Navigating University: Judaism and Activism

In 2013, I moved from New York City to North Carolina to attend Guilford College. I went from a state where almost nine per cent of the population is Jewish to a place where many people had never met a Jewish person before. Although I was not incredibly religious, Hillel became a natural place to go say a few prayers and eat challah.

During my sophomore year, much to the dismay of my friends in Hillel, a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter was created. Being new to university and student activism, I didn͛t understand why SJP was called a hate group when it also featured Jewish students. When some of the Hillel members publically charged SJP with antisemitism, I discovered how few of my fellow students distinguished between Judaism and Israel. By supporting SJP, it was assumed by all that you did not support Judaism. Conversely, being Jewish meant supporting Israel no matter what. I was particularly struck by the use of language. Whenever either side spoke, they would equate being Jewish with supporting Israel and its domestic policies. It became a very ensnaring experience to voice my opinion: that I belonged to Hillel but supported SJP, too.

On campus, the clash between Hillel and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – a method of boycotting Israeli goods to pressure Israel to end to the occupation of Palestine – was equally explosive. Members of Hillel accused BDS supporters of bullying and they warned me that BDS sought to create a land where Jews were second-class citizens to Palestinians. This was not my experience when I attended a BDS event; its proponents at Guilford were more than willing to work with Jewish students. Again it occurred to me that maybe part of my friends͛’ reaction came from the same pervasive tendency to equate being Jewish with Israel.

In addition to the heated discussions about the conflation of identity and nationhood, I was starting to suffer from deeper, more private afflictions. As many friends from Hillel eventually made it clear to me that either I was with them or against them for supporting the rights of Palestinians, I was left with the question: am I a bad Jew? Would I be a better person if I did support Israel through thick and thin? Suddenly, there was no choice for me. When I decided to go with the Jewish Centre for Nonviolence on an educational trip to Palestine, others interrogated my obstinate need to go against ‘my own people͛’. Just a few months into university life, I had already twice felt trapped because of how students spoke of Judaism. By now, it was clear to me that part of navigating the differences between Hillel and movements critical of Israel would require everyone, Jewish and non-Jewish, to learn to be intentional with language.

Yet the forced choice between Judaism and Israel was also an organisational issue. Hillel International supports Zionist Jews and won͛’t let its campus organisations partner with groups that support BDS. As a result, I started to feel less comfortable going to Hillel at Guildford, which was otherwise a welcoming space. It was a feeling shared by many other Jewish students who, like me, wanted a Jewish campus organisation to be a space for all Jews. By the same token, certain students in Hillel obviously still suffered from the presence of Jewish student activist groups hostile to Israel.

As a compromise between Zionist and non-Zionist Hillel members, we reached the decision to create one single, more inclusive Jewish organisation that would welcome both parties and all of us who have a foot in both. Of course, several Jewish students still wanted to be more politically active in relation to Israel and Palestine on both sides of the debate, but it had become obvious to many of us that for now our priority had to be to solely pursue Judaism, separate to Israel. As a result of the reorganisation of Hillel on our campus, we felt it was necessary to change the name of the group. We finally had the opportunity to take charge of a discourse that involved Jewish students so intimately. Since Guilford is a Quaker school, we agreed to incorporate both Quakerism, or the Society of Friends, and Judaism into our new group. As a result, Hillel at Guilford College is today called Chavurah, derived from the Hebrew word for ‘friend͛’ Although we struggled to get to where we are, it has been particularly important and rewarding to reclaim a language – and the Jewish tradition of learning – which spells inclusivity instead of division.

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