Brandies University Hillel rejected an application for membership by Jewish Voice for Peace, an activist group which sometimes calls itself pro-Israel and is certainly pro-Palestinian. Brandeis Hillel leaders felt that offering membership to JVP would be inconsistent with their national charter which defines Hillel as being “steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. Based on my experience with the group, I would agree, but don’t understand why the story must end there.
Jewish Voice for Peace includes many voices and views, but they are not a Zionist group. On the other hand, while I may often disagree with many of their positions, it is also my experience that those working for JVP are sincere, honest, well-meaning activists who appeal to deeply held Jewish values. That being the case, I am not sure why this had to be a matter of “in” or “out”.
According to Brandeis JVP leader Jon Sussman, lamented Hillel’s decision as a lost opportunity for students to “learn from one another”. If that is the case – if mutual learning is the goal, then why is membership in Hillel even an issue? It would have been good for JVP to ask themselves that question, and it would be good for Hillel to take them up on their stated desire for dialogue and mutual learning, neither of which is limited to groups who belong to Hillel.
This case actually points to an increasingly real problem – how we confuse the fight to belong, with the fight to be heard. JVP really is not a good fit for Hillel, at least not in light of where the two organizations currently are, so they are not going to belong. That doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that they ought not to be heard.
The range of what any group can hear should always be wider than that which they can support. It need not include everything, but it should always seek to expand the parameters of what is included.
Given both organizations’ commitment to the free exchange of ideas among people of different opinions, JVP should be content with being denied membership and Hillel should initiate a process of mutual learning which is not based upon agreement with JVP but in recognition of the sincerity and integrity of their position, if not its legitimacy. That would actually model the kind of community to which both organizations, and most people, aspire – one that respects democratic process and one which cherishes a pluralist approach to Jewish life and thought.