The heated debate on BDS in Israel has produced many opinions, ranging from those who consider the movement to be anti-Semitic, to those who view it as a legitimate criticism of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians.
The Hillel organization on American campuses have turned into newest battleground in the BDS wars. As reported, Swathmore College in Pennsylvania was the first Hillel to reject the Hillel International guideline that bars the appearance of speakers who support BDS. It declared itself to be an Open Hillel last December, followed by the Vassar College Hillel.
The Open Hillel movement was launched by activists at the Harvard Hillel and may spread around, especially on campuses that are not dependent on funding from Hillel International.
The movement has been closely followed by communal leaders in the United States who face the problem of delineating the boundaries of permissible expressions with regard to Israel. Recently, Judith Butler, a professor at Berkeley University and an outspoken supporter of BDS was invited and then disinvited by the Jewish Museum in New York where she was scheduled to talk about Franz Kafka. The incident ended when Butler announced she was withdrawing from the lecture but the heated debate around freedom of speech and BDS may be just beginning. Butler co-started a petition to protest the "BDS litmus test" that attracted many Jewish signatories and not only from the radical Jewish left.
The intracommunal division over BDS have played out against a changing Jewish demographic in America as illustrated by the recentPew Survey. The results - accepted by scholars and communal leaders alike - show that the younger generation of Jews, including students have a more individualized sense of identity and fewer links to the traditional Jewish community. The ties to Israel, once a pivotal part of Jewish identify have also lessened. Indeed, the Open Hillel movement may be a reflection of the new demographics.
Anti-Israel Jews and the Vassar Blues
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has added to my ambivalence about my alma mater.
By Lucette Lagnado
Feb. 23, 2014 7:12 p.m. ET
Recently I was contacted by a fellow Vassar alumna through Facebook. She wanted to know if I was aware that our genteel alma mater had become a hotbed of anti-Israel, pro-boycott sentiment.
Suddenly, my stomach was in knots—a feeling that Vassar has managed to evoke in me ever since I went there in the 1970s. An Orthodox Jewish girl from Brooklyn on a full scholarship, I fixated on this Seven Sister school as my entryway to the American dream, the epitome of style and grace that also prided itself on teaching "critical thinking."
In this case the cause of my angst was a young woman named Naomi Dann, the president of the Vassar Jewish Union. She had penned a piece for the campus paper strongly supporting the recent move by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic exchanges—a decision denounced by college presidents across the country, including Vassar's.
Her piece strung together all the familiar buzzwords and clichés used by Israel's critics: "atrocities," "oppressive," "abuses," "colonial," and, of course, "apartheid." Signed jointly with the co-president of Students for Justice in Palestine, Ms. Dann even slammed Vassar's president and dean of the faculty for daring to oppose the boycott against the Jewish state.
There was more to fuel my Vassar angoisse. The head of the Jewish Studies Program, a professor named Joshua Schreier, had also expressed support for the boycott movement. Prof. Schreier was quoted in the campus paper ruminating that while once "instinctively against" the boycott, he had heard more "substantiated, detailed" arguments on its behalf, and as a result "I am currently leaning in favor of it," he concluded delicately, as if choosing a flavored tea.
As for Vassar's rabbi, Rena Blumenthal, she was MIA—on leave in Israel, no less—and emailed to say she couldn't weigh in from afar. Huh?
To be sure, I had been aware that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement had taken off on some college campuses, even in the Ivy League. It had become chic to attack Israel even—especially—if you were Jewish. I heard from an alum who was stopped by his own child, a Vassar student, from taking a public stand against the BDS movement. The student was fearful of being ostracized for having a parent who supported Israel.
Suddenly the toxic essence of this movement to make Israel and its supporters pariahs in the groves of academe and the cocktail parties of polite society hit home in a way it hadn't before. It also brought back painful memories about my own Vassar experience, and the shattered illusions that had marked it.
I had gone to Vassar a naïf, a sheltered girl from an immigrant community. Mine was a neighborhood of Jewish exiles thrown out or pressured out of Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s—in my family's case, Egypt. We were victims of the Middle East conflict who were barely mentioned in the history books. Though we had been mistreated and denied our homelands, we suffered alone and in silence. No cool campus groups spoke up for us then, or now.
