Borderline Views: Hanukka storms on campus

Those responsible for daily lighting ceremony at BGU refused to allow women students or faculty to take part, causing controversy.

Hannukia menorah 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hannukia menorah 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
Needless to 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 diversity.
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 state.
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.
In one 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 Reform.
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.
Ben-Gurion 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 supporters.
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 specifics.
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?
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.