Hillel House building at the University of British Columbia. (photo from Hillel BC)
The University of British Columbia Geography Students Association (GSA) recently canceled a gala that was to take place in rental space owned by UBC’s Hillel chapter, due to pressure from some of the faculty in the department of geography.
The faculty members said they insisted on boycotting the event because of what they called the “controversial” and “political” nature of Hillel, according to numerous reports. The faculty members had not been publicly identified as of press time and could, therefore, not be located to clarify their position.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has accused them of boycotting the GSA gala based on the perception that Hillel supports the state of Israel, which CIJA is calling discriminatory.
“Boycotting Jews or a Jewish organization simply because you object to the state of Israel’s policies is classic antisemitism,” said Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s director for the Pacific region.
“It is hard to believe that there is such blatant antisemitism on a Canadian university campus in 2018. There should be zero tolerance for any expressions of discrimination, racism and antisemitism on campus and anywhere else in Canada.”
Samuel Heller, the assistant executive director of Hillel BC, told the CJN that, “The actions of these faculty members have resulted in a de facto boycott of the Jewish student centre on campus. To boycott Jews based on one’s political views about Israel is discriminatory and antisemitic. Their actions have led to the resignation of the lone Jewish student on the executive of the GSA, as he felt marginalized and discriminated against because of his Jewishness.”
Addressing the claim that Hillel is a controversial and political space, Heller said, “Hillel doesn’t have any politics. What these faculty members really object to is Hillel’s support of Israel’s existence. We are a Jewish organization and Israel is a part of Jewish identity.… To demand that Jews disavow parts of our identity to placate faculty members is wrong and discriminatory.”
But not everyone accepts Heller’s characterization of Hillel as “having no politics.” The Progressive Jewish Alliance at UBC (PJA) released a statement on Facebook on March 16, saying: “While we recognize the right of the GSA to move the gala based on political considerations, we urge the GSA to recognize that Hillel is the physical Jewish space on campus, alongside having a political position. While we wait for a statement from the GSA, we would like to point out that the ramifications of their decision are alienating Jewish students on campus. Likewise, we encourage Hillel to consider how their political positions, such as an opposition to all boycotts of Israel, can alienate other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and students.”
The PJA is referring to Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership, which state that Hillel will not partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders; delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel; or support the boycott of, divestment from or sanctions against the state of Israel.
In 2012, concerns about Hillel’s refusal to partner with Jewish organizations that support the BDS movement led to the formation of Open Hillel, an organization that agitates for Hillel to end the Standards of Partnership.
Numerous controversies have broken out over Hillel boycotting groups or individuals in recent years. In one example, in March 2017, B’nai Keshet, a queer Jewish group at Ohio State University, co-sponsored a Purim fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees in the Columbus area. Because Jewish Voices for Peace, an organization that supports BDS, was one of the sponsoring groups, OSU Hillel cut ties with B’nai Keshet, due to pressure from Hillel International, prompting students on numerous American campuses to hold “solidarity Shabbats” with the LGBTQ group. In June, a letter calling for the end of the standards was signed by more than 100 rabbis and submitted to Hillel.
The UBC Progressive Jewish Alliance hopes that the controversy will not only provoke change in the GSA, but in Hillel, as well.
“We hope that both organizations take this opportunity to engage in genuine dialogue around the complexity of politics and place,” it concluded in a statement.
Philip Steenkamp, the vice-president of external relations at UBC, told the CJN that the university is “aware of concerns that have been expressed by CIJA” and “are looking into this matter and will follow due process to ensure it is appropriately addressed.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter. This article was originally published by the CJN.