Princeton Hillel cancels speech by right-wing Israeli lawmaker, so Chabad steps in


(JTA) — A speech by Israel’s deputy foreign minister at Princeton University went on as planned even after it was canceled by the campus Hillel, the program’s original sponsor.

Tzipi Hotovely’s original talk for Monday night was canceled due to objections by the campus chapter of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, which claimed her hawkish views violated Hillel’s own guidelines on speakers who discredit Israel.

Princeton Chabad stepped in and agreed to host the event.

In a letter published online Sunday in the Daily Princetonian, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives accused Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life of violating its official policy on Israel-related events, which says in part that the organization will not sponsor groups or speakers that “as a matter of policy or practice foster an atmosphere of incivility, intend to harm Israel, or promote racism or hatred of any kind.”

The Alliance charged that Hotovely has “repeatedly” made racist statements, including disregarding Palestinian claims to the land and support for settlements. It also noted that Hillel had previously turned away left-wing speakers and called for “an equitable vetting process” for those speaking about Israel.

In a letter sent Monday to Hotovely via the Israeli Consulate in New York, Rabbi Julie Roth, the Hillel executive director, wrote: “The Center for Jewish Life at Princeton decided to postpone the program with Member of Knesset Tzipi Hotovely until we can properly vet the program through our Israel Advisory Committee. We are fortunate that our colleagues at Chabad agreed to host the program today as originally scheduled and we are encouraging our students who are interested to attend. We regret the last-minute change and apologize to Ms. Hotovely for the inconvenience. We look forward to a continued robust and healthy debate around Israel in our community.”

Hotovely criticized Hillel’s decision, writing to Roth in response: “By canceling this lecture, you are infringing on the fundamental academic freedom of the students. You are denying the basic freedom of students to hear different points of view, to question, challenge and think for themselves.

“Furthermore, by agreeing to the demands of radical voices, you are silencing the voice of Israeli democracy.

Rabbi Eitan Webb, who with his wife, Gitty, runs the Princeton Chabad, welcomed the audience on Monday night by encouraging them to listen.

“We bend over backwards to give free speech to all, and it is an honor to make sure that this ideal is upheld tonight,” the rabbi said. “When it is personal, it is more difficult to be impartial. So it is with the relationship of many Jews and Israel.”

Critics of the Center for Jewish Life’s decision to cancel the Hotovely speech charged that the Hillel caved in to pressure from the left.

“This is a problem for the American Jewish community first and foremost, and this is American Jews participating in this assault on their own civil rights,” Caroline Glick, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, said in a video. “They are doing it by scapegoating Israeli conservatives and Israel in general.”

But supporters of the decision, mostly on the left, said the center was defending its own standards.

“I’m proud of my friend and colleague Rabbi Julie Roth for responding to her students, and not permitting someone who spouts racism to speak at the Center for Jewish Life,” wrote Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, on her Facebook page. “This is NOT about boycotting Israel, but about not giving a platform to someone who is specifically touting racist ideologies, including denying the Palestinians’ very existence.”

Hotovely spoke Sunday at Columbia University and was scheduled to speak at New York University on Tuesday night as part of a U.S. campus tour to help students to counter the anti-Israel Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, or BDS, growing in American universities.

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