Rice University LGBTQ group severs ties with Hillel over its support for Israel

Rice Pride says Jewish organization’s ban on partnering with pro-Palestinian groups incompatible with its ‘values of inclusion’

File: Students walk to class at Rice University on August 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)
File: Students walk to class at Rice University on August 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)

JTA — An LGBTQ student group at Rice University has cut ties with the school’s Hillel, in the latest instance of backlash from a progressive group against the Jewish campus organization’s support for Israel.

The LGBTQ group, Rice Pride, announced the split last week in a statement on Instagram that said Hillel’s international umbrella group was “not reflective of the values of inclusion upheld by Rice Pride.”

“Rice Pride’s ultimate goal is to provide a safe space for queer students of all backgrounds, and to recognize the intersectionalities between queer identity and race, ethnicity, and religion,” the statement said. The group did not respond to a request for comment and, on Wednesday, made its Instagram account private after drawing criticism from pro-Israel groups.

According to Rice Pride’s statement, Houston Hillel had provided funding for the group’s Queer Resource Center. The two campus groups have co-hosted 12 events since 2016. A Rice Pride leader told the campus newspaper, the Rice Thresher, that no student had said the local Hillel “has made them uncomfortable in any way.”

But in the statement, the group said it opposed guidelines put forward by Hillel International, an umbrella group for campus chapters, that prohibit campus Hillels from partnering with or hosting groups that advocate for a boycott of Israel or that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. It also listed instances of Hillel chapters at other schools opposing pro-Palestinian activism.

“Hillel’s ‘Standards of Partnership’ are incompatible with Rice Pride’s mission to create an accessible and equitable space for queer students of all backgrounds,” the statement said. “Historically, these ‘Standards of Partnership’ have been used by Hillel International to cut ties and spark conflicts with any organization that seeks to engage in spaces that validate Palestinian and Arab experiences.”

Rabbi Kenny Weiss, executive director of Houston Hillel, December 1, 2020. (YouTube screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Rice Pride joins a number of other student groups across the country distancing themselves from Hillel over its Israel policies. Last year, a Muslim student group at American University canceled its participation in a Passover seder organized by Hillel due to its positions on Israel, and in 2019, the Graduate Student Union at the University of Toronto refused to support a Hillel kosher food program, calling it “pro-Israel.” Campus pro-Palestinian groups have also condemned Hillel for its support of Israel, and Jewish students who oppose the guidelines have sought to build alternative organizations.

Rice Pride’s statement also comes as students at a range of universities have said that their support of Israel has made them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome on campus. Pro-Israel groups have helped students file a series of federal complaints alleging discrimination due to their views on Israel or Zionism. A recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League, which partners with Hillel, reported that anti-Israel activity on campuses doubled since the previous school year.

Illustrative: Hillel activists at the Dartmouth campus in September 2014. (Courtesy)

In his own statement posted to Instagram on Friday, Rabbi Kenny Weiss, executive director of Houston Hillel, wrote that the Hillel “regrets” Rice Pride’s decision. When reached for comment, he referred the Jewish Telegraphic Agency back to his statement.

“Houston Hillel does not accept that we live in a world where students need to pick only one part of their identity to celebrate,” Weiss wrote. “We believe in building communities where one group’s inclusion does not come at the expense of another’s. This decision by Rice Pride not only alienates queer Jewish students and leaves them unsure of their own acceptance in Rice Pride spaces, but also damages the campus climate for all Jewish students.”

The decision was made without a call for input from Rice Pride’s members, according to the student newspaper. Two days after the group made its announcement public, a member of its executive board stepped down from his position in protest.

One queer Jewish student, whom the Rice Thresher identified with a pseudonym, said that she felt the decision was poorly timed, coming just after Rosh Hashanah.

“This is certainly a decision that could have waited a single week,” the student said. “To make an announcement of this kind during the High Holy Days places a lot of extra stress on Jewish people, and shows there isn’t the level of cultural fluency I would like to see from Pride leadership.”

The group’s statement acknowledged that the decision could put Jews in an uncomfortable place. Rice Pride said it made the decision to cut ties with Hillel “with the consultation and support of trusted organizations and individuals (both Jewish and not)” and will turn to other Jewish groups for additional support, including Judaism On Our Own Terms, a group formerly known as Open Hillel that arose in protest of Hillel International’s Israel policies.

“We have no intention of excluding Jewish students, regardless of their affiliation with Hillel,” Rice Pride’s statement said. “However, we acknowledge that this decision has likely weighed heavy on the hearts of queer Jewish students at Rice, and we empathize with that.”

Weiss said the group’s portrayal of Hillel’s policies was not accurate.

“We wish that Rice Pride’s leadership had pursued a conversation with Houston Hillel students or professionals during their internal discussions,” he wrote in the statement. “We feel that had they done so, Rice Pride’s leaders would have learned that the conclusions they drew from outdated sources and various Hillel websites do not reflect current Houston Hillel policies or practice.”

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