by Liza Bernstein
A friend once told me that when working for an Israeli Consulate in America, she heard an official complain, “The problem with Israel is that it’s a democracy. If we could get rid of the left, we could solve all of our problems.” As my friend sat there disgusted, I couldn’t help but wonder what that statement said about American Jewry. Have we Americans been imprisoned in a dictatorship?
A couple weeks ago, Open Hillel – a student-run campaign that seeks to open up the discourse at campus Hillels – launched a social media campaign entitled “Jews Not Funded by Sheldon Adelson.” The satirical Tumblr features photos of Jewish leaders and community members performing activities “not funded by Sheldon Adelson.” The campaign started as a response to Adelson’s new “Campus Maccabees” campaign – a $50 million program aimed at fighting anti-Israel advocacy on college campuses. But what does the campaign consider anti-Israel?
While the program has mentioned fighting the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement, it’s been anything but transparent with its politics. Heads of the campaign have met with multiple Jewish organizations on college campuses, but they have refused to include progressive-leaning organizations such as J Street U and the Israel Action Network in these meetings. As millions of dollars are being poured into these college campuses, thousands of student voices are being ignored. We see this again and again on college campuses as donors with checks drown out the opinions of students who care.
The J Street Challenge
When I left Florida to study at the University of Pennsylvania, I was warned of the hatred and anti-Semitism I would face on campus, and yet two years later, my biggest fights on campus have been within the so-called pro-Israel community. By the end of my sophomore year, I finished my term as J Street U Penn President completely isolated and broken off from my campus’ community.
And why shouldn’t I have? My freshman year, Penn Hillel sponsored a showing of The J Street Challenge – a smear documentary that portrays J Street as anti-Israel – which directly attacked J Street U Penn, an organization I was proud to be a part of. While members of our chapter created a petition opposing Hillel’s sponsorship of the event, Penn Hillel simply shrugged their shoulders. Even though we had the support of Penn Hillel’s student board, it didn’t matter. Donors wanted Penn to sponsor the film, and so the film was sponsored, even when the majority of students opposed it.
I question the effectiveness of fighting opinions with money. Is paying to silence people who disagree with you a productive, or even ethical, means of living? Moreover, what are donors and campaigns like Adelson’s “Campus Maccabees” teaching our young generations? Are they teaching us that it’s better to drown out the voice of the opposition with millions of dollars rather than engage in meaningful dialogue? Are they teaching us that peace can be bought?
Not ready to give up
I find it hard to believe that peace will be bought with money instead of discussion and that spreading propaganda is more effective than partaking in dialogue. But apparently my voice doesn’t matter. My voice, like the voice of my J Street U Penn Board in 2014, continues to be silenced by checks. It’s silenced by men like Sheldon Adelson who have donated billions of dollars to ensure that the American pro-Israel community remains a dictatorship instead of a democracy. But I won't give up. Even in this dictatorship, I’ll keep fighting for peace. I’ll read, and I’ll write, and I’ll continue trying to fix the brokenness that is scattered throughout this land. All of this while not being funded by Sheldon Adelson.