For one day last week, the Israeli media were alive with a Hanukka story
emanating from Ben-Gurion University.
According to the story, those
responsible for the daily lighting ceremony refused to allow women students or
faculty to take part. The student choir which performs at many university
ceremonies was not allowed to perform because of the fear that this would touch
on the sensitivities of some of the orthodox participants.
say that this gave rise to much public indignation. The press had a field day,
letters of protest were sent to the university administration, and “alternative”
candle lighting ceremonies were arranged for the two remaining days of the
festival. Students and faculty engaged in a heated debate on the email lists,
with much criticism of the university administration for having allowed a public
event excluding women to take place in a university, an institution at the very
heart of which are the values of pluralism, multiculturalism and
What emerged from the lengthy exchanges and philosophizing was
a story of ignorance about basic modes of Jewish cultural and religious
behaviour. One would expect that heads of a university, and other public and
diplomatic positions for that matter, would be somewhat knowledgeable about
religious ritual in a country where so many of their own constituents profess
religious or traditional belief.
We would not expect them to
automatically believe everything that is said to them by someone because he
dresses in rabbinical attire and “looks the part,” as was clearly the case in
the candle-lighting on campus.
The self-styled campus rabbi, a member of
Chabad who has turned the basement synagogue of the campus into a local branch
of the Chabad movement, informed the new students dean that “this is the way we
do things on campus,” and the dean went along with him on the grounds that this
was the traditional and accepted way of doing things.
Leaving aside the
specifics of who can or cannot light the candles on campus, this storm in a
teacup has raised a number of much more critical issues. This is a public
institution, not a religious one. The university has to provide services in an
egalitarian fashion to its diverse student and faculty population, numbering
well over 20,000 people.
The majority of the people who attend the public
lighting on campus each day are not necessarily orthodox, but have a cultural
interest in the festival and find time between classes to celebrate, sing
together and eat cholesterol-filled doughnuts before hurriedly returning to
their studies. The western world is busy celebrating Christmas while here in
Israel we spend a week celebrating Hanukka –as one would expect in the Jewish
Following the outpouring of protest, the university administration
swung into action. The university president (a woman) announced that the
exclusion of women from the public ceremony was not university policy, that
during the eight years of her tenure as head of the university she had not been
aware of the existence of such a exclusive policy or that no woman had had ever
been asked to light the candles.
While no message of explanation was ever
offered to the students or faculty, a long message of explanation in English
appeared on the university website and in the international Jewish media, for
fear that the foreign donors, many of them North American members of the Reform
and the Conservative community, would be offended or get the wrong message that
religious pluralism was not honored on campus.
And in what appeared to be
a response overdose, the following day saw two candle- lighting ceremonies, the
official and the alternative – both of which were demonstratively conducted by
women only, with the notable absence of the Chabad campus rabbi.
sense, the university president was right. Since no one had ever previously
complained about the way in which the ceremony was handled, the matter never
gained prominence. Clearly the university, like all universities elsewhere in
Israel and throughout the world, is a pluralistic institution which respects the
rights of all religious groups, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian, and of all
the major streams within Judaism, be they Orthodox, Conservative or
The fact that the limited supply of religious services on campus
has been allowed to be taken over entirely by orthodoxy in the guise of Chabad –
a situation many of the more knowledgeable and no less observant members of the
orthodox community on campus also protest – indicates a clear lack of
understanding of what it means to be pluralistic in practice.
University has much to be proud of. But the fact that beyond a neglected and
hidden-away basement it has no respectable place for prayer – Jewish or Muslim –
is not to its credit. This matter has been raised continuously over the past two
decades but has never been deemed of sufficient importance by the university
leadership to have it placed on the agenda of its donor organizations or
Other campuses have well-endowed Hillel Houses which include
places for prayer, and to the extent that they employ a rabbi or chaplain to
assist in the provision of such services, be it prayer, teaching, or celebrating
festivals, they offer a wider and more pluralistic outlook on life, even if they
are themselves orthodox – as is often the case.
Some argue that the
university should not be responsible for supplying any form of religious
services and that this whole issue could have been avoided if there was no
public demonstration of Hanukka or, for that matter, any other form of religious
festival on campus.
There are others who argue that while the orthodox
leave campus early in the day to celebrate such festivals and ceremonies at home
with their families, the public celebration on campus is more cultural than
religious and, as such, should not become bogged down in the ritualistic
The storm in the Ben-Gurion hanukkia has given rise to a
heated debate among faculty and students about the role of the university in
providing this type of service.
This is not limited only to the Jewish
students and faculty – there is a large and growing Muslim student community
which also requires religious facilities. The issue was raised for discussion at
this week’s university senate meeting with a view to creating a more balanced
policy on campus.
Last week’s events could easily have been avoided if
only people had remembered that a university is an institution tolerant of a
wide diversity of views and beliefs and that if multiculturalism cannot be
practiced on a university campus, where will it ever be able to take hold?
writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion
University. The views expressed are his alone.