[The following open letter is from The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN)]
This past weekend, something incredibly important happened at a small college in Pennsylvania.
In response to Harvard Hillel barring an Israeli speaker because the university’s Palestine Solidarity Committee had cosponsored the event at which he was to present, the Hillel at Swarthmore College issued a sweeping declaration -that it would allow multiple points of view on
Zionism and Palestine within its chapter. In their words, Swarthmore Hillel would be “a religious and cultural group whose purpose is not to advocate for one single political view.” It would “host and partner with any speaker at the discretion of its student board, regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines,” and would do so in the full knowledge that “Hillel International’s Israel guidelines privilege only one perspective on Zionism, and make others unwelcome.”
We at the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) welcome this brave and principled declaration from the students of Swarthmore’s Hillel. The Hillel organization has long claimed to represent all Jews on campus. And it has long been a strong supporter of Israel. Through these two positions, it has sought to collapse Jewish identity into Zionism – a maneuver we reject. And so we stand strongly behind these young people’s decision to decouple Jewish communal life from monotone support for Israeli policies, and to make space within their chapter for the true diversity of opinions on Zionism and the Israeli colonization and occupation of Palestine.
At IJAN, we are inescapably aware of the way Zionist forces have taken over Jewish communal institutions over the past 50 years, thereby welding support for Israeli colonialism onto Jewish community centers, synagogues, and indeed, nearly everywhere Jews come together. We, too,
are aware of how Zionists have used the history of Jews and the brutal history of European antisemitism – a history inseparable from European colonial brutality – to shield that outpost of European colonialism from scrutiny by cloaking it in the shroud of Jewish victimhood. In the process, they wrench and deform a Jewish history of working class, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and indeed anti-Zionist struggle,reshaping, erasing, or instrumentalizing that history to strengthen this sustained settler-colonial project.
We are aware, too, that forging an orthodoxy within such institutions has been a part of this process. Those who have spoken out against Israeli policies, and spoken out in defense of fundamental Palestinian aspirations to determine the shape and character of their lives, have been ostracized from Jewish communal life. They have been faced with a choice of either accepting Zionism, or social rejection – a choice intimately familiar to all of us in IJAN. And now that pressure is beginning to let up, through the determined efforts of thousands of Jewish activists who reject the use of their identity to justify the theft of Palestine.
The courageous students of Swarthmore have been very clear about their intention: if Judaism is a religion, a set of traditions and diversity of cultures, then it is not a singular politic. Thus they declare, “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.” Predictably, the CEO of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut, responded to Swarthmore Hillel, noting that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof.”Here Fingerhut underlines the role Hillel has played in using its location and credibility as a Jewish institution to push a political line. Its official partnership with AIPAC, aiming “to strategically and proactively empower, train and prepare American Jewish students to be effective pro-Israel activists on and beyond the campus,” underscores this reality.
In an atmosphere within which the student movement is under coordinated assault by an umbrella of Zionist NGOs in collaboration with Israeli consulates, and is fending off a flurry of lawsuits which ceaselessly seek to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, racism, and intolerance, this back-and-forth between Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel’s corporate structure is a microcosm of a discussion happening across the country. And it is a discussion in which Jews have a particular – but not special – role.
That discussion is about how people should choose to live their lives, and about whether Jewish people should be forced into support for a colonial project or be at risk of communal alienation.
That role is to insist that to couple Jewish identity to Zionism is inaccurate and offensive, and will not be accepted.
At IJAN we understand that we have a specific case against Zionism. And we understand, too, that this specific case is secondary and subordinated to the historic crime which the Zionist movement has committed against the indigenous people of Palestine. At the same time, we insist that one component of resisting this ongoing crime is resisting the appropriation of Jewish histories, values, identities, struggles, and suffering by a movement which speaks in our name even as it defends the unspeakable.
That will not stand.And especially it will not stand when so many refuse this appropriation. For that reason, we salute the students of Swarthmore Hillel for recognizing that this a struggle worth fighting, for insisting on their right to decide what to make of their lives and how to live their identity, for pushing back hard against an intolerable, false consensus which has been imposed on all of us, and for claiming with beautiful clarity that no one – no CEO, no institution, no rabbinate – has the right to tell them how to be or what to think in this world. And we salute them especially for taking the brave step of welcoming anti-Zionist dissidents into their organization.
We know that they will be encountering a wave of attack over the coming weeks, as many seek to move them from the position they have taken.
With that in mind, we would like to simply thank them for their bravery, to let them know that they are not alone, and to say as loud as we can that what they have done is right, and that we support them in that decision with all of our strength.