Jerusalem Post: Candidly Speaking: Hillel Goes Post-Modern
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April 1, 2008


Candidly Speaking: Hillel goes post-modern


Mar. 31, 2008

Post-modernist thinking has made massive inroads at all levels, not excluding the Jewish political world, where references to right and wrong or good and evil have become rare, replaced by a politically correct lexicon. Recent controversies involving the Jewish campus organization Hillel highlight the trend.

Supported by the Jewish community to further its stated objectives of strengthening Jewish identity and assisting Jewish students to confront anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic agitation on campus, Hillel extended an invitation to Michael Drake, chancellor of the University of California Irvine (UCI), to address its recent summit of Jewish leaders in Washington. The UCI campus is notorious for widespread allegations of anti-Semitic harassment that often escalates into actual violence. That harassment reached a level which compelled the Hillel director himself to complain that “Jewish students are legitimately fearful for their safety.”

The local Hillel board created a task force to review the situation, but for reasons yet to be disclosed, the Hillel board of directors refused to release the findings of their own divisional enquiry and withdrew the report.

The task force decided to carry on as an independent body and, a year later, in February 2008, released a scathing report condemning the university authorities. The report singled out Chancellor Drake for having repeatedly declined to condemn the demonization and delegitimization of Israel and the physical harassment of pro-Israeli speakers. The report went so far as to advise Jews to cease enrolling at UCI until the authorities institute tangible changes.

STUDENT activists bitterly protested the Drake invitation. A delegation met with the national president of Hillel, Wayne Firestone, arguing that honoring Drake at a Hillel event made a mockery of their failed efforts to persuade him to condemn the extremists. Firestone rebuffed them, insisting he was “proud” that Hillel had provided the chancellor with a platform, and that he considered it “more constructive” to “engage” people like Drake rather than confront them, so as to “build sensitivity” to issues of Jewish concern.

Drake did “reject” anti-Semitism at the Hillel summit. But he remained adamant that the university must retain “content neutrality” in relation to anti-Israeli agitation. Subsequently, as though on cue, a number of Jewish students, Hillel leaders and local Jewish groups – while conceding that “verbal anti-Semitism” remained a problem – praised Drake for condemning hate speech and endorsed the Hillel approach of “promoting civil discourse.”

Subsequent angry exchanges exposed major divisions among Jewish leaders.

Hillel president Firestone is no stranger to Israeli affairs. He spent seven years in Israel, two as head of the Jerusalem ADL office. Prior to becoming Hillel president he was engaged in coordinating pro-Israel activities on campus. Yet he made the astonishing observation that there was “less hostility to Jews on campus than anywhere else in American society.”

In another statement, which will undoubtedly return to haunt him in the future, Firestone told the JTA that he denied any relationship between anti-Israeli activity and anti-Semitism and said that bracketing the two together was like “mixing apples and oranges.”

It is surely disconcerting for a Hillel president to express views by now repudiated even by such bodies as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, not to mention the US government.

WHATEVER THE rights or wrongs of the UCI fracas, there was no ambiguity about the Harvard Hillel one. There, Hillel displayed its adherence to “pluralism and freedom of expression” by enabling a handful of disgruntled former IDF soldiers to launch a ferociously anti-Israeli exhibition on Hillel premises, including the room utilized as a synagogue.

Titled Breaking the Silence, the exhibit comprised 100 photographic blow-ups portraying excesses purportedly committed by the IDF on Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation.

The exhibition made no reference to the deaths of so many young Israelis as a result of the IDF’s reluctance to maximize its firepower in an effort to minimize civilian casualties. No mention was made of the major wars Israel has fought for survival against more numerous foes seeking its destruction. The ongoing terrorism and missiles directed against Israeli civilians weren’t noted, nor was there even a suggestion of the poisonous incitement against Jews which saturates all levels of Palestinian society from kindergarten on.

In an open letter published on the Web, Harvard Hillel Director Bernie Steinberg justified this obscene anti-Israeli exhibition on the bizarre grounds that some students “feel it humanizes the soldiers, and people come away with a more positive feeling about Israel.”

Perhaps sensitive to the gobbledygook he was expressing, he added “I myself did not anticipate this response, but it is much more widespread than I would have thought.”

STEINBERG also defended the exhibition on the nonsensical grounds that Hillel was not sponsoring the event, merely providing a venue. Moreover, he claimed that had it not been located on Hillel premises, it would have been displayed in a more public area, and more students would have seen it. He added that an Israeli soldier had been present to provide a more balanced picture.

What made this surrealistic scenario even more disturbing was the silence of the Jewish establishment, perhaps because Hillel is deemed a sacred cow. The only public protest came from Mort Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which most of the Jewish establishment regards as right wing. The ZOA had previously protested the Drake invitation as well.

Steinberg responded to Klein by blaming him for unleashing a stream of “hate mail” against students – which turned out to have been angry letters by Jews demanding that Hillel cancel the exhibition.

Topping off this inanity, Steinberg claimed that an Israeli diplomat, whom he did not name, praised Hillel’s approach to the exhibition, telling Steinberg that “public bickering between Jews in America, especially when it involves Israeli combat soldiers, does nothing to help Israel. We like the way you guys (Harvard Hillel) work.”

If Steinberg’s Israeli “diplomat” genuinely exists, he should be identified and speedily recalled.

These mind-boggling Hillel imbroglios reflect the extent to which post-modernism has penetrated the Jewish agenda and blurred distinctions between good and bad. How else can one explain an organization like Hillel effectively giving an imprimatur to an exhibition that dehumanizes the IDF? Or a national Hillel president insisting that anti-Israel activity and anti-Semitism are unrelated?

These are not isolated cases. Unless vigorously confronted, the toxic combination of post-modernism and simplistic liberalism will inflict further shameful scandals on us.

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