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Speaking Singly, He Invokes a Nation's Conscience

Jonathan D. Springer

By Terri E. Gerstein

"Thanks for putting up with me," Jonathan D. Springer '90 told his peers at Hillel's farewell banquet for seniors.

They laughed good-naturedly, not surprised at his choice of parting words, for he frequently tested their patience during his four years as a member of Hillel, Harvard's Jewish student organization.

Unlike, many students active in Harvard's Jewish community, Springer is openly critical of the Israeli government. His exposure to the Palestinian situation has given him a unique perspective and voice among Jews on campus.

Springer is a Quincy House resident concentrating in comparative religion. A native of Brookline, his activities during college have centered primarily around concerns stemming from his Jewish identity. He has been an active member of the egalitarian minion at Hillel, and has served as the co-chair of the Harvard-Radcliffe Zionist Alliance, as well as several other offices.

This commitment as roots in Springer's own family background: his mother arrived in the United States from Irsael in 1951 to work at the United States embassy. His father, a U.S. citizen, volunteered for the Israeli army shortly after Israel's independence. After they were married, Springer's family lived in Israel for several years.

Springer himself went to Israel every other summer as a child, travelling in the country and visiting his grandparents who lived there. He quickly became fluent in Hebrew.

After graduation, Springer plans to return to Israel, with a job at the New Israel Fund, a charity which funds grassroots organizations working for special change there, specifically on the issues of equality for Palestinians, women and non-religious Jews. "He's very committed to Israel, but maybe in a different way," says Karen B. Singer '90, a Hillel member. "He's committed to trying to make Israel better. He cares about it so much that he has an idealistic view of the way it should be and he's trying to make that happen. It's a huge part of his life."

During the past four years, his dedication to Israel has taken a decidedly radical turn. In 1988, he and two friends founded the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which represents alternative points of view within the Jewish community on issues like women's equality and gay and lesbian rights. But the group's and Springer's, main focus has been the question of Jewish-Palestinian relations.

The group takes a stance which is sympathetic to the Palestinian side of the conflict--too sympathetic for many conservative Jews.

"We wanted at least to be a thorn in the side of the community and remind them that mainstream is not the only way of thinking," Springer says. "I've gotten the feeling from people that what we're doing does add a dimension to the community that otherwise might not be expressed."

"Personally, I don't agree with their agenda," says Donald F. Seeman '89-'90, a Hillel member and chair of the orthodox minion. "But it's important that there be a group through which Jewish students with those political views can be represented within the Jewish community."

As a means of presenting alternative viewpoints, Springer brought Taysir Aruri to campus to speak earlier this year. Aruri, a Palestinain lecturer of physics at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, was deported without a public hearing. The Progressive Jewish Alliance also participated in a petition drive to protest the closing of Palestinian universities in the occupied territories. And Springer helped bring to Harvard a representative from Yesh G'vul, a group of Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories.

"It's great to have a Jewish group on campus that is to some degree Dina N. Abu-Ghaida '91, a Palestinian member if the Progressive Jewish Alliance who says she admires his efforts to work from within the framework of Hillel to try to influence people. "He belongs to the largest Jewish group of campus, so they can't say he's an outsider."

That same insider status has some-times made Springer vulnerable to criticism from within the Jewish community. Last year, he wrote a letter to The Crimson, claiming that he would not automatically vote no on Question Five, a local referendum that--if passed by the citizens of Cambridge--would call on Congress to support the establishment of a Palestinian state and end military aid to the occupation.

Springer signed the letter--and included his title as chair of Zionist Alliance. Many Hillel members objected to the use of his Hillel affiliation in support of a position which they support opposed, and some wanted him to resign from the position.

"I want to hurl you across the room," another student told Springer, during the debate over the controversy. Springer had just made an announcement asking that members hold up signs outside polling sites, urging voters to vote yes. His announcement followed that of a Hillel member asking students to hold signs for the opposing side. Springer recalls, "I wanted people to be reminded that being Jewish didn't necessarily mean espousing a particular political position or blindly supporting Israel."

