Hillel students at the University of Pennsylvania claim grievance over the decision of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to actively promote a pro-Israel discussion program that will screen a movie with an unflattering portrayal of J Street.
Pro-Israel students are being targeted at the University of Pennsylvania. Though often led by those hostile to Israel, at Penn, this antagonism is spearheaded by the very organization that is supposed to be our Jewish home on campus: our Hillel. In an offensive on one of its largest and most vibrant member groups, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia (HGP), the parent organization of Penn Hillel, is working with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to participate in and actively promote The J Street Challenge, a movie meant to smear J Street and its affiliated groups, such as J Street U Penn. Rehashing old lies that have long since been debunked, the movie is a brazen attempt to devalue our contributions to the pro-Israel community.
As a proud pro-Israel organization, J street U Penn is firmly committed to a serious and intellectually rigorous campus conversation around Israel. We believe all groups have the right to share their perspective, which is why we don’t oppose screenings of this movie. It is HGP’s participation in this event with which we take issue. HGP has indefensibly chosen to promote an event that attacks a Hillel member group. Imagine the feeling of hostility that greets you when you walk into the building of an institution that is facilitating buses to bring local students to attend an ad hominem on your work. It is hard to imagine feeling welcome in a Jewish community willing to do that to its members.
We have worked hard to establish ourselves as one of the most active pro-Israel organizations on campus and in Penn Hillel’s Israel Sector. Bringing high-level programs featuring leading Israelis and progressive figures, we’ve engaged many who would otherwise not choose to work within the pro-Israel community. We’ve helped lead the fight against BDS at Penn and around the country. At Penn, we worked in tandem with others to host Israel Across Penn dinners, our Hillel’s response to the BDS conference held on our campus in February 2012. The work of J Street U in fighting BDS at UC Berkeley has been commended by both the ADL and the Israeli Consulate. Despite this, HGP sees our group as worthy of derision.
Regardless of whether one agrees with our work, we cannot ignore the fact that a large and growing segment of young Jews stand with us for two-states to secure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish homeland. Poll after poll has demonstrated that young Jews are critical of settlements and current Israeli government policy. They want a relationship with Israel that reflects the best Jewish values of equality and human rights. Directly attacking these commitments might serve the interests of some extreme donors or board members, but they send a chilling message to thousands of young Jews.
It would be inconceivable for HGP to participate in a movie attacking PIPAC, Hillel’s AIPAC-aligned campus group, or any other organization that falls under the Hillel umbrella. J Street U Penn would unequivocally oppose anything of the sort. What we want is simple: parity for all Hillel member groups. We have close connections with other Penn Hillel student organizations and despite moments of difference, we have always had a good relationship with the Penn Hillel staff. That’s why we were shocked to learn that HGP would seek to malign our group. Leaders of other Hillel members groups share this concern and have come together – from the head of the Penn Israel Sector to the chairs of the Reform Movement – to call for Penn Hillel to disavow HGP’s dangerous move.
Open conversation and even serious disagreement are important and necessary parts of any Jewish community. We encourage debate about the substance of our work for two-states. That’s why the president of J Street has publicly debated Alan Dershowitz on several occasions, as he has many of the other critics of J Street who appear in the film.
But we must distinguish debate from attack and not give cover to the latter. As the campus address for Jewish life, Hillel is responsible for creating a vibrant community with the capacity for disagreement, collegiality and collaboration. HGP’s participation in this malicious attack on a member group undercuts that important mission. Whether they are responding to the destructive desires of far-right donors or acting on their own accord, they are nevertheless abdicating responsibility for the leadership of the Jewish campus community in Philadelphia.
We do not oppose this film being screened. But HGP’s irresponsible participation upends its own goal of facilitating critical and diverse pro-Israel work on campus. For the sake of the Jewish community at Penn, we hope the heads of HGP make the right choice to listen to Hillel student leaders and end HGP’s association with this extremist production.
Jacob Ruden ’15 and Israel Geselowitz ‘14 are undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania and board members of J Street U Penn, a pro-Israel, pro-Peace member organization of Penn Hillel.