Broadening the Israel Conversation at YU

By: Kira Paley  |  March 31, 2019

by Kira Paley, Editor in Chief

Currently, the only Israel related clubs at Yeshiva University are the Israel Club, an umbrella club for Israel-related events, and YUPAC, The Yeshiva University Political Awareness Club, who according to their Facebook page, “educate and empower you to learn and gain leadership skills in a Pro Israel context.” The Israel Club’s most popular event is their kumsitz (singing circle) in Times Square, and their recent events include a discussion of “Jerusalem Politics,” handing out Israeli-style food items in the Beren Campus lobby, and an Israel-themed Family Feud event. YUPAC’s most notable event is their annual lobbying mission to Washington and most recently, they held a town hall meeting.

People often cite Israel-related reasons for attending YU, such as avoidance of “anti-Israel” activism and BDS supporters (though many Orthodox students who attend other universities seldom interact with such sentiments). For students who “love Israel,” YU would seem like a great place to hone their passions and spend their college career expressing that love–that is, if honing your passion for Israel means shallow, mindless endorsement.

For open-minded, critically thinking, politically and historically aware YU students, though, the Israel conversation on campus is extremely disappointing and, frankly, frightening. Students, like me, who attended Orthodox day schools their whole lives and were only provided with staunch, propaganda-like information about the State of Israel, can expect to find similar Israel sentiments and advocacy at YU. Our two campus clubs tend to promote a one-sided agenda–that is, religious Zionism with the “Israel, as a religious and political state, is aspirational” bent–and campus officials rarely take stances on Israel other than “go to graduate school in Israel.” If YU students are supposed to be bastions of light for Modern Orthodoxy during their tenure and post-graduation, they are doomed to not only come across as single-minded and frankly inane, but they will also be unequipped to have nuanced, substantive conversations about Israel with people other than their similar-minded peers.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed an alliance with an openly racist political party last month, no official statement from YU was released condemning his actions. As President Berman is known for non-stop Israel talk, and Israel is on the forefront of the work he has done in office thus far, it would make sense for the YU administration to keep up a public running dialogue on Israel affairs. Posters of Netanyahu are prominently featured on both YU campuses despite his objectively loathsome pact with Otzma Yehudit; I do not hesitate to say that were the names Linda Sarsour or Ilhan Omar even mentioned positively in a classroom, multiple students would be up in arms. When it’s in students or administrators’ “pro-Israel” interests to speak up, they do. But if an opinion would paint Israel as even slightly negative, it’s rarely expressed.

Last year, political science professor Joseph Luders came under fire for expressing doubts about the academic legitimacy of a course taught by former Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon. Upon hearing Dr. Luders’ opinion, and deeming it “offensive,” students and professors were hasty to not only voice their own responses but also personally disparage Luders’ teaching style. His “attack” on the pro-Israel majority opinion was seen as malicious, but I laud it as academically honest and necessary–he was just doing his job. In doing so, he revealed the hypocrisy and closed-mindedness of the YU student body when it comes to Israel. It is unfortunate that Professor Luders became the scapegoat of immature, single-minded “pro-Israel” students simply because he questioned the nature of our campus values when it comes to Israel.

In a class I’m in this semester, the professor remarked on the first day that discussions and presentations should steer clear of political topics. Weeks later, though, that same professor showed the class a YouTube video of Netanyahu addressing the UN, calling for attacks on Gaza. When the video ended, he made a comment about Netanyahu “preaching to the choir,” assuming that every woman in the classroom shared the exact same views on Israel as those expressed by Netanyahu. At graduation last year, both keynote speaker Danny Danon and President Berman praised Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem; both remarks were met with cheers from the graduates and audience. Graduates were given Israeli flags to wave; as an attendee, the event felt more like a pro-Israel rally than a graduation ceremony. Last year’s Stomp Out The Stigma Event featured a speaker (not a YU student), who in the middle of her moving speech on her experiences with mental illness, remarked “they’re violent when they’re angry” about “Arabs.” This comment was not only highly racist but had absolutely no place at this event, but because it’s technically in line with the way YU students are supposed to feel about Israel, few students commented, or even noticed.

These anecdotes–and I’m sure countless students who wouldn’t necessarily classify themselves in the typical YU “pro-Israel” camp have more–are indicative of the majority opinion at YU which is rarely, if ever, questioned: that Israel needs to be defended no matter what, and anyone who dares criticize it is not only an outlier, but audacious and offensive. As someone who, despite recognizing the need for, and appreciating, Israel’s existence, recognizes that Israel’s government, policies, and cultural attitudes are often flawed to say the least, I feel that my opinion on Israel is not only unwanted, but may also be deemed antisemitic. Of course, I know that I’m not alone, and there are tens of students who agree that it is permissible, and even commendable and necessary to criticize Israel.

At YU, we are a “safe space” so to speak in that we are all Jewish students who, I assume, believe that Israel should, and must, exist. That said, we are in a unique position in that we can have open and honest discussions about Israel without our motives being questioned. My time at this institution has come to an end, but perhaps a new Israel-themed club is due on campus, one where students do more than just sing Israel’s praises and eat bourekas. We need educational events, at which students learn about Israeli politics on all sides of the spectrum, what life is like for typical Palestinian citizens, or the history of the BDS movement from an objective perspective. There needs to be a platform on campus for students and professors to voice their concerns and opinions, as well as to ask honest questions and receive honest answers.

I invite all students, regardless of political, religious, or social affiliation, to speak up, even if you feel that your opinion on Israel might be a minority opinion. Let The Observer serve as your platform to share those opinions, regardless of how your fellow students might feel about them. Stand up to students and professors who state, however subtly, that every single YU student shares the same beliefs about Israel. Don’t be afraid to argue that Palestinian rights are human rights, that single-issue voting based on Israel policies is backwards, that the Democratic party is not anti-Semitic.

New York City Councilman Kalman Yeger tweeted last week that “Palestine does not exist.” Not only is this factually incorrect, but also divisive, unwarranted, and potentially Islamophobic. Let’s not let Yeger represent us as Orthodox Jews, or as an institution.