Hillel incident could fuel more hate – or become a learning opportunity

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The last few weeks have featured a number of important commemorations in the Jewish calendar.  Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) was followed by Yom ha-Zikaron (Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism) and Yom ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). These are important to the entire Jewish world, in Israel and in the diaspora.

In Rhode Island, commemorations and celebrations were planned throughout the state, in synagogues and community centers, at schools and universities. Brown University was no exception - an annual Yom ha-Atzmaut barbecue celebrating Israeli Independence Day was on the Brown RISD Hillel calendar, as usual.

So many in the community are asking how it is that a group of students at Brown was also scheduled to show films on May 11 – the eve of Yom ha-Atzmaut – on the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 from an Arab point of view. Called Jews and the Nakba, the loosely formed student group scheduled a time to show three films that portray the 1948 war as a catastrophe (Nakba) for Palestinians and offer narrative counter to a pro-Israel/pro-Zionist point of view.

If you haven’t heard about this, and the controversy that’s ensued, that’s no surprise. We are a small Jewish community with a population concentrated in Providence. But we reach a wider area, including all of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. So what seems to weigh heavily on the shoulders of one part of our community might not even brush the shoulders of another part.

This incident, which has garnered outraged calls and correspondence to The Voice from as far away as Israel, is important to us all for a number of reasons. It shows how strongly and passionately our community members hold their viewpoints.  It shows how they value the newspaper in communicating that viewpoint. It reminds us that there are universities in our midst with vibrant student communities of open thinkers. And it demonstrates the power of the Internet in spreading information. 

Much of the information that reached people came from a few writers and bloggers on the Internet. Information was repeated from website to website. The information dispersed became fact because it was repeated. Somebody tells somebody who tells somebody. Whether or not all the information is accurate, it takes on a life of its own. Years ago, that happened by word of mouth. On the web, that’s called “going viral” and it can happen in a matter of  hours.

I have heard and read a number of conflicting reports about how these films were allowed to be shown at a Hillel. You can find all the reports online; I’m not going to repeat and perpetuate them here.

Here is what we do know. The event was scheduled and then canceled after various groups withdrew their support. The building was then closed early because of security concerns.  Apparently the students who were determined to show the movies did so before the building closed. 

Brown RISD Hillel issued a statement May 19 about the incident. You can read it on page 10.

In a conversation the following day, Marshall Einhorn, executive director of Brown RISD Hillel, was asked to respond to accusations that he attended the showing of the movies. 

“I arrived just before 7 to close the building,” he said. “The students came and went before that. Like all other buildings on the Brown campus, except for the dorms, Hillel is open to everyone.”

What is the takeaway from all this? Whether you agree with the subject matter or not, who can disagree with the fact that universities have always been and will always be places for exploration and communication? But lately, students with pro-Israel/pro-Zionist opinions are finding it more and more uncomfortable to speak out on campuses.  More discussion on both sides would help each group better understand the issues and the others’ viewpoint.   

Many Jews were quick to condemn the university, Hillel, the students and others, often based on little first-hand knowledge of the events. Be wary of everything you read on the Internet.

Curiosity, openness and tolerance are part of our Jewish traditions and should be part of our community.  Here at The Voice, we encourage discussion of a wide range of opinions on our pages. You’ll find two op-eds on this Brown RISD Hillel incident on page 10 this week. 

If you have a reaction, let us know. Let’s use this as a moment to learn from each other.