Our values were God, faith, family and Israel. We were passionate about the Jewish state, a country that took so many Middle Eastern Jews in when, one after another, Arab countries had forced or pressured us out. I was raised as a Sabbath observer, a keeper of dietary laws, and, oh, expected to marry young and refrain from sex before marriage.
Those were the quaint values I carried to Vassar, which I had chosen from among a multitude of schools for the old-fashioned ideals its name evoked. I had read a brochure alluding to a tradition of students drinking sherry with faculty. To someone more familiar with Manischewitz wine, sipping sherry with my professors epitomized what I wanted on this earth: a life of civility and grace. This was Jackie Kennedy's Vassar.
Instead, I found myself on a campus in the throes of a 1970s rebellion. There was a drug culture and a drinking culture, but no sherry culture I could find. Vassar prided itself on being edgy and embraced open sexuality and every other cause of the tumultuous era.
My disillusionment came fast. My first day I wandered to the "ACDC"—the forbidding central dining hall—and timidly asked a manager where I could find the kosher section. She looked at me as if I were from another planet.
What followed were months of kosher TV dinners, in big aluminum packages. It was incredibly decent of Vassar to obtain those for me, yet every time I lugged one these dinners from the kitchen to the table in their silver foil, I felt the stares of my fellow-diners.
It never got easier. I could never take that train from Grand Central back to Poughkeepsie on Sunday nights without the blues setting in. And now, so many years later, my Vassar blues were back.
The other night I received a press release from the president of the Vassar Jewish Union, Ms. Dann—yes, her again. This time, she was attacking Hillel, the venerable campus organization that has offered a home to generations of Jewish students. Following in Swarthmore's footsteps, the Vassar Jewish Union was becoming an "open Hillel"—no longer obliged to heed Hillel's pesky rule of banning speakers who demonize Israel or believe the Jewish state shouldn't exist. The release was replete with more clichés about needing a "diverse range of personal and political opinions" that it argued Hillel failed to provide.
I am still waiting for the day a student or faculty member stands up to these academic hooligans at the Vassar Quad. Now that would show some "critical thinking."
As for Vassar's Rabbi Blumenthal, she finally agreed to speak to me from Israel over the weekend. She firmly opposes the boycott, she declared, and has been upset by the anti-Israel sentiments on campus, noting: "I am here because I love this country. I am a Zionist."
Bravo, rabbi. How nice to hear of one Israel defender at Vassar. I can only pray that others on campus listen.
Ms. Lagnado, a Journal reporter, is the author of two memoirs of her Egyptian-Jewish family, "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" (Harper Perennial, 2008) and "The Arrogant Years" (Ecco, 2012)
Meet the Jewish students who are taking on the Jewish establishment
In the last few days I have talked to several young Jews who are part of the historic Open Hillel movement that is determined to break down the doors on the official Jewish conversation about Israel and allow young people to think for themselves. For me the movement is as glorious as other impulses toward social justice from young Jews, including their participation in the 1960s Freedom Rides. But these students are modest.
“Is it a revolution?” I asked Naomi Dann of Vassar. “I wouldn’t call it that yet,” she said. “It’s a call for change.”
Vassar is one of two schools that have now declared themselves Open Hillel’s; they reject Hillel International’s “Israel guidelines” on participation in campus chapters that exclude those who seek to “delegitimize” Israel or who have endorsed boycott of Israel.
Vassar’s Jewish Union voted to go open last week, and released a statement saying that the International’s rules did not represent the “diversity” of young Jews’ views.
“All are welcome to walk through our doors and speak with our name and under our roof, be they Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist, or non-Zionist.”
Hillel International is paying close attention to the movement, and there are signs that it is trying to make peace with it.
So what is this movement?
