ZOA Concerns About Anti-Israel Exhibit At Harvard Hillel — Response To Hillel Director Bernie Steinberg’s Open Letter
News
March 27, 2008

From:  Morton A. Klein, National President, Zionist Organization of America


 


 


Dear Bernie Steinberg:


 


Our Shared Commitment:  I was pleased to see you state, in the opening sentences of your open letter to me and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), that you and I and our respective organizations all share a love for Israel, and a passionate commitment to the security, well-being, and flourishing of Israel as a Jewish state.  As you correctly noted, we all also share the understanding that Israel faces implacable enemies, committed to Israel’s destruction. 


 


Carrying Out That Commitment:  The question that we must address is, how does one carry out the all-important commitment to Israel in these dangerous times?   How does one confront the lies and enormous propaganda machines of our enemies?  (Hamas alone devotes over $25 million a year to anti-Israel propaganda.)  And how do we correct the misconceptions of misguided, well-intentioned students and other individuals who believe the lies of those bent on Israel’s destruction – often, because they never hear the truth?  I hope that we can reach an understanding about this.


 


At a very minimum, the ZOA and I believe that we are obligated to tell the truth about Israel and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s extraordinary and unparalleled efforts to spare Palestinian civilians from harm, while the IDF attempts to defend the Jewish State from Palestinian terrorism.  These efforts are often at the expense of IDF soldiers’ own safety and very lives.  No other nation teaches its soldiers to risk their own lives for the purpose of avoiding deaths and injuries to the civilian population of its enemies.  The unsurpassed decency of the IDF has been noted by human rights activist Natan Sharansky and Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz. 


 


In his book, The Case for Democracy, Sharansky described “Israel’s willingness to endanger the lives of its own soldiers in order to save the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinian civilians.  Indeed, Israeli soldiers died to save innocent Palestinian lives.”  According to Sharansky, such actions on Israel’s part justify Professor Alan Dershowitz’s observation that “no country in history ever complied with a higher standard of human rights.” 


 


Defaming Israel Is Contrary To Your Stated Commitment:  Sadly, the defamatory anti-Israel “Breaking the Silent” (BtS) exhibit recently displayed at Harvard Hillel incites hatred of Israel, violates the Jewish law of not bearing false witness, and plays into the hands of Israel’s enemies.  BtS promotes the propaganda falsehood that Israel and the Israel Defense Forces are chronic and brutal abusers of the human rights of the Palestinian Arabs.  The exhibit makes no mention of the IDF’s extraordinary efforts to preserve the lives of Palestinian civilians.  The exhibit’s 100 ugly anti-Israel pictures appearing on Hillel’s walls (including the room used as Hillel’s synagogue), also did not permit Jewish Harvard students to pray in peace. 


 


I should not have to tell you why Breaking the Silence is false and wrong.  The exhibit does not make clear that unlike Palestinian terrorists, who deliberately try to kill Israeli civilians, IDF soldiers do not deliberately target noncombatants.  The exhibit does not make clear that Palestinian terrorists hide in civilian neighborhoods, providing the reason for IDF solders’ presence there.  The exhibit does not make clear that more than any other army in the world, the Israeli army’s policy is one of extraordinary restraint, committed to taking every possible measure to prevent harm to Palestinian Arab civilians.  The BtS exhibit does not remotely reflect the typical behavior of Israel’s brave soldiers. 


 


If an exhibit about Babe Ruth’s baseball career showed only his 100 worst games, one would be led to believe – erroneously – that Babe Ruth was an awful player.  The same is true with Harvard Hillel’s exhibit, showcasing a fraction of Israelis’ conduct not remotely reflecting their typical behavior.  If an exhibit showed a handful of actions by soldiers of any country’s armed forces in the world – one could make them look bad.


 


By lending the credibility of Harvard Hillel to this libelous exhibit, you have unfortunately aided and abetted the enemies of Israel who propagate vicious lies that demonize the Jewish State and the IDF. 


