What used to be an internal conversation about the political open-mindedness of the North American Jewish community has recently been playing out in the public sphere.
It began in December, with news of students at Swarthmore deciding to call their Hillel an “Open Hillel,” a decision that has been followed recently by Vassar’s Hillel. Last week, the controversial subject again made headlines when Ramaz, the Zionist Jewish day school in Manhattan, rescinded an invitation to Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, to address the student body. These stories appear to show a groundbreaking effort by Jewish students to resist the traditional pro-Israel establishment, leading many to take sides either with the new anti-establishment generation or the entrenched previous one.
But the reality among Jewish students dedicated to the issue of Israel in their schools and campuses reveals a more complex calculus. While Ramaz made news for its invitation to Khalidi, few know that this would not in fact be Khalidi’s first engagement with Jewish students supportive of Israel. Two years ago, I approached Khalidi at Columbia, and asked him if he would be willing to have dinner with the Columbia undergraduate community’s Israel leadership. He admirably agreed, and for the past two years, about 25 students have met with Khalidi in the fall to discuss, question and learn from the Palestinian narrative. The students who attend are well versed in their own narrative and facts, and have used the opportunity to ask hard questions and listen to challenging answers.
The goal of these dinners was, and continues to be, maximum exposure for Jewish students: enabling those who lead Hillel’s more traditional programming to also engage with the other side of the same story. Conversation with those whose values differ from one’s own remains a critical aspect of any education. These dinners have been tremendous successes, largely because they were organized with the tensions involved in mind: they sought not to collapse delicate boundaries, but to spark real discourse among even those most intellectually opposed to the Palestinian worldview.
Because of this, although they are occurring on a campus that has traditionally been a hotbed for Israeli-Palestinian tensions — Columbia invited former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak in 2007, saw the filming of a documentary called “Columbia Unbecoming” that challenged anti-Jewish sentiment in Middle East Studies classrooms, and has an annual Israel Apartheid Week — these dinners have not made headlines. Rather, they have been a productive, forward-moving initiative for both the Jewish community supportive of Israel and for Khalidi.
The success of these dinners also teaches something about the way in which Jewish students should approach the Israel issue on campus. In conjunction with these dinners, a few friends and I founded a new group at Columbia’s Hillel called The Student Center for Israel and Zionist Thought. This group aims, simply, to broaden the discussion on Israel in all possible directions: we have hosted alternative peace activists, discussed the politics of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leader of revisionist Zionism, and organized student debates spanning a right-left spectrum that have been attended by significant student audiences. But the overriding principle on which we act is manifestly different than that of the Hillel’s at Swarthmore and Vassar, and the politics club at Ramaz.
In attempting to boldly break down barriers, these groups have misunderstood much about what effective campus education and activism is all about. By attempting to redraw the lines, they have only called greater attention to the traditional lines of “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel,” phrases that are antiquated and unproductive. In declaring one’s Hillel to be “open” with the express intent of hearing more “anti-Zionist voices,” a wide chasm is opened within the Jewish community — between those who lean to the right and those who lean to the left. In making idealistic declarations that make for good press, these groups forget that real change doesn’t happen through controversy, but through a careful and substantial widening of the total community’s worldview. And in defining programming based on where one falls on the spectrum, these groups unfairly label and stigmatize when instead they should be validating the whole of their community’s views. In this, both Hillel International and Open Hillel are at fault for turning the notion of conversation into a political issue of endorsement and values.
Students in high school and college tend to forget that they are not yet so broadly informed to determine which voices are valid and which are not. Open Hillel and the politics club at Ramaz rightly intend to increase the opinions available to them, but they do so in the wrong ways and at the risk of alienating a significant other portion of the very same community.
The goal of interested Jewish students should be to talk to both the settler and the Palestinian, and not privilege one’s position over the other. Hillel guidelines as they stand are outdated — I do not see why hosting a point of view in an academically challenging environment endorses that point of view. But if the totality of the Jewish community is to advance its view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in light of a seemingly endless occupation and historical, strategic and moral realities, then it must do so in a way that is palatable to all. This can only happen through careful navigation, not divisive statements and a claim to openness that is in fact only one-way.
Real change, the kind I have seen work at Columbia, acts prudently and gradually. In this the Head of School at Ramaz is right: Ramaz’s student body is not intellectually equipped to jump straight from the narrative they learn in school to the narrative articulated by Khalidi. The ensuing conversation would be provocative, but ineffectual. The Jewish community is so stuck in antique paradigms that have existed for so long — often for important reasons — that any change must begin with slow and mutually appreciated steps. These steps should take in the wisdom from both the left and the right, both of which lend an important voice to the whole of the Zionist cause. But this goes against the controversial wisdom. In Haaretz, journalist Peter Beinart lambasted Ramaz for its supposed lack of confidence in Zionism by disinviting Khalidi. I argue the opposite. Confidence in Zionism should be dictated by lot more than hollow gestures.
Joshua R. Fattal is a junior at Columbia University majoring in history. He was a Jewish Week 36 Under 36 awardee in 2013.