Monday, July 7, 2014

Hillel and the Milstein affair: a catalyst for self-reflection

I am angry. I am mad. But I'm not in the least surprised to discover that the UCLA Hillel has been in cahoots with a bigoted real estate baron, Adam Milstein, who not only fears Islam but donates to organizations (like Aish HaTorah and Christians United for Israeli) that support Israel's brutal military rule and settlement-building in the Occupied West Bank. Not only that, but Milstein and UCLA Hillel seem to have cooperated to provide illicit, under-the-table funding for Bruins United political candidates, before the 2013 elections.

I always felt that Hillel was an uncomfortable place for Jews who did not toe the community line on Israel-Palestine. Whether it was being privy to conversations on Shabbat about the rise in "campus anti-semitism" (codeword for Palestine solidarity activism) or being bombarded with emails prior to student elections demanding that Jewish students "stand with the community" in supporting the Bruins United slate (whose opposition to divestment initiatives and other progressive causes seemed to conflict with the belief in social justice on which I had been raised), the Hillel community always offered a litmus test to which I could not genuinely comply.  The easiest thing to do was remain silent.

It was not just Israel-Palestine politics that got me off. Frequently, when I attended Shabbat dinners, I would receive glances followed by a question of "who do you know" or "what are you here for." Several times, the real intent leaked out: "you aren't fully Jewish...are you?" My Asiatic features apparently made me a suspect outsider, possibly a criminal: such "racial profiling" likely profiling likely bore a connection to many Hillel member's nationalistic or ethnic conceptions of Judaism. (i.e. Jewfroed, hairy, fair-skinned Ashkenazim with Yiddish- or Hebrew-sounding last names).

During my freshman and sophomore years, when I lived on campus, I attended Hillel only for religious services and Shabbat dinners, almost always sticking to a small circle of acquaintances from the UCLA J Street U chapter  (in which I was then involved). These friends all either graduated or drifted away from J Street at the end of sophomore year. I went once for Shabbat at the beginning of junior year only to become privy to an intolerable conversation about the "dangers" of BDS (at my table). Afterwards I only attended for High Holidays, when the scholarship and eloquence of Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller's sermons put aside my concerns with the community large.

The details coming out about Hillel's history of accepting of Milstein's endowments, in spite of the horrendous bigotry and fanaticism that Milstein has displayed, has made me come to see even Rabbi Chaim in a less favorable light. This, of course, follows on the stances Hillel took-with the open support of Rabbi Chaim and other high-ranking staff-that openly opposed last year's divestment resolution (by erroneously linking  it to a monolithic BDS movement purportedly aiming to "delegitimize and demonize the state of Israel) and that masqueraded Hillel's opposition to renewed Palestine Solidarity Activism (in which Jewish Bruin students have played a prominent role) as a "fight against anti-semitism."

Getting back to my main point, I love Judaism as a religion and cultural system but hate any groups or institutions that engage in close-mindedness, exclusion and/or (now, worse) chicanery. The latest Milstein affair, which sees Hillel's leadership  refusing to answer for the revelations of its deceptive, under-the-table activity violates the  portions of the Torah and the Talmud that condemn lying (indeed the Talmud claims that the lyer is among the three types of people whom God most despises). Furthermore Milstein's fear-mongering about "radical Islam" provides a prime example of what the Torah calls Lashon Hara (or slander), deemed sinful even if the accusations are "true." Jewish students of all backgrounds should be mad at Hillel for its pursuit of narrow-minded nationalism at the expense of Judaism's ethical teachings.

No comments:

Post a Comment