Last fall, I was asked to step down from my role as executive vice president of Bearcats for Israel, a subgroup of Hillel at Binghamton University, as well as campus intern for MASA Israel. Hillel is an international organization with a set of guidelines relating to Israel; the interpretation of those guidelines are delegated to individual Hillel chapter leadership. I do not believe the circumstances of my situation represent the personal politics of anyone involved, and it has been conveyed time and again that students were not behind the decision to remove me from these posts. Rather, this incident reflects the intricate organizational dynamics of the non-profit world and the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the Jewish community. There is a diversity of opinions within the Hillel community about Israel, and students are not prevented from expressing their opinions.
My forced resignation from Hillel leadership changed personal relationships I had built with both friends and organizations, but there was also an outpouring of support from components of the Jewish community. I do not agree with Hillel’s partnership policies in their entirety. However, Hillel International and individual chapters have recognized the need for change, and serious discussions on how to proceed with the evolution of these policies to make them more inclusive are being explored at both grassroots and executive leadership levels. Using me as an example to argue that the notion that Hillel prevents free speech is misguided — if this experience has taught me anything, it is that choosing one instance to make broad generalizations is unjust.
Hillel serves an irreplaceable purpose on campuses everywhere. It is a place where Jews can explore their cultural and religious identities. Hillel provides opportunities for Jews to create global Jewish networks, give back to the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish, through social justice initiatives and connect to a tradition over 5,700 years old. Ignoring the pivotal role that a strong Jewish student union plays on campus and choosing instead to reduce the organization to a monolith representing the pro-Israel community ignores not only its immense value, but also its ongoing efforts to expand the proverbial tent of the Jewish people.
There is an old saying, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions.” We must recognize the vast challenge of creating a uniform policy surrounding a generations-old, multi-dimensional conflict intended to apply to university-aged Jews globally. It takes time to find the right formula to bridge people who want the same outcome, but maintain radically different ideals. If we at Binghamton University begin to organize ourselves by what divides us, then the possibility of a strong pro-peace community, united by the common goal of improving the welfare of all humankind, will be none.
There is and has been a thriving dialogue on this campus surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I entered it over a year ago with Dorm Room Diplomacy by organizing a screening of “5 Broken Cameras” and hosting a subsequent question-and-answer session with Palestinian activist Iyad Burnat. This event was well-attended by students who support both Palestinian and Israeli self-determination. This past Wednesday evening, Bearcats for Israel hosted an event on Israeli settlements, in which students with a variety of opinions on Israel, including members of the newly formed Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), expressed their viewpoints and engaged in dialogue.
Both as a Jewish student and the founder of Dorm Room Diplomacy’s BU chapter, I welcome the formation of SJP on our campus. It is important for students who believe in Palestinian statehood to be able to organize effectively. However, these students have a responsibility to engage in dialogue across uncomfortable political boundaries. Slanderous mottos strewn in protest do not yield progress. Put plainly, calling Zionists racists and delegitimizing the right of Israel to exist is offensive.
I speak for many leaders of the pro-Israel community here at Binghamton University when I say that we are ready to listen and exchange ideas with SJP, even if we have been warned on their WordPress, “You probably won’t like what we [SJP] have to say.” Put simply, if we cannot learn to coexist and communicate here in Binghamton, what are the prospects of peace between Israel and Palestine?
Ben Sheridan is a part-time student at Binghamton University. He graduated in December 2013 with a degree in political science.