A half dozen students sat in a circle on the front law of the University of Chicago’s Hillel Tuesday evening sharing a Seder meal for Passover.
Signs were strewn across the lawn that said “Why is Hillel Partnering with a Propaganda Organization?” A camping tent was pitched behind them.
This wasn’t just a Seder. It was a sit-in.
They were from the UChicago chapter of the organization “If Not Now,” a group of Jewish students who oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and is working to end American Jewish support for the occupation. They staged the protest to ask the university’s Hillel chapter to stop running Birthright trips to Israel. Birthright is a free trip for young Jewish adults to connect with their Jewish history and culture.
“It’s is time to break up with Birthright,” said Henry Muhlheim, a junior at UChicago. “We’ve been trying to get Birthright to change, to stop being what seems to be a blatantly propagandistic trip for young Jews.”
The students said the trip doesn’t talk enough about the occupation or explore the Palestinian perspective of events in the region. The sit-in lasted overnight and into Wednesday, with students posting updates on social media.
The UChicago Hillel’s executive director said in a statement they’ll continue to discuss the issue with students, but affirmed their commitment to the Birthright program.
The decades-old debate about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has recently made waves everywhere from Capitol Hill to local college campuses, where more pro-Palestinian groups have organized.
Some, like If Not Now, want change from within the Jewish community. Others are calling on their universities, including UChicago, Northwestern University and DePaul University, to divest from companies that do business with Israel, known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement.
And students at some schools, including at DePaul this week, are calling out their professors for statements they see as racist and anti-Palestinian.
“That’s not an opinion”
At DePaul in Lincoln Park, a coalition of student groups called for the school to censure a philosophy professor, Jason Hill, for statements he made about Palestinians on social media and in a recent article in The Federalist, an online conservative magazine. Students said the comments are bigoted and Islamophobic.
“He says, ‘only a policy of radical containment or expulsion of Palestinians remains a viable option,’” said junior Rifqa Faleneh, quoting Hill’s piece. “That's not an opinion. It’s a threatening statement and creates an unsafe environment for Palestinians especially, and other marginalized people of color. So we were all outraged at this.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for DePaul said Hill’s statements don’t reflect the school’s values. But they defended his right to free speech and say the university’s role is to create conditions where people can debate different viewpoints.
“Debate these ideas?” Falaneh asked. She likened expulsion to ethnic cleansing.
“Since when do we debate ideas that are threatening? Debate ideas that call for ethnic cleansing of a people? This isn't an idea to be debated about. This is an idea that is again creating a very unsafe environment for students of color,” she said.
Jason Hill, the professor, stood by his comments in The Federalist and his right to free speech. He says the reaction to his article by students is overblown.
“Just to question the idea that Israel is an apartheid state paints you as anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic,” he said in an interview with WBEZ.
Hill sees many of the actions and statements by Palestinian activist groups on campus as anti-Semitic. He says the DePaul group, Students For Justice in Palestine, calls Israel an apartheid state and uses hateful rhetoric toward Israel. Yet, the university doesn’t make them change their statements.
“This in itself is quite problematic,” Hill said.
But forcing student groups to adjust their statements would violate their free speech rights, too.
Students argue they can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. But the line between criticism and anti-Semitism can be blurry. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents, reported the number of anti-Semitic episodes on college campuses has doubled nationally since 2016.
Hill says political debates on campuses have broken down in general. And this issue, he said, is no exception.
“People are ensconced in their curated silos and are so assured of their own infallibility that they don't really want to get out and talk about it,” Hill said.
That could be a lesson for all sides of the Palestinian-Israeli debate, as well as other topics roiling American college campuses.