The recent outcry over BDS and Open Hillel has led to a debate over the type of environment that the Jewish community wants to promote. On the one hand, Jews like Hillel’s president Eric Fingerhut argue that certain lines must be drawn. Criticism of Israel, he argues, is where the Jewish community should draw the line. On the other hand, many younger American Jews believe that the Jewish community should embrace its members regardless of their political positions. Even if a Jew denies the right for Israel to exist, they argue, he or she should feel welcome in the broader community. As an Orthodox Jew and as a Zionist, I admit that I am uncomfortable with anti-Zionist, anti-Israel rhetoric. I believe that it is wrong to hold Israel at a double standard, as much of world continues to do. However, at the same time I too am uncomfortable with the double standard applied to the topic of Israel. While Zionism is an important component of the modern Jewish experience, how can it be viewed as more important than, say, our morality? There are many venerated beliefs held in our community, but surely Zionism can not be thought of as more important than all of them.
For instance, growing up in the Orthodox community I have witnessed occasions where rabbis and other Jewish leaders have spewed racism. Last year, the Jewish Daily Forward reported that a well-respected rabbi at Yeshiva University used a variety of racial slurs when discussing America’s black population. In its defense, YU condemned the remarks and said that they do not reflect views held by the institution. However, this particular rabbi remains well-respected in the American Orthodox Jewish community, and at the end of the day, this incident has made little impact on his career. But what if that rabbi, or others, would have called for a boycott of Israel? Based on the recent Hillel episode, I have a hard time believing that such a rabbi would be allowed to continue teaching.
If the American Jewish establishment intends to hold Israel’s dissenters accountable for their views, then why does it not apply similar standards to other transgressors, who seem responsible for using even more reprehensible speech? Until now, even some of our generation’s most venerated religious leaders have been guilty of racism. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the respected Sephardic rabbi who passed away last year, was notorious for making racially incendiary comments about Arabs and blacks. And despite efforts made by his detractors, his reputation remains as one of the greatest Jewish luminaries of the past century.
Of course, the American Jewish community is not alone when it comes to defending perpetrators of racist rhetoric. President Barack Obama was quick to defend his relationship to Jeremiah Wright, a pastor who is infamous for espousing all sorts of anti-Semitic rhetoric during his sermons. In response to criticism of his relationship with the pastor, the president called Wright “an old uncle who says things I don''t always agree with.” Unfortunately, that form of defense is all too common in our community—and in the context of the Hillel issue, it becomes unintelligible.
To most American Jews, our commonsensical beliefs against racism take precedence over our opinions about Israel. The topic of Israel is one of the most contentious topics in the international community today. That a notable organization of American academics has called for a boycott of Israel should indicate the extent of the debate on the issue.
There are indeed two sides to the debate. While most Orthodox Jews like me identify as pro-Israel, there are undoubtedly many Jews who do not. Applying a double standard to these Jews is unfair and bound to only splinter our community further.
But even more importantly, if the American Jewish establishment decides to apply a policy of censorship to Israel, it must first rethink the way it responds to even worse rhetoric—racism being one such example.