A decision by Harvard University Hillel to host a photo exhibit showing Israeli soldiers mistreating Palestinians drew fire from a national Jewish group this week — and consternation even from some who made the 11th hour decision.
The exhibit, sponsored by a group of Israeli Army veterans seeking to highlight what they view as the moral cost of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, opened at the Hillel this week and will be on display there through March 16.
“This is a fight over the identity of Israel and Judaism,” said group co-founder Yehuda Shaul, a 25-year-old company sergeant who still serves in the reserves and co-founded the veterans’ group, called Breaking the Silence. “This is why American Jews must take part in the debate.”
But Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, declared he would call the national president of Hillel this week to protest the Harvard chapter’s decision to provide Breaking the Silence a venue.
“Harvard Hillel should be ashamed of itself and should immediately rescind giving legitimacy to a program that only promotes hatred against Israel and Jews,” he declared. “They should not be allowing programs that harm Israel’s image, in this case falsely. Donors give to Hillel because they think they will be promoting love for Israel, not a negative and distorted image of the Israeli Army.”
The Harvard Hillel stop is part of a tour of U.S. sites for Breaking the Silence, including New York. The group will give a slide show presentation of the photos next week at the New Israel Fund office in Manhattan and at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The traveling exhibit shows Israeli soldiers intimidating unarmed Palestinians. It shows them happily watching a soccer game on TV in a Palestinian home they have broken into for a recreational break. It also shows racist and violent behavior by Jewish settlers in Hebron against the town’s Palestinian residents as Israeli soldiers watch impassively but do nothing.
The photos come from a trove of pictures, videos and personal testimonies collected from their comrades by the army vets. The 500-member group — all combatants, including officers, who have served in the West Bank — say their collection shows common day-to-day behavior by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and highlights a banal corrosion of moral sensibility the occupation instills in young men given enormous power over others.
“The first step is sparking the discussion,” said Shaul, who says his group takes no official stand against the occupation. He asserted that Israelis seldom weigh or even acknowledge the moral cost of the occupation in their policy debates on the occupation. “The first step is understanding the price,” he said. “You must say if it’s worth it according to your own value system. . . . This is a decision our society must make.”
First shown in Israel in 2004, the photos sparked heated protests that the behavior highlighted was exceptional, not typical. Its tour of the United States this week comes as an entire Israeli brigade faces charges of alleged routine beatings and arbitrary shootings of Palestinians. Kfir Brigade members, now on trial, are also alleged to have exposed themselves to Palestinians and, in one case, to have pressed a burning heater into the face of a Palestinian youth.
Amid communal concern about a reported rise of anti-Israel sentiment on U.S. campuses nationwide, Harvard Hillel’s decision was controversial even internally. The Hillel is not sponsoring the show. That is the role taken by the Progressive Jewish Alliance, an official student group that is one of many under the Hillel’s umbrella.
“We first approached Hillel at the beginning of the school year and had a very long back-and-forth with them,” recalled Seth Flaxman, a former PJA chair. “Hillel was our first choice. But eventually we ran out of time.”
The group accepted an alternative offer from Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies to host the exhibit. The proposed site, located in a heavily trafficked corridor with classes at the end of it, would have exposed many more students, mostly non-Jews, to the exhibit.
As the date for the exhibit approached, Hillel board members met to decide how they would relate to the event.
“We thought about these powerful images,” explained Hillel associate director Michael Simon. “To have hundreds of students walking through on campus would not provide an opportunity to contextualize or explain the photos, even though [Breaking the Silence army veterans] would be there to provide guided tours.”
The upshot was a change of mind just weeks before the event and an offer to host it at Hillel, after all. “We made it clear we’re not pleased the exhibit is coming,” said Simon. “But what would have potentially been a situation of one of our affiliated groups bringing this to campus and another opposing it—and people seeing these images without contextualization—we thought we’d really rather have it at Harvard Hillel.”
Hillel’s contextualization will include a panel discussion next week in which two Harvard students opposed to the show who are also Israeli Army veterans will sit on a panel with the Breaking the Silence vets.
Nevertheless, Hillel board member Jacob Victor, who leads Harvard Students for Israel, said of the show, “I think it’s doing more harm than good.” At the same time, he voiced no regret about Hillel’s decision to host it, “given the circumstances.”
Even at Hillel, some people seeing the show “know little about the conflict,” he said. “So they end up being exposed to these highly emotional photos at the expense of the political and other dimensions of the conflict.”