 


This is not the first time that Harvard Hillel has brought in a “Breaking the Silence” program.  A few years ago, your Hillel distributed posters about the BtS soldiers who were coming to Harvard to demonize their compatriots.  The poster praised the BtS soldiers as “courageous heroes.” Harvard Hillel has also brought in other harsh and vicious critics of Israel, such as playwright Tony Kushner (March 2006) who called Israel’s founding a “mistake” and said that “it would have been better if Israel never happened,” and condemned Israel’s supporters as “repugnant.”  Mr. Kushner has also promoted hateful falsehoods about Israel, saying that he “deplored the brutal and illegal tactics of the IDF” and the “deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.” 


 


The ZOA is thus duty-bound by its mission to express our concern about your decision to display the BtS exhibit and give platforms to other anti-Israel propagandists.  We do this in the hope that in the future, you and Harvard Hillel will follow a course that exemplifies your stated commitment to Israel’s security and well-being. 


 


Falsehoods Against ZOA in Your Open Letter:  Unfortunately, instead of immediately removing the offensive BtS exhibit, your response to ZOA’s concerns was to write a counter-productive open letter filled with misconceptions and falsehoods, including personal attacks on me and the ZOA.   Significantly, although you wrote your letter the day after we had a 45-minute telephone conversation, your letter ignores, misstates or misconstrues much of what we conveyed to one another during our discussion. 


 


The facts correcting the falsehoods in your letter are set forth below: 


 


Minimizing The Impact On Harvard Students And Others:  Your letter minimizes the impact on Jewish students of Hillel’s misguided decision to host Breaking the Silence, by merely stating that some students have been “inconvenienced” by the presence of the hateful exhibit in the Hillel building.  “Repulsed and horrified” would be more accurate.  I received phone calls from students, faculty and concerned Jews who told me that they were “heartsick” and couldn’t bear to walk into Harvard Hillel because of the presence of the exhibit.  One student told me how upset he was because he had to conduct his prayers at Hillel surrounded by these hateful images. 


 


The impact of Harvard Hillel’s display has been magnified many times over, as Harvard Hillel’s hosting of the BtS exhibit also encouraged Hillels throughout the country to do the same. 


 


Moreover, your argument that the BtS anti-Israel event at Harvard Hillel would have gone away quietly and without much notice if ZOA had not spoken up is simply fallacious.  Remember – I was called by journalists and others before I ever heard of this exhibit.  According to news articles about Harvard Hillel’s decision, there were others besides the ZOA – including Harvard Hillel donors – who voiced their concerns. 


 


Although you have tried to minimize the number of people who would see the exhibit at the Hillel, a news report said that a crowd of almost 200 people attended the exhibit on its opening night alone. 


 


Inaccurate Representations in International Hillel’s Fundraising Letter:   Your letter also falsely asserts that the ZOA confused International Hillel with Harvard Hillel.  I assure you that we were not confused at all.  The ZOA relied on the clear representations of Hillel’s International Board of Governors’ Chairman, Mr. Edgar M. Bronfman, in a recent Hillel fundraising letter.  Mr. Bronfman’s letter asks for financial contributions to help Hillel fight exactly the kind of anti-Israel programming that is being hosted at Harvard Hillel that demonizes Israel and may diminish Jewish students’ connection to their heritage and to Israel.  The letter states that Hillel International will work to “convey a positive image of the Jewish State” and “help [Jewish students] stand up to those who spread vicious anti-Israel propaganda.”  In the letter, Mr. Bronfman touted the programs and educational efforts on campuses that a gift to International Hillel would make possible.  One would reasonably be led to conclude from this letter that International Hillel both financially supports and has responsibility for campus programming.  We logically concluded that International Hillel oversees and has authority over the regional campus offices just as other major Jewish organizations have authority over what its regional offices do.  If that is not the case, then International Hillel should stop misleading potential donors into believing that International Hillel offices have authority and control over its regional offices, and that this authority is exercised to support Israel. Otherwise, one could argue that International Hillel is raising money on false pretenses.


 


On a related note, your letter falsely accuses ZOA of attacking International Hillel “page after page” in our press release.  In fact, only approximately one-half page of ZOA’s press release addressed International Hillel.  Several of these lines were required to quote Mr. Bronfman’s fund-raising letter, which led Hillel’s contributors to believe that their contributions will support pro-Israel programs. 


