Viewpoint: Hillel, Israel, and the changing face of American Judaism

BY MATAN KAMINER AND JOEL REINSTEIN

Published December 7, 2014

Last spring, the University campus was rocked by Students Allied for Freedom and Equality’s #UMDivest campaign. SAFE demanded that the University divest from companies involved in Israel’s military occupation and human rights violations against Palestinians. Supported by 36 organizations representing hundreds of students, its divestment resolution before student government was the talk of campus for the better part of a month. Throughout the process, Palestinian students described their experiences of oppression and the University’s complicity in it.

Principal in opposing this campaign, as it opposes similar campaigns across the country, was the Jewish campus organization University of Michigan Hillel. Purporting to represent all Jewish students, Michigan Hillel contributed to tension on campus by pressuring Central Student Government first to table the resolution and then to vote against it after a student sit-in forced a vote. Hillel chose to speak on behalf of all Jewish students despite a Jewish letter of support for the resolution as well as outspoken support for the resolution from a Jewish student government representative. Ultimately, the resolution failed after hours of debate.

American Jewish institutions have not always opposed Palestinian rights. The United States is home to the world's largest Jewish population outside of Israel and is Israel’s closest ally in monetary and diplomatic terms. However, neither of these facts is the cause of the other. Zionism, or the belief that Jewish rights are best represented by a Jewish state in historic Palestine, only came to dominate American Jewish politics in the 1960s, long after the establishment of Israel. It was around this time that Israel, previously a French and British ally, aligned itself more directly with the United States, inaugurating the “special relationship.”

This is also when American Jewish groups like Hillel, previously neutral on the issue, became declaredly Zionist. Many claim that the “Israel lobby,” of which these organizations are a part, is the reason for the United States’ support of Israel’s occupation. The tail doesn't wag the dog: Zionism would probably never have become a consensus among American Jews if succeeding U.S. administrations had not decided to make the alliance with Israel a cornerstone of their Middle East policy.

Many American Jews, whose ancestors fled crushing poverty and discrimination in Eastern Europe and who lost family in the Nazi Holocaust, have been strong supporters of social justice in the United States. Jewish Americans played an important part in the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s — civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam war, feminism, etc. — and at the same time supported Zionism. At the time, Israel presented itself to the world as an embattled egalitarian state founded by refugees and entitled to solidarity.

As the occupation of the Palestinian territories that started in 1967 deepened, and especially after Israel’s right-wing Likud party took power in 1977, many American Jewish progressives identified with Israel’s liberal Zionists, who supported negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the establishment of a Palestinian state. But since the failure of the Oslo peace process in 2000, liberal Zionism has been decimated. Having reached a peak of 44-percent representation in Israel’s Knesset in 1992, the parties of liberal Zionism now have only 16 percent (Parties representing the non-Zionist left and Palestinian citizens have 9 percent, leaving the rest to the center, right and extreme right).

Today, Israel’s ethnocratic nature is becoming clear. It explicitly bars its non-Jewish citizens from marrying whomever they like, speaking their minds and buying land and frequently threatens them with loss of their citizenship. It has subjected Palestinians in the occupied territories to 47 years of military occupation, abusing human rights with impunity to make way for Israeli settlers. The recent decision to segregate buses in the West Bank has made it impossible for even Israel’s greatest apologists to deny the charge that it has instituted apartheid. Israel’s leaders no longer talk about resolution of the “Palestinian issue” but only of its “management” through divide-and-conquer tactics and frequent “lawn-mowing” assaults on Gaza that have killed thousands of civilians. Israel can no longer plausibly represent itself as a “light unto the nations.”

As opposition to these policies in Israel itself dwindles, the idea that one can support Israeli policies and peace at the same time — long held by many American Jews — is being recognized as untenable. While American Jewish institutions such as the American-Israel Political Action Committee enthusiastically support the hard line of the Israeli government, more and more progressive young Jews are deeply aggrieved by what Israel has become and no longer feel they have a place in these institutions. The emergence of the Open Hillel movement demanding that voices critical of Israel be allowed into Hillel, the most powerful Jewish space on American campuses, signals a major crack in the Zionist consensus.

The circle may be closing: Zionism, or at least automatic support for Israeli policy, is no longer a consensus position among American Jews. This doesn’t automatically mean the end of U.S. support for Israel; contrary to what some “Jewish lobby” theorists believe, the United States does not support Israel only due to pressure from the Jewish community. American administrations interested in dominating the most energy-rich region in the world are loath to discipline an ally that is, after all, beholden to U.S. military aid and willing to act as the United States’ local gendarmerie in time of need. In electoral terms, the Evangelical Christian right — which supports Israel for messianic reasons tinged with anti-Semitism — is a much larger and more disciplined constituency than American Jews.

Nevertheless, young American Jews — especially students — are a key constituency for Palestinian solidarity. Like their parents, they are likely to be progressive, but unlike their parents, who remember the “socialist” Israel of yesteryear, they are less likely to accept the contradictions of being PEP, “Progressive Except Palestine.” The new generation is beginning to challenge mainstream Jewish institutions, weakening a key component of the anti-Palestinian coalition in this country.

American Jews must take this challenge forward, and the University’s new chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace aims to do just that. To honor the Jewish tradition of justice, there can be no exceptions to fighting oppression. There can be no tolerating the misappropriation of Jewish identity to defend apartheid. The new face of American Judaism is coming.

Matan Kaminer is a graduate student in Anthropology, an Israeli, and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Joel Reinstein is an Ann Arbor resident and is also a member of JVP.