett Cohen, Stand With Us’ National Campus Director, was asked by J Street U students during a panel how this came to be. He said that Hillel International had asked Rothstein to send Mazzig to provide context and balance to the event.
Whether or not this is true – a Hillel representative speaking on the same panel said it was not – Hillel International’s response to the program was still problematic. Hillel had also sent someone to our program: A Jewish Agency Israel Fellow all the way from Connecticut to give a 90-minute “contextualizing” presentation after Na’aman’s talk.
Then a letter to donors from Eric Fingerhut, Hillel International’s CEO, was leaked to a right-wing blog. At first glance, Fingerhut’s letter reads like a defense of bringing Breaking the Silence to St. Louis Hillel. We were pleased to see him say that Breaking the Silence is part of the “broad tent of dialogue regarding Israel.” But that phrase is part of a longer sentence: “while we join with the majority of the community in deeply resenting the actions of the former IDF soldiers in Breaking the Silence, who come to college campuses in America to disparage the IDF, it is, regrettably, part of the broad tent of dialogue regarding Israel.”
What does this indicate about Hillel International’s willingness to engage meaningfully with the occupation, perhaps the greatest threat facing Israel today? What does it say that those who bravely speak out about the grave danger that the occupation presents to Israel’s future are considered “regrettable” and in need of “balancing?” Why is it that others, who support such positions as Israeli annexation of the occupied territories – for example, Sgt. Benjamin Anthony who recently spoke at Brown University Hillel – require no “balance” and garner no response from Hillel?
Not only does this constitute a double standard towards progressive pro-Israel groups, but this anti-intellectual conduct obfuscates the issues that Breaking the Silence seeks to highlight. What is truly “regrettable” is the recalcitrance of the Jewish community in refusing to address the occupation, which poses a grave threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish homeland and democratic state.
We are proud to partner with St. Louis Hillel in bringing these stories to our community – and grateful that our director has been with us every step of the way. And we are glad that Fingerhut felt the need to defend Breaking the Silence to his donors. But we should not welcome events discussing the occupation under the “broad tent of dialogue regarding Israel” simply to impose “balance” or “supervision.”
Hillel is not alone in its reluctance to engage with the occupation – much of the Jewish community must reckon with this failing. We would welcome a debate about the actual content of Na’aman’s talk, about whether or not military rule of another people can and should continue, but so far, the media debate surrounding this event and others like it has focused on where and how conversations about Israel should take place. We did not hold this event so that we could instigate a vibrant discussion about how we talk about Israel on campus. We held it because we want a vibrant discussion about Israel. We have a vision for Israel and it does not include long-term military occupation.
As the future of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians remains uncertain, we cannot let cowardice or discomfort get in the way of substance or engagement. That is not the way to be an effective advocate for Israel, nor a politically engaged college student. We must persist in our efforts to stake out space for these conversations, and we will work with Hillel to address the real questions, the tough questions, the ones that really matter to Israel’s future.
Morriah Kaplan is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, studying English Literature and Urban Studies. She is a current board member of J Street U at Washington University, and she was one of the student organizers who brought Breaking the Silence to St. Louis Hillel.