Photo: Hannah Dellinger / Hearst Connecticut Media
GREENWICH – This week was a particularly important time to hold difficult talks on anti-Semitism, Israeli politics and Jewish life in the campus, Columbia University campus rabbi Yonah Hain said in a gathering at the Greenwich Reform Synagogue.
"What will be a lasting lesson for me this week is that such precarious and thorny and difficult conversations – such as talking about Israel on campus – are probably the best self I can try," he said, referring to the October 27 attack that killed 11 people in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
"Considering that someone was specifically targeted against Jews for his radical tribalism … it really was very profound for me to see cohesion and community," he said.
Hain, who spent two years working with Greenwich reform rabbi Jordie Gerson at New York University, Thursday evening opened an open discussion on the complex issue of pro-Palestinian boycott, divestment and the BDS sanctions movement across campuses to Israel to end "the occupation and colonization of Arab countries". The rabbi shared his views on how the movement relates to anti-Semitism and explained how old college-aged Jews are perceived.
"I am not ready to give up the attitude of the next generation of young Jews to Israel," he said. "And I'm not ready to see the values for which Israel is represented only by Republicans. It pays to consider what role this plays in our lives and how our Jews identify themselves. "
Hain said that the liberal narrative on the university campuses favors Palestine and the BDS movement. He wants, however, that young Jews be informed about Israel before they identify with these factions and consider why they feel the way they do with Israel.
"We are in the middle of the first generation, when it no longer means being Jewish, you have Israel as part of that identity," said Hain. "I want young Jews to think about whether Israel should be part of their identity."
While individuals who support anti-Semitism can use BDS to defend their views, Hain finds it questionable whether anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic.
Because Jewish values support social justice, the rabbi said it made sense that young Jews would question their support for Israel. Groups like Amnesty International claim that the country is committing human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories along the West Bank.
"I believe that it is less important for any Jewish student to feel that Judaism is judged only by their support for Israel," Haim said. "We can not put ourselves in a drawer. … We have to invest in a whole range of Jewish values. "
Now, it's a chance, Hain said, that those deeply rooted in human rights issues play a role in shaping Israel to the nation they want. The next generation of Jews could turn on the system and challenge it, he added.
"I think it's about educating, working together, being there when other people are in need, not being isolated," he said. "And it's about the persecution of justice."
Another political issue for Jews on the campus is that the identity politics of the left, according to Hain, have created a new kind of anti-Semitism.
"What has happened in most universities is that Jews were absorbed as a white man," he said. "We are a group with benefits of whiteness, but at the same time, as we learned again last Saturday, there is real oppression. There are white nationalists who want to harm us. "
This narrowness is antisemitic and much harder to see than the anti-Semitism of the white Supremacists, Hain said.
"That's so new and it's hard to figure it out and educate," the rabbi said. "It's hard to say who's actually an ally."
Although some Jewish students on campus experience hostility or anti-Semitism, Hain said these events are a minority of their experiences. It was a "golden age of Jewish life" at American universities, the rabbi added.
"My job is to create a Jewish culture that is rich, global, incredibly open, tolerant, diverse, pluralistic, and that can articulate … what it means to be Jewish, what values we have, if we are Apart from that, if we adapt, if we take the lead and ultimately what role Israel can play on the world stage, "he said.