Brandeis University Hillel sets off debate with JVP rejection

Hillel may be the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, but that doesn’t mean every Jewish student group is welcome.

Last week, Brandeis University’s Hillel voted not to accept the membership bid of the local campus chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that has been criticized for its support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel and was listed by the Anti-Defamation League last October as among the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the United States.

“While we understand that JVP at Brandeis considers itself a pro-Israel club, based on positions and programming JVP has sponsored, we do not believe that JVP can be included under Hillel’s umbrella,” Brandeis senior Andrea Wexler, the president of the 11-member Hillel student executive board, wrote in a letter explaining the board’s decision.

Fellow Brandeis senior Lev Hirschhorn, who grew up in Berkeley and presented JVP’s case to the Hillel board, said Hillel should not exclude any Jewish student group.

Lev Hirschhorn photo/jewish voice for peace

“As members of the Brandeis Jewish community, we wanted Jewish Voice for Peace to be included at the Jewish communal table,” he said.

J Street U, the college chapter of left-wing “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group J Street, blasted Hillel’s decision.

“While J Street U and JVP strongly disagree about many issues related to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the BDS movement, we nonetheless believe that they should be a part of the Jewish communal conversation,” J Street U said.

Unlike J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace does not describe itself as pro-Israel. That and JVP’s support for the BDS movement were critical to Hillel’s decision, Wexler said. The decision, she added, was “very difficult” and not unanimous.

Hirschhorn said the Brandeis chapter of JVP supports boycotting only goods produced in Gaza and the West Bank, not Israel proper, so it should not be considered anti-Israel. Wexler disagreed, saying that the campus JVP chapter cannot be considered apart from positions taken by its national organization.

Wayne Firestone, Hillel’s president and the main author of the new membership guidelines, said any organization, including Hillel, has the right to define its limits.

“We do not feel we can be true to our values and partner with groups that deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.

The Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which was created last fall, was the first nationwide to apply for Hillel membership. The organization, which began in the San Francisco area, also has chapters at U.C. San Diego, the University of Arizona, St. Lawrence University and Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. It is organizing on six more campuses, according to a spokesperson.

Adam Lerner, a sophomore at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where JVP is organizing, said Hillel, which has the stated goal of providing a safe space for students to explore their Jewish identity, should not set a political litmus test for who is in and who is out.

“If Hillel promotes itself as ‘the’ center for Jewish life on campus, they need to have as pluralistic a voice as possible,” Lerner said. “If Israel is open to all Jews, then Hillel should be open to all Jewish groups on campus.”

Jonathan Horovitz, a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley, said the issue isn’t Hillel banning a particular opinion but choosing not to partner with an organization that is disruptive and uncivil. He noted that JVP supporters have heckled pro-Israel speakers, and the group aligns with organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and the International Solidarity Movement.

“The actions of JVP and their guests abuse the openness offered by the mainstream Jewish community by responding with hostility,” Horovitz said. “A group that hosts such events and welcomes such disrespectful jeering should not be allowed in the Jewish community.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.