I recently spent the most arduous two weeks of my 22-year Hillel career dealing with the BDS vote at the University of Maryland. And it taught me an important lesson.
I entered those weeks on a high. In early November, Maryland Hillel had just pulled off the largest family weekend in our history. We served 2,100 meals, held multiple learning sessions, celebrated with a large scale Jewish Art Showcase including a sermon slam and performances by Hillel’s three a cappella groups and Israeli dance troupe, and we welcomed a brand-new Torah. All on one weekend.
Little did I know we were just getting warmed up.
On Sunday night, we received word that a bill had been submitted to the University of Maryland Student Government Association calling for divestment from Israel.
Working in partnership with our pro-Israel student coalition from across the political spectrum, Maryland Hillel went into overdrive. Students, alumni and faculty petitions were mounted. Members of Congress submitted a letter of protest. Support was offered and invited from Hillel International, the Israel on Campus Coalition and the Academic Engagement Network. More than 50 inspiring students testified before the Student Government Association.
The many late nights paid dividends and we defeated the resolution on November 15th.
As I reflect on this experience, I feel many things.
I am so proud of our University of Maryland students. The leadership on campus acted with a maturity and professionalism from which many elder leaders can learn. I must also acknowledge that proponents of this bill, who advocated positions I find unpalatable, unfounded and unacceptable, but did so with civility.
We need defensive strategies to drown out the noise of BDS and anti-Semitism. But they must not define who we are as a people.
I am deeply appreciative of the administration of the University of Maryland, who, under the leadership of President Wallace Loh, has ensured this campus’s culture of openness and tolerance.
I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we received. Offers of assistance flowed in freely and unabated. All this is as it should be. The Jewish people have learned important historical lessons – our defenses are now swift and strong.
However, I emerge from this experience most concerned. I know that this BDS bill was a mere round of battle in a protracted conflict. We cannot rest on our laurels. Far more concerning to me is the feeling that our community has a disproportionate focus.
We are incredibly adept at mounting a defense, but what of our offense?
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I am grateful that resources and assistance flowed in freely during this crisis. But I find myself questioning why similar resources are so hard to secure when there is such a positivity of Jewish life in College Park, Maryland.
My beloved Jewish family, it is futile erecting impenetrable fences around the garden if we are failing to tend to our crops. BDS and our vigilant response cannot and must not define the Jewish story. Accepting this to be the case depreciates the value of the Jewish narrative.
The Jewish people has so much good to sell and promote – Shabbat, social justice, Jewish learning, leadership development, Israel engagement and the wisdom of our collective heritage. They all have the power to enhance lives. Yes, we need walls and defensive strategies to drown out the noise of BDS and anti-Semitism. But they must not define who we are as a people – if we allow this to happen we concede victory to BDS proponents. It is not the noise that will attract and inspire our youth; rather it is the beauty of rhythmic Jewish music.
I am relieved and reassured that I have many dear friends to turn to when the community and students I love dearly are put upon, when our State of Israel is besmirched, and when things inevitably go awry.
More important is that others stand with us, in crafting a Jewish world in which our students crave to be a part. We need to play the music of our people loud and strong. Maryland Hillel, and Hillels around the country, are blessed to have some dear supporters who give tirelessly to play our people’s music loud and strong, but we must do more.
We need to work collaboratively to elevate the music of our people. Imagine the impact on the Jewish and global world if every student leaves college having experienced a powerful Shabbat. Imagine a world where every student has been to Israel and frames the country through his or her own stories, not those of another. Imagine a Jewish world where students receive robust leadership training and are ready to dive into communal leadership roles.
We need to preserve the defensive muscle we have cultivated. However, this muscle is futile without promoting music that enlivens the imagination and dreams of our children.
Rabbi Ari Israel is executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland.