The internal politics of college religious organizations don’t usually make international headlines.
Yet, some Israeli journalists and politicians were infuriated at the decision in November by Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life, a Hillel affiliate, to postpone a speech by Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who has endorsed Israeli annexation of the West Bank. A left-wing student group called the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP) protested Hotovely’s talk, criticizing her positions for “caus[ing] irreparable damage to the prospects of a peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to a letter the group sent to The Daily Princetonian campus newspaper.
Princeton’s Chabad House stepped in to sponsor the talk, which went on without incident, but the Center’s actions still caused an uproar. Michael Oren, a Knesset member and former ambassador to the United States, who attended graduate school at Princeton, attacked the Center for Jewish Life on Twitter and said that Israeli officials should boycott the organization. (Hillel’s president, Eric Fingerhut, eventually apologized to Hotovely for cancelling the event.)
Although some tension still hangs in the air, the controversy mostly blew over when the news cycle moved on. The Center for Jewish Life and Chabad have maintained their rigidly pro-Israel stances. The Center’s Israel-related speech code, which left-wing students alleged was unfairly applied to them and not Hotovely (at least originally), remains in place.
Before, during and after the controversy, there was little information on whether student opinions on Israel mirror the positions held by the Center for Jewish Life and Chabad. Do Jewish students at Princeton agree with the positions of two of Princeton’s major Jewish institutions?
Interviews with more than a dozen Princeton students from different Jewish backgrounds reveal that most of them generally support Israel and feel some bond to it, although many feel at least some discomfort with the Netanyahu government’s policies.
Students who are more observant tended to feel a stronger connection to Israel, and some of them had made 10 or more visits to the country, including gap years between high school and college. These students, for the most part, also had much more positive opinions of West Bank settlements.
Ami Berman, a sophomore majoring in computer science, is largely representative of the more religious group. He spent a year in Jerusalem before college, he has been to Israel a dozen times and he eats most of his meals in Princeton’s kosher dining hall.
Israeli political issues are very important to Berman, both because he has family there, but also for the importance that it holds as the world’s only Jewish state. One overriding theme in his views is the complexity of the country’s politics, he said. That view came through when he was asked his view about West Bank settlements.
“There are real people who live their lives there,” Berman said. But he added, “Israel also has a moral responsibility to consider the needs of Palestinians, and to make sure that there is some sort of pathway toward Palestinian statehood.”
Simone Downs identifies at the other end of the spectrum of religious observance. She attends Reform services and Shabbat dinners on occasion but identifies mostly as culturally Jewish. Much of the Jewish population at Princeton is like her — they participate occasionally in Jewish events but are mostly involved with other activities on campus.
Israel was not particularly important to Downs while she was growing up, but her experience on a Birthright Israel trip last winter made her more interested in the country. It was her first time in Israel, and she learned a lot about the history of Israel that is not told by the American media.
“I do really care about Israel now after being there,” she said. “I think it’s important that we have a Jewish state, and that as American Jews, we do what we can to support that.”
Downs identifies as a Zionist now and is interested in Israel-related issues but does not know if she will attend the many Israel-related activities hosted by the Center for Jewish Life and Chabad. She is a busy college student, and there are always other things competing for her time, she said.
Some Princeton students hold more extreme views on Israel. One Jewish first-year from New York, who asked not to be named, calls Zionism a racist system, supports the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and considers it an apartheid state.
He feels uncomfortable associating with Jewish institutions at Princeton because of their association with Birthright and other Israel-focused groups, he said. In addition, he said that Jewish students are not welcoming of non-observant Jews who are opposed to Israel.
Extreme views like this are rare on either side of the issue in Princeton’s Jewish student body. The average is probably closer to Rebecca Sobel, a junior who was elected president of the Center for Jewish Life’s student board this year.
Sobel has been to Israel three times, identifies as a Zionist but disagrees with its more extreme versions (annexation of the West Bank), and the existence of a Jewish state is an important influence on her views.
As she put it, “The fact that there’s a place that I know I can go, that’s a cool thing.”
Ethan Sterenfeld is a sophomore at Princeton University.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email email@example.com for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.