Approximately 24 hours after the UMN Divest referendum was officially launched, a representative of the Minnesota Hillel wrote to us, saying that “the Jewish community feels targeted and marginalized by the one-sided attack on the Jewish state of Israel.”
We recommend that Hillel read the highly publicized wording of this referendum again.
We find it highly problematic that Minnesota Hillel claimed in this letter to speak for the entire Jewish community on campus, while taking a very particular stance on divestment from military arms companies due to their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Hillel cannot speak unequivocally for all Jewish students, many of whom oppose the Israeli government’s policies. In a statement Sunday, the organization’s director denied that Hillel claims to speak for all Jewish students — and then proceeded to tell students how to vote on the referendum. He also wrote that Hillel “unequivocally stands with the Vote United: Vote No campaign” — interesting wording given that this campaign is in fact an initiative of Hillel’s own board. Minnesota Hillel claims to be a “pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive” place for the Jewish community on campus that “advance[s] social justice”. Yet Hillel’s official Standards of Partnership, adopted in 2010, systematically and explicitly exclude Jews who are deemed too critical of Israeli government policies and the occupation.
Palestinians live under Israeli military law in the West Bank while Israeli settlers in the same territory enjoy the rights of citizenship under civil law. Palestinians living in Israel and East Jerusalem also face discriminatory laws. While Hillel may object to divestment from arms companies that profit from this occupation, it should not presume to speak for the entire campus Jewish community. Members of that community are involved in our efforts for divestment, and in the composition of this letter. Minnesota Hillel does not represent their views on Palestine.
The email continues that Hillel wishes to “explore how we could instead work for positive change on campus.” We are genuinely heartened to hear Hillel has an interest in showing up for marginalized communities, especially considering its inaction on other issues faced by its own members, as well as the campus at large. With the exception of leaping into action whenever a public statement in support of human rights for Palestinians under occupation is made on campus, Hillel has been remarkably silent on issues of social justice that impact other marginalized groups on campus, and has neglected issues that impact Jewish students as well. Minnesota Hillel has made no objection to Hillel International’s recent endorsement of Ken Marcus, a Trump nominee to the Department of Education, whose lack of commitment to civil rights and Title IX Hillel International overlooked in favor of his anti-divestment crusading.
We can only imagine what Hillel might accomplish if it invested the same resources and dedication to social justice that it does to defending the state of Israel from student criticism.
So, yes, Hillel, there are many ways to make positive change. We offer this referendum, a value statement by the students here who will vote on it March 5-7, to address the human rights and social justice issues which impact many campus communities. Our proposal that the University of Minnesota act on its stated values and “consider social responsibility” in its investment decisions is a proposal for such positive change.
If Hillel wishes to actually show up for marginalized people and stand against the prison industrial complex, violations of Indigenous sovereignty, and oppressive military occupation, its leadership might propose their own referendum, rather than attacking this one. Until then, we invite Hillel and the entire campus community to read the text of our referendum one more time, and to ask themselves if they really want to try to justify the oppression of Palestinians again this year — or if it is time to prioritize human dignity by divesting from private prisons, treaty violations and the Israeli military occupation.
This letter was lightly edited for clarity and style.
This letter was authored by members of Students for Justice in Palestine. Malak Shahin is president of the University student group.