A Princeton University professor who has endorsed the academic boycott of Israel is protesting his exclusion from a student-proposed panel on the conflict in Gaza on political grounds.
Or preemptive exclusion, that is: the panel never happened.
As one of the student organizers, Kyle Dhillon, the president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine, explained it, his group and two others – Tigers for Israel and J Street U Princeton – got together at the end of the summer to organize a panel on the Gaza conflict. They planned to invite Princeton professors – including Max Weiss, an associate professor of history and Near Eastern Studies – and they decided to seek co-sponsorship from the university’s Center for Jewish Life, an affiliate of Hillel International.
The center could provide funds and space, Dhillon said, and also lend the event greater legitimacy. "It wouldn’t be a student-only event; it would also have some university weight behind it.”
But Weiss’s inclusion as a potential speaker proved a problem. In a Sept. 8 email to the student organizers, a redacted version of which was provided to Inside Higher Ed, Slav Leibin, a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel, wrote, “I would like to bring to your attention that Max Weiss has recently signed a public statement supporting boycott of Israel. This issue complicates the program for us, as it is Highly sensitive for a CJL [group] to sponsor a program with a speaker who made a statement like this, which is one of the red lines in our Israel policy.”
“Let’s deliberate about this issue in more depth before sending an official invitation,” Leibin’s email continued.
Hillel International’s guidelines for campus-based Israel activities prohibit the organization from partnering with or hosting individuals or groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, that deny “the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” and that otherwise “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel.” Weiss is among the signatories of an August letter from Middle East studies scholars calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
"When I got word of this about a month later on Oct. 7, I was saddened and concerned to learn that campus life and the exercise of free speech here on campus at Princeton were in fact being policed, monitored and determined in the final analysis by non-academic members of the Princeton community, indeed someone who is here at Princeton with a specifically political and to a lesser extent cultural mandate,” said Weiss, who penned an op-ed titled "Is the Center for Jewish Life stifling free speech on campus?" that was just published in The Daily Princetonian.
Weiss noted in the op-ed that Leibin is on Princeton’s campus through a partnership between Hillel and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit organization: "Although technically autonomous, the JA effectively operates as an advocate for the government of Israel," Weiss wrote. "For someone representing the JA to bar a member of the Princeton faculty from sharing his or her expertise and perspectives is no more acceptable than it would be for an envoy of the Chinese, Canadian or any other government to do the same."
According to Hillel’s website, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows “are charismatic young professionals who have served in the Israel Defense Forces. In their roles on campus, they share personal experiences of modern Israel through the lens of its socially progressive values and its accomplishments in technology, life sciences, and the arts.”
Back in August, as part of a news release about various ways in which it was preparing to support Israel on campus, Hillel announced it was training a delegation of 68 new Israel Fellows.
Leibin declined to comment for this article, referring questions to the executive director of the Princeton Center for Jewish Life, Rabbi Julie Roth. Rabbi Roth said on Monday that the center’s statement on the matter had not yet been finalized. She said a statement is in process and will be submitted to The Daily Princetonian.
Hillel’s guidelines restricting speech on Israel have come under increasing criticism. An “Open Hillel” movement, which advocates for a more inclusive stance and argues that Hillel International’s policies are “counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus,” has gained ground in the past year and held its first conference this past weekend.
Hillel International officials have defended the guidelines: as the organization’s president and CEO, Eric D. Fingerhut, wrote in a letter to Swarthmore College students last year after the campus chapter declared itself an Open Hillel, it's within the organization's discretion to determine with whom it will partner and which speakers it will host under its own roof.
"Hillel recognizes, of course, that 'organizations, groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice' violate these [Hillel's campus Israel activities] guidelines may well be welcomed on campus, according to the policies of the particular college or university," Fingerhut wrote. "The Hillel on campus, however, may not partner with or host such groups or speakers. This is entirely within our discretion as an organization, and we have clearly stated our intention to make these important decisions to protect our values and our critically important mission. Just as the university decides who will teach classes, and what organizations it will allow on campus, so Hillel will decide who will lead discussions in programs it sponsors and with whom it will partner."
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