 


Spurious Attempts To Justify Hosting The Anti-Israel BtS Exhibit:   Your letter’s attempts to justify Harvard Hillel’s decision to host Breaking the Silence are disingenuous. Your claim that Harvard Hillel isn’t “sponsoring” or “supporting” the event, but is simply “providing a venue” for it, is an illusory distinction with no substantive difference.  The presence of the exhibit at Harvard Hillel puts Harvard Hillel’s imprimatur on the exhibit, and gives this anti-Israel exhibit legitimacy and credibility.  In fact, the propagandists promoting Breaking the Silence are already telling people that Harvard’s hosting of BtS shows that your Hillel believes it is making a serious point that must be considered.  Because of you, other Hillels and Jewish groups who may have been on the fence are now more likely to exhibit BtS as well.


 


Your suggestion that the damage of the BtS exhibit was mitigated by the presence of an IDF soldier who “provided an explanation” of the exhibit, and by critiques of the exhibit  posted at the exhibit entrance, also provides no justification for displaying such a harmful, false portrayal of Israel and the IDF.  The old adage that “one picture is worth a thousand words” certainly applies here.  A soldier’s presence at the exhibit and some written critiques at the entry-way pale in comparison to 100 powerful, distorted photographs and video testimonials.  One soldier and some written criticism on a doorway cannot undo the damaging message that the exhibit conveys.  The powerful distorted images will remain, with visitors remembering this exhibit was on Hillel’s walls.


 


Your argument that Harvard students wanted the exhibit is also feeble.  From the phone calls received by ZOA, it is quite apparent that many Harvard students were opposed to and extremely distressed by Harvard Hillel’s display.  Moreover, suppose some Harvard students wanted Harvard Hillel to display a pro-Ku Klux Klan exhibit which defamed blacks, would you go along with it?  Of course not.  An exhibit which defames Israel and the IDF should be similarly dismissed.  While college students’ thoughts and opinions are certainly worthy of respect and consideration, college students depend on the wisdom, experience and guidance of the adults and educators who work with them on their campuses – individuals who presumably see the entire picture of a situation, and how decisions can have broader and/or long-term consequences.  Harvard students should have been helped to understand the dangerous ramifications of the exhibit, and why Hillel, given its mission, should not sponsor, support or provide a venue for it. 


 


You also argued that Hillel is hosting this anti-Israel exhibit because otherwise it would have been held in a more prominent location on campus.  This exhibit may be anti-Israel, you grudgingly concede, but at least if Hillel hosts it, it will be in a less public location and viewed by less people with some context.  This rationale is badly flawed.  Based on this logic, Harvard Hillel or any Hillel can be blackmailed again and again by anti-Israel groups.  Such groups can get Hillels to host false and misleading anti-Israel programs simply by threatening that if you don’t do it, they will place it in a more prominent location.   


 


 


What You and Harvard Hillel Should Have Done, And Hopefully Will Do Next Time:   


 


You and Harvard Hillel had other options, and had no need to give in and host this program.  Since you claim that you “work with others to get results” and “have developed networks with the press, with other student groups (including Muslims), with prominent professors, with the deans, with the President; with the Harvard Chaplains,” then why didn’t you utilize all these contacts to prevent this hateful false exhibit from being shown?   Notably the alternate “threatened” location for the BtS exhibit was a Harvard campus building over which the Harvard administration has control.  You and Harvard Hillel could have easily protested and made the case that BtS is hate speech and a propaganda lie which should not be supported by providing any venue, anywhere on campus.  This would have provided a wonderful example to Harvard’s students that Jews will not tolerate Israel being defamed.  Surely, any other group – for instance, blacks – would have vigorously protested if a defamatory exhibit regarding them appeared in a Harvard campus building. 


