Lessons Learned from Eight Years at Columbia Hillel

May 10, 2010 by

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You can learn a lot about time spent in a place by looking in cabinets. Today I walked around my office peering into drawers and other spaces inhabited by papers and folders and tiny gadgets that I forgot I have and why I’ve kept them. I’ve been working for Hillel for eight years, and in a week, I won’t be anymore.

One particularly interesting pile looks like this: name tag from JStreet U conference, Stand with Us paraphernalia, Birthright staff manual, fliers for JNF program. It’s a nice summary of irony at work in the life of a progressive Zionist Jewish educator. Luckily, along with my incredible ability to amass stuff, has come a few lessons.

1. Anti Semitism and Anti Arab racism are real and alive.

Without recognizing this, we can’t move forward, only backwards.I often think that there are no actual truths in discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, not in the traditional sense, only truths and narratives for individuals and communities. But there is hate, in every corner, and as Jews, we both hold it within ourselves and perpetuate it-not only on Arab and Muslim folks, but also onto ourselves. There is no way we can underestimate the impact that internalized Anti Semitism has on our movements towards peace and away from it. The process of understanding that and unlearning is painful and daunting, but it must be done, especially on our campuses.

2. It’s always personal.

Or rather, it always becomes personal, and it should be personal. The best kinds of change is made when people have personal relationships with an issue. If we want students to have a personal relationship with Israel, which presumably we do, we have to encourage that relationship to also be real, based in pure and also conflicting emotions and experience. Cognitive dissonance should be a goal, not a road block (pun intended).

3. Language matters.

Not just what comes out of our mouths, but what we don’t say. On campus, as well as in the wider world, language both drives and traps the conversation around Israel. We’re nailed into tiny, suffocating boxes by “pro Israel” and “pro Palestinian,” and “Zionist.” As a Jewish community, we’re afraid to expand the definitions of these words, to create space within them to explore the implications and to challenge them. It’s okay to say that there are parameters we will not move past, but in the process, we may find ourselves less alone if we remain open to the possibility, and less afraid, of the multiple identities that make people up. Looking unflinchingly at language and its impact means we have to continue to look at Anti Semitism and the way victimization plays into our relationship with power, our fear of it, and our access to it.

4. Real affirmation and support are essential.

It might seem obvious, but it’s much more complicated that it sounds. It’s one thing to provide a space for another point of view, it’s another to say, “You’re welcomed here, it’s important to have you, I want you to stay.” On campus, the mainstream and for the most part, the right, knows that it is welcomed, because it is affirmed on a regular basis, financially, at the very least. For progressive students who support Israel, the message is much different. They’re greeted with skepticism if they are greeted at all. They have to prove their loyalty (the same is true for Jews on the Left to other folks on the Left). As Jewish educators, we can pay as much lip service as we like to our progressive students, but the truth is, they are smarter than that. They know when they’re being talked down to, when people are being insincere, and as long as that’s the case, Jewish communities suffer from that lack of insight, passion and commitment to justice.

Every day that I’ve been privy to and embroiled in the conflict on campus and in my own progressive Jewish Zionist brain has been a challenge, and at times, a perverse joy. Young Jews are pushing and being pushed to confront not only their complicated identities, but the very real implications of what their actions will mean in the world. As educators, it is our job to help them look unflinchingly at all the possibilities

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