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Brandeis groups clash on Israel stance

Hillel rejects alliance with policy critics

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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The leading Jewish campus group at Brandeis University has refused to affiliate with a student organization that supports Palestinian rights and opposes expansion of Israeli settlements, renewing a roiling debate over the limits of dissent within the American Jewish community.

This week, in the latest clash on the Waltham campus over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hillel at Brandeis refused to accept Jewish Voice for Peace, which urges divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and urges boycotts of goods made there.

In its decision, Hillel’s 11-member student board cited the international Hillel organization’s policy against affiliating with groups that “support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.’’

“We support those guidelines,’’ said student president Andrea Wexler, a senior. “We are a pro-Israel or ganization, and while that can mean different things to different people, our definitions differed too much.’’

Under its guidelines, Hillel is “steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.’’

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace said the rejection showed that Hillel, an international organization that supports Jewish life on more than 500 campuses, had imposed an ideological litmus test for inclusion.

“They are the center of Jewish life on campus,’’ said Lev Hirschhorn, a Brandeis senior. “That shouldn’t be political.’’

The controversy, which drew attention on numerous blogs yesterday, reflects sharp divisions within the American Jewish community, both over Israeli policies and what forms of criticism are legitimate.

Last fall, for instance, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Newton canceled an event with the president of J Street, which calls itself the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,’’ and opposes the expansion of Israeli settlements. Some of the synagogue’s members had objected to the event.

In a statement this week, the Brandeis chapter of J Street criticized Hillel for excluding Jewish Voice for Peace.

National leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has 26 chapters across the country, said the rejection was part of a broader attempt by Hillel and other groups to marginalize progressive Jewish opinion on campuses.

“They are so concerned that younger Jews are more critical of Israel, they are trying to turn the tide,’’ said Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

At Brandeis, Jewish Voice for Peace members were unhappy with the decision.

“We were rejected on the grounds that boycotting settlement goods is the same thing as boycotting Israel,’’ said Morgan Conley, a sophomore member. “The reality, however, is that the settlements are not in Israel — they are in the occupied Palestinian territories. By blurring the line between the state of Israel and the occupied territories, Hillel is unfortunately appearing to support a Jewish state at the expense of a democratic one.’’

National Hillel officials could not be reached for comment. But on its website, Hillel states that it will not partner with groups or speakers that deny the right of Israel to exist, demonize or apply double standards to Israel, or support sanctions against Israel.

The Brandeis branch of Jewish Voice for Peace was the first chapter to apply for membership in a campus Hillel group, but members said their desire to join was sincere. In addition to providing potential funding and greater visibility, Hillel membership would have offered a more prominent status to Jewish Voice for Peace, members said.

“We feel like we deserve a seat at the Jewish communal table,’’ Hirschhorn said. “But there is a sense that dissent on the question of Israel is not really acceptable, which is really unfortunate.’’

The Brandeis group of Jewish Voice for Peace started in the fall and has about 100 members on its mailing list, he said.

Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America, which provides money to Hillel, said Jewish Voice for Peace holds views well outside of the mainstream Jewish community.

“They’ve made it clear they don’t support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,’’ he said.

A Brandeis University spokesman said the student groups are self-governing and free to make their own decisions.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.