 


You and Harvard Hillel could have spearheaded a protest and demonstration of the exhibit.  Your Hillel could have undertaken a public education campaign (by distributing literature, writing articles and letters, taking out ads in the school newspapers, and holding formal discussions) to inform the campus community as to why the exhibit was nothing more than hateful anti-Israel propaganda.  Your Hillel also could have hosted a truthful counter-exhibit, with photos and testimonials that would have given context to the conflict in the Middle East and the problems that Israeli soldiers and civilians face everyday, including from its so-called peace partners.  For example, it would have been useful and educational to sponsor a photo and video exhibit showing the crisis that the Jewish residents of Sderot and Ashkelon have been facing from Palestinian terrorists who are deliberately trying to kill Israeli Jewish civilians with rockets.  Or, your Hillel could have sponsored an exhibit that showed how Palestinian Arab society indoctrinates its people to hate Jews and Israel in its textbooks, media, and sermons, how it incites violence and terrorism against Israeli Jews, and how the Palestinians have failed to outlaw terror groups, change Abbas’ Fatah charter, and take the necessary steps to stop the terrorism, including arresting the terrorists, which they are required under their agreements to do.  Such exhibits would have been a powerful counterpoint to the falsehoods and inaccuracies of Breaking the Silence.  And Harvard Hillel would have been doing its job of countering the anti-Israel rhetoric, educating Jewish students and others with the facts, and building support for Israel instead of harming it.  


 


And ZOA would have been happy to help with any efforts to support Israel. 


 


 


More False Statements Against Me and ZOA:  


 


The criticisms in your letter of me and ZOA were long on hyperbole and emotion and short on fact and logic. 


 


For instance, your letter’s disparaging comment suggesting that ZOA exists in some ivory tower (the “truth from a skyscraper in New York City looks different than on the ground of a campus in Cambridge”) was uncalled for and displays a lack of knowledge of the ZOA.  ZOA’s offices are in a modest building in Manhattan – not a skyscraper.  More importantly, ZOA is closely connected with the realities of campus life.  Many of us, including our Director of Campus Activities and our campus coordinators in different regions of the country, constantly communicate and work directly with students on campuses nationwide, providing them with programs, educational materials and other support, while keeping national ZOA informed.  In addition, many of ZOA’s members are faculty members and parents of students at campuses throughout the country (including Harvard).  As you know, Harvard students, former students, lecturers and parents called us to complain about the BtS program.


 


As for your complaint that I made “no attempt to have a conversation” with you or any representative of Harvard Hillel ahead of time “to ask the simple question:  ‘What’s going on?’…”You would have had an opportunity to learn something about…our thinking.”:  I didn’t contact you before you decided to hang 100 anti-Israel pictures at Harvard Hillel for 16 days because I was unaware of your decision.  I had no idea that Harvard Hillel intended to display an anti-Israel exhibit until the exhibit was already hanging on Hillel’s walls.  In short, it was too late for a preemptive conversation.  If, in the future, you would kindly advise me and ZOA prior to displaying offensive, defamatory exhibits at Harvard Hillel, I would be happy to speak with you prior to such damage being done. 


 


Likewise, your contention that I didn’t know the facts surrounding your decision is simply false.  You and I discussed the rationale for Harvard Hillel’s decision well before you wrote your open letter attacking me and ZOA.  During our conversation, I explained to you that I became aware of your rationale for hosting the BtS exhibit from journalists who called me and who had already decided to write about it, from students and a Harvard faculty member, and from a donor who called me to complain about your decision.  These sources accurately explained to me your reasoning for your mistaken decision.  When the ZOA put out its public statement, we were thus fully informed and aware of Harvard Hillel’s rationale and the excuses you were giving for your decision.  We simply didn’t find those excuses to be valid.   Again, however, if you would like to discuss any future decisions to display offensive material before the fact, you are welcome to call me at any time.



In addition, your letter’s statement that the ZOA issued a “press release and letters of condemnation” about Harvard Hillel’s anti-Israel exhibit is false.  In fact, the ZOA issued only one statement.  We issued nothing more, no letters of condemnation, as you well know.  We have also been informed that you have promulgated these falsehoods to Harvard Hillel students, harming the ZOA and my reputation.  We strongly request that you correct your misstatements to Harvard’s students, and refrain from further promoting this falsehood.