The reaction of the infuriated student to Springer's announcement was exacerbated by the fact that Springer had led religious services that night. Springer muses, "I had just finished leading services--this showed that I was a 'good Jew'--and then I came out with a position which he saw as being against Israel."

The student told Springer that he opposed mixing religion and politics. "What he really meant," Springer says, "was don't mix religion and your politics."

"Many things he does disturbs many right-wing Jews," says Rhoda A. Kaneohe '92, a Palestinian member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, recalling an incident in which Jewish students tabling for the group were called "self-hating Jews" by other students.

Springier says that he occasionally feels alienated at Hill. "I feel welcome there, but sometimes when I'm there I feel like I represent diversity ...I'm to some extent typecast into a role which I have to fulfill," he says, adding, "I think it's important that people like me don't just resign from the Jewish community but try to make it our own."

Semen notes that Springier has provided a mode of representation for members who would otherwise feel disenfranchised. But, he adds, Springier has also served to polarize the Jewish community. "Sometimes I find myself taking more extreme positions in response to what the Progressive Jewish Alliance has done. But Jonathan would probably think that was a good thing--making people take a stance."

Semen, Sprinter's friend despite their differing political perspectives, recounts a frequent joke between the two: "I tell him that I hope we will meet each other on opposite sides of a picket line some day. I'll be in Israel next year, and so will he, so it's really a possibility. And I would like to meet him across a picket line."

In fact, last year, another Hill member found herself in exactly that position--she stood across the street from Springier outside of polling sites, holding opposing signs for Question Five. Ellen L. Chuan '90 recalls, "We stood on the same corner, me holding a 'no' sign and him holding a 'yes,' and we'd debate each other. It was ironic top me that there was another Jewish person standing opposite me. It's all the more surprising because his mother is from Israel." She adds, "But he's definitely very committed to Diadems."

Several years ago, Springier would have enthusiastically stood on Semen's and Chubb's side of the picket line. "I had been an uncritical supporter of Israel," he says, smiling as he remembers a retreat he planned in high school for a school youth group. "The retreat was in 1982, during the war in Lebanon, and I got propaganda from Israel's consulate. While I was planning the retreat, it was important for me to show the Israeli side of 'Oration Peace for Galilee.' I don't even think of it as a war; it was a necessary security measure."

He began Harvard after a year off working and living on a kibbutz. At the start of college, he maintained his "uncritical support", but soon he began to question his own assumptions. The spring of his sophomore year he organized a celebration for Israel's 40th anniversary. "It was five months after the intifada started, and I had to general feeling of malaise. But I still felt that it was important to affirm and celebrate Israel. "

This feeling of malaise stemmed from a new perspective on Israel. He read an article about some Israeli soldiers who tired to bury alive four Palestinians, apparently for no reason. "Probably for stone throwing," he scornfully comments. Shortly thereafter, he saw a clip on television news of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian soldiers "not to subdue them out above and beyond the call of duty."

He recalls that the 40th anniversary of Israel's independence coincided with his growing knowledge of such occurrences. "The past two Israel Independence Days," he says, "I went sort of mournfully--but I went--just because, how can we be celebrating when all this stuff is going on?"

The following fall, he learned of administrative detention, which allows the Israeli government to detain people for up to three months without charges--a measure frequently used against Palestinians. "I was feeling increasingly uneasy," he says.

Responding to these feelings, Springer and two friends started the New Jewish Agenda, which was soon renamed the Progressive Jewish Alliance. Springer resolved to learn more about the situation from a firsthand perspective. He received grants from Radcliffe's Education for Action program and the Dorot Foundation, which together funded a trip to Israel for the following summer.

