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Jewish civil rights activists use legacy to promote BDS

An Open Hillel Freedom Summer speaking tour on college campuses pits Hillel International guidelines against Jewish heroes’ freedom of speech

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Freedom Summer speakers, from left to right, Larry Rubin, Ira Grupper and Dorothy Zellner at the February University of Massachusetts, Amherst event. (Courtesy Open Hillel)
Freedom Summer speakers, from left to right, Larry Rubin, Ira Grupper and Dorothy Zellner at the February University of Massachusetts, Amherst event. (Courtesy Open Hillel)

The first black American president marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday, 50 years after “Bloody Sunday,” one of the darkest periods of wanton police violence and widespread denial of basic rights for blacks in America’s Deep South. And this weekend, as well as at the march five decades ago, there were a significant number of Jews in the ranks as well.

During the height of the South’s civil rights struggle, Jews were some 50 percent of solidarity volunteers from the North. In June 1964 during the “Freedom Summer” campaign to register black voters, many put their lives on hold and traveled en masse to Mississippi and Alabama. They came to show unity with the black community, and faced a clash of cultures that saw two young New York Jews, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, slaughtered alongside black activist James Chaney by the KKK.

“As much as any single factor, it was the nationwide attention given the discovery of their corpses that accelerated passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” according to one scholar.

While countless Jewish lawyers worked feverishly around the clock, other Jewish Northerners, including Dorothy Zellner and Larry Rubin, volunteered with grassroots organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Zellner began her civil rights activism in 1960 and served in a variety of capacities with SNCC: fundraising, screening Freedom Summer volunteers, and drafting the organization’s public message as co-editor of The Student Voice. Rubin was a field secretary for SNCC from 1961 to 1965, and went on to work as an activist in labor issues.

President Barack Obama, fourth from left, walks holding hands with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during 'Bloody Sunday,' as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala,. for the 50th anniversary of the landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama, fourth from left, walks holding hands with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during ‘Bloody Sunday,’ as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala,. for the 50th anniversary of the landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Today, in a Jewish community in which civil rights is still a central Jewish value, one would expect Zellner and Rubin to be counted among the Freedom Summer “heroes.” And in many circles they are.

However, because of their stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — including openly supporting the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement — they are ostracized, banned from speaking at some Jewish institutions and synagogues as well as most Hillel houses on campuses through the international organization’s 2010 standards for partnership guidelines.

So, in the spirit of civil disobedience and freedom of speech, Zellner, Rubin and other former comrades at arms are currently on a national speaking tour called “From Mississippi to Jerusalem: In Conversation with Jewish Civil Rights Veterans,” organized by a counter-Hillel movement called “Open Hillel.”

A month into the tour, the goal — to have these Jewish veterans voice their controversial opinions on Israel at Hillel-sponsored programs — is achieving mixed results.

Hillel International's chief administrative officer David Eden (courtesy)
Hillel International’s chief administrative officer David Eden (courtesy)

Hillel International chief administrative officer David Eden is of the opinion that the use of the veterans’ civil rights work to promote a BDS platform “drives a wedge within the Jewish community.”

“This highly cynical and deceptive program is meant to co-opt an historic American civil rights achievement in order to create a series of propaganda events that attack Israel and promote BDS. Therefore, this tour dishonors that historic American achievement,” Eden told The Times of Israel.

He’s not alone in his condemnation.

Reform Judaism was on the forefront of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The head of the movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, told The Times of Israel this week, “Comparing the fight for civil rights in America to the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians simply doesn’t work.

“The Israeli-Palestinian issue is a complicated geopolitical maze that has many components to it; it needs its own template and can’t be reduced to a simple matter of right and wrong, as the struggle for civil rights in the US so clearly was,” said Jacobs.

A participant at this weekend’s Bloody Sunday march re-enactment, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism head Rabbi Jonah Pesner, said that as in the past, his delegation this week showed solidarity with the black community as Jews. They marched with black congregations, many of which are pro-Israel, said Pesner, to “reaffirm the civil rights movement of the past and keep the struggle moving forward.”

