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James Brennan: A forum for biased discussion

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published January 8, 2014

In the midst of last semester’s “#UMMockEviction” flyering, a handful of viewpoints were printed in The Daily expressing utter outrage over the tactics and information used by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality. These pieces heavily criticized the group’s one-sided portrayal of life in the Gaza Strip as well as the tactics of the group, which can universally be seen as a clear violation of University Housing’s anti-solicitation policy. The repeated critique that stuck out most to me, however, came in calls for “safe spaces” and an “open and honest debate.” Students spoke out about feeling “threatened” and “intimidated,” especially if they held Zionist views.

While I can certainly understand the unease it would give a student to wake up to an eviction notice — albeit a fake one — during finals week, there is a huge conflict of interest being ignored here. Almost all of the writers who criticized SAFE and the Mock Eviction are active in Michigan’s chapter of Hillel, which also hosted an event where many of these criticisms originated.

From what people have told me, Hillel seems to be a nice place for Jewish students to continue cultivating their culture while connecting with a community of other students on campus. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, Hillel is also an organization known for its uncompromising support of Israel, best articulated through their motto “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.”

On college campuses all across America, Hillel often functions as the unofficial center of the Jewish community. The organization has been criticized for pushing hardline political views on its students, sometimes making individuals with differing ideas feel threatened or intimidated. Instead of building the “safe spaces” that its students demand, Hillel is contributing to an echo chamber where only pro-Israeli voices are welcome, voices it then looks to proliferate throughout campus.

The viewpoints that Hillel students wrote shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, but the fact that an organization like Hillel would ever promote “dialogue” or “tolerance” concerning Israel/Palestine — well that’s just not true. The very last thing Hillel is looking for on a campus like this University is an honest and open debate about Israel and Palestine. Hillel and similar organizations are notorious for fighting against events that reasonably criticize Israel or support Palestine. Hillel’s national guidelines explicitly prohibit the invitation of speakers who support sanctions, divestment and boycott of Israel. More troubling, however, is the vague ban on speakers who “demonize” Israel.

Hillel does not want an open debate — it wants a discussion that it gets to personally regulate. Sadly, this is the situation outside of college campuses as well.

There may be a small contingent of left-wing activists and journalists who will speak badly about Israel from time to time, but the vast majority of American media and government are saturated with unconditional devotion to one side and one side only. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee — an organization that has recently teamed with Hillel — is easily one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, getting the United States to send billions of dollars in aid to Israel every year. Politicians who criticize Israel know they will get a full-on attack by this and other groups, while even shaky support for Palestine by the President of the United States was attacked as “naïve” by his critics.

Palestinians are labeled as terrorists and rarely given the chance to tell their own stories in US media, where articles in the New York Times and other publications consistently fail to bring a truly objective approach to issues like housing demolition. Both political parties in the US constantly argue over who supports Israel more, with neither side having the gumption to take a reasonable stance in the face of a powerful special interest — a special interest that many accuse of supporting human rights violations.

Hillel and other pro-Israel organizations on campus are college’s version of the one-sided lobby that dictates debate about Israel/Palestine. In a place where open debate and exploring new ideas should be more prevalent than anywhere, we’re instead obligated as students to act like pro-Palestinian groups are “threatening” and “intimidating.” I can’t personally take a side in this debate — I don’t know enough about the history of the conflict to make a proper judgment. What I do know, however, is that the discussion of Israel/Palestine in America is far from fair. According to an organization like Hillel, safe spaces and places to have a dialogue are apparently only available for people who stand with Israel in all situations.

As a free thinker, this is not the kind of campus I want to be on. Dialogues require both sides to speak — if students in Hillel want the dialogue they discuss, they need to let those who disagree with them have a chance to talk.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.


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