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Repairing the Silence

By Sarah B. Joselow

Currently on display at Harvard Hillel is a political art exhibit entitled “Breaking the Silence.” A set of traveling testimonials brought to Harvard by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA)—one of Harvard Hillel’s affiliated groups—this exhibition represents the views of a set of soldiers who have recently served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank and Gaza. The soldiers describe their experiences securing the safety of Israeli citizens and combating violence in the territories while upholding the Spirit of IDF—the ethical code followed by the defense forces—and impacting daily Palestinian life. Although Hillel has chosen to host the exhibit, it has not chosen to endorse “Breaking the Silence” as an exhibit, an organization, or a message. The Hillel community seeks to be inclusive and inquisitive of all opinions; we aspire to allow everyone to openly challenge and discuss these viewpoints in a respectful manner. On behalf of Hillel’s Undergraduate Steering Committee, I would like to welcome the greater Harvard community to join in a dialogue surrounding the exhibition, and to discuss the issues that this provocative show illuminates.

As an institution, Harvard Hillel prides itself on being the catalyst for Jewish life on campus. Pluralism is a central tenet of the Harvard Hillel mission statement, and as such Hillel is committed to being open to the community, open to ideas, and respectful of the views and positions of others. Part of encouraging this pluralism is the recognition that Hillel itself is not its primary subject, but merely its facilitator. We strongly believe we must practice tolerance and respect for other dissenting viewpoints, just as we preach these values. By serving as the facilitator of dialogue within and about the Jewish community on campus, Hillel helps all individuals to find their voice, and does not judge what they use that voice to express or argue. Thus, we are not endorsing “Breaking the Silence” because we consciously avoid making such political statements as an organization, or as a Jewish community.

Promoting dialogue with and about Israel on Harvard’s campus is one of the four central pillars of Harvard Hillel’s mission statement. Harvard Hillel strives to enable and encourage all students to be actively engaged in this dialogue and to explore their own relationship with the Jewish State. Harvard Hillel believes Israel must be a Jewish and democratic state, and emphasizes the ideals to which we, as a Jewish community, aspire. We also strongly support Israel in her quest for peace in a troubled region.

While Harvard Hillel has agreed to host “Breaking the Silence,” it has not chosen to endorse the organization or its message. Although the exhibit is now on display within Rosovsky Hall, it does not represent the views of the entire Hillel community. While PJA, other sponsors, and community members have expressed support for the exhibit, many at Hillel feel that the exhibit portrays a misleading message—one lacking a broader context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such broader context is key because it creates an open forum for the exchange of ideas. It is also the reason why exhibits as controversial as “Breaking the Silence” have a place where they can be respectfully articulated, propagated, accepted, challenged, critiqued, or dismissed At Hillel, as Jews and as students, we endeavor to be the religious, cultural, and political home where such essential debate can occur.

While many visitors might not be able to parse the difference between hosting and endorsement, this distinction is clear in the minds of the Hillel community. As individuals we may support or oppose the exhibit’s presentation, content, and message, but, as a community, Hillel seeks modestly—but importantly—to spark debate and dialogue about Israel on campus. Our community is strong and united in its support for the State of Israel and in our embrace of the Jewish value of open discourse.

No matter an individual’s background, we believe that it is important to empower them to find and express their own opinions on the challenges and ideas they confront in life. In doing so, we hope it will inspire other organizations and groups to do the same. We invite all members of the community to join us in our efforts to actively engage in dialogue with Israel and look forward to seeing where this important discussion will lead us.

Sarah B. Joselow ’10, an Associate Design Chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. She is the President of Harvard Hillel.

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