To make an equivalency between the civil rights struggle in the Deep South and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, he said, a “misunderstanding of history.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner and David Goodman, brother of slain Freedom Summer volunteer Andrew Goodman, at Selma's historic Reform synagogue, Temple Mishkan Israel Friday March 6, 2015. (courtesy Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)
Rabbi Jonah Pesner and David Goodman, brother of slain Freedom Summer volunteer Andrew Goodman, at Selma’s historic Reform synagogue, Temple Mishkan Israel Friday March 6, 2015. (courtesy Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

“I think it’s really clear that the State of Israel, considering the neighborhood it’s in, it’s a real ironic misuse or misunderstanding of history to associate the violation of civil rights with the State of Israel,” Pesner told The Times of Israel.

“Israel in many ways treats the Arab and Palestinian populations with more decency and more civil rights than the vast major of the neighborhood. To do some kind of blanket condemnation is un-nuanced and misunderstands history,” he said.

But despite their condemnations, perhaps the fact that Rabbis Jacobs and Pesner are talking about Open Hillel and the veterans’ BDS stances at all is, in a way, a victory for the Open Hillel movement.

What is Open Hillel?

Open Hillel began in November 2012 when a group of Ivy League students decided to push back against the Hillel partnership guidelines and began “working to promote inclusion and open discourse on Israel-Palestine within campus Jewish communities.” Rejecting the standards, the students launched a campaign to raise awareness of the need for a plurality of opinions, including petitions, a website, and increasingly savvy press releases.

By December 2013, the Swarthmore Hillel declared itself an “Open Hillel”; the Vassar Jewish Union followed suit in February 2014, and in April 2014, the Wesleyan Jewish Community. The movement had a national convention in October at Harvard where Zellner and other civil rights veterans spoke at an event that became the impetus of the current multi-campus tour.

Caroline Morganti, is a junior at MIT who serves as the Open Hillel Communications Coordinator (courtesy)
Caroline Morganti, a junior at MIT who serves as the Open Hillel Communications Coordinator, in Haifa, Israel. (courtesy)

One of the tour organizers, Caroline Morganti, is a junior at MIT who serves as the Open Hillel communications coordinator.

“I think that we Jews have this nostalgia of looking to Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement as proof that we must stand for equality and social justice, when in reality, I think today there is a serious lack of civil rights among the Palestinian population in the West Bank,” Morganti told The Times of Israel.

‘I think that we Jews have this nostalgia of looking to Jewish involvement the civil rights movement as proof that we must stand for equality and social justice’

“I think it’s important that we remember what our values are and constantly examine whether our values match our actions, and I wanted this event to be an opportunity to do that, regardless of the conclusions people came to,” said Morganti.

Zellner, who at 77 is the oldest of the tour’s speakers, said she followed the development of Open Hillel and applauded the students’ grassroots initiative.

“The Open Hillels came as a stunning event in the Jewish community. I’m far far far from being a student; I just don’t like this policy of being told who you can have come speak and not,” she said.

“The issue is whether if you are in the United States and a Jewish student and belong to Hillel, the social heart of Jewish student life, whether you can hear speakers that represent these points of view,” she told The Times of Israel. “Everybody talks about freedom of speech all the time, yet a venerable institution won’t allow that.”

Reform head Jacobs agreed that there is room for differing opinions.

“I understand the difficult dilemma faced by Hillel International and yes, we have to have guidelines but we also need to find ways for our college students to engage in serious discussions with those who hold different political views than Hillel’s official positions,” Jacobs said.

Zellner became active in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2002 after hearing a talk by Israeli peacenik Uri Avnery. Since then she’s traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Authority a dozen times and volunteered there at organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights.

‘There are a lot of echoes of what I went through in the South’

“To me there are a lot of echoes of what I went through in the South,” said Zellner. “A lot of the [Israeli] Jews are living in a bubble; they don’t care, don’t want to know.”

Fellow Freedom Summer veteran Larry Rubin was recently in Israel. He told The Times of Israel that while there are many differences, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation is complex, “seeing streets in Israel-controlled territory where certain people are not allowed to walk and places barred to certain people certainly brought back experiences that I had in Mississippi fighting segregation in the early 1960s.

“I have seen firsthand that Israeli leaders often attempt to dehumanize a portion of the Israeli population and people living in areas A, B, and C,” said Rubin.

