Monday, March 18, 2013

Hillel's Many Vices

In response to THIS ARTICLE

My name is Craig Dershowitz. I am a former freelance writer for VICE Magazine, Editor-in-Chief of BOMBIN' Magazine and the current Executive Director of Artists 4 Israel, an Israeli advocacy organization that, although having no formal relationship with National Hillel, works very closely with the Hillel Israel Fellows on a large portion of college campuses. I do not speak, in any capacity, for Hillel.

Vice Magazine has a long history of one-sided, overly-simplistic and borderline ignorant analysis on Israel. Its self described "online den of nefarious activites", while ironically self-flagellating to the point of near humor, best describes its ethos. This is a periodical whose reporting seeks sensationalism, scandal and stupidity. It is sophomoric at best. At worst, it is downright mockery of investigative journalism (similar to the New York Times). Their brand of "immersive" reportage, a bastardized version of Gonzo journalism, removes all hope for a nuanced or comprehensive review of a situation. After all, if one must enter a "den" of vice, it is best that one not bring with it a noble hero such as Israel but, instead, travel with the murderers, terrorists and liars that oftentimes direct the anti-Israel chorus.

As such, I have declined in the past to respond to Vice's many absurd anti-Israel stories. After all, a magazine also known for their "Guide to Shagging Muslims" where it is taught that "concubines are treated just fine" and that there is "something sensual and potent about the Arab male" while celebrating "raping and pillaging" fantasies is racist and deliberately provocative. Any response on my part would only satisfy their desire for controversy and further the joke that this is a magazine to be taken with any bit of seriousness. I still read the Do and Don't section, though. You guys are hilarious!

But, now, that hilarity is at the expense of an unarmed opponent and it is a whole lot less funny. I do not expect Hillel to respond equal to the puerile standards of Vice. Perhaps it is because Hillel is far more considered and conscientious than that. Perhaps it is because Hillel's students sometimes tend to be shy and retiring - some would say dorky (sorry, guys). Perhaps because, as the first line of the Vice article indicates, Hillel and the Jewish world which it attempts to represent is full of a million voices, a million thoughts, a million ideas, hopes and challenges.

Unlike the ideological purity similar to any fascist group mentality that can be found in Israel's constantly "on-message" enemies, Hillel is made up of individuals with opinions, thoughts and sensitivities that are as dynamic, shifting and multi-dimensional as any one person can be. It is a false-positive to take one incident on one campus by one person at one time and stereotype it to be the truth of the whole. There is a humanity in Hillel (specifically speaking, not metaphorically) that is the basis for the hope of peaceful reconciliation in the Middle East. It is person to person, peer to peer and, as such, it is sometimes sloppy and vulnerable to attack by unscrupulous parties who don't seek dialogue but want rhetorical victory.

Any organization or individual with the requisite appreciation for thoughtfulness and honesty that is of utmost importance when discussing the serious life and death situation in the Middle East would be incapable of matching Vice's broad over-generalizations and reductionist practices that would be libelous if not for their inanity. Vice's claims that an organization who had donated $240,000 (while a lot for more and the freelance writers of Vice who make a pack of Kools and bragging rights per published story earn, is an insubstantial sum in comparison to the millions anti-Israel, terrorist-sympathizing groups spend on college campuses) had influenced policy hints at typical and boring stereotypes of the hook-nosed, rich Shylock Jew and the casual use of the term "West Bank" to refer to an area whose name is, at best, open for debate, shows how little Vice cares for fairness and accuracy.

Most embarrassing of all, Vice discusses the BDS as a legitimate movement. This mischaracterization is particularly offensive as Vice considers itself the bastion of free speech. The BDS is nothing more than a mask for the crimes of censorship and the oppression of arts and creative dialogue. The BDS movement supports and is supported by those in traditionalist Muslim ruled countries where art is threatened by religious doctrine, moral orthodoxy and political ideology. How a magazine that would be banned in most countries who support the same sort of anti-Israel sentiment published within the magazine can support these combatants is irony to its fullest extent.

But, it is irony and not reporting that fuels Vice. According to the referenced article, Hillel is "staunchly pro-Israel" (semi-true if you squint) - they are actually "steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state"; Hillel has "disciplined" individuals for promoting discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict (not true at all); and according to one student (people not at all prone to hyperbole and dramatic mistruths) McCarthyist (true only if McCarthy was completely the opposite of who he was).

And, although the quoted collegian is a poor student of history, I understand her frustration. I, too, have been stymied by Hillel. However, it is that frustration that has allowed me to take a more in-depth look at the organization and to find great respect for it.

As a proud Israeli advocacy group with politics that are often considered "right wing" because we have actively supported the people living in Judea and Samaria (through the sin of painting pretty pictures), Artists 4 Israel have sometimes felt under-appreciated by Hillel. We are often asked "but, you will represent both sides in the conflict when you speak, won't you?" Well, no. Their side represents them. We represent us and a third party represents that third party. The overwhelming desire of Hillel to make sure "all sides" are heard is, to this man, weak but, it is also inclusive and far more representative of a mindset of peacefulness and co-existence found far more in Israel than in her enemies, be they ideologically or the homicide-belt toting kind. Even when attempting to erect a Bomb Shelter Museum that simulates life in Israel's south when the popularly-elected terrorists of Gaza fire rockets at kindergartens (p.s. that entire past sentence was frighteningly 100% factual), we have been cautioned "make sure you offer all alternative views." I still don't know what the other side of "don't shoot rockets at children" might be but I do applaud the mindset that seeks to turn every moment into an opportunity to consider the opinions of the other and to look for bridges to mutual respect.

On some campuses, I have been welcome. On others, not so much. The truth of the matter is, each campus Hillel operates semi-autonomously. Some are more "right wing", most are more "left wing", but to ascribe a universal truth to any of them is false at base. In fact, most of my frustration with Hillel has come from its "open tent" philosophy where far too many opinions are taken into account and where, due to Hillel's inclusive and forgiving nature, enemies of Israel use this good nature to get inside and corrupt within. Could you imagine attending a SJP or BDS group meeting and asking them to consider Israel's point of view. Go ahead, Vice, embed that reporter and lets see what happens. In fact, send a reporter to Israel as a "Palestinian" sympathizer and one to Gaza as an Israel supporter. Lets see who files their story first or at all.

My anger at attending a Hillel program or meeting a Hillel sanctioned speaker or, even, speaking to a Hillel employee who openly advocates a two-state solution (almost all do) without even considering a one-state solution or allows for speakers overly-critical of the state or who disinvite me because of my "radical" opinions (opinions such as Gaza terrorists are bad people and innocent civilians living ANYWHERE in Israel deserve equal protections) is softened by the fsct that they are trying so hard to offer as many middle of the road, progressive, peace-building, war-stopping ideas as possible.

Unfortunately, for Hillel, they do not recognize that while they are centrist at best and inclusive to a fault, their enemies are not. The old expression about giving an inch and others taking a foot is true here but it is quite problematic. Where Hillel has sought to be fair and open, the enemies of openness are now using that freedom to demand ever more and more liberties while shutting down dissent and closing the door to the other side. This referenced article is but one example. Hillel is a grand organization with high hopes. It dreams of a time when Jews may represent themselves freely on campus and when they are not being attacked for supporting a country that allows for their protection in the face of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. But, until then, it must walk a treacherous path in between staunch freedom of speech advocates as Artists 4 Israel, true peaceniks, thoughtful students, sensationalist magazines and the manipulation of anti-Israel groups in costume. I do not envy them.

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