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Dueling Voices Duke It Out on Campus

November 12, 2009 By:
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Within the span of a little more than a week, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia first declined to host a speech by a staunch critic of Israeli policy, then featured a lecture by a controversial politician from the ranks of the Jewish state's pro-settlement movement.

That pair of decisions -- and the minor flap they created -- highlights a conundrum that Hillel chapters consistently face nationwide. The Jewish student organization aims to cast as wide a net as possible and foster constructive dialogue among Jewish students with diverse viewpoints.

But for a pro-Israel organization, what are the boundaries? How critical can a speaker be of the Jewish state and still be consistent with Hillel's mission?

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, insisted that the lines are well-defined.

"While Hillel wants to promote dialogue among Jewish students who have different perspectives on Israel, we are unabashedly supportive of Israel."

The current controversy began a few weeks ago, when first-year Temple Jewish-studies professor Elliott Ratzman and a student group called "All Sides" -- which bills itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace -- approached Temple Hillel about hosting an Oct. 29 speech by Jeff Halper, coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Ratzman -- who was most recently a visiting professor at Swarthmore College -- closely identifies with Israel's peace camp, and in his writings has been exceedingly critical of the Jewish state's policies toward Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

Halper is an American-born anthropologist who has taught in Israeli universities and founded the Jerusalem-based organization 12 years ago. He espouses nonviolent resistance to Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes and an end to Israeli control of the entire West Bank.

According to NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based organization, Halper has called for a "one-state solution" to the conflict and has labeled Israel an apartheid state.

Ultimately, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia -- which oversees Hillel at Temple -- opted not to offer its space, and Halper wound up speaking to about 30 students in another building.

Hillel had also recently declined to sponsor a talk by Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician who has called the Koran an "evil book." Wilders was also redirected to a different venue on campus, where he drew more than 100 protesters.

Meanwhile, Hillel officials agreed to hold a Nov. 3 talk by Effi Eitam, a retired brigadier general and former Knesset member from the Israeli right who currently opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

According to a 2004 New Yorker article, Eitam said of the Palestinians: "We will have to kill them all. I know it's not very diplomatic. I don't mean all the Palestinians, but the ones with evil in their heads."

The article discussed religiously motivated settlers who equate the Palestinians to the Amalekites, whom the Torah describes as an eternal enemy of the Jewish people.

The Golan Heights resident also made headlines in 2006, when he was hurt as he joined thousands of protesters who tried to stop the dismantling of a West Bank illegal settlement.

Ratzman met with Hillel staff members, and pressed them on why Eitam was approved but Halper told to speak elsewhere.

"If Meir Kahane were alive today would we allow him to speak?" asked Ratzman, referring to the late American-born politician whose Kach Party was deemed racist and outlawed by the Israeli government. "What is somebody supposed to say until Hillel doesn't allow them in their building? How many gotcha quotes can we find?"

In a separate interview, Alpert countered that "while we certainly respect Halpern's right to speak on campus, we did not want to give a platform that would become an excuse to strongly criticize Israel."

Eitam is now an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on infrastructure and energy issues, and has been chosen by the Jewish National Fund to represent Israel on American campuses. Alpert explained that while he encouraged students to challenge Eitam, "we are not going to reject spokespersons chosen by the government."

JNF is an American organization that is not part of the Israeli government, but Alpert said that Eitam was representing Netanyahu's government because of his current position.

Concerned about security threats, Alpert consulted campus police; he did so when he learned that a nonstudent group that often demonstrates outside the Israeli Consulate, Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace, also planned to protest. Despite the presence of a barricade on the sidewalk near the Hillel building and heavy security, only a handful of protesters turned up.

Alpert has invited Ratzman to speak at Hillel's November board meeting; Ratzman said that he was open to the idea, but wasn't sure about scheduling.

These events unfolded less than a month after Temple Hillel's new building, the Edward G. Rosen Center for Jewish Life, opened to bolster a resurgence in Jewish life on campus.

'Pretty Broad Guidelines'
Throughout the last decade -- as the Palestinian uprising, the 2006 war in Lebanon and the recent operation in Gaza have provided fodder for heated debate -- Hillels around the country have been criticized from both the left and the right for decisions on hosting speakers.

Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for Hillel's national office, said that as a whole, the organization had not been focused on pro-Israel activism until the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 and the anti-Israel backlash that ensued. In 2001, it created, with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group that was intended to help students respond to some of the anti-Israel activity happening on the campuses.

Roughly five years ago, Rubin said, Hillel drafted and posted on its Web site guidelines for on-campus events. In short, speakers and events need to be supportive of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, said Rubin. (He noted that speakers who oppose political rights for Israeli Arabs normally fall outside the fold.)

While the policy might sound straightforward, Rubin acknowledged that many decisions are complex; they are made on a case-by-case basis and can vary from chapter to chapter.

"It's not easy. These are pretty broad guidelines. There are lots of nuances," said Rubin.

At the Nov. 3 Temple event, Eitam had dinner with about 20 students invited by Hillel, and then spoke to a larger group of about 75 people; this was followed by generally confrontational questions to Eitam from an audience that included some of the protesters. A group called the Temple Democratic Socialists passed out flyers claiming that Eitam was a racist who sought to do away with the political rights of Arabs in Israel.

Eitam denied ever calling for violence against Palestinians, as well as other quotes attributed to him, adding that protesters have greeted him on a number of college campuses.

"It's a typical tactic, making the speaker the main issue," Eitam said to the smaller Hillel group. "I never called for ethnic cleansing; it's rubbish. All that I said is that some Israeli Arab Knesset members are playing on the edge of what is accepted in any democracy," referring to parliamentarians who have voiced support for Israel's foes.

He also said that President Barack Obama had made a mistake by prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bryan Mann, a 21-year-old Temple student had, along with Ratzman, pushed to have Halper speak at Hillel, though he wasn't among the small group of protesters. Instead, he attended Eitam's lecture and pressed him about Israel's actions during the Gaza war, specifically the accusations that the Israel Defense Force targeted civilians. Eitam replied that abuses were few, and that the IDF never intentionally harms civilians.

Mann later said that he wasn't satisfied with the answer. Wearing a kipah and tzitzit, he said that, despite the fact that Hillel wouldn't allow Halper to speak, "I still feel welcome here to talk about my viewpoints."

Several Jewish students said that they were just learning the facts of the Middle East conflict and didn't known enough to form an opinion, but welcomed hearing Eitam's views.

Matan Silberstein, student president of Temple Hillel, said that he had a nervous few days leading up the event; he feared the protest might get ugly. He said that he backed the decision to host Eitam and not Halper.

"We will not be intimidated by any students or faculty or community members," declared the 22-year-old Jewish-studies major. "We have our goals and our vision intact."


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