Rubin and Zellner’s impressions of Israel are hardly universal, even among civil rights activists. Democratic whip in the Pennsylvania state Senate Anthony Hardy Williams, whose father Hardy Williams worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to break the color barrier at Penn State, saw a different side of Israel on a recent visit.

Israel is ‘the only nation in history to bring tens of thousands of Africans (Ethiopian Jews) out of Africa to be citizens, not slaves’

“We who have visited Israel know the truth firsthand. The country isn’t perfect (whose is?), but it strives for peaceful coexistence with its neighbors. Israel is the Middle East’s lone functioning democracy and by leaps and bounds the region’s leader in respecting human and civil rights,” he wrote in the New York Post.

“Israel welcomes Arabs as citizens contributing to its democracy and legislative process, its military institutions,and universities, sitting in its parliament and in high judicial posts. It’s also the only nation in history to bring tens of thousands of Africans (Ethiopian Jews) out of Africa to be citizens, not slaves,” wrote Williams.

BDS as a continuation of nonviolent civil rights activism

When asked what he thought was the legacy of the civil rights activists, the Reform movement’s Jacobs said, “The Jewish civil rights activists demonstrated yet again that our Jewish tradition is serious when it comes to matters of justice. Before the Jewish civil rights movement, Jews were involved in fighting for social justice and have not stopped since.”

Zellner agreed and said at a recent Harvard interfaith panel co-hosted by the campus Hillel (more on that later), “As a Jew, I feel a Jewish obligation to stand up for the oppressed. I view Palestinians as being the oppressed.”

A Palestinian activist places a sign to boycott Israeli products at a supermarket in Bethlehem, West Bank,  February 11, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Mahmoud Illean)
A Palestinian activist places a sign to boycott Israeli products at a supermarket in Bethlehem, West Bank, February 11, 2015 (photo credit: AP/Mahmoud Illean)

Zellner supports the BDS movement, which while labeled by mainstream Judaism as a way to delegitimize the State of Israel, is for her a continuation of nonviolent civil rights activism, harking back to the picket lines and store boycotts that aided in the fight in the Deep South.

“We’re asking the world to make it uncomfortable for business to go on as usual… In the civil rights movement, we used boycotts all the time. If nobody bought at your store, you ended up leaving,” she said.

The BDS movement “has been reduced by the right-wing into, ‘Oh, you are calling for Israel’s destruction.’ Then I have to defend myself. ‘No I don’t want the destruction of Israel, I’m talking about Israel’s policy.’ BDS is a grassroots movement that is catching on around the world to change Israel’s policy,” said Zellner.

‘If you take seriously your Jewish heritage you do have to say something — you shall not stand idly by! What we see is wrong, so we’re going to stand up and speak until we’re hoarse’

“If you take seriously your Jewish heritage you do have to say something — you shall not stand idly by! What we see is wrong, so we’re going to stand up and speak until we’re hoarse,” said Zellner.

The Open Hillel tour, she emphasized, is not the movement’s declaration that it supports BDS; rather, it’s a way to bring a variety of opinion to campus.

But just whose opinion, even in the issue of BDS, may be the question.

According to a recent Forbes oped, “The BDS movement inflames rather than enlightens global dialogue around the peace process. Israel invests heavily in Palestine; the rest of the world doesn’t bother.”

And even other Jewish supporters of BDS have alluded to the straw man in the room — the future of Israel. Controversial author Norman Finkelstein discussed in a 2012 interview what he called “the cult” of BDS.

“We have to be honest, and I loathe the disingenuousness: They don’t want Israel… You know and I know what’s the result [of the success of BDS]: There’s no Israel,” said Finkelstein.

A BDS supporter on a Harvard Hillel panel

Confusingly, Zellner did join a February 25 interfaith panel that was co-sponsored by Hillel at Harvard. The event, called “Selma to Ferguson: Religious Tradition as Solidarity,” was outside of the Open Hillel Freedom Summer speaking tour.

Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, executive director at the Harvard Hillel, told The Times of Israel that although he had initially not wanted to participate in the panel, he decided to co-host the event to ensure it included a place for a pro-Israel Jewish speaker. So in addition to Zellner’s pro-BDS stance, the 50 students who attended also heard from Yavilah McCoy, an African-American Orthodox Jewish teacher and advocate for Jews of Color in the United States.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marches at Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian. (Courtesy of Susannah Heschel)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), marches at Selma with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian. (Courtesy of Susannah Heschel)

“Harvard Hillel is committed to constructive engagement with Israel. BDS urges disconnection and alienation where Israel is concerned… The tactics of BDS undermine Israelis seeking solutions and increase fearfulness and reactivity in Israel; BDS tactics do not lead to cooperation and hope,” Steinberg told The Times of Israel.