Open Hillel began at Harvard a year and a half ago, when the Hillel chapter there was barred from hosting an event featuring “Jewish voices against Occupation,” because a co-sponsor was the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which crosses the firmly-Zionist redlines that Hillel International had adopted in 2010. Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a Harvard student and member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, was shocked by the censorship: the Jews who were going to speak had worked against house demolitions in the West Bank. She resolved to organize against it, inside the Jewish community.
Sandalow-Ash made that resolution because of her own strong Jewish identity. “It’s not like I had a choice about whether I get to be Jewish or not. I went to Jewish day school, and being Jewish is an essential part of who I am.”
The Hillel censorship was so blatant (some chapters were barring the liberal Zionist group J Street from participating) that Sandalow-Ash knew she could win other students to the cause, including non-Jews who participate in Hillel activities. The Hillel policy was sure to shock “people who are not indoctrinated to believe that someone who doesn’t agree with you is a threat to your organization, your community, and your sense of self.”
A small group of organizers began reaching out to Hillel’s around the country. The movement has so far yielded success at smaller institutions because they are less dependent on organizational funding. Vassar, for instance, gets all its funding, including the salary of its one staffer, from the college and the Jewish Union’s own endowment. “There is no direct financial risk from our decision, as far as we know,” says Naomi Dann.
By contrast, the Hillel chapters at Berkeley and Harvard are highly dependent on the Jewish establishment, and moves to open the chapters have been caught up in bureaucratic wrangling.
“Why has it taken so long? Honestly because of money,” Sandalow-Ash explained to me. “There is financial pressure from multiple levels of the Jewish establishment…. Harvard’s not Swarthmore… We have a large board of trustees. We are funded by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston.”
This surely explains why Berkeley alumni have called on the professional leaders of the Berkeley Hillel, including a rabbi and board chair, to open up that chapter.
The blows by Vassar and Swarthmore have now set up a battle between Hillel International’s professional leadership and students. And there are signs that Hillel International is trying to reposition itself.
When Swarthmore declared itself an Open Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, the head of Hillel International, threatened to disaffiliate the group in a slam-the-door letter saying the Swarthmore “position is not acceptable” and Hillel International was “unwavering” in its support for Israel: “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
A few weeks later, his letter to Vassar had much nicer manners.
I have read the release from the Vassar Jewish Union carefully, and I appreciate you following up with an offer to discuss this issue….
I have asked my colleagues at Hillel International to set up a time to meet with you and the Jewish student community on campus. We look forward to continuing this dialogue so that together we can assure that the needs of all Jewish students at Vassar are met.”
Who are these students?
They’re young Jews who are dedicated to free thinking. When I visited Vassar, Henry Rosen, a freshman, above, told me that the Jewish Union had given him a place to explore his Judaism and his Jewishness, and that he considers himself an anti-Zionist; he does not see a need for a Jewish state. Naomi Dann told me that some of the students who voted to open up the Hillel are Zionists, and some are Israelis. She herself is a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. She recently published an article, co-authored with Nicole Massad, opposing the Vassar president’s opposition to the boycott movement and expressing sympathy for the BDS program.
Meantime, Dann helps to lead Shabbat dinners. By email she told me that the Jewish community was hospitable to her values:
I originally joined the VJU first semester of my freshman year because there was an opening for the position of social justice chair and that was what I was interested in doing. I never expected to be involved (especially not to this extent) in Jewish life in college, but found myself in a welcoming Jewish community that became a home to me at Vassar in a number of ways. Jewishness is important to me because of the strong bonds of community that this identity has allowed me to develop. My connection to Judaism is rooted in the experience of community, I consider myself to be a secular, atheist Jew. (I’m definitely on the most secular and left side of the VJU though, not representative of the community as a whole at all).
Dann and Rosen and Sam Basch, a third member of VJU I met, said they were thrilled by their declaration and that it had come about via a thorough democratic process of deliberation in which the overwhelming majority had supported it.
Some students expressed concerns about what their parents would say, but Basch, Rosen and Dann all had their parents behind them.
“My parents have just praised me for taking a stand and doing something,” Basch said. She said her support for the statement came out of a dedication to “inclusivity and against censorship, to creating a pluralistic community… and providing a space for a variety of issues to be discussed.”
