Point/Counterpoint: BDS Referendum at the University of Minnesota

By Imogen

We at IfNotNow University of Minnesota believe that Minnesota Hillel is misrepresenting Jewish students’ political views in their March 2 piece objecting to UMN Divest’s referendum campaign urging the University to divest from private prisons, violators of indigenous sovereignty, and companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. While Hillel is an important center for Jewish life on campus, this single organization is not a voice for the entire Jewish community.

We are Jewish students with a wide range of views on Israel and Palestine. What unites us is the conviction that all groups facing oppression, including Palestinians, deserve freedom and dignity. We will not allow Hillel or any other organization to speak on our behalf labeling criticism of the occupation as anti-Semitism. The problem we as Jews must deal with is not growing discussion and criticism of the occupation, but rather our community’s ongoing support for the occupation – a nightmare for Palestinians and a moral disaster for all who support it.

Hillel representatives wrote that the campaign “erected barriers between minority communities on campus, a devastating effect for students who would rather be building coalitions for the betterment of all students.” But it is not the students advocating for divestment who erect these barriers, but our own community. Reactions like Hillel’s pit Jewish students against other marginalized groups including students of color, and Palestinian and Indigenous students – who are maligned, vilified, and marginalized in our society today. Jews know what it means to be treated this way, and our history teaches us that we must stand in solidarity with others who experience abuse and discrimination. We cannot expect those communities to “build coalitions for the betterment of all students” with Jewish organizations that call them anti-Semites when they advocate for their own humanity, and ally with groups that add their names to blacklists.

Organizations like Hillel claim to represent Jewish opinion while throwing Jewish students and our safety under the bus. On a national scale, many Israel advocacy groups ally themselves with explicitly anti-Semitic individuals and organizations who proclaim support for Israel in the same breath that they perpetuate anti-Semitic tropes and collude with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. A stark example is AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the country, which hosts speakers such as then-candidate Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and most recently invited Joel Pollak, the editor of the anti-Semitic alt-right paper Breitbart News, to speak at its 2018 policy conference. Pollak has come out repeatedly to defend Trump at important and controversial junctures – notably, he applauded the president’s condemnation of “many sides” amid clashes at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. Minnesota Hillel sponsors students in attending AIPAC conferences annually, while intimidating and discouraging students from establishing any political group on campus that is critical of Israeli government’s policies such as J Street.

By aligning itself with AIPAC and their alt-right speakers, Hillel has repeatedly chosen to prioritize narrow political interests at the expense of a robust, inclusive Jewish community at the U of M and compromise the safety of Jews on campus.

As Jewish students at the University of Minnesota, we refuse to be pitted against other marginalized communities in this debate. Criticism of the Israeli government’s policies and the occupation’s many violations of human rights and international law is not anti-Semitic, nor does it “inherently target the Jewish people” or increase anti-Semitism on campus – in fact, as Jews and as human beings, we view it as a responsibility.

We are deeply involved in our Jewish community, and in its tradition of robust debate and belief in the holiness of dissent. We reject the idea that there can be only one Jewish attitude toward Israel, Palestine, the occupation, and BDS. Under no circumstances will we allow Hillel to use us to undermine students who are working to address injustice.

Instead of having the difficult conversation about the American Jewish community’s complicity in the Israeli occupation, and forging those relationships with the communities which our support for Israel’s policies has harmed, right-leaning Jewish organizations join forces with Christian Zionists, hawkish Republicans, and Islamophobes in order to defend the occupation from the criticism of students. Our community has a choice: either continue to join forces with literal anti-Semites in defense of the occupation and put the future of the Jewish community at risk, or actually join in the fight for freedom and dignity for all.

By Maya, Boaz, and Margaux

We are three freshmen at the University of Minnesota, and despite our vastly different upbringings we have all found community within Minnesota Hillel this past year; and we all believe the BDS referendum being debated at the U this week is divisive for our campus community.

Maya grew up in a Jewish family with the “traditional” American Jewish experiences — celebrating holidays, going to Jewish summer camp, and teaching at her synagogue.

Boaz grew up with one Jewish parent and had a semi-Jewish upbringing, but was completely disconnected from the Jewish community for all of middle school and high school.

Margaux did not grow up Jewish, and explores her religious identity at Minnesota Hillel.

Hillel is a place where each of us express our Judaism in our own way, without judgment. It has not, does not, and will never claim to be a single, unifying voice for all Jewish students—religiously, politically, or otherwise. Hillel is a space for students like us to explore our own thoughts and to be challenged in our beliefs.

Hillel is a pro-Israel organization, and we have seen open and productive dialogue about the Palestine-Israel conflict always encouraged. In our short time here, we have seen Hillel partner with various groups involved in the Palestine-Israel conversation on different topics, and host discussions on current events within Israeli society.

We have found Hillel to be a place that stands up for causes important to the U’s students through action rather than just words. We have seen through different programs like “Changing the Culture Shabbat” and hosting Aly Raisman that Hillel advances the discussion on sexual assault and healthy relationships. Programs like “Civic Engagement Shabbat” and “News with the Jews” have proved that Hillel is a space open to dialogue. They have pushed and challenged us as a community to be engaged members of society, and through them we have seen our values embodied in Hillel.

This referendum lumps together three very different issues in support of the global Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. It targets the Jewish community on campus, the place where we all feel at home. The referendum singles out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. It discriminates by applying a different standard of accountability to Israel over any other country. Socially responsible investment is a global issue that the whole campus should get behind, as long as it does not single out one community.

Vote United, Vote No, the opposition effort to UMN Divest, is a grassroots campaign, started and driven by concerned students. This movement has received support from members of student government, Greek life, and cultural and religious student groups, including Minnesota Hillel.

Students within our community, ourselves included, are already feeling the effects of this referendum. We are feeling isolated, and our friends are questioning their safety on campus. To disregard the campus Jewish community’s own very real marginalization and isolation is invalidating a minority that is 1.1% of the U’s population. Vote United, Vote No, does not try to discredit the very real struggles that other minorities face; it simply asks others to acknowledge and validate the effects this referendum, and the greater BDS movement, has on the U of M Jewish Community, and on us as individuals.

We do not believe that most individuals supporting this referendum are being intentionally anti-Semitic, but we worry that the effects of the referendum will increase the likelihood of anti-Semitism on campus. In fact, a study by the AMCHA Initiative in 2015 found that “95% of schools with BDS activity had one or more incidents of anti-Semitic expression, whereas of the schools with no evidence of BDS activity, only 33% had anti-Semitic expression.”

In 2016, the U’s Jewish community expressed concerns over targeting Israel in calls for divestment and offered a broader, holistic, socially-responsible investment resolution. Every single student group besides Minnesota Hillel dropped off as a sponsor of the resolution once Israel was no longer singled out. This resolution ultimately passed. University President Eric Kaler responded to these events by highlighting concerns that naming only Israel could be deemed anti-Semitic, and that divestment inhibited Jewish self-determination and identity.

In the past several years, Jewish students’ attempts to reach out to other cultural and religious groups, including those sponsoring the current referendum, have been outright denied or ignored. Should the referendum pass, our voices will only be further marginalized. A vote yes is only a vote to divide this campus, and weaken any chance of communication that could lead to real change for the betterment of all people.

Vote United, Vote No is not encouraging students to pick a side on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is a campaign to encourage open dialogue and conversation, and to change the narrative in dealing with this crisis on Minnesota’s campus.