UCSB’s Hillel Center recently refused to host freelance writer and schoolteacher David Harris-Gershon to speak about his book “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” due to the renowned writer’s past support for boycotts and other activism against the Israeli government.
Harris-Gershon, whose writings have appeared in The Jerusalem Post and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published a post on the blog for Tikkun magazine — a Jewish publication and self-proclaimed “interfaith movement” — that was entitled “On Being at the Center of a Controversy within the U.S. Jewish Community.” In his post, Harris-Gershon said he had been invited to speak by the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara about his book, but was barred from speaking at the Santa Barbara Hillel after a staff member read a previous blog post by Harris-Gershon in which he endorsed BDS (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions) in reaction to what he called, “Israel’s inability to stop the occupation on its own.” In keeping with the policies of Hillel International, the Santa Barbara Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.
As a result of these policies, the organization is unsupportive of any efforts to divest from Israeli companies, such as last year’s attempt by many campus groups — including Students for Justice in Palestine — to encourage the university to divest from Israeli companies. These guidelines have been subject to debate in recent years, and in December of last year, leaders of the Hillel at Philadelphia’s Swarthmore College declared their center an “Open Hillel,” meaning the center is open to hosting speakers and collaborating with organizations supportive of BDS.
According to Harris-Gershon, Santa Barbara Hillel asked him to publish a statement clarifying his position on B.D.S. in order to be allowed to speak, to which he complied.
In response, SB Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Evan Goodman maintained that the Hillel does not require speakers to make specific statements in order to speak at the Hillel, and that no one was barred from entering the building.
“Santa Barbara Hillel, like any organization, reserves the right to decide what speakers, events, and activities we would like to host and sponsor. Our decision not to host the speaker in question is directly in keeping with our core mission: to be a student life organization,” Goodman stated in an email.
On Sunday, Rabbi Goodman, The Executive Committee of the Board of Directors and Student Board addressed the situation through a press release that stated the center chose not to host a speaker who “would undoubtedly distract from the core mission of Hillel,” while recognizing that Harris-Gershon said he would not speak about divestment.
“Unfortunately, this individual’s blog postings confirm that, indeed, his presence would be a lightning rod and distract the student leadership, staff and the Board from their primary responsibilities of strengthening Jewish student life in Santa Barbara,” according to the statement.
In response, Harris-Gershon said the Hillel’s decision limits what he sees as a crucial discussion.
“The implication is that UCSB Hillel is restricting what can, and cannot, be talked about in a university environment, with regard to Israel and issues of dire importance in the Middle East,” Harris-Gershon said in an email.
Harris-Gershon said he has since received invitations from several Hillel centers throughout the country to speak, “many of which were aghast” when he stated SB Hillel required him to “publish a favorable political statement as a pre-condition to speaking, only to bar me anyway.”
A staff member at the SB Hillel, who wished to remain anonymous, said the Hillel’s withdrawal of Harris-Gershon’s invitation was entirely in keeping with Hillel International’s policies.
“If it is not in line with the core values and mission of Hillel International, we can’t host them for a speech. Are they welcome in the building? Yes, they can come into our building. They can speak at venues in Santa Barbara.”
A version of this story appeared on page 4 of Wednesday, January 15, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
[Editors note: In the print version of this article, the headline incorrectly read “SB Hillel Withdraws Speaker for Criticism of Israeli Regime,” did not mention that Harris-Gershon was invited by the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara, and did not include the policies of Hillel International. Also, the article cited the Swarthmore College resolution as occurring in May. Corrections have been made to the online version, including a response from SB Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Evan Goodman.]