Op-eds

SJP: Petitioning against Hillel is not anti-Semitic

By
Op-Ed Contributors
Monday, March 21, 2016

Two weeks ago, a coalition of students wrote to Janet Mock, petitioning her to reconsider the Brown/RISD Hillel sponsorship of her March 21 Moral Voices talk. We sought to show the political implications of Moral Voices’ series of lectures on violence against LGBTQ+ communities being complicated by their sponsorship by Brown/RISD Hillel. We wanted her to change sponsorship, but never planned to boycott, protest or disrupt Mock’s lecture, which was made clear to her staff. Ultimately, we are disappointed that Mock will not be coming to campus today. We cannot know the full extent of Mock’s reasoning in deciding not to come to Brown, but we respect the agency of her decision. Mock’s activism for queer and trans people of color is something we, as activists working towards racial and social justice, support and deeply value. We regret the disappointment queer and trans students of color in particular have experienced in the aftermath of the cancellation of her lecture, and we hope that this op-ed may serve to clear up and explain our intentions in first contacting Mock.

Brown/RISD Hillel, through its association with Hillel International, has a clear policy of supporting Israel and is strictly intolerant of criticism of Israel and Israel’s racist and colonial policies, including those that oppress LGBTQ+ Palestinians. Indeed, queerness does not lie in isolation from other forms of identity; rather, it explicitly interacts with other identities including race, gender, class and ability. How does Moral Voices justify the contradiction between its claims to LGBTQ+ justice and Hillel’s support for the ongoing colonization of Palestine? How can Hillel claim to speak against oppression and for intersectionality while supporting a state that sterilizes African Jewish refugees, collectively punishes entire communities with bombings and arrests en masse and imprisons them behind an apartheid wall: There is no pink door in the apartheid wall. Trans liberation, racial justice and intersectional feminism — the topics which Mock’s talk was to cover — cannot be discussed without considering the violence of the Israeli regime, which is supported by organizations like Hillel International.

Our petition has disingenuously been slandered as anti-Semitic. We at no point engaged in prejudice against Judaism. Equating a critique of Israel’s racist and colonial policies as an attack on Judaism or the Jewish community is incredibly detrimental to any sort of open and honest discussion about Israeli violence. The question the petition raised is not whether Jewish-centered spaces can be spaces of LGBTQ+ activism. The question we raise is specifically about Brown/RISD Hillel’s continued ties to Hillel International and its support of Israel. Through its Birthright trips, Israel Engagement Fellow, funding of bigots such as Natan Sharansky and representatives of the Israeli Defense Forces, Brown/RISD Hillel is a political space. Again, the problem here for us is not the fact that Brown/RISD Hillel serves as a Jewish community space, but the fact that it supports Israel and its colonial project. So long as Hillel continues to practice these policies, it cannot serve as a space for social justice work.

As an anti-racist organization, we staunchly oppose racism in all forms — including anti-Semitism — and find it incredibly disheartening that members of the Brown community continue to conflate anti-Zionist politics with anti-Semitism. The only organization that seeks to perpetuate a conflation of Zionism and Judaism is Hillel, as it continues to assume that Jewish identity is coterminous with Zionist ideology.

With regard to President Christina Paxson’s P’19 statement, we are disgusted with her attempt to implicate Mock’s cancellation with the anti-Semitic and homophobic graffiti. Due to her persistent refusal to support students’ efforts towards racial justice, in her four years here, we do not highly value Paxson’s moral stances. Further, though condemning these recent events in Marcy House, Paxson has time and time again refused to speak out against or explicitly condemn other forms of racism on this campus including racism directed against Palestinians, such as when Hillel brought in an IDF soldier in 2014 to defend war crimes and occupation. Further, on several occasions, including the 2014 event and this most recent event, Paxson asserted that Hillel had a right to bring speakers because of academic freedom. And yet, Hillel International’s standards on Israel are in direct violation of academic freedom. Paxson in turn wrote that “Hillel is an independent organization” thus shielding herself from the inevitable objection that she is doubly applying the standard of academic freedom. She contradicts herself yet again when she recognizes Hillel’s status as a private organization but at the same time writes: “Brown University’s Statement on Academic Freedom for Faculty and Students affirms that faculty members and students have the right to invite speakers of their choice to campus. This includes Moral Voices, the student group associated with Hillel.”

Further, Paxson’s position of power allows her to silence the discussion under the guise of promoting free speech. Paxson has discouraged our freedom of speech by stating that our petition is “counter to Brown’s norms and values.” Her declaration that the petition was targeting Moral Voices for its religious affiliation is an obvious statement of intimidation to silence students voicing dissent using methods available to them. Paxson falls in line with Zionist ideologues who utilize the anti-Semitism claim in order to suppress social justice organizing.

With our petition and a letter we sent to Mock, we invited her to join a growing anti-apartheid movement in solidarity with oppressed black and brown people suffering under Israeli apartheid policies. We believe that no one should have to choose between Palestinian or queer liberation. Hillel’s sponsorship forced that choice, and for that reason, we wrote the petition.

Students for Justice in Palestine can be reached at brownusjp@gmail.com.

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