“At the same time, we must not play ‘duck and cover,’ we must have the courage to step up and debate issues and to make sure our perspectives are widely heard and understood. Like Israel itself, we must pursue dialogue across serious disagreements,” he said.

Hillel houses have rejected offers of co-sponsorship or event hosting at campuses where the regular speaking tour has held or is scheduled to hold events. Other campus Hillel directors applaud both the Harvard decision and those of other campuses.

‘We must have the courage to step up and debate issues and to make sure our perspectives are widely heard and understood’

So what made the Harvard event different? That it was not overtly centered on Israel or BDS, said Andy Gitelson, the executive director of the Oregon Hillel Foundation.

“Our Israel policy does not prohibit someone from making a statement that supports BDS or criticizes Israel — what it says is that we will not host an event or group whose sole purpose is to support BDS or speak out against Israel… The assertion that Hillel is somehow ‘closed’ because we choose not to provide a pulpit for those whose sole purpose is to deny Israel’s right to exist or who think boycotting Israel is the path to a peaceful region is completely false,” said Gitelson.

But for Hillel high-up Eden, the speaking tour itself is merely a tactic to undermine Hillel’s overarching mission.

“This tour was pre-announced by the so-called ‘Open Hillel’ activist group to do only one thing: ‘violate’ our organization’s guidelines. Therefore, the intent was not educational but purely for political propaganda purposes… It is unfortunate that these Jewish civil rights veterans, who like thousands of other Jews worked to achieve racial equality in our country, have agreed to be manipulated by this small band of student activists. Given its malicious intent to undermine Hillel’s overarching mission this program is beyond the pale,” Eden told The Times of Israel.

The Freedom Summer tour comes to the Open Hillels

The mid-Atlantic leg of the speaking tour will commence March 22 and reach the Open Hillel at Swarthmore on March 24.

Swarthmore Jewish students have spent the past year since famously rejecting Hillel International’s standards of practice in serious thought about how to approach their “openness.”

Swarthmore Hillel President Sarah Revesz said, “Being open means creating a space where we can engage with different viewpoints — a space built on respect and a genuine desire to learn from others and to learn about ourselves.”

The board at the Hillel chapter of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is openly rejecting guidelines on Israel debate adopted by the international umbrella group. (photo credit: Wikicommons/via JTA)
The board at the Hillel chapter of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania is openly rejecting guidelines on Israel debate adopted by the international umbrella group. (photo credit: Wikicommons/via JTA)

The social justice series, which includes the civil rights veterans’ event, is “as much about discussion as presentation,” said Israel-Palestine programming committee head Joshua Wolfsun. “We want students to critically engage and think about the stories and views all of our speakers share. In no way will this event be dedicated to solely one voice.”

It is the lack of plurality of opinion that brought activist Zellner to the speaking tour. In her experience, the conversations in Israel are much more broad than those of the Jews in the United States.

‘People have become extremely hysterical. I’ve been called a kapo, which gives you an example of some of the level of discourse in this country’

“In the US there are tremendous difficulties with talking about Israel and it has had a really horrible affect on Jewish life. People have become extremely hysterical. I’ve been called a kapo, which gives you an example of some of the level of discourse in this country,” said Zellner.

Fellow activist Rubin agreed that Israelis are openly self-critical.

“I talked to a lot of Israelis who were not afraid to say they feel the current government is exacerbating the problems. In Mississippi in the 1960s white people were afraid to criticize the segregation policies of the government of their state because when people did, they would be ostracized,” Rubin said.

But you get the sense in speaking with Zellner that she expects just a little bit more from American Jews, historic champions of freedom of speech. “From Hillel’s point of view I wouldn’t be able to come in and discuss baking cookies,” she said.

“A blind loyalty to Israel is not going to help Israel. These students are the people who are going to be mapping the human genome, looking at the stars, Pulitzer prize winners, but they’re not allowed to hear this?” Zellner said.

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