Op-Ed: Hillel makes it hard to enjoy being a Jew on campus

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 12:55pm

I love being a Jew. Though not very religious, a huge part of my identity is the fact that I’m Jewish, and I love that. I love the community, the songs, the traditions, the food, the learning, just about everything. Not only am I Jewish, but I feel very connected to Israel; my parents emigrated from Israel in 1983 for my dad to continue his education and they built a life here. Almost all the rest of my family — grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins still live in Israel and I’ve visited many times. 

Furthermore, my grandfather was saved from the Holocaust when he was recruited by the Russian army during World War II. After the war ended, he was in a displaced persons camps in Europe. He tried to get to Palestine in 1946, but the British captured his ship and detained him in a concentration camp in Cyprus. After Israel’s independence in 1948, he escaped Cyprus and went by ship to the newly formed Israel. I’m grateful my grandpa was able to get to Israel, because realistically I wouldn’t be here today if he weren’t. Israel has played a huge part in my family history, and continues to do so.

However, Israel is actively committing human rights violations against Palestinians and I refuse to believe that, because I’m Jewish, I have to stand behind that and accept it.

Politics matter. The policies implemented in an institution, state or country directly affect the people and environment of that place. For that reason, I work to raise my voice in society and speak up for what I think is right. I call my representatives, I vote, I sign petitions, I protest and I engage in important conversations regarding current issues in society. I actively work to try and make the United States better; I question it, I criticize it and I take ownership over it. I am a proud citizen of this country and love living here and being a part of American society — I love living in a democracy.

Israel is known by many as “the democracy of the Middle East.” We, as Jews, often pride ourselves on its technological accomplishments, democratic elections, high-quality education, equal rights for men and women, and more. This is great! These are important parts of a democracy and I am very happy that Israel provides these services for their Jewish citizens.

But what about the Palestinians? Can we really neglect to mention the lack of access to clean water, quality education, medical treatment, continuous military occupation and home demolitions in the West Bank? No. We as Jews feel the need to take ownership of Israel and its existence by proudly supporting it. But doesn’t true support and ownership come with the ability to criticize Israel’s wrong-doings?

In the very early morning of Wednesday, Nov. 15, the Central Student Government at the University of Michigan passed a resolution put forward by Student Allies for Freedom and Equality to create a committee to investigate divestment. For the first time in 12 years, #UMDivest passed with 23 votes in favor of the resolution, 17 against and five abstentions. For the first time in 14 years, Palestinian voices and the voices of many allies on campus were not only heard but also listened to. Many Jewish students are saying they don’t feel represented by their student government and are upset they couldn’t see how their representatives voted.

To that I say this: Palestinian students and Jewish students who disagree with the way the University of Michigan Hillel interacts with divestment, the conflict at large and the “dialogue” that comes with it haven’t been represented by their student government in 14 years. It’s hard to be in a position where you feel as if your representatives aren’t speaking for you, and I’m sorry for that, but this is the first time in CSG history when Palestinian students on this campus, students who pay the same tuition, go to the same classes and walk through the same Diag, have felt that CSG has done something to represent them. A huge victory of this resolution is that people who haven’t been heard and listened to finally were, and that’s how progress starts. It’s inevitably going to be uncomfortable and hard, but history, both short term and long term, has been very hard for Palestinian students on this campus.

Overall, I want to say this. I am Jewish, my family is Israeli and I stand with Palestinians. I want a democracy in Israel, one in which we can speak out against atrocities committed by the government so we can be proud of the country. One in which we don’t spread fear of criticism and encourage blind support and misinformation. On July 23, 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council came out with a statement condemning the “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations carried out in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

The facts are there, and it’s wrong. We as Jews have a responsibility to change the norm of oppression within Israel and the occupied territories and criticize it. We must support Israel by working to make it better. We cannot ignore the human rights violations being committed by the Israeli government and military. We cannot condemn and ignore the voices of our fellow students when they are finally given the opportunity to be heard. The way we, as Jews, respond to #UMDivest, speaks volumes to the way we, as Jews, value equality and justice. Hillel, as an organization for Jewish students, is failing those of us who support the fight for Palestinian rights and, by doing so, is ostracizing our voices making it hard to feel a part of the Jewish community on campus.

Alona Henig is an LSA junior.