"If I am not for myself, who is for me?" Rabbi Hillel asked many centuries ago. Looking at the institution at UC Berkeley that bears his name, he would be wondering even more. There has been ongoing anti-Israel activity at Cal for many years; that's not news. But it is newsworthy if a group opposed to the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state gets to spread its propaganda within the walls of the Hillel house itself.
On September 17, a group calling itself "Kesher Enoshi" held a meeting in the Hillel auditorium at Cal. Kesher is the name of the national Reform Judaism campus arm; it is not yet known if the group at Cal is officially a chapter of this organization, since this writer has not yet received a response from the Union for Reformed Judaism. The meeting was held ostensibly as a discussion forum about pro-Israel posters in Berkeley that had been placed in a number of bus shelters by BlueStarPR. One of the students in attendance reported back:
"Two leaders of SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] attended: Yaman Salahi and Allison Deger. The event was actually advertised on the SJP website. The event started innocently with a discussion about what the Bluestar pr signs were supposed to do, etc. In stage 2 of the meeting a video of an Arab soccer player was shown who complained about racism he experienced on the soccer field. Essentially they were debunking the pr. In the third stage they talked about a group that is addressing Israel's "fucking over" of the Bedouin population in the Negev. Basically the meeting went from innocuous to serious criticism of Israel."
SJP is Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that clearly states on its website (caljsp.org) "we condemn the racism and discrimination underlying the policies and laws of the state of Israel". Hillel's own website describes Hillel as a place for Israel advocacy-- how does allowing an anti-Zionist group that calls Israel an "apartheid regime" to use Hillel facilities fit this mission? The International Hillel website notes that "Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as Jewish and Democratic State with secure and recognized borders and as a member of the family of free nations." Does a group that states "we condemn the racism and discrimination underlying the policies and laws of the state of Israel" deserve to have their events hosted and promoted by Hillel? It would seem more appropriate to Hillel's mission to teach students how to respond to such propaganda, rather than by hosting it. Yet even after last week's event, Kesher Enoshi (and presumably its friends from SJP) are being allowed to hold another event at Hillel itself, likely to feature more Israel-bashing.
All of this has been brought to the attention of UC Hillel staff. The response given was that Kesher is Zionist (though not, to their knowledge, affiliated with the URJ group), that a non-Zionist group would not be allowed into Hillel, and that Salahi and Deger were not leading the discussion- they were simply there. By the report of Hillel staff at the meeting, the presentation was not an attack on the BlueStar posters, but rather a segue into a discussion of issues in Israel. The previously quoted student saw it differently:
"This [the response of Hillel staff] is absurd. Kesher Enoshi doesn’t claim to be a Zionist group. They are about “social change within Israel.” They are supposed to be a domestic Israeli discussion group.... The event was obviously, clearly, without any doubt an attack on the posters. The first point was to question the intentions of BlueStar PR, etc. in the first place to have pro-Israel PR. The second point was to say that even if the placement of posters is justified, the posters were lies..... The next step was attacking Israel in general as a state that has exploited and abandoned the Bedoin population... In my opinion the leaders of SJP should not even be allowed in Hillel (they attended the Kesher Enoshi event). As a private organization, Hillel has the right to kick them out. SJP is a hate group that spreads vicious antisemitic attacks on Israel. Their leaders have no place in Hillel. It’s no surprise the SJP leaders attended by the way. Since the event was largely attacking Israel and pro-Israel pr, it fits in very well with their message."
This student is right. It does raise questions about the choices made at UC Hillel. Why host and promote this event, but have an invisible response when Jimmy Carter came to Cal to peddle his demonization of Israel in May 2007? Why did students who wanted to stand up in support of Israel had to form a separate group outside of Hillel? The first point of Hillel's "Vision for Israel on Campus" states: "One of the central objectives of Israel education is to generate and cultivate among students a passion about Israel and to cultivate within them a sense of personal attachment with the country and its people." To which I can only add "And if not now, when?".