Solidarity or anti-Semitism? Hillel calls for dialogue on BDS

The Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) club at UBC is aiming to pose the following referendum to students this year:

Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?

The question — which would align the AMS with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel — was previously posed in 2015. It received more “yes” votes than “no” votes, but failed because it didn’t meet quorum, or the number of voting students required for a referendum to pass.

Critics, including Hillel BC, say the question is vague and biased, and that the BDS movement is built on hatred rather than dialogue. Proponents argue that the movement is a necessary show of solidarity against Israeli oppression of Palestinian people.

Hillel remains of the firm belief that while the wording of the question is not explicitly anti-Semitic, the idea behind it is.

“I think BDS as a movement is anti-Semitic. Do I think everybody who supports BDS is anti-Semitic? No, because I think people support BDS for varying reasons. I think the reality is that the calls for Israel essentially to not exist — that, to me, is anti-Semitic,” said Sam Heller, program director of Hillel BC.

“Do I believe the intention of SPHR is to be anti-Semitic? Absolutely not.”

No current members of SPHR were willing to go on record, but a representative pointed The Ubyssey to Eviatar Bach, a Jewish student who was a very involved member when the club previously posed the question in 2015.

He says that the movement is “an important expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people” and a way to “put financial pressure on Israel to [negotiate].”

“Why don't you want to talk to us? I understand if you want to disagree ... Why not talk?”

— Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC

Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel, is made uneasy by the movement’s proximity to controversial figures like founder Omar Barghouti.

“[Barghouti] is not about a two-state solution. He is about the elimination of the state of Israel. He makes it clear. A movement that is looking to eliminate an entire country that happens to be a Jewish homeland, I would say, is pretty anti-Semitic,” said Bregman.

Bach notes that the movement itself doesn’t take a position on the one versus two-state debate, and points to the situation in the region as a need for change.

“It’s becoming increasingly a de facto one-state solution because Israel is building more and more settlement blocks, the settlement wall, all these things that make it much more difficult to actually envision a two-state solution,” he said.

Heller — who “definitely doesn’t support numerous policies of the Israeli government, but still supports the concept of a country called Israel” — is concerned that the complexity of the conflict is being boiled down into a debate of good versus evil.

“This question makes me express my absolute displeasure or makes me a bad person for being against quote-unquote ‘war crimes’ ... there’s no middle ground for me here,” he said.

“I just think there’s a lot of questions that come from this [referendum] question.”

“Why not talk?”

According to Bach, a key component of the BDS movement is to get people talking.

“One of the most important functions of the campaign itself is to raise awareness of the issue,” he said. “I think, as an expression of solidarity, it’s important.”

But although Hillel officially does not “partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers” that support BDS, Bregman said he has tried to reach out multiple times to SPHR to discuss the issue — each time, he said, he’s been rebuffed.

“I came onto campus in 2015. The very first Imagine Day, I was at their booth. I handed over my card and I said very quietly and confidentially, ‘Could we get together? Some of your people, some of my students — let’s sit, let’s talk.’ The answer that came back to me was, ‘We have a no-dialogue policy with you people,’” said Bregman.

He then asked them why they didn’t want to talk.

“‘If we talk to you, we will give credibility to your murderous and genocidal ways,’” according to Bregman, was the response he got.

After the last BDS vote, Bregman said he reached out again. “It wasn’t to gloat, it wasn’t to do anything — ‘let’s talk.’”

This year at Imagine Day, Bregman went back to the booth. “I handed out my card. I said, ‘let’s talk, let’s share — we’re talking with all sorts of people on campus.’ No response.”

“A lot of times, criticism of Israel or criticism of Zionism is conflated with anti-Semitism ... A lot of Israeli advocacy groups, they'll use that as a shield against criticism of Israel.”

— Eviatar Bach, BDS supporter and former SPHR member

“SPHR has no record of Rabbi Bregman reaching out to us,” wrote SPHR representative Jordan Buffie in an email statement. “There are no emails or other correspondence from Rabbi Bregman that would indicate a substantial interest in working with us.”

