The concert is the latest example of the difficulties Hillel chapters sometimes face in programming around Israel.
The contentious aftermath of a concert at Temple University, where members of an Israeli-Palestinian music group were critical of Israel, underscores the difficulties often involved with staging an event that takes on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On Feb. 26, at a show at the Temple Performing Arts Center, the teen and 20-something musicians of Heartbeat, an Israeli-based nonprofit organization that is billed as a project to build understanding through music, opened by speaking about what they continually referred to as the “occupation.”
“Here on the stage, we are equal,” said one band member. “Back home we are not.”
The director of the musical group says they do not promote a particular political agenda, but at the Temple show, the performers spent much of the time criticizing the Israeli government.
And the group sought to distance itself from some of the co-sponsors of the Temple Hillel program, which included the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia.
For its part, Hillel officials seemed conflicted about how to respond to the turn of events. Some said they welcomed the dialogue but others said they were disappointed and even angry that what they had billed as a cultural event turned political.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, the CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, after the show went so far as to suggest that other Jewish organizations should think twice about inviting Heartbeat.
The concert is the latest illustration of the delicate line that leaders of Hillel chapters try to walk in advertising themselves as organizations that promote dialogue over the conflict while also trying to ensure that speakers fit under the pro-Israel umbrella. The issue has come up repeatedly on campuses across the country, sparking debate over freedom of speech and what it means to support Israel.
Alpert said he did not anticipate the opening statement from the musicians at the concert, but initially, after the opening, told the Jewish Exponent, “The musicians are a voice of this generation of Israelis, and it’s good for this generation of Americans to hear that voice.”
In a subsequent email, Alpert appeared to have second thoughts. “It is disappointing that the group re-wrote their opening statement the night of the Temple concert to make it more overtly political and critical than had been their practice on other campuses.”
He said that his initial remarks of support referred to the band members expressing support for coexistence. He also stated that the event’s organizers researched the group’s performances at other campuses and anticipated a cultural rather than a political event.
The Hearbeat musicians appear to have been influenced by political pressures from the left. In the days leading up to the show, Hillel leaders had expressed concern about plans by Temple’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine to protest the show.
In addition, the day before the show, Heartbeat director Aaron Shneyer said, the organization learned that in addition to Hillel, the Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia, Stand With Us and the David Project were cosponsors of the event. He said his organization asked that these sponsors be removed and offered to return any funding they provided. He said Hillel leaders complied with the request, a claim Alpert denies.
On the day of the concert, a handful of members of Students for Justice in Palestine gathered outside the Temple venue to protest the show because, they said, it “normalized” the violence of the conflict.
Shneyer said that it was in response to these developments that members of the band decided to deliver an opening statement, which he said they had never done before.
“The youth musicians, without any staff intervention, decided to write that statement in response to the unprecedented protest and the sponsorship issues at the Temple event,” Shneyer, who founded the group in 2007, stated in an email. “In every other performance, they begin their presentation with music.”
The protesters did not go into the concert, as members of the band had requested of them, and declined to be interviewed.
At one point during the dialogue with the audience, a band member appeared to justify terrorism.
“If somebody is a terrorist, it’s not because he’s bad,” said the band member. It’s because of a “really hard reality.”
Emily Simons, a junior student who serves as vice president of Temple Hillel, said the dialogue during the show was “a little tense at first.”
The perspective of band members is “something we’re not usually told, and we don’t usually get to hear from Palestinians,” she said. “You could see their passion” for why they’re performing.
Simons said she did not think the band member was justifying terrorism but rather that she was expressing her frustration with the conflict. After the comments regarding terrorism, another band member said they condemned violence of any kind from either Israelis or Palestinians.
Heartbeat performed locally at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley in 2013 and in 2014. Chazzan Harold Messinger described the group as “decidedly left-wing” and said band members talked about their experience and shared their views.
“It becomes political,” he said of Heartbeat’s shows. “They don’t let the music speak for itself; to me, they were upfront about it.”
Messinger has spoken with several of the band members and shared what he sees as their motivation. “I think they want to place people in perhaps an uncomfortable place to get the questions going and get the conversation going,” he said. “What appeals to me about them is they are not ‘Let’s just give peacce a chance and all you need is love.’ I think they are saying something very profound that goes beyond ‘can’t we all just get along’ to we need” change in the ways “Arabs and Jews understand one another for there to be a real lasting and enduring peace.”
As for the sponsorship issue, Heartbeat has a policy not to receive funding from any Israeli or Palestinian government institution or from any group that is perceived as partisan, Shneyer said. In addition to the three sponsors that Heartbeat asked be removed, the sponsors also included Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Temple Student Government and Owls for Israel, Shneyer said.
“It’s simply to uphold the reputation of the organization as a neutral organization and also to protect the safety of the participants when they go home to their communities. It’s so important that we work with neutral partners,” he said.
Alpert stated in an email that Hillel did not agree to Heartbeat’s request to remove the sponsors and said doing so would constitute a “boycott.”
“We told them that we do not participate in cultural or political boycotts of anyone who is supportive of Israel and that we could not accede to the group’s request,” Alpert wrote.
He also appeared to issue a warning to other Jewish groups about hosting Heartbeat.
“Hillel and the student leaders who organized the concert are disappointed that the group has evolved from a cultural experience promoting ‘coexistence’ to one promoting a one-sided, politicized perspective on Israeli society,” he wrote in an email. “We recommend that any pro-Israel community organization consider the experience at Temple when thinking about bringing ‘Heartbeat’ to their constituents.”