 


ZOA’s Advocacy For Israel and on College Campuses: 


 


Since you profess not to know much about the ZOA’s mission, I am proud to tell you that we have an illustrious history of garnering support for the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, and of advocating effectively for its security and prosperity.  We are the oldest pro-Israel organization in this country, and we work hard to fulfill our mission to support Israel through our lobbying efforts, our legal efforts and our work on campuses throughout the country.  Our Division of Campus Activities is dedicated to fighting anti-Israel propaganda and developing future leaders who are educated and informed, who feel positively and strongly about their Jewish heritage and homeland, and who can become effective advocates.  It was through the work of our campus coordinators last year that we identified the dangers of programs like Breaking the Silence, and first objected to it being sponsored or promoted by groups that are supposed to be fighting against anti-Israel incitement, instead of promoting it.  Our campus coordinators learned first-hand from college students how negatively this exhibit has affected them and how it was weakening support for Israel among uninformed students and that they must speak out.  Incredibly, when I conveyed this to you, Mr. Steinberg, you told me to fire all of them and get new campus professionals. 


 


We have been at the forefront of fighting anti-Israel actions on campus.  The ZOA was one of three witnesses to testify before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission when it held its first-ever hearing on the subject of campus anti-Semitism.  Among other things, the hearing addressed the dangers of campus events that demonize and vilify Jews and Israel.  Following the hearing, the Civil Rights Commission issued landmark findings and recommendations, including that “[a]nti-Semitic bigotry is no less morally deplorable when camouflaged as anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism.”  It is so disappointing that Harvard Hillel has itself participated in promoting such bigotry by providing a venue for it. 


 


The Wall Street Journal called the ZOA “the most credible advocate for Israel on the American Jewish scene today.”  The Jerusalem Post called the ZOA “one of the most important and influential Jewish groups in the U.S. today.”  Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, “I applaud ZOA’s tireless efforts . . . and for training the next generation to love and support Israel.”  And U.S. congressional leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia said, “The ZOA is the moral compass for all of us in Congress.”  U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of PA said, “ZOA must continue to speak the truth even when it is inconvenient to various powers that be.”


 


The reaction that we have received in response to our criticism of Harvard Hillel has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive.  People have expressed their shock and disbelief that a campus Hillel would ever consider hosting this anti-Israel event, and I know that many of them have contacted you personally to express their views.  ZOA has received numerous calls to our Jerusalem and New York offices from Israeli students who feel betrayed by Hillel. We neither caricatured the exhibit nor demonized the soldiers as you allege.  On the contrary, your exhibit demonized the very brave soldiers of the IDF.  


 


Harvard Hillel has done damage that cannot yet be calculated. We hope ZOA’s efforts will make others think twice before hosting such programs.   You should be building student support for Harvard Hillel by running programs that fulfill your mission – not by spending time criticizing a respected national pro-Israel organization that has raised legitimate questions about the kinds of programs you are hosting.  If our criticism has caused Harvard Hillel embarrassment and discomfort, the responsibility lies with you and your program, not the messenger.  As President Harry Truman once said, “they say I give ‘em hell, but I simply tell the truth, and they think it’s hell.”


 


ZOA’s intention has not been to upset anyone.  But it is the mission of the ZOA to fight hateful anti-Israel propaganda no matter what the source, whether it is Jewish or non-Jewish.  We at the ZOA would be derelict in our duty if we didn’t speak out against propaganda against Israel, even if it is a Hillel or other Jewish group that is sponsoring or “hosting” it.  You may not have liked the publicity, but the message that we delivered was hardly “clumsy” or “aggressive.”  We did not “schrei gevalt” and we did no “arm flailing.”  We simply stated the facts.


 


The ZOA will continue to speak out where Israel’s reputation is being harmed.  That’s why leading pro-Arab activist James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute complained that “…the ZOA’s efforts must be combated, or they will win.”  All of us together must win against our enemies. 


 


I look forward to working together with you in the future to fight against Israel’s enemies.  I would also be pleased to discuss with you how ZOA may be of assistance to Harvard Hillel in correcting the damage occasioned by the BtS display and educating Harvard’s students as to the truth. 


 

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