Other actions are sure to follow. None of the students I interviewed would say what school is going next, or what speaker the Open Hillels will invite to campus. And though I got hints that a chapter or chapters has voted against going open, Sandalow-Ash declined to answer my question about that.
In weeks to come, expect other small liberal arts colleges to follow Vassar and Swarthmore. And Sandalow-Ash said organizers will carry this battle for openness to other Jewish spaces. To Moishe houses. To the Ramaz School in New York.
She said young Jews’ views of Israel were affected by the failures of Oslo and images of the occupation. And meantime the official Jewish community is enforcing a “right wing” orthodoxy that would never be maintained in other political discussions.
Is this a revolution? I asked her. “I don’t know. That’s a weird question. I think Open Hillel expresses sentiments that have been growing gradually but also strongly among American Jewish students and the American Jewish community generally. We want everyone in the tent.”
Full text of Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi's open letter condemning censorship of Israel critics
The scholars' online petition has gathered 150 signatories so far.
By Haaretz | Mar. 5, 2014 | 6:16 PM
Whether one is for or against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a means to change the current situation in Palestine-Israel, it is important to recognize that boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression. As non-violent instruments to effect political change, boycotts cannot be outlawed without trampling on a constitutionally protected right to political speech. Those who support boycotts ought not to become subject to retaliation, surveillance, or censorship when they choose to express their political viewpoint, no matter how offensive that may be to those who disagree.
We are now witnessing accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS. We ask cultural and educational institutions to have the courage and the principle to stand for, and safeguard, the very principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas that make those institutions possible. This means refusing to accede to bullying, intimidation, and threats aimed at silencing speakers because of their actual or perceived political views. It also means refusing to impose a political litmus test on speakers and artists when they are invited to speak or show their work. We ask that educational and cultural institutions recommit themselves to upholding principles of open debate, and to remain venues for staging expressions of an array of views, including controversial ones. Only by refusing to become vehicles for censorship and slander, and rejecting blacklisting, intimidation, and discrimination against certain viewpoints, can these institutions live up to their purpose as centers of learning and culture.
Professor of Comparative Literature, UC Berkeley
Edward Said Professor in Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University
(To see the list of signatories go to original article)
Pew survey of U.S. Jews: soaring intermarriage, assimilation rates
By Uriel Heilman
October 1, 2013 12:01am
NEW YORK (JTA) — There are a lot more Jews in America than you may have thought — an estimated 6.8 million, according to a new study. But a growing proportion of them are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions.
The proportion of Jews who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them are not raising their children Jewish at all.
Overall, the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.
The data on Jewish engagement come from the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, a telephone survey of 3,475 Jews nationwide conducted between February and June and released on Tuesday.
The population estimate, released Monday, comes from a synthesis of existing survey data conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.
While the Steinhardt/Cohen study, called “American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012,”is likely to be a matter of some debate by demographers and social scientists, it is the Pew study that offers an in-depth portrait that may influence Jewish policymaking for years to come.
Among the more notable findings of the Pew survey:
* Overall, 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion, and the survey finds they are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish. Broken down by age, 32 percent of Jews born after 1980 — the so-called millennial generation — identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers and just 7 percent of Jews born before 1927.
* Emotional attachment to Israel has held steady over the last decade, with 69 percent of respondents saying they feel attached or very attached to Israel. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had been to Israel.
* Far more respondents said having a good sense of humor was essential to their Jewish identity than observing Jewish law — 42 percent compared to 19 percent.
* Approximately one-quarter of Jews said religion is very important in their lives, compared to 56 percent among Americans generally.
* Less than one-third of American Jews say they belong to a synagogue. Twenty-three percent of U.S. Jews say they attend synagogue at least once or twice a month, compared with 62 percent of U.S. Christians.
The Pew study is the first comprehensive national survey of American Jews in more than a decade. The last one, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), was conducted by the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations and counted 5.2 million Jews, including children. But critics said that study’s methodology was flawed and undercounted American Jews.