Buffie noted that while many people stop by SPHR's Imagine Day booth, he hasn't heard anything from SPHR members about Bregman stopping by.

“Our members have spoken with representatives from Israel On Campus on numerous occasions. Some of our members have also attended Peace Factory events.

“We have also engaged in dialogue with campus groups who do not, as a matter of their mandates, support the state of Israel. The allegation that we have a policy either formally or in practice of refusing dialogue is demonstrably false,” wrote Buffie, citing groups like the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Vancouver chapter of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) as two groups SPHR has talked to.

PJA President Carmel Laniado said that the claim that her organization does not support Israel is “categorically wrong.

“We intentionally do not have a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict except supporting an end to the occupation and terrorism. There is a very large gap between the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Vancouver-chapter of the Independent Jewish Voices,” said Laniado in an email statement.

While Bach was not able to speak for the current SPHR members, he criticized Hillel's previous open dialogue campaigns for ignoring what he sees as a power differential between groups.

“It’s often referred to within the Palestinian solidarity movement as ‘normalization,’” he said. “It’s not just a matter of Jews and Palestinians sitting down and being friends. It’s very important to recognize the power imbalance in these dynamics before starting.”

The club’s position in 2015 was similar.

“When groups want to deny what’s going on, then there’s not really a point in having a dialogue. Dialogue by itself is not necessarily a good or a bad thing,” said SPHR member Hussain Khan in that year.

In a 2015 letter from former Talon editor Urooba Jamal, she said that “it is precisely for the reason of unequal relations of power between Israel and Palestinians that so-called ‘dialogue’ initiatives are harmful.”

It’s this perspective that frustrates Bregman. Hillel has been involved in programs with the Muslim Students’ Association, the Thaqalayn Muslim Association and the Ismaili Students Association.

But with SPHR, “there’s been nothing coming back.”

“Why don’t you want to talk to us? I understand if you want to disagree. We’re on campus. This is a laboratory. Why not talk?”

Now graduated, Heller was a student when the last referendum took place.

“I was thinking to myself, on my campus, they’re going to pass something that ultimately infringes on my ability to be here and — I don't want to use the terms ‘safe’ and things like that — but yeah, to a certain extent, safe,” he said.

“Putting this on the books ... doesn’t help with dialogue. It actually just shuts it down because how am I going to feel comfortable advocating certain opinions on this campus if it’s been shut down by my student government?”

UBC's Hillel House in 2015.
UBC's Hillel House in 2015. File Kosta Prodanovic

Other campuses

Many universities and student unions in North America have passed similar referendums — none without their share of conflict.

Bregman said he is “absolutely” worried about a resurgence in hate crimes if the referendum goes to ballot.

“[In 2015], we had people yelling at us ‘go home,’” he said. “My family’s been here for about 120 years. I knew what they meant.”

The referendum comes at a time when anti-Jewish sentiment on socially progressive campuses — especially in light of the BDS movement — is a hot-button issue.

Most recently, a student representative at McGill has faced calls for resignation after he tweeted “punch a Zionist.”

“We’ve seen recently a lot of anti-Semitic incidents since the election of Trump, and I think it is very important for the Palestinian solidarity movement to be careful and not associate with anti-Semites and not promote that,” said Bach.

But Bach also said he has experienced no anti-Semitism during his time with the Palestinian solidarity movement at UBC.

“I found people in SPHR to be more sensitive to the issue of anti-Semitism than the general population,” he said.

“A lot of times, criticism of Israel or criticism of Zionism is conflated with anti-Semitism. And often, sadly, with a lot of Israeli advocacy groups, they'll use that as a shield against criticism of Israel,” said Bach.

No matter what, Hillel plans to continue the push for dialogue.

“As someone who works on the campus but also as an alum, and someone who cares deeply about what happens all over the world but especially in that region ... I would hope to see a productive way forward — something that helps people as opposed to hurts one group,” said Heller.

This article has been updated to clarify that the Progressive Jewish Alliance takes no formal stance on the state of Israel.

This article previously stated that Hillel has programs with the Thaqalayn Muslim Association (TMA). It has been clarified to state that Hillel has been involved in programs with the TMA in the past.