A few years removed from college, I can still remember the uncomfortable, awkward and somewhat silencing experience of attending a Cornell Hillel Israeli Independence Day celebration while my fellow classmates stood outside, protesting the event and what it stood for. I was told that our Israel Day celebration was “apolitical,” and that celebrating the country’s birth was by no means taking a stance on the political situation there. Something about this didn’t sit right with me. But I did not speak up, because I was not willing to jeopardize my relationships with my friends and community.
Desmond Tutu, the South African social activist, once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” As I move through life and continue to reflect back on this experience, I have come to the conclusion that in being neutral in this situation of injustice, I had chosen the side of the oppressor. So this past Tuesday, when I opened my Facebook feed to find out that something similar had occurred at this year’s Cornell Hillel Israeli Independence Day celebration, I was moved to respond.
I write this column today as someone who is proud to say they served on their Cornell Hillel Student Executive Board, who developed a deeper spiritual connection to Judaism through Hillel and who made some of their closest friends at Cornell through Hillel. I also write this column as someone who is proudly anti-occupation and is committed to a fairer and more just reality for all Israelis and Palestinians.
The situation in Israel and Palestine is by no means an easy or simple one. At every turn, it appears complicated and nuanced. And in my experience, one narrative can oftentimes dominate at the expense of another. Learning and engaging with the issues is the only way to face them, and the more I have learned about the situation, the more I am motivated to work for freedom and equality for all Palestinians and Israelis. Working on this issue feels inherent to my own Jewish identity because so much of what happens there is done in the Jewish people’s name.
I believe Jewish students on campus who are grappling with the situation in Israel and Palestine deserve a space to do just that. It is central to Judaism to struggle with a question, and we are continually encouraged to do so as a Jewish people. I believe Hillel and its limiting tenants around conversations about Israel do college students a disservice by not creating a diverse Jewish space on campus for students to wrestle with the situation in Israel and Palestine. And in not looking at the issue with a critical eye or elevating under heard narratives, we will have chosen the side of the oppressor. We as a Jewish community need to be having conversations about what we can do to work for justice in Israel and Palestine, and college campuses seem like a very appropriate place to begin these conversations.
Since college, I have had the opportunity to organize with fellow young Jews around Israel and Palestine and work toward a fairer reality for all Israelis and Palestinians. I don’t think I realized how much I needed this until I found it, and it has been a life-changing experience to organize with my Jewish peers around this issue. Having had many similar experiences growing up and in college, we are able to create both deep and welcoming dialogue that continues to fosters my views and motivate me towards action. And in doing this work Jewishly, I demonstrate that I am proud of my identity and want to use the power in that identity to work for what is right.
I hope that Hillels and college campuses can become a place where Jewish students are welcome to be proudly Jewish while engaging with their varied views on the situation in Israel and Palestine. I hope that where I am in my Jewish journey, there would still be a place for me at Hillel, and in the broader Cornell Jewish community, today.