There’s a famous “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry’s dentist, Tim Whatley, converts to Judaism. Soon after his conversion, he begins to barrage Jerry with a series of Jew jokes, which in turn, make Jerry think that Tim only converted for comedic reasons. Jerry goes to a priest to tell him of this uncomfortable situation.
“And this offends you as a Jewish person?” the priest asks.
“No,” Jerry responds. “It offends me as a comedian.”
It’s often said that we are most vulnerable to those we are closest to. Shortly before we broke for the holidays, I felt a bit of that myself. Hillel at Binghamton made headlines when they ousted one of its representatives, Benjamin Sheridan, for organizing a talk by Iyad Burnat, a staunch critic of the State of Israel. As a Jew, and an adherent to rational political discourse, I feel compelled to speak out.
Hillel justified its actions by citing its “Israel Policy and Guidelines,” which disallows any connection with “organizations, groups or speakers” that “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish … state with secure and recognized borders.”
Unless Hillel wishes to be just another extremist advocacy group that denies the existence of opposing views, it ought to take a step into reality. Representing the Jewish body of this University carries a certain weight and unless it embraces more open dialogue, Hillel should make clear its political, rather than religious, objectives.
Unyielding support of Israel is not a prerequisite for Judaism and dissenting views are not inherently radical. Organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, have made this school of thought mainstream and have thus strangled reasonable debate and left the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unresolved for far too long. Hillel — especially if it wishes to be a representative organization — should not jump on that bandwagon.
What is radical, on the other hand, is attempting to dictate a discussion by pretending that certain views do not exist. Whatever your views are on the conflict, you cannot deny that people like Burnat are serious and organized, and wield an enormous amount of political power. Their views are real, and any attempt to keep them quiet will only kick the can of rational debate down the road.
With right-wingers taking the Israeli government hostage and lobbyists choking off reasonable voices in Washington, there is an urgent need for a diverse set of views. Not all Jews are willing to write a blank check for Israel, and any Jewish organization should reflect that reality. Otherwise, Hillel ought to stop pretending that it represents a population that is far more intellectually diverse than it thinks.