Hillel Cancels Event Reservation

Just a week before an event on Israeli and Palestinian activists’ peace efforts was set to take place, Harvard Hillel decided Monday that it would no longer host the discussion after administrators learned a Palestinian student advocacy group was a co-sponsor.

Harvard Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg said that he canceled the venue reservation for Harvard Progressive Jewish Alliance’s “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” talk because, according to Steinberg, co-sponsor Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee’s platform conflicts with Hillel International guidelines.

They state that Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.”

Steinberg said that because PSC promotes boycott, divestments, and sanctions—commonly referred to as BDS—with regards to Israel, this policy prevents Hillel from hosting the discussion.

“It is very important to find ways for pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups to enter into meaningful and substantive conversation here at Harvard and beyond,” Steinberg wrote to the Harvard Hillel Board of Director in an email he later gave to The Crimson. “Co-sponsorship of an event with a BDS-endorsing group is another matter.”

PJA chair Emily S. Unger ’13 and PSC member Alexander R. Shams said that at first Hillel, not realizing that Shams’ organization would also sponsor the talk, seemed comfortable with hosting the event.

“At our initial meeting, we were given approval and were assured that there would be efforts to see this event through,” said Shams, a student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “But we later found out that there was a lot of uproar about the event when people from higher up heard that PSC was co-sponsoring it.”

The event will still be held on Nov. 15, but now in Emerson Hall. It will bring together Israeli Jew Noam Lekach and American Jew Jeff Stein to talk about Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“I thought that it was clear that it was a co-sponsorship because we were both there and both shared interest in the topic of the event,” Unger said. “But Jonah apparently thought it was a dialogue, not a co-sponsorship.”

Steinberg, realizing that he may have misunderstood PSC’s presence at the meeting, said he scheduled a second conversation.

But before that meeting could take place, Steinberg said, he received emails from concerned parties including Boston-area Jewish organizations and the vice president of Hillel International. Upon receiving these emails, Steinberg told Unger and Shams that they could no longer hold their event at Hillel.

“He told us that it would cause too much, far too much outrage and conflict and wouldn’t be worth it,” Unger said.

She added that the Jewish community is “particularly sensitive” to any mention of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions, as such actions can be perceived as undermining, and threatening, the Israeli nation.

Though many Israeli Jews think that settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is justified, not all may agree with this position, Shams said.

“I think it’s problematic that Hillel takes a particular political stance on the issue, which may be alienating,” he said. “This silences anyone with a different opinion and pushes them out of the Jewish community.”

—Staff writer Michelle Denise L. Ferreol can be reached at mferreol@college.harvard.edu.

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