Harvard and the Israel Debate

The day after I handed in my final final exam of the semester, I decided to follow up on a story that a friend had spoken about at Harvard. My friend is a member of the PJA, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and had recently planned to co-sponsor an event with the PSC, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, at Harvard's Hillel. But right after several of the Hillel's sponsors got wind of the planned event, they immediately contacted the Hillel director and demanded that it not take place, claiming that it violated Hillel International's charter. The PSC supports the BDS movement, which believes in implementing boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel, they argued, and therefore should not be welcomed at any Hillel. So despite letters and pleas for the Hillel to reconsider -- and the fact that both of the planned speakers were Jewish -- the clubs were instead forced to host the event at Emerson Hall, the center for Harvard's Department of Philosophy.

As a student attending a religious university, I've become more or less used to the notion of censorship and restricted speech. Last year, the online publication I edit, The Beacon, posted an article about premarital sex; it immediately lost funding and was forced to leave the university after refusing to take it down. Above all, that incident demonstrated to me the need for free speech in the Orthodox Jewish community, because the event showed me how surprisingly foreign it seemed. Since that original incident, my publication has continued to push the envelope by providing a platform for all Jews to express themselves without discriminating against the broader Jewish community's ideas and opinions.

But especially shocking to me are restrictions on free speech that seem to expand beyond the Orthodox community and over to the mainstream, even to a secular university such as Harvard. As an Orthodox Jewish Zionist, I most certainly do not support the BDS movement -- but I'm nevertheless willing to hear the voices of those who do. The fact remains that an increasing number of Jewish youth seem to embrace liberal, progressive policies involving Israel, so it's important for the entire community to hear them. And that means giving them a platform to speak, so that everyone can listen.

When an Orthodox student submitted an article to my publication about his painfully controversial views on the Holocaust, my former editor decided to publish it. It was a legitimate view held by a growing number of young people in our community. And although we were then an independent publication, the outcry from the Orthodox community was still immense. The writer received at least one death threat, and our comments section was immediately filled with negative and threatening comments. But at least that student was given an opportunity to speak.

When it comes to the topic of Israel, some hawkish members of the secular Jewish community appear to follow in the antediluvian footsteps of the shtetl. That anyone in our broader Jewish community is shunned for holding a nonviolent opinion is a travesty for both our people and our religion. The face of the younger Jewish community is constantly continuing to change, and it is important for everyone -- including the much needed philanthropists at Harvard -- to take note.

But more importantly, these people must remember that giving those with seemingly dissenting opinions a platform to speak doesn't necessarily mean that they agree with them. It's just a sign of respect.