BDS referendum not about dialogue, but Hillel BC open to it anyway, says Rabbi Bregman

Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, said that although the upcoming BDS referendum does not encourage dialogue, they are open to engaging in it anyway.

According to Bregman, it’s important to be aware of the beginnings of the BDS movement.

“You have to go back to its founders, one of them being Omar Barghouti," said Bregman. "Barghouti talks about a one state solution, in which there really is no room for dialogue.”

Bregman also said that Hillel is welcoming and open to any group wishing to use their space for discussion and dialogue. However, he said that UBC’s branch of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) are closing themselves off to conversation between the two groups, refusing to acknowledge or allow any conversation.

"When I spoke to them first on Imagine Day, I asked whether the two groups would get together and talk," said Bregman. "The individuals responded ‘we have a no dialogue policy with you people.’"

This is the main concern for members of Hillel at UBC. Bregman is alarmed for reasons beyond the elimination of dialogue with SPHR.

"It’s really not about dialogue at all, it’s about elimination of the state of Israel," he said. "When BDS comes to a campus, we see constantly the marginalization of Jews, the targeting of Jews, the toxicity that is brought to the conversation, and in some instances, violence."

SPHR member Hussain Khan said that his group has no formal policy on terms of engagement.

"We don’t have a formal policy on engagement, but we have a policy on the terms of the dialogue," he said. "We have something called the anti-normalization policy."

According to Khan, this policy is about acknowledging the horror of what goes on in the occupied territories.

"Because of that, when we do have a dialogue with somebody in an open event, there has to be a kind of acknowledgement," Khan said on SPHR’s policy. "When groups want to deny what’s going on and so then there’s not really a point in having a dialogue. Dialogue by itself is not necessarily a good or a bad thing."

The divisions and debates have created animosity within Hillel groups all over North America. Swathmore Hillel, located 30 miles outside of Philadelphia declared themselves an ‘Open Hillel,’ thereby disassociating themselves with Hillel International’s rules for association with the BDS campaign against Israel.

Hillel BC has been frustrated with the opacity of SPHR and their campaign.

"We’ve given them a list of things they want to boycott in Israel," said Bregman. "I don’t believe the BDS care about one product being boycotted, I think the BDS is about marginalising and demonizing Israel, and by extension Israelis and Jews on campus. This is why we’re in this and why we’re so concerned."

Khan said that the SPHR continues to be open to dialogue and informing students.

"If you go from ‘open dialogue’ to ‘shut down hate’ I feel it’s a bit disingenuous," said Khan. "We do engage in dialogue naturally just by virtue of the events we do to try and get the student population involved and informed."

Although there are views that the SPHR have an anti-dialogue campaign, Khan is keen to stress that the initiatives put forward by the group are largely based on conversing with students.

"A lot of people have this misconception that we are anti-dialogue despite the fact that our initiatives are based on conversing with students," said Khan. "That is not the case, it is just being critical of what that dialogue entails. Dialogue alone is not enough, it should be supplemented with actual peaceful ways to bring about a more just world."

However, every leader of the three major Canadian political parties has stated on their opposition to BDS in Canada.

"They are not making it a political issue," said Bregman. "There are plenty that these individuals do not agree on, and it’s interesting that each leader has made statements on how opposed they are, because of what it brings to a campus."

So although Hillel are forefront at UBC’s Open Engagement policies, they are also of the belief that there is little worth in trying to engage in communication with SPHR and similar groups. They have expressed concerns that the referendum is worded in ways which make the potential outcomes unclear, linking the statement to a blank cheque.

"Dialogue is tough, it’s really tough, because you really have to be able to listen to what the other person is saying, even if it goes against what you’ve been taught or what you believe," said Bregman on Hillel’s policies. "That’s the challenge, but also the beauty in that we get to hear someone else’s narrative."

CORRECTION: A version of this article that appeared in print misrepresented Hillel BC's views on dialogue with BDS supporters. While Hillel BC has found attempts to engage with the pro-BDS side frustrating, they are still open to it. The Ubyssey regrets this error.