Both the Pew survey and the Steinhardt/Brandeis study put the number of U.S. Jewish adults at about 5.3 million, including Jews who do not identify as Jewish by religion. The Steinhardt/Brandeis study counted an additional 1.6 million Jewish children for a total of 6.8 million Jews in America. The Pew study counted 1.3 million Jewish children.
Overall, Jews make up about 2.2 percent of Americans, according to Pew. By comparison, 6.06 million Jews live in Israel, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Because of the differences in methodologies between the new surveys and the NJPS, the increased number of U.S. Jews likely overstates any actual growth.
Leonard Saxe, one of the authors of the Steinhardt/Brandeis study, told JTA there has been some growth during the last decade, but he could not put a number on it. Saxe attributed the growth to the immigration of Russian-speaking Jews, programs to bolster Jewish identity and shifts in attitude that have enabled many children of interfaith marriages to be raised with a Jewish identity.
The Pew study found that about 10 percent of American Jews are former Soviet Jews or their children.
About 65 percent of American adults who identify as Jews by religion live in just six states, according to the Steinhardt/Cohen estimates: New York (20 percent), California (14 percent), Florida (12 percent), New Jersey (8 percent), Massachusetts (5 percent) and Pennsylvania (5 percent). The other four states in the top 10 — Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Ohio — add another 15 percent. The three most Jewish metropolitan areas are New York, South Florida and Los Angeles.
Among Jewish denominations, the Reform movement remains the largest: 35 percent of respondents identified as Reform, according to the Pew study. The second-largest group is Jews of no denomination (30 percent), followed by Conservative (18 percent) and Orthodox (10 percent).
As with other studies, the Pew study found that the Orthodox share of the American Jewish population is likely to grow because Orthodox Jews tend to be younger and have larger families than Jews generally. In addition, while past surveys showed about half of respondents raised as Orthodox were no longer Orthodox, the Orthodox retention rate appears to be improving, with just a 17 percent falloff among 18- to 29-year-olds.
Most denominational switching among American Jews, however, remains in the direction of less traditional Judaism.
In the Pew survey, 90 percent of those who identified as Jews by religion and are raising children said they are raising them Jewish. By comparison, less than one-third of those who identified themselves as Jews of no religion are raising their kids as Jewish.
Among inmarried Jews, 96 percent are raising their children as Jews by religion (as opposed to ethnicity), compared to 45 percent among intermarried Jews.
On Jewish observance, some 70 percent of respondents to the Pew survey said they participated in a Passover seder in 2012 and 53 percent said they fasted for all or part of Yom Kippur that year. The numbers represent declines from the 2000-01 NJPS, which found seder participation rates at 78 percent and Yom Kippur fasting at 60 percent.
The new Pew survey found that about 23 percent of U.S. Jews say they always or usually light Sabbath candles, and about 22 percent reported keeping kosher at home.
While most of those surveyed by Pew said they felt a strong connection to Israel, and 23 percent reported having visited the Jewish state more than once, the respondents expressed significant reservations about the current Israeli government’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Forty-four percent said West Bank settlement construction hurts Israel’s security interests, and only 17 percent said continued settlement construction is helpful to Israeli security. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said the Israeli government is making a sincere peace effort with the Palestinians.
The Pew survey also asked respondents about what it means to be Jewish, offering several options. The most popular element was remembering the Holocaust at 73 percent, followed by leading an ethical life at 69 percent.
Fifty-six percent cited working for justice and equality; 43 percent said caring about Israel; 42 percent said having a good sense of humor; and 19 percent said observing Jewish law.
Sixty-two percent of respondents said being Jewish is primarily a matter of ancestry and culture; 15 percent said it was mainly a matter of religion. Most Jews said it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. In the survey, 60 percent said a person cannot be Jewish and believe that Jesus is the messiah.
Uriel Heilman is JTA's managing editor, responsible for coordinating JTA's editorial team. He re-joined JTA in 2007 after a stint doing independent reporting in Israel and the Arab world. Before that, he served as New York bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. An award-winning journalist, he has worked as a reporter for a variety of publications in the United States and in Israel.