A college freshman, just out of high school, sits down toward the back of a lecture hall and hears her professor talk about Israel as an occupier and oppressor. This is the “horror story” often told as an explanation of the need to educate young Jews about how to advocate for Israel on their campuses.
A variation on this story is happening at Rutgers University, where in reaction to a number of student-run events that were critical of Israel (some pushed boundaries more than others), new positions are being created to support Israel advocacy on campus. According to the New Jersey Jewish News, the new Israel Emissary and Director of Israel Advocacy Engagement will provide “assistance in defining and promoting Israel” and are “in large part a response to a spate of pro-Palestinian activity on campus during the 2010-11 academic year” (“Israel advocacy position to be created at RU Hillel,” June 9).
This sends the wrong message. The hiring of these two new professionals signals that we do not want to have a conversation about the troubles facing Israel, internally and externally, but that we need to make sure that we can counter any accusations that Israel is responsible for wrongdoing. There is no discussion that aims to bring students together to ask the tough questions about Israel: How do I feel about a State that will admit me as an American Jew, but not a Palestinian whose grandparents fled in 1948? How do I feel about the separation barrier that makes it difficult for Palestinians to get to work? The title “Israel Advocacy Engagement Associate” says it all; this position is not being created to facilitate discussion, but to support Israel without reservation.
Hillel needs to be a place that encourages these conversations and asks the hard questions. Within such a framework, students will come out with a nuanced understanding of Israel and its challenges today. Just as Hillel embraces Jews of all denominations, Hillel should be a place where Jewish students with diverse views about Israel can come together as a community.
College is a place of critical inquiry, questioning assumptions, and growing personally and academically. With these two new positions, Rutgers Hillel sends the message that critical inquiry belongs inside the classroom only, and that a broad conversation with a “big-tent” approach is not welcome within its walls. This alienates Jewish students, hindering Hillel’s core mission of creating Jewish community on campus. I urge the staff and student leaders of Rutgers Hillel to rethink the way these new positions are utilized — to direct more energy toward facilitating nuanced conversations about Israel rather than furthering unproductive shouting matches.
The writer is a 2009 graduate of Rutgers University.