There, Springer lived with an Arab family, worked for a West Bank-based human rights organization named B T selem, and worked as a counselor at a camp for Jewish and Palestinian children. The family was very welcoming , Springer says, but he heard constant grievances against Israel. "Sometimes it seemed that they ascribed things to Israel that it didn't deserve ,like the weather," Hearing such complaints was not always easy for Springer, he says, because "when it comes down to it I'm very attached to Israel on some level. It was a bit difficult to hear them nonstop."

The Arab family also helped him to understand some of his own biases and assumptions.

"I asked my host if he was Christian or Muslim," Springier recalls. "He resented this because the Israeli authorities try to classify Palestinians as Christians or Muslims and deny their unified national identity, which supposedly transcends their religious identity. He said to me, 'You are replicating in this arena the biases of most Israeli Jews.'"

During the summer, Springer's mother visited his Arab family. "She was very hesitant," he recalls. "We sat down and my host talked about how they were kicked out of Haifa. She hard for her to hear those things. She never really spent any time with Palestinians even though she grew up there."

Springer himself met with more challenges as a camp counselor. Often games intended to be cooperative became violent, "like, 'let's see who can be thrown out of the circle fastest."

After two days of camp, other counselors also sensed tension between the Jewish and Palestinian campers, and planned separate meetings for the two groups to air their grievances. Springer led the group of Jewish campers, while his Palestinian co-counselor led the Palestinian group. Springer asked his group, "What do you think of Arabs?" He received answers like, "They're dangerous," "I wouldn't trust them," and "Why do they have to stay in my country?"

"One girl came up to me afterward and said, 'I hate our Arab co-counselor--I want to stab her.'" Springer remembers. She didn't show these feelings at all when she was with the counselor. And I remember thinking that the best thing for her would be to have genuine interaction with the Palestinian counselor."

One day, Springer and other counselors led an exercise in which Jews acted out the PLO and Palestinians acted out the Israeli army. The goal of the exercise was to teach the campers the opposing point of view.

"To the Palestinian kids, the Isreali army was guns, everywhere you go. To the Jewish kids, it was what everyone serves in. And to the Jews, Yassir Arafat was a terrorist. To the Palestinians, he was president. When he reflects on the camp, Springer is ambivalent. "If they gained anything, it was because they were thrown together as friends. But to me it seemed more important to solve the political situation...how much could the camp do when the cousins of these kids were throwing rocks at each other across the green line?"

His work at the human rights organization completed Springer's education. He spent time in the West bank, visiting the wives of men who were about to be deported. He tired to interview psychiatrists on the West Bank. They would not speak with him because they were afraid of losing their jobs, but they did say that Israeli authorities had interfered with medical care, stopping ambulances, for example. Springer visited victims of Israeli army violence, and he saw people's homes which had been demolished.

He also brought educational materials to first and second graders. Later, Springer recalls, "the books we brought were confiscated and burned by the army, because that aren't on the official curriculum." He laughs, "These were books for first and second graders. Reading and Writing."

Springer brought these experiences home, to his family, friends, the Harvard community, and the Jewish community. "My father was largely sympathetic because he too had gone to Israel with some idealism and some preconceived notions and had been disappointed, in the 50s. When I began to educate myself, he did as well and became open to new ways of thinking."

Springer says that his mother often feels that he is too critical of Israel. "She feels that I am not sympathetic enough to the threats experienced by Jews there."

In the Jewish community, Springer has acted as a gadfly, constantly questioning, challenging, prodding, and probing. Some members of Hillel say that his influence has been divisive.

"In a sense he has divided the community," Chubin says. "But in a sense he has helped it come back together, too, after expressing that diversity."

Although he's caused controversy within the Jewish community, even his ideological opponents respect his commitment to his views and openness to debate.

Whenever Springer meets Seeman, he greets him in Arabic, a political gesture that does not escape his friend. "The fact he says it with a smile enables it to be taken in a positive sense," Seeman says.

Indeed, there are few aspects of Springer's life that are not touched by his political beliefs. In his Quincy House room, he has a file cabinet relating to Israel. And in that cabinet, his friend Kanaaneh discloses, "He has a folder called 'activism' and it's really, really big."

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